Introduction to the Engaged National and European Identities
Eurovision is a pop music festival, believed to be a barometer for the collective European nations’ will to promote ‘an image of shared European culture’ (Fricker & Gluhovic 2013, 2), largely known for attracting singers from all over Europe. Its selections traditionally show a high initiative of artistic creation and beauty. These criteria tend to build around the festival an entire cultural phenomenon, different from the regular fictional or entertainment television shows. Within the next few years, as the show is expected to assume a more political agenda, Eurovision will address the amplified debate on national identity and European cohesion. Although few researchers pointed to the festival’s tradition in affirming, but also distorting these identities, the fact that it became a highly ranked television contest and a very attractive venue of popular culture in Europe since 1956 speaks for itself. The festival reflects the public sphere through its voting system and indirectly through the political agenda of its singers’ lyrics and performances. Although this artistic approach to a united Europe is very appealing, it also raises questions on Europeans’ will to continue being a part of a growing community.
Eurovision is generally seen as a very popular TV show and a live music contest gathering a series of artists from Europe and its extended territories. There are three domains of interest to follow when analysing the Eurovision political agenda: each participant’s national identity, the participants’ pursue of the European identity and the lack of any dissent. This study acknowledges that national and European identities are continuously redefined against the background of the recent migratory waves of refugees and economical immigrants from Middle East since 2015. The ESC entries in the 1990s demonstrate that the European participants feel the need to protect their identities through the cultural heritage of music and dance. The same goes for the migrants who start to affirm their cultural presence at the festival (Germany’s 1999 ‘Journey to Jerusalem’). This paper calls into question the post-war European identity, its capacity to survive under such circumstances, and if this identity can be a preferred identity for all Europeans. The first section begins by examining the history of the festival and its initial purpose. A discussion of the context and theme of this amplified cultural phenomenon will clarify the political interest in participating and gaining popular exposure in the contest. Details on the festival’s organisation and voting system are discussed in later sections. Our conclusions are drawn based on the present situation of a much-diversified European population but they cannot predict future generations’ tendencies in corroborating the national with the European identity.
Political Context and Festival Theme
The Eurovision festival gained considerable fame from its beginning in the 1950s, when the project of a European Union was born with the specific purpose to create a common economy and to federalise the old national borders. Much work about Eurovision’s public stage for contemporary European politics is known through Fricker & Gluhovic’s The Palgrave Macmillan. Performing the ‘New’ Europe. Europe’s borders have been identified in this study as loosely defined not by geographical measurements but by democratic and freedom initiatives. This approach also underlined a kind of superiority issued from the traditions of Eurocentric imagination (Fricker & Gluhovic paraphrasing Derrida 2013, 7). The Eurovision phenomenon has received attention also because of the Eastern Europeans’ desire to keep their national identities in opposition to the Russian political dominance, as shown in Paul Jordan’s The Modern Fairy Tale: Nation Branding, National Identity and the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia. Most of the song compositions and stage performances display ethnic influences. Some of the recent Eurovision songs are of ethnical inspiration and often politically engaged as investigated by Heiko Motschenbacher in her linguistic approach in Language, Normativity and Europeanisation: Discursive Evidence from the Eurovision Song Contest. Following are some examples which are illustrative for their popularity such as 1944 by Jamala from Ukraine (the 2016 winner), Alter Ego by Minus One from Cyprus, or Hear Them Calling by Greta Salóme from Iceland. Other singers become politicians (Motschenbacher, 20) or have been actively involved in national or European policymaking: Âse Kleveland (Norvegia 1966) became the Minister for Cultural Affairs in his country; Dana (Ire-land 1970) a member of the European Parliament; Ruslana (Ukraine 2004) a member of the parliament in her country.
Scholars agree that the award nominations reflect the dynamics of Europe’s tendency towards preserving national heritage and values under the Union’s protective umbrella. This tendency has been further developed into extreme security policies: ‘Furthermore, violent security policies are being waged in the name of Europe by countries that serve as the main entry points to Fortress Europe – now exacerbated by the conjecture of the “global war on terror”’ (Fricker & Gluhovic 2013, 8). The authors’ argument appears to be well founded in the linguistic performances. However, the music and the dance are an important part of the performances because, contrary to the lyrics, they share a visual universal language. These two channels – linguistics and performance – make possible international communication and hold the key to the festival’s success. This is ultimately how myths, life styles, social believes and the hopes of different nations come under one umbrella and get shared in the multiple layers of a cultural collective consciousness. We know today that a consistent part of human knowledge builds up and travels not only through the empirical sciences but also through the senses and intuitive knowledge all triggered by the artistic expressions. Thus, one of the most successful songs at Eurovision, Every way that I can! by Sertab Erener surprised the audience with a very daring belly dance while telling the story of a Turkish woman and her passions.(1)
Addressing multiculturalism has been a concern for the unity of the European Union and continues to preoccupy especially those members of the Union with significant immigrant population. Performing local customs and traditions wi-thin the space of cultural events has been proved to be possible because the socio-economic context is further anchored in the local communities. Moreover, a related hypothesis inspired by Sigmund Freud and Jean Baudrillard’s theories on consumer societies indicates that festivals, festivities and sacrifices in a community are related to a culture of abundance that modifies artistic expression in order to liberate its surplus and waste. Thus, the artistic production of Eurovision is a unique way to combine the growing need for national identity with an artistic aim within a state of the art technology live show. In order to take the pulse of the public opinion on the issue of national versus European identity, our research focuses on Eurovision as a site of cultural exchange, where the artists and the audience share ideas, music style, ethnical identities and a certain philosophy on life. Like other studies on the festival, this article too looks at the idea of a competition of music combined with honour and national pride, as often expressed in the organisation of the show.(2) Thus, in our case, the exchange of the gift of music and dance is followed by the obligation to reciprocate. The contest, organised by countries, is what compels the participants in the competition to share the gift of their own productions and to get genuinely interested in other performances, curious about other cultures and other people.
In most of the research literature on Eurovision, the way artists prepare for the competition has been identified as a national patriotic mission. This study starts from the same hypothesis in spite of the self-declared apolitical rules of the contest: ‘No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the ESC. […] A breach of this rule may result in disqualification’ (European Broadcasting Union 2010: 4; Section IV.9 in Motschenbacher, 19). Months in advance, the show inaugurates an entire television show at the national level under the premises that the singers truly are national spokes people. At the European level, the competition magically makes disappear domestic rivalry. Beyond music and dance, the artist chosen also presents an image not only of himself but of his nation, an image that necessary conveys honour and respect towards other cultures. Thus, the rivalry continues but under a more civilised mask since the artist needs to charm his public and get most of the votes not only from his compatriots but also from the other nations. Wining the competition possesses a value beyond the immediate artistic gain, because the winner manages to transmit his national values to other nations: ‘to make a gift of something to someone, it is to make a present of some part to oneself’ (Mauss 1990, 12).
Our approach was inspired by Paul Jordan’s The Modern Fairy Tale: Nation Branding, National Identity and the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia who underlined the territorial and colonial like dominance of the Russians over Estonia and over countries from the ex-communist block. The issue described here enrols within the bigger territorial issue in the existence of the European Union, the quest for a new borderless continent with a modern view beyond the immediate national identity reflected in many participant songs at Eurovision. Combined with this European integrationist trend, the 1966’ French With us specifically defined the common identity of European characteristics based on common linguistic Indo-European linguistic origins, historic memories, or geopolitical frontiers. In particular, the year 1990 is significantly inclined towards European brotherhood: Together 1992 of Italy, 1990 Brandenburg Gate, Norvegia, 1990; To live freely, Germany, 1990; No walls anymore of Austria, 1990; Free of Finland, 1990. This enthusiastic wave of union songs was intrinsically connected to the public opinion of almost a decade that the EU was not intended to threaten existing national identities and national borders. That shows that the newborn European Union identity was performed as a status secondary to the national build-up of traditions, culture, customs and interests. This trend created a new opening in Europeans’ public opinion to ethnic diversity and racial tolerance. In the ESC, the formation of immigrant and diaspora communities has been reflected in songs performed by artists coming right from immigrant social groups. An example is Face the shadow of Armenia 2015 with Armenian artists from no less than five continents. The group in itself chose a symbolic name: Genealogy. Today it seems natural for immigrants to radically contest those European nationalistic values traditionally based on ethnic origins, culture and language, patriotism and other common national interests. As often proved by Anne-Marie Thiesse or Anthony Smith, these nationalistic criteria are obsolete in the light of post-industrial society and cosmopolitan culture (Smith 1992, 65).
National identities were contested long before the foundation of EU. In her investigation on the formation of national identities, Thiesse explained how these values lost authority beginning with the nineteenth century when great economical stakes encouraged the use of cheap immigrant labour.(3) The influx of immigrants and refugees is a growing issue that passed the statistical concerns, given the wars and the chaos in many third-world developing countries. Some of the EU countries receiving immigrants after much political deliberation and even consultation at the European Union level, such as France or Germany, concluded that the practical solution to this massive wave of migration was in fact ethnic integration, which triggered a reaffirmation of national origins and customs as well as new education and employment policies. It seems evident for these countries that changing their own attitude towards multiculturalism and bridging social ties allows socio-economic inclusion for the imminent growing diversity in Europe’s population. In this regard the problem with rethinking European identity can be outlined by surpassing the hegemony of Europe as a union of the oldest economical powers and political supremacy. This traditional hegemony used to imply certain domination over African, Asian and East-European states’ cheap labour force or political supremacy over the Arab Middle Eastern political unrest.
Another issue that the EU needs to clarify is its internal economic crisis spiking popular protests in Spain, Portugal, Greece and some of the new additions to the union, the ex-communist countries. Moreover, political instability threatens the long awaited harmonious European community in the light of the right wing populist tendencies in the Netherlands, France, Britain, Hungary or the undemocratic ruling of Vladimir Putin with numerous repressive acts against artists, journalists, politicians and even military aggression at the Union’s border.
By identifying old European values such as common linguistic Indo-European linguistic origins, historic memories, or geo-political frontiers as fundamental codes (Foucault 1966, 13) that reflect a nation’s language, technics and establishments as a live experience, Eurovision too explores the archaeology of its nations and enables an active exchange of their cultural production, experienced live on stage. The design of this mise en scène enabled marginal cultures to receive international attention and bring rapidly awareness on their specific agenda. For the sake of simplicity Norvegia’s entry of 1980 Saami Earth portrayed the folk tradition of the Saami music and costumes and instantly put that minority on the map. Other striking examples are Germany’s 1999 Journey to Jerusalem performed by German artists of Turkish descendent and the 2009 Czech Come on, Gypsies celebrating Romani ethnicity.
By raising awareness for the existence of a diversity of cultures, all European, the festival makes clear their proximity, as a natural approach to what seems to be foreign and marginal. This exchange of music and dance happens when there is certain flexibility between the position of object (performing on the stage) and subject (as a spectator): ‘Nul regard n’est stable. Le sujet et l’objet, le spectateur et le modèle inversant leur rôle à l’infini’ [No gaze is stable. The subject and the object, the spectator and the model, switch their role continuously] (Foucault 1966, 21). More people watch Eurovision as a particular apparatus on account that the festival con-tinues to illustrate European public opinion and political direction through its national and diaspora voting system: ‘Even though voting blocs are widely perceived as a form of bias, it is worthwhile to point out that such voting patterns work across national boundaries and therefore are an index of cross-national European solidarities’ (Motschenbacher 2016, 38).
When reimagining the new Europe, one thinks in canonical terms such as the colonised and the coloniser defined in his book by Albert Memmi. History repeats itself and, in time, the colonising process overturns against the colonising power. Europe has opted beginning with the 19th century onwards to close the door and ignore the growing ethnic groups already inside its borders on the basis of protecting traditional national identities. However, the need to secure national identities, as urgent as it may have appeared to western European countries it only aggravated the recent crisis of their ethnic unity. Thus, political radicalisation and the growing mark of nationalism all over Europe today. Beginning with the 19th century, major nation states in Europe established strong national identities in spite of their many ethnic minorities: ‘l’Europe en ces cent vingt dernières années fut en constant travail de conserver, d’enfanter, de faire vivre des nations, de nouvelles nations. La fin des guerres napoléoniennes comme même les deux principales guerres du XIXè siècle, celle de 1859 et celle de 1870, et la Grande Guerre furent des guerres de na-tions se battant pour leur vie ou leur resurrection’ [Europe in the last one hun-dred and twenty years has been in a continuous work of conserving, conceiving and sustaining its nations, new nations. The end of the Napoleon’s conflicts as well as the two main wars of the 19th century, that of the 1859 and that of the 1870s and the Big War have been national wars where the populations fought for their lives or their resurrections] (Mauss 1990, 576).
The long expected globalism and cosmopolitism, understood as a unity of global citizens, is intensely reported by media in a negative light primarily based on the growing numbers of war refugees and economic migrants. Today, globalism and cosmopolitism are associated in public opinion almost by default to terrorism threats, overpopulation and blurred national identities. The most striking result of colonial period was the fact that individual or national identity was often based on the possession of a territory, on property, a place to call home. This way of thinking opposes trans-nationality (4) because European nations have a long tradition on defining their identities on the exclusion of the others from their territorial patrimony. Thus, notions like immigration and immigrant enforce the juridical national/foreign dichotomy. There is a significant difference between the state, defined on citizens belonging to a certain territory and Europe as a common space of citizenship and work. A mark evident to this identification can be found in idiomatic expressions as in the welcoming multilingual expressions used at Eurovision during the presentations: ‘Good evening, Europe!’ ‘Bonsoir L’Europe!,’ etc. It is interesting to notice the effervescent effect of this address as if Europe would be this extraordinary person with a life of its own who can speak to each one of us in our own language.
In terms of a more advanced position of a multicultural Europe, the festival of Eurovision seems to encourage ethnic diversity in the idea that immigrants are not intruders but different agents that will not disrupt Europe’s traditions and identities but enrich them. Many of the presentations mark the multinational setting of the union by reinvesting with a multiculturalism value a diversity of iconic sites such as the French Eiffel Tower, the English Big Ben, the German Brandenburg Gate, or even the Russian Kremlin. Another common multinational icon is the wave of national flags every time camera focuses on the public.
As a television show Eurovision is meant to be glamorous and entertaining, thus presenting a different face than the usual stereotype of immigrant communities threatening the mental and physical health of established European societies (Noiriel 1988, 244). The advantage of presenting ethnic performances is that they appear under exotic colours and attract each other in a continuous celebration of their differences. The exoticism contributes substantially to the beauty of the show and to its success. Overall, Eurovision breaks the already interiorised equation of immigrants to danger that nationalistic discourses often build on. From a postmodern perspective on image and glamour (Berger 1972, 144) a glamorous presentation keeps its object desirable and enviable, while promising happiness. This is how publicity functions and such is the ideal world that Eurovision inspires: ‘The gap between what publicity actually offers and the future it promises, corresponds with the gap between what the spectator-buyer feels himself to be and what he would like to be’ (Berger 1972, 148). As a good show, Eurovision encourages consumption and a sophisticated way of life, an existence only possible beyond conflict.
Historically, Post Second World War Europe has been a place of racial tolerance where many artists from around the world found reclusion and peace. In this respect France succeeded in creating a creative and prosperous ambient with its many jazz black singers, Russian dancers, or African writers: ‘France est l’un des pays où les préjugés de race ont été les moins forts’ [France is on of the countries where the stereotypes of race were less powerful] (Noiriel 1988, 337). On the one hand this tolerance is unexpected for countries like France where the cult of national identity is considered a guaranty of the state. On the other hand, European integration surpassed the needs of the global economy and literally symbolised the loss of state control and equal rights (5). The perceived ‘threat’ posed by outsiders is thus not only economic but also cultural, culminating in the development of the right nationalist discourse that builds on the perceived disappearance of France as a sovereign state. Hence, the ‘French cultural exception’ (6) in order to preserve the French identity and the French way of life. A survey on Eurovision found data valuable for the historic evolution of national identity and European identity: ‘Of the 1396 performances until 2015, only 24 (1.7%) showed Euro-references. […] References to the nationality of the performers were more common than the European references in the 1950s and espe-cially in the 1970s. […] Higher frequencies of Euro-references can be identified in the early 1980s (a period in which no national references are found). From 1983 to 2000, national references clearly outnumber European references. In the period 2006-2011, national and European references are equally represented’ (Motschenbacher 2016, 42).
The most remarkable result to emerge from this is that national identity has a history longer than the European one. Further contemporary data show that both identities seem to coexist on a non-political dimension. It seems as if identity construction is not a prerogative anymore. Indeed, the last four years show a significant decrease in all national and European markers: the music themes are less ethnic and more modern; the traditional costumes are being replaced by professional design, the language used at the national selection is translated into English (as to address a population larger than the European Union), the lyrics are not politically or nationally engaged. This may reflect a new trend at the performance level, as the festival surpasses European borders, with more extra-European participants. Noteworthy is the preference for a European kind of performance, since the national identity may limit a song’s success and address a limited target audience. Eurovision appeared on the European stage as a cultural phenomenon. This underlines that it may be able to harmonise primarily the global and the local cultures and only subsequently the economical factors of the free market and the communitarian identities. The cultural value has been found to be valued by the young generations caught on Eurovision as new Europeans, who, if are not yet writing new ways in politics, they certainly influence the way we look at cultural identities today. Within the festival hierarchy one can still identify the founding members. Post national world is unjust but it is continuously seeking to balance its dynamics through transnational realities. ESC makes visible the new order of economics and politics associated to the masses of refugees and economic migrants, that are unexpectedly building a new community with a strong and unique platform of common interests and conceptual premises.
Media reports suggest that migration has changed the native population in more than one way through its practice to adapt to the new rules and law, to transmute old traditions and customs. In exchange, migrants offer a cheap labour force and raise the quality level of vocational jobs. They also try to adjust to, and to frenetically survive to new world challenges in a political configuration already at odds with its national frontiers.
Consequently Europe immerses through its music, dance and traditional clothing. In a visual culture these are a direct form of expression to celebrate cultural heritage and past identities. As often labelled, the musical production of European artists is collectively regarded as a socially and politically engaged performance. A new school of engaged artistic production is gathering around famous names of the genre such as Celine Dion or Toto Cutugno, and has been central in establishing individual cultural identities, independent of the more centralising and dominant state country definition and modus operandi.
As might have been expected, European Union goes through an unprecedented social crisis. It might as well trigger political issues, namely the rising of extremist parties, nationalistic movements and separatist tendencies with serious consequences for European stability such as Brexit.
During these difficult times the role of Eurovision is decisive in contextualising the refugees’ experience of migration or the hybrid identities for Europe’s new generations within a cultural identity. Although principles of diversity, polysemy, plurality and dialogue characterise postcolonial society it is nonetheless the cultural heritage of the African, Middle-east, or East-European populations that brings the light of understanding and tolerance. Literature such as memoirs, or political essays, the borderless system of education, common market and common values and particularly the power of music as a universal language are the key to strengthen Europe as a union of cultural diversity. European communities are expected to eventually reach out to each other but not to integrate one common ideally constructed European identity, as envisioned by the ESC’s entries in the 1990s, based on the fact that they are part of the larger European Union and its common economy, and because they need to adapt to the new regional demands. Europe needs to face the realities of its own multiculturalism and one step in this direction is the inclusion of all possible discourses. If the colonial discourse disregarded the colonised by principle, the immigrants by default and the poor east-European neighbours by political strategy, the post national Europe needs to change in order to survive.
Unlike western powers or incoming migrants, countries in the ex-communist block after their subsequent revolutions, imperatively felt the demand for national branding in order to stabilise their states. In the 1990s Eurovision performances these countries went into the competition with a political agenda in order to survive as nations in a very culturally and economically competitive European landscape. Eurovision offered the stage to affirm national branding in a very complaisant way: an integrative political European identity without excluding cultural and ethnical identities. By this Eurovision mirrors a decisive segment of the European Union as a political and economical union with a tolerant diversity of cultures. As it was the case with the national identity, the European identity too gives a sense of belonging to ‘an imagined community,’ a concept introduced by Benedict Anderson in his 1991 book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Jordan 2014, 18) that would exclude those with other interests.
Looking at the progressive acceptance of ethnic performance in ESC, Europeans hold that the lack of political initiative and social equity among European nations and ethnic groups is a generation phenomenon. Contrasting with the peaceful and invisible non-presence of their parents, the youth is more willing to accept and to perform cultural differences as if one generation would catch up with the gap of voice and the lack of rights of their predecessors. It may be that it needs a generation to accept ethnic and cultural difference and to understand it. From a theoretical point of view, the intersection of music with politics and economical factors seems unrelated. The Europeans are not collectively just a disruptive image of rich and poor, of irreconcilables differences, of colonial issues of poverty and shame, but a community of subjects who look critically at their society, each one with its own story to share. The European citizen has a face, hopes and dreams and an individual identity. She or he may struggle with social and economical lack of equal opportunities. Moreover, the grandparents’ language and songs may offer comfort and sanctuary for this identity. While upheavals, as the Pas de Calais revolts, are a desperate cry for help and an extremist way to protest against immigration policy, Eurovision offers another way, peaceful and constructive, to avoid the violence and to build new relationships.
The ERC as a Democratic and Multi-Cultural Process
The success of the festival in Europe and beyond was anticipated by the original formula modelled upon Sanremo, a very popular Italian song festival, also in alignment with an implied European identity in the 1950s. Much bigger than Sanremo and because of its elaborate selection system, Eurovision is a music selection organised initially by each participating country at the national level. Apart from slight discordances, when small minorities would win the selection, the results of this selection represent national identities literally on a stage encouraging artistic innovation with ethnic influences. Hence, the 2016 winner was a Ukrainian song with lyrics in Crimean Tatar, an event preceded by other ethnical performances of even larger ethnic communities from Greece and Russia.
The growing numbers from 22 participants in 1990, to 42 countries in 2016, substantiate our findings. In 1997 the implementation of the public televoting (Motschenbacher, 14) marked a milestone for the establishment of Eurovision as a political institution in strengthening European identity. The number of singers affirming or implying this identity not only as a recognised civil status but also an assumed reality is significant in the 1990s, even if often perceived as a second identity after the national one. Some research carried out in this area found the voting system not entirely democratic because of the heavy weight of the juries: ‘the number of points awarded by each country has since 2009 been calculated on the basis of 50% public televoting and 50% professional jury voting’ (Motschenbacher 2016, 15). Unlike Motschenbacher’s research, our analysis considers that the voting system is representative for what Eurovision stands for: a perfect combination of cultural events and European popular electorate. The stage is musical and political at the same time.
Our study of the songs participating in the contest beginning with the 1990s (7) proved unsuccessful in identifying a constant representation of all ethnic groups and European communities. We regard the contest as a coproduction of the many cultures and heritages of European descent, not necessarily reflecting a certain state frontier. Although cultural heritage has been known to conserve the identity for a certain group, it is not an exact formula to historically guarantee its survival. However uncertain, this criteria of cultural heritage has been particularly valued in the ESC’s shows where identity is performed as a spectacle.
There are several possible explanations for the durability of cultural identity in time. In Guy Debord’s vision a spectacle offers to modern societies something more important than the cold data of socio-economical surveys. It offers the sacred illusion of real life experiences to such a degree that the spectacle becomes a part of the society: ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images’ (Debord, 12).
This happened when Eurovision included marginal cultural identities countries such as Ireland or the Basque regions, contested for many years by nationalist policies. A legal and recognised strategy of heritage transmission through music, dance and clothing, the competition gives hope to all of these contested ethnic groups but in a peaceful and a nonthreatening form of art. It appears that the real value of the contest is in bringing together all these radically different populations and made them aware of their own values and differences. There is evidence to suggest that the live performance on the stage, the human factor, animates the spirits and creates a genuine sense of friendly competition. The only recorded parts are the TV presentations of the singers before their performance and the instrumental recording. We feel strongly that this brings an honesty element not only to the artistic side of the show but also to its interactivity on the screen and at the event. The results point to the successful popular vote that makes Eurovision a prestigious European event, almost an institution in spite of its official apolitical regulations.
The work of critical reflection involved in the process of the music selection on a couple of steps taken all together is also learned by the audience and that continues long after the festival closes its gates. We argue that this becomes a trend for the European audience who learns to think critically and takes this tolerant thinking further by ultimately accepting a multicultural European unity. Shaped by the economic order and the social dynamics, the spectacle in itself is a practice reflecting people’s wishes and society’s demands (Debord 1994, 15). The very process of selection from the national level up to the finals is based on popular vote, a democratic process and a value that is placed symbolically on the will of reunited and stronger communities. We hypothesise that, although unusual for the world of arts where the critics trace certain canons, the voting process is at the heart of the festival’s popularity and brings together people from all the corners of Europe.
Before each ERC stage performance, a short video-biography in the context of the region and/or country of origin is presented. The camera focuses on the artist and his/her style. During this formal presentation the public is familiarised with the ethnic background of artist, with the region’s customs, history, cultural traditionsand even geographical details. The materials are highly creative in the form of a story. This work lets us to conclude that the festival has an educational role/impact when instructing a very large population about a certain area during a ten minutes presentation. We have outlined why is important for a very diversified public to enlarge their cultural horizon about a certain country with its geographical site and economical details. One reason for having these introductory presentations, besides the immediate entertaining and touristic value, is the spectators’ natural curiosity to discover different civilisations. The ulterior outcome is that knowing more about other people and cultures will automatically enable awareness of the value of their own culture (8).
The implication of this is the possibility that the short presentations are not only a technical detail in the show’s strategy but also strategically built as sites of memory, meant to educate the large mass of the spectators on heritage, a practice to learn, assess and criticise. During its final stages, the show is a very serious contest that triggers public debate and controversy on the winner’s merits from both a political standpoint and artistic criteria. Such evidence of public debate is the 2016 Ukrainian song performed in Crimean Tatar, who did not win the jury or the popular vote but the combination of them (9). Concerning the most controversial issues, the very debate on race, ethnic identity, or political implications, proved to be an enriching opportunity to identify those issues of conflict and to open the discussion. In support to this idea of the festival as a common ground for public debate is the issue of immigration. Initiated by the relationships of cultural and economical exchange within the colonial system, immigration is certainly not a new phenomenon. Postcolonial realities in Africa and Asia ended up in economic crisis and political turmoil as an immediate result of the massive decolonizing measures. Hence, many artists and writers politically engaged were forced to leave their countries of origin and choose the exile right in the heart of old colonial powers such France, Belgium, or Germany, as adoptive countries for African artists.
An implication of this global transformations is the possibility that Eurovision functions with all the apparatus that a spectacle implies, including the power to exorcize (Artaud, 39) all mysterious, latent, altercations and old feuds. Hence the show’s extraordinary healing power in a continent with emerging territorial and ethnic conflicts. The spectacle has the power to act upon large audiences in a very powerful way because it addresses the senses and speaks to everybody, well established nations and minorities, at once. In technical terms, Eurovision tick all the boxes of a classic stage performance with its music, dance, decorum, mimics, intonation, light. The evidence of past performances points to a visual message that goes beyond the lyrics and has immediate impact on the public.
A fairly recent event, Eurovision has been promoting those artists whose main advocacy comes from the heritage musical production towards a redefinition or displacement (10) of old national identities or immigrant identities. Music is generally regarded as the young generations’ universal artistic language. However, universal music shows offer the ideological means to focus on specific details and mirror a community in all its colours. Moreover the songs mentioned in this study give a voice to different minor identities on their own right and decentralise the assimilative political strategies that have been the norm in the former European colonial discourse for hundreds of years.
Eurovision’s minority agenda seems to suggest that the subordinated and quiet condition of ethnic groups reminds of the lack of power of the colonised faced with the dominant economical and cultural superiority of the coloniser. Still in the colonial shadow of misrepresentation, minorities and migrants have great opportunity to reaffirm their cultural identities and to survive the pressure of political assimilation. Thus, a new musical genre is born, a movement with a political and social agenda, a well-defined genre that presents today a clear list of themes with a social inclusion purpose:
The Eurovision represents a shared sense of viewership, a sense of togetherness as part of a viewing routine of ritual. This apparent sense of community therefore allows individuals to imagine a real connection with other members of different nation states. (Jordan 2014, 10-11).
This music defined itself as a genre in the 1980s with disparate personal stories that portrayed the poor, the immigrant and the unrecognised as an imperfect person with split or erased national identity.
With the 1990s and the millennial generation of musicians, Eurovision takes the first steps towards understanding young European musicians who continuously lack a certain sense of stability and belonging to a certain national identity. They all speak a second or a third language; they travel around Europe and even have interracial families. The observations in our study of the festival have implications for research into celebrating cultural differences through music and dance. Our study suggest that, unintentional or not, Eurovision’s approach towards minorities’ cultures is an excellent outlet to give them a voice to speak up in the most pleasant, non-violent demonstration. It is remarkable how much youth is celebrated in the space of the festival. By now it is clear that the growing number of young artists reflects the awareness of their role in producing social change, political capital and artistic creativity. While the narratives of displacement have already built a frame of reference for a festival with political and social agenda, the future of Eurovision resides in exploring the complicated interstices of the new generations’ search for inclusive multicultural national identity.
By giving a voice to a wide variety of ethnic groups with different cultural identities, the festival recognises today an essential European multiculturalism and introduces the possibility of harmonising this cultural heritage upon which a new Europe could emerge. This paper has given an account not only of the festival as an event in itself but also as a social link between people with different national interests, history and material conditions. A full artistic and implicit political evolution of the union transpired as a result of analysing both past and present parts of the show. The form of the competition in itself eventually lead to a reassuring process by which the citizens of the modern Europe learn to trust the union and get accustomed to its system: ‘La vraie culture agit par son exaltation et par sa force’ [The true culture acts by its exaltation and its force] (Artaud, 16). In Artaud’s own words the show speaks the language of the soul by its gestures, sound and lyrics. A show like Eurovision not only transmits an electrified spectacle of life but it also mirrors a diverse population’s will to change and to live in a union, the same way the old art of theatre was meant to trigger a mass delirium in order to truly communicate its message.
Although Eurovision is famous on both the political and the musical stage, addressing Europe’s multicultural agenda, further work needs to be done to clear some alarming red flags. These issues are vital for any future research on Europe and national identity. Thus, one must remember that underestimating national identity cannot enable the construction of a new European identity. Furthermore, future studies should investigate the absence of some religious and ethnic minorities such as the Islamic community in the festival, which may not strengthen the desired multicultural tendency of the new Europe. More broadly, the festival offers the opportunity to identify possible weaknesses in the European community and to correct them not by changing its strong traditions but by redirecting their energy. Thus, the permanent national identities presentation within a harmonious European unity; the continuation of racial and ethnic open strategies towards building an inclusive and tolerant Europe with an additional friendly invitation to all identities; the continuous efforts towards the democratisation of the voting system as a significant sign for European integration.
(1) Although the song was performed in English in 1975, when ethnic imprint was still taboo, the song recounted a local story of a Harem woman repudiated by her sultan.
(2) In matters of honour, people like to compete and to return to the others more than has been received through a gift (Mauss, 11).
(3) Anne Marie Thiesse’s thesis is a turning point in the modern understanding of the notion of nation and national identity by showing how national identities markers were essentially artificially constructed, a common strategy and state politics in Europe.
(4) An idea clearly described in Kant’s Project of perpetual peace(1795).
(5) As mentioned by Gordon Philip and Sophie Meunier in Globalization and French Cultural Identity(2001).
(6) By French cultural exception this article undertakes the trade agreements that France put in place in the 1990s to protect its cultural production from the problems of free trade: ‘When the United States and the EU argued over the issue of “cultural exception” at the end of the Uruguay Round in 1993, the debate was limited to cultural goods narrowly defined’ (Gordon & Meunier, 26).
(7) As analysed previously in this article there are a couple of entries representative for the performance of a European identity as multicultural such as: Norvegia’s entry of 1980 Saami Earth; Germany’s 1999 Journey to Jerusalem; the 2009 Czech Come on, Gypsies; Together 1992 of Italy; the 1990 Brandenburg Gate, Norvegia, 1990; To live freely, Germany, 1990; No walls anymore of Austria, 1990; Free of Finland, 1990. Although these examples focus on specific ethnic groups not all of the Europe’s ethnic minorities have been equally represented in the contest.
(8) Learning about other cultures enables a better knowledge of one’s own culture. This has been a researched-based discovery in the field of second language education (Laureti, 10).
(9) The song inspired numerous public debates on the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, reported in the news media by The Telegraph, BBC, and CBS.
(10) By national displacement this study understands one’s identity in a context of rupture from a certain nation and culture under the clear pressure of political and social urgencies of assimilation conducted by the centralising European cultures.
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Irina Armianu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Literatures and Cultural Studies at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley since 2012. She graduated from Rice University in 2010 with a PhD in French Studies. Among her areas of interest she published in francophone studies and French Thought “Josephine Baker: Artiste and dissident”, “The Romanian dimension of existence and the French model”, “Kenizé Mourad and Early Middle Eastern Feminism”, as well as in film studies “Le cineaste Cocteau: une conception artistique au Carrefour de la littérature et des arts visuels”.