What does it mean, fifteen years into the new millennium, to lay claim to the label ‘European’? Is it just a question of geography? Do notions of ethnicity and cultural heritage also play a part? Does the term imply a particular view of geopolitical history, or a particular set of societal values? And, when answering these questions, whose voices are the loudest? Heard the most? Are old Western powers, for example, privileged in setting the agenda for today’s Europe, through their entrenched influence in its transnational institutions? If so, how can younger states, trying to establish their European presence, successfully harness the rhetorics of unity and belonging without discarding their unique attributes, their talismans of national identity and self-determination? And how do post-colonial nations, like Australia, fit in?
Ever since the 1950s, the Eurovision Song Contest has documented, in audio-visual form, a complex discourse on ‘Europeanness’. Today, as with any contemporary cultural phenomenon, an academic industry also accompanies the contest. Scholars Ivan Raykoff and Robert Deam Tobin conceive Eurovision as ‘an arena in which participating nations stage their relationship’ to a specific, ideal vision of Europe – a postwar modernity, to which Eurovision ‘provides literal and figurative access: a society that is democratic, capitalist, peace-loving, multi-cultural, sexually liberated and technologically advanced’. Vying for (or rejecting) this ideal Europe pervades both the content and reception of numerous Eurovision performances. Take Russia, for example, which has been charged, in recent times, with disrupting the peaceful autonomy of neighbouring nations. Its last two entries have both made highly self-conscious gestures of inclusion. Dina Garapova’s 2013 anthem ‘What If’asked ‘What if we all opened our arms? / What if we came together as one? / What if we aimed to stop the alarms? / What if we chose to bury our guns?’, co-opting its live audience into the symbolism through the sudden illumination of their wristbands. Meanwhile, the Tolmachevy Sisters opened 2014’s ‘Shine’with their hair ostentatiously braided together. The two eventually wound up, symbiotically, at either end of a giant seesaw, a glorious sunrise opening out behind them. Despite this play to telegenic teenage innocence, the lyrics were more defiant: ‘Sending out a message out above / Telling all the world to show some love / No one’s gonna bring me down, bring me down / You’re my rising sun’. Not usually ones to oppose staging gimmickry, many Eurovision fans stood unconvinced, and the Russian performance was audibly booed in the Copenhagen arena. Likewise, fans have widely received Russia’s 2015 entry – another anthem, entitled ‘A Million Voices’ – as cynical, kitsch propaganda.
The contests of 2013 and 2014 also saw more frequent and explicit affirmations of LGBTIQ identity. In 2013, Finland’s ‘Marry Me’ marketed itself as an anthem for gay marriage. Krista Siegfrids’ forthright live performance ended with an onstage lesbian kiss; meanwhile, Swedish host Petra Mede made repeated shout-outs to Eurovision’s large queer fan-base. Last year, Austria’s ‘bearded lady’, Conchita Wurst, was too much for some members of Russia’s political class, with Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ‘the end of Europe’ remark gaining especial notoriety. There has been talk of Russia’s withdrawal, and a move to restore Intervision, a rival Soviet-era contest. Clearly, the values of a ‘sexually liberated’ Europe are not for everyone. Yet Russia’s domestic discourse is multi-faceted, defying straightforward description or blanket analysis: Russia, too, is the country of Pussy Riot, the country whose Eurovision history includes t.A.T.u in 2003 (a lesbian kiss was much hyped, though eventually absent), and the country whose televoters ranked Conchita Wurst third – behind only Armenia and Belarus. Participation in Eurovision, then, draws out multiple tensions over Russia’s perceived place as a European nation with European values, contested on the battlefields of both ‘progressiveness’ and nationalism.
A successful Eurovision song usually offers televoters a compelling narrative with clear values. This is my Europe. This is our Europe. This is today’s Europe. This is a Europe where I belong, where we belong, to which we can aspire, for which I will vote. But always present, in parallel, are other kinds of strong response. That’s no longer our Europe. Truly European values are my values, not yours. This Europe doesn’t speak for me, for us. Modern Europe discomforts and threatens me.
That recent examples of dissonance converge on Russia is no coincidence. The modern European ideal described by Raykoff and Tobin is hardly apolitical. Its values are those championed by Western nations, and by Scandinavian states that pride themselves on leading progressive social reform. It asserts benchmarks for Europeanness to which a peripheral, emergent ‘East’ must accede, if it wants to be included at all. My impression is that Eurovision discussions in the Anglosphere tend not to see this as problematic. They take for granted the contest’s presentation in English and French, the European Broadcasting Union’s Western origins, and its ongoing reliance on the ‘Big Five’ (Spain, Italy, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, who for their troubles enjoy a permanent place in each Eurovision grand final, further normalising Western European influence). These historical presumptions generate a contemptuous attitude towards the contest itself, not to mention a disdain for the high-visibility opportunity Eurovision affords to perform nationhood. They also contribute to a patronising us-and-them oversimplification of the complex bloc voting phenomenon, wherein citizens of newer European nations are stigmatised as unthinkingly parochial. Historian Catherine Baker writes eloquently on these issues in some superb online articles. Eurovision’s supposed inclusiveness, then – encapsulated in its melting pot slogans, like 2013’s ‘We Are One’ – can equally be appropriated to justify a universalisation and exporting of value systems, at times resembling cultural imperialism.
Eurovision is not just a song contest. For some countries, it has truly been a way to announce themselves in Europe. When the young Estonian republic became the first ex-Soviet state to win, with ‘Everybody’ in 2001, their prime minister Mart Laar proclaimed that ‘we are no longer knocking at Europe’s door. We are walking through it singing’. For a country of huge annual song festivals, whose path to independence was shaped by the power of collective singing, the symbolism was immense. Crowds reportedly took their flags into the streets of Tallinn, celebrating Estonia’s win through the night. Meanwhile, scholar Matthew Gumpert describes how Turkey’s victory in 2003, with ‘Everyway That I Can’, was ‘celebrated explicitly as a political triumph’, and viewed as a stepping stone in Turkey’s campaign for European Union membership, with the country’s subsequent hosting of Eurovision taken as seriously as any political summit. At the contest in Istanbul, Ruslana’s ‘WildDances’gave Ukraine the 2004 title. A superstar at home, the remarkable Ruslana used her profile to address and rally pro-democracy crowds in Kiev during the Orange Revolution that broke out some months later, going on to become a member of Ukrainian parliament and an impressive social campaigner. When Kiev in turn hosted Eurovision, the importance of these events resounded through Ukraine’s follow-up entry. For many citizens of these historically peripheral countries, Eurovision was far more than an indulgence in frivolous camp: a stable European presence could affect their lives and their livelihoods. For more examples of the contest’s geopolitical significance, I recommend The Secret History of Eurovision, a 2011 documentary. An especially poignant story is that of the contest debut in 1993 by war-torn Bosnia & Herzegovina, with an entry titled ‘All The Pain In The World’.
In Eurovision’s least formal channels – the blogosphere, the viewing parties, the fan forums – the ideological battle for European identity rages on, as pundits stake out their preferred literal or metaphorical territory. Eurovision measures Europe. Each new admission to the contest challenges the comforts of incumbency: ‘Israel isn’t even in Europe!’ has been a perennial cry since that country’s first participation, way back in 1973, and a similarly widespread, scarcely updated and ill-concealed defensiveness greeted news in 2008 that the Eurovision stage would now be open to Azerbaijan. And so to 2015, and the unexpected admission of Australia to mark the contest’s 60th iteration, with its ‘Building Bridges’ slogan. Predictably, the move has polarised contest anoraks, and everyone has an opinion. But just how radical is it?
First off, Australia’s invitation violates the longstanding rules governing Eurovision eligibility. Here’s how. The contest is the flagship event of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The EBU is made up of broadcasters (not countries), and Eurovision is open to the so-called ‘active tier’ of member broadcasters. Becoming an active EBU member, however, is not that easy. The relevant broadcaster normally has to have an official public remit within its country, and also needs to show that its service provides diverse programming, meets certain technical standards, and is accessible nationwide, among other criteria. Some part of its country must also fall within the European Broadcasting Area (EBA). This is a slightly counterintuitive region, currently bounded on the east by the 40th meridian, and on the south by the 30th parallel, ‘so as to include the northern part of Saudi Arabia and that part of those countries bordering the Mediterranean within these limits’. Moreover, the EBA now includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and those parts of Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Ukraine lying outside this region. In fact, there are now 60 EBA countries, 56 of which contain active EBU member broadcasters. The EBA’s scope, going well beyond the European continent, accounts for Israel’s regular admission to Eurovision, as well as Morocco’s one-off appearance in 1980. But it doesn’t account for Australia showing up in 2015.
There is a loophole. Non-EBA broadcasters can gain active EBU membership, but only if their country accedes to the Council of Europe. So far, though, accession has been limited to nations with a geographical presence on the European continent. In practice, therefore, only Kazakhstan could ever take advantage of this alternative route. Unsurprisingly, Australia is not part of the Council of Europe. SBS, however, is a broadcaster with associate membership of the EBU. This means, in a nutshell, that its service plays ‘a major role in national broadcasting’, and that the EBU has deemed its membership useful. However, throughout the EBU’s history, associate membership has never come with a ticket to Eurovision. For almost all associate members – the full list runs to 30 plus broadcasters, based in 20 plus countries spanning the globe from the Philippines and Mauritius to South Africa and Chile – that is still the case. Australia’s invitation to compete, through SBS, is a singular, targeted exception. And I think this exception, along with the reactions it has prompted, reveals a lot about how both Europeans and Australians see their mutual relationship.
The EBU has defended the gesture with talk of inclusion. Australia is culturally European, so the argument goes – more so than some Eurovision regulars. And the contest has never been defined by the European continent, still less the European Union – it already reaches to Jerusalem, Reykjavik and Vladivostok, so why not Sydney? This viewpoint sees Australia’s admission as just another step in Eurovision’s progressive evolution. It’s a ‘gift’, as Julia Zemiro put it to the Star Observer, given to acknowledge Australia’s fandom – a wildcard to ‘the country and television station that spends the most resources, the most love, the most time and the most attention in making programs all around and about Eurovision and commentating on the show itself’. Who but a narrow-minded naysayer could object?
Realistically, this argument is opportunistic and superficial – it’s rhetoric, not logic. It has nothing to say to the fact that Australia’s contest participation is a one-off: that a victory is its only path to reappearance, that it will be removed again from 2016 onward. The EBU, in other words, is only flirting: an attitude that reflects a very particular and very problematic conception of Australia. For Australia as novelty participant is also, almost inevitably, Australia imagined as telegenic summer getaway, as Europe’s escapist fantasy. This is an exoticised Australia – distant enough to be ‘different’, while simultaneously developed (and Anglophone) enough not to pose any real threat to dominant, rather narrow West-European cultural identities. Very similar tensions may be traced in the Eurovision history of transcontinental nations, such as Turkey. Worse, this Australia can be discarded and forgotten once its purpose is served – relegated, after the big adventure, to watching from the sidelines as Europe’s real players resume their business. A one-off invitation confirms European perceptions of Australia as transient and peripheral: fanciable, but not a serious prospect.
If that seems a stretch, the painful Australian sequence at the 2014 Eurovision semi-finals bears revisiting, replete as it was with carefully constructed messages along just these lines – Zemiro backgrounded by the Opera House, bronzed surfie stereotypes, and an eventual valiant performance from beautiful Indigenous singer Jessica Mauboy, even as Eurovision’s executive supervisor Jon Ola Sand hammily – and, in hindsight, perhaps disingenuously – ridiculed any notion of Australian participation. (Fast forward a year, and his soundbite was ‘Let’s celebrate this party together!’).
Then there is the EBU’s so-called Reference Group. This group of individuals, whose remit extends to approving Eurovision’s development and future format, securing its financing, and modernising its brand, comprises eight members. Seven hail from Big Five and Nordic countries; Slovenia’s Aleksander Radic is the only exception. Undoubtedly, these people signed off on Australia’s invitation. In all likelihood, they drove it: in the contest’s public rules, the only hint that such a scenario could even arise is the vexingly indeterminate caveat that the EBU may modify the number of guaranteed places in the final, ‘depending on circumstance’ – in consultation with the Reference Group. No prizes, then, for guessing whose ideal Europe is promoted by the narrative of Australian inclusion.
Pushing a bit further, I can suggest reasons for the timing of the invitation. Participation in Eurovision peaked at 43 nations in 2011, but has since been in decline. Some withdrawals reflect shaky national finances or geopolitical instability; others simply acknowledge low domestic interest in the contest. But there has also been discontent – most prominently from Turkey, a Eurovision heavyweight post-2000 – over Eurovision’s format and integrity. In 2013, the EBU was forced into damage control over allegations of vote-trading among national juries, and by the emergence of a video apparently showing organised televoting bribery within Lithuania, in favour of Azerbaijan. Additional transparency measures were introduced, and Georgia’s suspect jury results were indeed disqualified in 2014 (when Azerbaijan plummeted to 22nd place after five consecutive top-five finishes). But such procedural fixes generally go unnoticed by all but Eurovision tragics.
Australia offers a more marketable solution to Eurovision’s image problem. It offers the gimmick of a fresh new contender, whose presence shores up the symbolism of transnational unity while seemingly avoiding all of Europe’s geopolitical fault-lines. Timing the new arrival for the 60th contest, and hitching it to a ‘building bridges’ slogan, puts the icing on the cake. It’s classic Eurovision, exposing what Tobin calls ‘the contradiction between political factors and apolitical ideals’ that pervades the contest’s whole history. But it also plays to a convenient illusion. Australia only conforms to Eurovision’s perennial, impossible dream of an arena transcending politics if it has no genuine relationship with Europe to begin with. Of course, a relationship does exist, and the EBU’s perceptions of it have motivated this calculated invitation. What looks like Europe, sounds like Europe, but isn’t Europe? Answer: Australia – European to the exact extent required, no more, no less.
The big problem with Australia’s admission in 2015, however, remains the incoherent exceptionalism that underlies it. Australia is not entering by right, through a change to Eurovision rules. Rather, the rules have been trashed as never before in the contest’s history. To accept this uncritically as ‘inclusive’ would be naïve. To disregard its outright exclusionary aspects would be wilfully blind. Are some nations more European than others? Twenty other nations with associate member broadcasters were not offered a Eurovision slot. Australia is wealthy enough to accept its place, when financial pressures have (probably) caused certain active EBU member broadcasters to withdraw. And the message to Kazakhstan in particular can only be one of rejection. This country’s effort to consolidate European identity has been urgent and serious. It announced a ‘Path to Europe’ program in 2008. Its state television network has broadcast the last five Eurovisions. It has an ongoing diplomatic mission in the Council of Europe (so far unsuccessful, on the basis of human rights concerns). Yet much of the Anglosphere continues to imagine Kazakhstan through crude Borat-esque satire, reinforcing pejorative assumptions about its cultural difference, social progressiveness, institutional integrity and moral attitudes: its supposed inability to conform to Western values, its lead-footed failure to belong. As Kazakhstan’s case shows, the attempt to justify Australia’s presence at Eurovision through its ‘cultural Europeanness’ merely reinforces an ideal of European unity cast in the image of its self-appointed Western leaders. To quote one cynical post on a Eurovision fansite:
Kazakhstan? Nooo, you’re weird and Eastern, you speak funny, you’re all corrupt, you’ll just vote for Russia, so you don’t fit the rules! Australia? Suuure, you’re a nice Western country, come on in, we’ll bend the rules!
Just what the EBU is up to remains unclear. Quite a few people think that 2015 won’t be a one-off at all, despite what’s been said officially, and that Australia is set to become a contest fixture. I’ve been called naïve for believing otherwise, told that I don’t understand the economic interests involved, told that anything else would be too bad a look, told that Australian fans won’t stand for anything less, and told that this is a clearly test run for wider expansion into the associate membership. While none of this can be forecast with certainty, any approach that elevates selectiveness above well-defined eligibility criteria is susceptible to massive abuse. Consider the hypothetical where China becomes the next country to decide that Eurovision is an appealing forum for boosting its European cultural profile. With Australia in, there would be no viable ground on which to refuse Chinese entry. Geography? Australia is non-EBA, and China actually borders an EBA nation. Low interest in Eurovision? Doesn’t prevent Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and San Marino from taking part. Cultural differences – okay, but from what? China has ten million English speakers, and there’s not that much in the way of common ground among Armenia, Israel, Slovenia, Denmark and Ireland. Undemocratic? Have a look at Belarus. Human rights? Check Australia’s history on immigration, gay rights, or Indigenous policy, as well as many other contentious examples up and down Europe. And then what if the EBU decided to bar a country on the grounds that its low Eurovision following made its presence insufficiently lucrative? If local fandom becomes a reason to include, it could also become a reason to exclude. Sure, Eurovision’s rules of eligibility are arcane, and – inevitably – embody an imperfect idea of Europe. But is it really better to turf their certainty in favour of subjective opinions, answerable to nobody, about what kinds of countries and values are good for the contest? To me, that’s an unpalatable way to involve Australia.
An exotic yet unthreatening Australia is also an Australia testifying to a history of European colonisation. Some defenders of Australia’s place at Eurovision have appealed to Europe’s ‘global culture’. But I find that line of argument disingenuous: it seems to stop without recognising the problems of national identity caused by the exporting and imposition of that very ‘global culture’. Well-meaning apologists for the EBU’s stance on Australia have repeatedly failed to acknowledge this post-colonial baggage – even those who are well aware of a similarly problematic East-West binary often used to imagine Europe itself. Sure, they speak Portuguese in South America and French in Africa. And yes, all manner of Europeanness thrives far beyond continental confines. But no, this does not make a Eurovision platform equally desirable and beneficial throughout the world. To make that assumption is to reanimate colonising attitudes – the resurrection of an old-world hierarchy of motherlands and outposts. It seeks congratulations for an attitude of global-mindedness that is ultimately narcissistic. And it presumes to answer questions for Australia that Australia should answer for itself.
To me, the worrying bit of Jessica Mauboy’s 2014 performance was the sudden appearance of an Aussified Neil Armstrong, whose smug proclamation of a ‘giant leap for Australia’ was quite palpably awkward, not to say superfluous. Complicity in Eurocentrism is not everyone’s idea of progress. Several confused Britons have asked me why I’m not more pleased or excited about the EBU’s ‘gift’ to Australia. They don’t understand that the Australia I believe in doesn’t need this gift. It enjoys the show without coveting the stage. It acknowledges European ties without staking its legitimacy on them (and is hugely lucky to be able to do so). It approaches Europe as an influential past, not an aspirational future. It does not cringe at Europe’s threshold.
In 2015, Australia still struggles to articulate a collective identity. Eurocentric ideals of cultural history still dominate its public institutions and its educational curricula. This post-colonial hangover often seems to override the possibility of forging new, strong connections that recognise Australia’s geopolitical reality as an Asia-Pacific nation. While Eurovision comes but once a year, SBS programs hours of Asian pop each and every Sunday morning. Should Australia as a nation prove overwhelmingly enthusiastic about its token participation at Eurovision, I fear that more urgent projects of reinventing Australianness for the 21st century will be marginalised. Australia’s capacity to benefit from a Eurovision platform is relatively slight. This puts it in a very different category from those countries for whom transnational visibility in Europe is an urgent socio-economic objective, and to whom Eurovision appears a key forum for getting there.
There is also a risk that Australia will play to notions of an ideal Europe in ways that use bridge-building rhetoric to paper over a troublesome domestic discourse. The country’s video postcard and media persiflage will be seen as an opportunity to promote tourism. Australia is likely to present its best LGBTIQ-friendly face – airbrushing out, one imagines, its ongoing lack of equal marriage legislation. Undoubtedly, as the contest slogan almost demands, it will also seek to harness its credentials as a welcoming, multicultural nation of immigrants – when (as one Swedish fan wryly observed) the most accurate depiction of contemporary political currents might well be with an entry called ‘No Way (You Will Not Make Australia Home)’. Eurovision is no stranger to false utopias, nor to countries carefully deploying a feel-good mien to sanitise themselves under its brief spotlight. SBS is a newcomer to the stage, and these temptations will surely be there. But when the circus leaves town, will the network have contributed constructively to the national narrative? Eurovision is riven with potent signification, a quagmire of contested identities. It always has been. Due scepticism of disco-ball liberation need not spoil the fun.
And so Australia’s debut Eurovision song, ‘Tonight Again’ by the stalwart Guy Sebastian, leaves me torn. It’s a strong up-tempo entry, cannily written to stand out among the plethora of ballads on offer in 2015 (after Sebastian initially signalled that plan in reverse). It’s had great live reviews at the April fan concerts in Amsterdam and London. It might even win, if it can overcome the Swedish favourite. But it also plays, almost transparently, to the metaphor of the one-night-stand: ‘I don’t want tomorrow / Oh baby tonight’s so good … Forget tomorrow / We can do tonight again’. While we don’t yet know how SBS will stage it, the song seems to skirt Eurovision’s classic traps – there’s no vulgar nationalism (no cork hats, no true blue), there’s no saccharine world-saving, there’s no satire of the contest itself. And yet Sebastian’s song uncomfortably seems to pinpoint – even to embrace – Australia’s transient presence in European consciousness. We’ll take what we can get, it seems to say, and we’ll just do our best to enjoy it while we can. Is it the message that Australians will want their entry to send? It’s impossible to know – but I’ll be following ESC Tracker with interest. So far, ‘Tonight Again’ is the only contest frontrunner not to be charting on iTunes at home.
Past competitors that will be absent from Eurovision’s 60th edition include Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Bulgaria, Turkey, and, most poignantly, Ukraine. I think that the EBU’s attempt to glamorise the 2015 contest, through having a fling with a faraway-yet-Anglophone tourist hotspot, reflects a retrograde concept of European inclusiveness. It selectively breaks rules as old as the contest itself, weakening Eurovision’s formerly secure criteria for eligibility. A rule change on the scale required to admit Australia legitimately would transform Eurovision into something unambiguously global and transcultural. I would not object to that in the slightest. But by stopping short of that wholesale expansion, the EBU is having its cake and eating it too. It is signalling a clear expectation that Australia’s entry will not really challenge broader perceptions of the contest’s European integrity, and, most importantly, will not invade the cultural comfort zone of its Western-European fan bubble. Even before Guy Sebastian sings a note, then, his performance at the Wiener Stadthalle in May will be loaded with implicit values and constraints. The challenge for SBS, in negotiating Eurovision’s problematic framework of belonging, is a great one. I, for one, would love to be able to cheer on an entry whose bridge-building amounts to more than hollow sloganeering.