Proper Gander – United by music, non-politically?

Even more than in previous years, 2024’s Eurovision Song Contest was less about the songs than the political arena in which the show took place. The war in Ukraine has been the backdrop for the last couple of competitions, with the country’s win in 2022 reflecting the sympathy for its plight. But this year’s event barely acknowledged the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, instead being shaped and overshadowed by the Israeli state’s war with Hamas. Unlike Russia, which was excluded from the contest in 2022, Israel hasn’t broken any of Eurovision’s rules by being at war, and so was allowed to compete. Consequently, its participation became a focus of anger and criticism from the pro-Palestinian movement, online and around the venue. Eurovision’s slogan is ‘United By Music’, but this sentiment ended up sounding either naïvely optimistic or sarcastically hollow.

Protests leading up to the final on 11 May were expected, and so security in the host city of Malmö in Sweden was tightened. The area was designated a ‘no fly zone’ to deter any drone attacks, additional police were drafted in from Denmark and Norway, and Israel’s contestant Eden Golan was closely guarded due to death threats. Thousands of pro-Palestinian and anti-war demonstrators gathered in Malmö, not that this was featured in the polished official coverage. The broadcasters also downplayed the booing in the auditorium which accompanied Golan’s performance by disguising it with amplified cheering. It could be argued that this censorship is to keep the event as a celebration of kitsch, an escape from the depressingly real tragedies happening daily. But because the political situation in and around Europe is so volatile, Eurovision can’t exist in its own glitzy bubble. The stated aim of the event’s organisers at the European Broadcasting Union is that Eurovision is ‘non-political’, even though censoring coverage does suggest political motives. The audience members who booed EBU Executive Supervisor Martin Österdahl during the final were making a political point about his perceived politics. To put the EBU’s stance into practice, officials requested Israel change its song, originally called October Rain, to cut out references to the 7th October attacks. Ireland’s singer was asked to remove the word ‘ceasefire’ in body paint, and Portugal’s performance wasn’t initially uploaded after broadcast, apparently because its contestant wore nail art featuring Palestinian symbols. How the death and destruction in the Middle East gets filtered through the spectacle of Eurovision goes beyond disorientating to trivialising the slaughter.

The results of the ‘non-political’ contest were also politically charged. The final score awarded to each competitor is derived from the number of votes from juries of ‘music professionals’ in each country and phone-in votes from viewers, with countries unable to vote for themselves. Jurors are supposed to vote for a song without considering the identity of its singer, a stipulation which the viewers at home have no need to follow. The UK’s effort scored nul points from the public vote and ended up in 18th place, while the winning entry from Switzerland was one of the better songs, most of which were interchangeable power ballads or dance bangers, slickly performed. Israel’s mid-table scoring from the juries was boosted considerably by having the second largest number of public votes, meaning that the country finished in fifth place. Israel’s surprise high ranking suggests that the pro-Palestinian or pro-peace protests and online campaigns had little impact on voters’ views, and leftist activists are presumably wondering where they went wrong. Given the unavoidable political climate around the competition, it’s probable that more people voted for Israel as some kind of statement than because they favoured the song regardless. Whether the result could be called ‘democratic’ depends on how far its definition can be stretched. Still, as a framework to gather votes across a wide area, this is about as good as global democracy in capitalism gets. So, without having the ability to directly influence the war, some people have felt that Eurovision can be an outlet for views they hold passionately, whether by voting for Israel (for some reason) or protesting against its inclusion. The relevance of a song competition as a barometer of international politics highlights the lack of other ways people can collectively voice an opinion or act upon it in capitalist society. The result wouldn’t have been affected by anyone joining the boycott of the event promoted by the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. It would be hard to determine whether this campaign, apathy about the overblown circus or sunny weather contributed most to the BBC’s coverage having around two million fewer viewers than last year. But the numbers and scores don’t have any influence on the war. How and how much the event reflects public opinion in Europe is likely to be of little concern to the families struggling to survive the horrors of the war-torn Middle East.


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