Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famous retort to someone who accused him of treating football as a matter of life and death – “it’s much more serious than that” – applies equally to the Eurovision Song Contest. Since its inception in 1956 its schlocky absurdity has been routinely derided, yet its labyrinthine political complexities stoke passions that are far from trivial.
Dean Vuletic’s history of the contest contextualises it within the wider history of international cooperation in post-war Europe. It is a story that takes in post-1945 reconstruction, the divisions of the Cold War, the opening up of eastern Europe, the enlarging of the European Union and much else besides.
Vuletic argues that the story of the ESC (this is a book full of acronyms) is not a simple one of a divided continent coming together under an emerging pan-European identity. Although the contest has at times branded itself with the language of peace and fellowship, the original motivations for setting it up had more to do with national broadcasters finding cost-effective ways to share content. It is this mundane initial context that explains the flexible definition of “Europe” in the ESC – one that includes Israel, central Asia and now even Australia.
The fact that Eurovision Europe intersects with but is not reducible to the Europe of the EU or any other supranational body is in fact the key to its longevity. You don’t have to sign up to much to participate in the ESC: dictatorships such as Spain under Franco and Belarus today can take part in the contest; and even states that are at war with each other, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan or Russia and Ukraine, have (not without some difficulty) appeared together on the programme. Even during the Cold War, as Vuletic shows, some communist countries televised the contest and there was a surprising amount of crossover between participants in the ESC and the eastern bloc’s own song contests.
Vuletic argues that “even though the ESC has unified Europeans by creating shared cultural references, it has arguably been more successful in forging national icons and refashioning national identities rather than transnational ones”. There are many examples of the contest being used by countries to rebrand themselves: the entries for Mediterranean countries from the 1950s to the 1970s frequently emphasised sunshine, beaches and holiday romances; former Soviet Union countries such as Azerbaijan have poured vast sums into staging Eurovision as a way of whitewashing their authoritarian governments.
Then there are the accusations of “bloc voting”, which has often been blamed for the recent success of Balkan and eastern European countries. Yet Vuletic points out that things aren’t quite that simple. Not only have complaints about the voting system been around for as long as the contest itself, there are many anomalies that complicate the picture: the Czech Republic is an example of an eastern European country whose woeful record shows a lack of love from its Slavic neighbours.
As a scholarly study in international cooperation and competition, this book is exemplary. It is, though, somewhat dry, and fails to invoke the bizarre playfulness of Eurovision. While play is a serious business, it isn’t that serious…
Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, an associate lecturer at Birkbeck University of London and a fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.
Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest
By Dean Vuletic
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £85.00
Published 25 January 2018