Eurasian Enigma: Music, Kitsch and Politics with James Evans and Yuval Weber


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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Politics increasingly pervades our everyday lives, including our entertainment and pop culture. The Eurovision Song Contest was created in 1956 as an opportunity to bring the nations and the people together in an expressly non-political fashion—through song. Now, 60 years later, Eurovision is often used as a specific political tool. James Evans and Yuval Weber discuss the history of the song contest and how Eurovision has been used as a political tool to reignite recent conflagration between Ukraine and Russia.

"So it's these old ladies doing folk music over a techno beat. It’s exactly what it sounds like."

Hi and welcome to the Eurasian Enigma, the podcast of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. My name is Cris Martin, I'm the outreach director, and I'm here today with James Evans, a staff member at the Fairbanks Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, and Dr. Yuval Weber, who is a visiting scholar at the Davis Center and an assistant professor of world economy and international affairs at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

And we're here today to talk about Eurovision.

Let's start with you, James. For somebody who is uninitiated in the pastime that is the Eurovision song contest, what exactly is it?

JAMES: So Eurovision is a pan-European singing contest, and it's 62 years old. It's actually the world's longest running singing contest. It's founded in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union, which is a conglomerate of all of the national public broadcasters across Europe, so the BBC in the UK, RTE in Ireland, et cetera. And it's based off a singing contest in Italy called the Sanremo Festival.

And so every country in Europe submits an act, everybody sings, and then everyone in Europe votes for their favorite. So it was originally quite small, it was about six members, and over the years as more members have added, it's just grown in popularity and size. It's been responsible for the launch of some really big names, so American listeners will be familiar with people like Abba, Celine Dion and Riverdance, they all had their international break because of Eurovision.

So to put in perspective, you know, in America you have something like the Super Bowl, the big spectacle. Eurovision has over double the number of viewers of the Super Bowl, so between one hundred and six hundred million, depending on how you count. And it's a huge party across the whole of Europe, everybody watches, and as you can assume from having everyone in Europe involved, it gets really political.

But there was a real foundational mission to Eurovision, and when it was created it was created to achieve something. And politics was not meant to play a part in that. Can you talk about why the people decided to develop this competition, what its goal was? Again, just after the close of the second World War?

JAMES: Sure. So the European Broadcasting Union was founded just a few years before, but in the same year as the Council of Europe was founded. So it was all part of this post-war trend towards European integration and making sure the continent didn't repeat the mistakes of the 40s. So, in doing some research about the European song contest, I found out that initially, the idea was not necessarily to foster integration explicitly. The idea was to produce content for this new medium of television in a cheaper way by sharing costs across the countries.That said, the initial founding members were Switzerland, West Germany, France, very much the core of what we consider western Europe. But as the competition expands over the 50s and 60s, you see countries like Spain and Portugal, Israel, Turkey joining.

So it's not so much in the same trend as the European Union's development, it's more along the lines of NATO or the sort of post ... this Cold War division between a broader western Europe that doesn't necessarily just focus on the democratic Europe. Cris Martin: But there is a Cold War division, because we're not seeing members of the eastern bloc or, obviously, the USSR competing during this time period, although those countries are now members of Eurovision post the collapse of the Soviet Union. But there was an alternative. There was a, basically, a Soviet bloc version of Eurovision, which was called ... it eventually was called Intervision. Do you know anything about that, Yuval?

YUVAL: Yes, so the Intervision started in 1977 but it grew from a different song competition. In 1961, right about one week after the Berlin Wall goes up, there was a guy in Poland named Wladyslaw Szpilman, who is also, perhaps, well-known to people. He is the pianist who is depicted by Adrien Brody in the movie The Pianist. He survives the Holocaust, but sticks around in Poland after the way, and as it becomes clear that East and West has solidified in two different blocs, he has the idea to have a song competition. He starts in the city of Gdansk a song competition that is in the shipyards, which comes back into the story later. So in 1961 he begins the song competition. In 1964 they move out to a forest right by the sea. From '64 onwards, they have this, essentially, pan-Soviet bloc, pan-sort of, let's say, second-world, third-world type competition.

And that goes on and becomes very popular across the world there, and one of the many reasons that it was popular is, as I was doing the research for this, there was one person that I had to quote, Polish TV director of this, and he said just because we lived in a communist country didn't mean that we didn't like sequins and singing songs. Which speaks to the universal appeal of sequins. But in 1977 they rebranded as Intervision, in order to have this bigger, essentially much more explicitly political but much more inclusive type competition. And one of the big things of having, sort of, a rebrand and more money going into it was the ability to invite international artists.So not only people from central Europe, eastern Europe, but of course Africa, Caribbean, Cuba, et cetera.

And as I mentioned, the thing began in 1961 in the Gdansk shipyards. In 1980, the actual beginning of the solidarity protests, happens to coincide with this competition, that as there is more international potential to Poland and Gdansk, that's when essentially the trouble kicks off. The 1980 Intervision competition was the last one as Intervision. It then goes back to sort of its original incarnation and by 1981, there's marshal law in Poland itself. So the amount of cultural space for singing, dancing, and sequins was quite reduced by that point onwards.

 But if we fast forward to the early 1990s, the collapse of the USSR, we begin to see the countries of eastern Europe making passage into the Eurovision song contest. And it does something to the competition. What would you say that the eastern Europeans brought to Eurovision, James?

JAMES: Well, a lot of people think that having eastern Europe join's actually really reinvigorated the contest, and so obviously the end of the 1980s, the early 1990s was a huge time of change for Europe. And it ... having these countries join the European Broadcasting Union and therefore Eurovision really means that the European ... Eurovision song contest mirrors what's going on in Europe quite well. So suddenly, by expanding the contest to a lot of the former Soviet bloc, there's this real questioning of what it means to be Europe. You know, you have ideas about this 'new Europe' that are not just the former Soviet countries, but also by entering what was western Europe it really changes the whole.

And so, you end up in this sort of weird influx stage where no one is quite sure what's happening, but the eastern European countries are really keen on broadcasting themselves as nations that have not been nations for quite some time. And so in 1994, for example, Poland comes second in the contest. And it's this real sort of coming out party for a lot of these countries, which give them some of the very camp overtones of Eurovision, I think it's quite an appropriate metaphor.

 And in particular, after sort of some years in the early 2000s is when eastern Europe really finds its groove in Eurovision. So from 2000 to 2008, Eurovision is exclusively won by either eastern or southern European countries. And so from 2001, when Estonia wins, it's kinda this big wake-up call to a lot of western European countries, who have been quite used to winning and suddenly realized they have to compete a little bit harder. And this really comes to a head when Serbia wins the contest in 2007, with Marija Serifovic.

Why the switch? Why do you think there is this switch towards more winners coming in eastern Europe in the 2000s? Is it because of the time and energy that they put into finding acts compared to western Europe? Is it something about the voting mechanism about who wins? How do you hypothesize why this shift happened?

JAMES: Well, the traditional view is, it's all about bloc voting. So all of these eastern European countries are ... they're quite small, but everyone gets the same amount of votes, so all these neighbors are voting for each other and that's why they get more votes.

And you can't vote for yourself.

JAMES: You can't vote for yourself.

Right. You can't vote for your own country.

JAMES: You can only vote for other countries. That is part of it. Bloc voting's existed throughout the entire history of Eurovision. You know, France and Belgium voting for each other, the UK and Ireland, so it's not a new phenomena. And what I think is actually more important, is that for an eastern European country, like I said, this is a international platform for them to shine as a state. It's the same as being in the World Cup or the Olympics or any other big international contest. This is a chance for a nation to showcase itself, not only internationally but also to itself as a nation. So there's a lot of literature, for example, on how Olympic opening ceremonies do this.

It's as much for the domestic audience as it is for an international audience. And so eastern European countries bring capital, new ideas, and actually change the styles of music that are becoming popular. So Eurovision is not known for being particularly contemporary in its music styles. You still sees DJs sort of rapping on stage, which is about 30 years old in the real world.

But people talk about this return to a sort of folk ethnicity. And because there are no longer rules that you have to sing in your national language, a lot of songs are in English. And so there's this strange combination of popular music that's in English that we would associate with the British-American tradition meets this sort of strange, pseudo-ethnic national singing. You see it a lot in opening ceremonies when its being hosted in eastern Europe, so in Ukraine and Azerbaijan. There's a lot of traditional folk dancing meets contemporary dance or music. So in many ways, eastern Europe has really changed the European song contest.

In one of the more recent entries from Russia with Buranovskiye Babushki who were entered I think in 2012. It's a group of older Russian grandmothers, seemingly, and they sang sort of a discofied version of a, sort of a traditional folk song. Yuval, what ... what do the Russians make of an entry like that? Obviously, that the women are charming, they're very adorable, they do speak to the traditional culture. They have been, like I said, the song was called I think "Party for Everybody," Party for Everyone, so definitely an updated version. But what do the Russians make of that? And what do the Russians or the other eastern Europeans, what do they see as the upside from this participation?

YUVAL: So the general question is, what are the eastern European, sort of post-Soviet states doing? As James was talking about a moment ago, it's sort of about identifying themselves to the outside world. And in a larger sense, there's three big issues when it comes to, what does the shift of, you know, the center of power, the center of attention, towards the east?

The first one is, for these newer countries, it is PR, just public relations branding to other Europeans that they're also Europeans. When they participate in a competition like Eurovision, or European Cup, what have you, or the European championships for soccer, it demonstrates that they're in the same group. And for a country which is trying to articulate its sovereignty, and may not have too many chances. Like a small country like Armenia. What would anyone know about Armenia? Azerbaijan, great example. Probably contemporary Europeans might know that they sponsor the shirt for Atletico Madrid, like you know, one of the popular soccer teams.But otherwise, what would you hear of Azerbaijan?

So this is really a moment to, essentially, advertise one's self. And so it's not advertising one's self just in terms of PR, but it's also a version of oneself. It's very highly choreographed. What is the version of us that foreigners will see? Similarly, what is the version of us that we'll demonstrate to ourselves? And probably the final thing is, demonstrating the international relevance. We do well at the Eurovision; therefore, take us seriously. And when it came to these charmingly dressed older ladies from central Russia, it was definitely an opportunity to say that we have a traditional culture here in Russia. You may know lots of things about, let's say, President Putin, oil, or all these stereotypes about us. But you don't know much about our ethnic culture.

And so what the Buranovskiye Babushki, what they were very good at doing, was they played to the Eurovision, sort of, style. Which is, they took ethnic music, they took the sort of folk aspect, but made an electronic beat, and this is the thing, again, for those listeners who have not seen any of these videos or performances or heard these songs: all of these are basically whatever stereotype you have of European culture, this is clearly one of them. And so it's these old ladies doing folk music over techno beat.

And they're baking.

YUVAL: And they're baking, yes.

They're in the performance, they're baking as well in the end of the performance.

YUVAL: It's exactly what it sounds like. We're describing it very straight here. And that was essentially the big reason why it was popular in Europe as well as in Russia. Because it says we have something of ours that we're pretty proud of. We also know what European standards are, and we're showing ourselves off in a way that makes, sort of, everyone better off.

Is this more problematic now for President Putin? As Russia straddles this line about whether they are European or whether they are Asian, whether they are something wholly unique to themselves, does turning to the west in this way and participating in this very western contest, what does it mean for them, how is it being used as propaganda, at home and abroad, as they're sort of having this unique - maybe not unique, but this moment when they are reexamining exactly where they fit as a nation.

YUVAL: So for President Putin and the people around him, Eurovision is good when Russia does well. But if things are not going well, then they're not going to participate. And I can tell you, just sort of a personal aside here, when Conchita Wurst won in 2014, and so for those listeners who don't know, Conchita Wurst is Austrian drag queen, beautiful lady, but with like a full beard. but the day after the competition, I just happened to get my hair cut. And the ladies in the hair cutting salon could not stop talking about this. This was ...

And this was in Moscow, you were in Moscow at the time.

YUVAL: This was in Moscow, yeah. So I'm in Moscow at the time, I'm getting my hair cut, this is a very exciting thing, the TV is going nonstop about the decadence of Europe. Europe is a terrible place, and the ... one of the women goes to me, “Ti ne videl taky zhenzin kak takovo. ” So in the sense of, "Have you ever seen a woman like him?" Yuval Weber : And because ... so they could hear that I was speaking Russian but with an American accent, I said, yeah, in fact, I'm from the United States and I've been to what are called drag shows in the United States and I didn't know Conchita Wurst but I know the general thing. The women in the barber shop then became so much more excited and interested in just talking about this, because it was something that was clearly outside the norms of what they would expect to see on television but they were intrigued by it.

And this was when I could tell that the TV had started to decry Europe, decadence of Europe, politicians had talked about that, but it hadn't filtered down sufficiently to the popular level, and so these women were still excited to hear, what is it like when you see a bunch of men dressing in dresses and singing, singing flamboyant songs? I said, you know, fairly entertaining if you like that sort of entertainment. And if you like Eurovision, I'm gonna guess that you like that sort of entertainment.

Right, well, one of my other questions was that this competition is, as you said, it's flamboyant, it's glam, it has a, a large following amongst the gay community and that is fairly in opposition with the traditional values culture that is being recultivated in Russia right now, as you saw in that salon.

YUVAL: So certainly I lived in Moscow from 2012 to 2016 and I'd say when I got there it was not ... like a pro gay rights sort of place, but perhaps what may have been in the United States like '50s, '60s, '70s. Gay people exist, maybe not much of an issue, but it's certainly not virulent homophobia that's on TV and sort of in the streets. But once the break with Europe came, Conchita Wurst was, you know, political mana from heaven in this context. In order to distinguish who are we as Russians, how are we different from Europeans, Conchita Wurst. That's what makes us different. That's what makes us special. In western Europe this is a gay thing. Here, this is about our national culture. There, paying EU culture: all decadent, all gay, not us. But because it's something that all Europeans do, we have to take it seriously as Europeans.

Especially if we can win.

YUVAL: Especially if we can win.

Right. And this competition was not ever meant to be political, but it was political very quickly, and even more so, especially in terms of the fracture in Russia and Ukrainian relations. James, maybe you could talk a little bit about what happened, for those of us who don't know. Over the last few years, that resulted in Russia not participating in Eurovision this year.

JAMES: So since Russia joined Eurovision in the '90s, they've actually had a pretty good run of Eurovision. And as you've all mentioned they've taken it quite seriously. They won with Dima Bilan, who's a very famous Russian pop star. And the year before last, it came to a head when Ukraine, who had previously actually spent a few years sitting on the sidelines because of events in the Crimea, came back with a song by a singer called Jamala, which is a pseudonym for a singer of Crimean tatar descent. She sung the song called "1944," which she claims is a song about her great-grandmother and the deportation of Crimean tatars under Stalin. So one of the rules of Eurovision is that you are not allowed an explicitly political song.

So the Republic of Georgia got banned a few years ago because they have a song called "We Don't Wanna Put In," which when sung sounds a bit like Putin. And they're quite strict on that. And so it was very unusual that a song that on paper doesn't have any explicitly political lyrics, but anyone who knows anything about history knows that this is quite a political topic, was allowed.

And actually before this, I spent some time on some right-wing Russian versions of Reddit, and there were a lot of people saying, "Oh, this shows that there's a European double standard because if this had come from Russia, they would have banned the song outright." But because it's poor Ukraine, and Europe loves Ukraine, therefore it was allowed. And so the claim was the song was historical, not political, which, how anything can be historical and not political is up for debate. But Jamala won and it meant that Ukraine hosted the contest in Kiev. So Russia was obviously not very happy about this, there were talks about them boycotting it.

They decided to participate, but the day their act was due to be submitted, Russia submitted a singer called Yulia Samoylova, who is a beautiful blonde woman but in a wheelchair, and has been in a wheelchair since childhood, but who had previously performed in Crimea after Russia had annexed it, and therefore, in Ukrainian eyes, entered Ukraine illegally and was barred from entering the country. And so this debate about whether this was done on purpose by the Russian Broadcasting Union, but it meant that Ukraine had to ban this entry and after some back-and-forth about whether or not they could perform via livestream, Russia stomped their feet and said, "No, we're not gonna participate," and completely pulled out. So for the European Broadcasting Union, this is quite a big deal, because a lot of advertising revenue comes from Russia.

Even if Russia hadn't put up this woman to be their performer who had allegedly illegally entered Ukraine and had to be banned, would it have been too political for Russia to be sending their act to Ukraine?

YUVAL: There was no doubt that she had performed in Crimea in 2015, so that she had, by the views of the Ukrainian border enforcement, she had crossed over illegally into Ukraine, and that she would be banned. So Russia knew that by nominating her as the official entrant that this issue would come up. There are plenty of pop stars in Russia, but she was the one who was chosen to bring this issue to a head, and basically, they got a result in which she was not able to perform and there was several good news cycles about European double standards, Ukrainian revanchism, that sort of thing. Yuval Weber : And one of the, one of the things of not having the official broadcast of Eurovision in Russia this year was to, I think, to an extent, prohibit the viewing of what Ukraine is doing in terms of burnishing their soft power.

Well gentlemen, thank you so much for your time and for exploring this very, very important topic of Eurovision.

YUVAL: Thanks for having us.

JAMES: Thank you for having us.

James Evans is obsessed with Eurovision--the pomp, the culture and the geopolitics. James read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford before studying Chinese language at Beijing Language and Culture University. His research interests include the government and politics of China, China’s foreign policy, and the European Union. Previously, James worked in public affairs for Weber Shandwick in Beijing and London, and has a background in public policy and digital communications across both China and Europe. He currently coordinates digital communications, media relations, publicity outreach and graphic design at the Fairbank Center.

Yuval Weber, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the National Research University - Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia) and a Center Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. He is currently a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. Prior to Washington, DC, Dr. Weber served as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Government Department at Harvard University. Dr. Weber is working on a project on the sources of liberal and anti-liberal dissatisfaction for powers in the international system and the strategies they employ to stake their claims for revising the international order. The first manuscript under contract (Agenda/Columbia UP) evaluates the tension between demands of economic modernization and the security state in Russian political economy. His work has appeared in Problems of Post-Communism, International Studies Review, Survival, Cold War Studies, Orbis, and the Washington Post.


Related Materials

Jamala--1944 (Ukraine) 2016 Eurovision Song Contest (Winner)

Dima Bilan--Believe (Russia) 2008 Eurovision Song Contest (Winner)

Buranovskiye Babushki--Party for Everybody (Russia) 2012 Eurovision Song Contest

Eurovision Song Contest YouTube Channel

Toward an understanding of the Eurovision Song Contest: A brief survey of the extant literature by Joshua Keating,, posted May 28, 2010

This Man Knows So Much about Eurovision, They Gave him a PhD by Daisy Sindelar,, posted May 8, 2014

How a 'Propaganda War' Overtook Eurovision, the World's Most Inclusive Song Competition by William Lee Adams, posted June 8, 2017

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