The Eurovision Song Contest is often seen as a wacky competition of questionable music and bad fashion choices. But a group of academics is now researching how it also expresses people's conceptions of a unified Europe.
Eurovision is serious business for some researchers
The Eurovision Research Network is made up of academics, journalists, broadcasters and other individuals who want to get to the crux of the competition that is held each spring. Their academic work is funded by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council. Deutsche Welle spoke with American-born Karen Fricker, a lecturer in contemporary theater at the Royal Holloway University of London and co-director of two research projects about Eurovision.
Deutsche Welle: What's the current focus of your research?
Karen Fricker: Our latest project is called "Eurovision and the New Europe" and it's about the fact that, in the 2000s, the contest expanded exponentially. It went from about 20 participants to over 40 this year and most of the entrants were, if you will, non-western European countries. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the scope of the contest has moved eastward.
This has led to some very interesting political developments in the contest, in that these new entrant countries started to win because, in our assessment, they took it seriously as a platform to perform "Europeanness" - to perform their own national culture on a European stage. We have interesting case studies, such as with Estonia, where it was absolutely stated that the way they approached Eurovision was part of their bid to enter the European Union. It was them performing as a "proper" European country.
The predominance of these so-called new entrant countries became the source of some anxiety and negative comment in the western media, which we feel mirrored a lot of the larger changes going on about European expansion and fear of "the other." I personally found some of that discourse in the media quite racist.
So some of these countries saw their Eurovision participation as a foot in the door to the EU. But how can they be taken seriously since the Grand Prix is often such a goofy competition that claims it's about music, but often seems more like a fashion show wired with too many strobe lights?
I think the classification of Eurovision being goofy and campy and silly reflects a western understanding of the contest. At the end of the day, it is a pop music contest, and that's all it ever was - a chance to come together every year and perform pop songs to other Europeans. But as such, it is an extremely important site for the negotiation of European identity. When else, at any other time of the year, do Europeans meet in a public forum to perform for each other?
Just some of the Grand Prix Eurovision Song Contest winners: Nicole (Germany, 1982), ABBA (Sweden, 1974), and Ruslana (Ukraine, 2004)
What do you think the contest says about the unity or disunity of Europe?
Our "New Europe" project, which has been going on now for a couple of years, has involved academics from a number of disciplinary perspectives - from ethno-musicology to political science to sociology to performance studies to queer and gender studies, and from a wide variety of cultural and national perspectives. What we found is that the happy, clappy picture of a united Europe being transmitted by the EU - this notion of "united in diversity," which is the EU slogan - is really not happening in Europe, and it's not happening in Eurovision either.
There are still massive inequities in Europe and new entrant countries are not advancing economically and socially and democratically, as we would have hoped.
You see in Eurovision entries veiled political comments, or sometimes unveiled political comments, on the uneven Europe. I think it was Lithuania that, last year, had a song called "Eastern European Funk" where six guys did a rappy song in which the lyrics addressed the fact that "yes, we are equal, but we're not as equal as you." It was talking about how eastern Europeans are the people who clean the houses and mind the children of western Europeans, but they feel they are not perceived as equal citizens in the EU.
You just spoke about the disunity of the EU. What about the unity?
I think there's a lot to celebrate about what Eurovision does and the fact that it is an idealistic and joyful platform for celebration. There's a long history of songs that celebrate or invite unity at Eurovision - quite famously, in 1990, the Italian song "Insieme: 1992" with its lyrics of "unite, unite Europe" - winning the contest. There's a fantastic YouTube clip; everyone should Google it. It's so of-the-moment. Lots of big hair.
How would you describe the aesthetics of Eurovision?
I think they're hard to classify, which is part of the excitement and beauty of it and why people keep watching it. Sometimes you'll see a song and you'll think "are they for real?" But you realize that it's reflecting a taste system that is different from your own. And it invites us as people living in western Europe to question whether our notions of "good taste" are not a culturally specific position.
On the other hand, I think we often see countries trying to fit a norm and not quite getting there. I mean, these standards of pop music are really kind of an Anglo-American standard and you see a lot of countries trying to make a very contemporary, chart-sounding pop song. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they spend a lot of money getting high profile American producers to come on board to produce their song to get that sound.
Lena took Germany to Eurovision in 2010, and won
How do you see Eurovision developing in the next few years?
That's a really good question, especially considering that we're at a time of economic retraction. That being said, there are as many entries - 43 - as there have ever been this year, so engagement with Eurovision still seems to be robust.
What's happened in the past few years, after the eastern European or new entrants' surge in the 2000s, the winners have been moving back West, if you will. Norway won, then Germany won. Many see that as fundamental, since some of these countries, like Germany, pay the lion's share of the costs of the contest. Most of the hotly tipped songs this year are from western European countries, so it looks like the shift is going back to the West.
I certainly thought that Lena last year was a very worthy winner.
Because the song was very contemporary. It was fresh. We'd never seen or heard anything like that in Eurovision before. It was a chart hit. She was young, she was accessible.
I personally think that the big voting power in Eurovision right now, though I have no research to back this up, is young women. If you look at the last three winners, they have been two very cute boys and Lena, a young woman, who projected the image of being easy to relate to, being one of us, wearing a dress that you could have bought on the high street. Pretty, but not model-gorgeous, singing an interesting, kind of quirky pop ditty. I think she invited a lot of empathy and identification from young women.
Interview: Louisa Schaefer
Editor: Kate Bowen