An Autonomous Year for Eurovision?

By Quirijn van den Hoogen
Groningen University

This year Eurovision was particularly interesting to me. I have many fond childhood memories of watching a night of Euro-trash pop music ever since Johnny Logan’s victory 1980. But I lost interest somewhere in the late 1990s after Eastern Europe started entering the competition as an expression of their independence ‘regained’ after 1989, flooding the competition with Balkan pop.
Moreover, stage developments around that time made for a definite break from the French chanson tradition which had started Eurovision in the first place. Even France does not send in 100% French songs anymore, although interestingly Austria did this year. But as a paper of mine was accepted to a conference on aesthetic autonomy, to be held in Stockholm at the same time as Eurovision, I was able to visit one of the most heteronomous cultural expressions in the universe. So I did and it was a blast (literally as well as metaphorically).


But most importantly its outcome made Eurovision fun for academic pondering. For weeks Russia led the polls on who would win. I saw them compete in the semi final and indeed their show was breath-taking. The song is solid, though maybe too standard for my taste and certainly too loud, but that goes for any of the competing songs. And they won the popular vote which for the first time in Eurovision history was publicized in contrast to votes by expert juries. While these experts had voted for Australia’s Asian beauty who presented a rather tame blend of Maria Carey, Witney Houston and Celine Dion, the popular vote went to Russia. But when all votes were counted Ukraine turned out to be the winner with a song on the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Stalin. How political can you get shortly, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea? Disappointed with the outcome, Russia claims politics has ‘polluted’ the purely musical evaluation which should have prevailed at Eurovision. The voting is not about the music (hey, when was it ever?).

The argument made here is, ironically, one of autonomy. Although we all know that the best song hardly ever wins Eurovision (let’s be honest, that could have been France, Sweden or even the Netherlands this year), Russian rhetoric does align with official Eurovision policy. First, the EBU had banned rainbow flags, afraid that waiving them during the Russian performance could be construed as a reference to Putin’s anti-gay politics. Luckily, after protest this ban has been lifted and I saw many rainbow flags, held by gay men (oh yes, they took over Stockholm last week, so why would Putin want to win this anyway?). Moreover, before the show started the audience in the Ericsson Globe Arena was cautioned not to boo any of the contestants. “We only want happy thoughts”, was a line they actually used. Apparently, expressions of critical thinking are not allowed at Eurovision. So both Putin and the EBU seem to favour a purely, autonomous, evaluation of the musical event, while executing it in a blatantly commercial manner.

In response to the predicted victory of Russia, Ukraine had indicated they would boycott Eurovision when held in Moscow, again an obviously heteronomous statement. But after her victory, Jamala, used a very different logic. She pointed to her personal connection with Tatar history and the compelling story she expresses in her song. To her, this victory proves that sincerity wins over politics and commercial interests. In other words, Jamala claims the autonomy of the song itself, not of the competition in which she had entered. It is the song’s autonomous stance, she claims, that has resonated in Europe.

Let’s see what happens next year when the competition will be organized in a war-torn country. How autonomous can Eurovision or individual songs in the contest be under such circumstances? Will the Russians boycott the competition? If Putin were a man, they would not, right? Because, hey, autonomy is autonomy, so singing in Kiev or Moscow should not matter.