New Europe, Center Stage
Orientalism and Nationalism in the Eurovision Song Contest
You’ve seen it all before
We’ve got no taste, we’re all a bore
But you should give us a chance
’Cause we’re all victims of circumstance
We’ve had it pretty tough
But that’s okay, we like it rough
We’ll settle the score
Survived the reds and two world wars.
Get up and dance to our Eastern European kind of funk!
Yes sir we are legal we are, though we’re not as legal as you
No sir we’re not equal, though we’re both from the EU.
We build your homes, we wash your dishes,
Keep your hands all squeaky clean,
Some day you’ll come to realize Eastern Europe is in your genes!
The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is not just a pop song competition: often, it is a musical manifestation of political and social issues of great significance. The lyrics to InCulto’s “Eastern European Funk,” as seen above, express a key issue in the recent history of the Contest by pointing to distinct perceptions of “Western” and “Eastern,” legal and illegal, tasteful and tasteless. This song asserts that, despite Lithuania’s acceptance to the European Union in 2004 and the supposed institutional and ideological unity of Lithuania with the rest of Europe, there remain larger inequalities across an “Eastern” and “Western” divide. This challenges the concept of the “New Europe,” an ideal that relies on multicultural values and the overcoming of national borders, and instead asserts that old divisions are still too large to ignore. Suffice to say, Lithuania did not make it past the ESC semi-finals.
Although it is often derided in popular discourse — or as in the United States, completely ignored — Eurovision holds a special place in the history of musical nationalism. Political issues pervade the ESC from song choice (“Eastern European Funk”) through the contest’s development and expansion. Originally conceived as a Cold War initiative to culturally unite Western Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest has developed into a massive, popular song competition that, in many ways, challenges European definitions and identities. Nations either “internally” select a song submission or open the decision to popular vote, and all selected artists then gather to perform for a live and televised audience. (An estimated 600 million people watched the 2010 competition held in Oslo, Norway.) Votes are then totaled and both popular and panel-based voting determines point distribution: each country votes for 10 other countries, giving the country with the most votes 12 points, the second 10 points, and the next eight 1 – 8 points.
As an annual ritual, Eurovision allows members of the European Broadcasting Union (often including countries around the “official” borders of Europe) to submit supposedly representative songs to be performed on an international stage. The first contest was held in 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland, with seven participating countries, and it has since expanded to include as many as 43 countries. The fall of the Soviet Union precipitated an influx of post-Soviet countries, like Lithuania, that sought to assert cultural sovereignty on an international stage, and the countries of the Caucasus region have made more recent entrances in the past few years. The upcoming contest in 2012 will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan — the farthest East the Contest has ever been.
Contemporary audiences would barely recognize the Contest in 1956: artists in the early years were predominantly crooners with “light” big band swing and orchestral accompaniment. Audiences sat silently in tuxedos, clapped respectfully between songs, and generally treated the Contest as a kind of “high culture” event. There was a shift in musical style and aesthetic throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but audience energy and size did not drastically change until after the switch from panel-based to popular voting in 1997. Now, Eurovision is a fundamentally staged spectacle in a visual concert style more associated with rock and pop. The 2009 Contest, hosted in Moscow, is an excellent example of this focus on the visual: Russia’s opening sequence (including a presentation by Cirque du Soleil) featured the previous year’s Eurovision winner flying to the stage in order to proceed to strut down a reversely moving walkway, pushing past a horde of beautiful women, only to subsequently burst through a series of fake buildings. After all this, he performs his winning song.
A language restriction that required countries to sing in an official national language was lifted in 1999, and this in combination with popular voting paralleled a shift in both musical content and point distribution. Smaller countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Caucasus region suddenly overshadowed historically successful Western European countries. Estonia won first place in 2001 with the entry “Everybody,” and this was only the first in a series of “non-Western” victories (sung mostly in English) that left Western Europe uneasy. Terry Wogan’s commentary for the BBC highlights the anxious sentiments that have been a main theme in popular discourse:
Oh there’s a bit of singing as well. You remember when this was a song contest, do you? Back in the days of Katie Boyle? Forget it! The Eastern bloc has taken over. It’s now, ‘Never mind the music, we’ve got the neighbors to think of!’ Who cares? This karaoke of a thing… All spectacle and show and stuff strutting… You remember Ruslana last year? Perhaps you knew her better as Xena, warrior princess.
— Terry Wogan, 2005 opening sequence in Kiev
Wogan made these comments in 2005 during the opening sequence in Kiev, Ukraine. Ruslana Lyzhychiko won first place the prior year with “Wild Dances,” and, as is custom in the ESC, performed her winning song for the Contest’s opening sequence the next year in Kiev. (Interestingly, artists need not be nationals of the country they represent; the francophone Canadian Celine Dion, for example, won first place for Switzerland in 1988, an important moment in her career.) Wogan questions whether the Contest is musically or politically motivated and likens Ruslana to a “warrior princess,” but it is difficult to tell whether he is criticizing her essentialist presentation of Ukrainian culture or the fact that she represents Ukraine in the first place. “Wild Dances” is, after all, supposedly based on traditional Hutsul folksongs and culture, but some view her representation as part of a greater commodification of “folk” culture as a means to make claims of “authenticity.”
Serdar Erener’s winning entry for Turkey in 2003 has faced similar criticism. Erener mixed elements of Western pop and supposedly Turkish folk, combining instrumentation, song form, and vocal style to create a hybrid, and largely Orientalist, representation of Turkey. The song’s instrumentation features the percussive darbuka, one of many standardized Turkish folk instruments. The main rhythmic theme in the accompaniment has been a standard in Turkish pop for many years, and it was made internationally recognizable as “Turkish” (or “German-Turkish”) by artists like Tarkan. The melodies of the accompanying (European) strings are reminiscent of arabesk, an Arabic-influenced style that was particularly popular in Anatolia in the latter half of the 20th century. Her vocal style and form are, however, primarily working within a European tradition (and it is also worth noting the song’s bridge is a rap.) Additionally, the visuals are highly Orientalist: Erener’s backup dancers perform moves reminiscent of a belly dance, and their highly sexual crawling and clinging to Erener recall influential Western images of a sexualized and homoerotic Ottoman harem. This visually plays upon both Turkey and greater Europe’s stereotyped and imagined conception of an exotic Ottoman past.
The song was highly popular, and this was actually the first year Cyprus gave points to Turkey despite intense ongoing international conflicts. (One should recall Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, which has had a lasting effect on European politics far beyond the ESC.) Turkey’s victory is often attributed to many issues, including Turkey’s stance against the Iraq War and the United States at the time, the lure of the exotic through Erener’s use of Orientalist imagery, the rise of what Wogan dESCribes as an “Eastern bloc,” and the fact that this was Turkey’s first song in English and could therefore be understood by more people.
This use of English is a particularly important factor. Despite pleas by the Turkish government to perform in Turkish, Erener decided to use English in order to gain votes and increase the song’s appeal. This has since become common practice for Turkey despite the initial hesitation (and, in some cases, complete rejection) by officials who saw singing in Turkish as the only appropriate way to properly represent Turkey. Turkey’s more recent success, maNga’s “We Could Be The Same,” which won second place in 2010, also used English in addition to a rock aesthetic. Turkey’s 2011 entry was also a rock song in English, but it was, by all accounts, disastrous.
Although Erener was Turkey’s first artist to win first place since its entrance in 1975, two other Turkish entries were successful before 2003. Sebnam Paker’s entry “Dinle” (Turkish for listen) won third place in 1997, receiving full points from Germany, Spain and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Germany proceeded to give full points to Turkey for the next two years, likely due to both the introduction of popular voting and the large Turkish community in Germany. Turkey gave Germany full points in 1999, illuminating the strong diasporic connection as Sürpriz, a group of Turkish musicians representing Germany, performed the song “Reise nach Jerusalem — Kudüs’e Seyahatin,” combining Turkish, English, German and Hebrew.
It is also possible to view the United Kingdom’s entry in 2005, “Touch My Fire” by Javine, as Turkish — or, rather, trying to be Turkish. Javine said it herself in an interview with the BBC:
It’s got kind of a Turkish vibe, it has Eastern influences, so we’re trying to reach out to as many people as possible by having that international feel.
This comment shows Javine’s specific emphasis on using a “Turkish” (which is, rather problematically, equated with “Eastern”) style as a way to garner votes. There are obvious sonic and visual similarities between “Touch My Fire” and “Every Way That I Can”: Javine’s piece features the darbuka, both have backgrounds based on the same “Turkish pop” rhythmic theme, and both utilize arabesk-like string accompaniment. Javine’s staging is similar, as she is surrounded by a group of women (but also a few men) in vaguely similar outfits.
Javine’s use of these stylistic elements reveals many layers of social and cultural complexity. Thomas Solomon, in his article on Erener’s victory, dESCribes the success of “hybridized songs and performances combining ‘ethnic’ national culture with the pop song formula” (Solomon, 2007, 143) as a shift in ESC voter preference, and Javine subsequently attempts to use “that international feel.” At once we can see an appropriation of cultural symbols used to gain votes by both Erener and Javine.
This sense of the international is particularly important when viewing Erener’s and Javine’s entries. This essay has touched upon various ESC entries that articulate and reflect a particular moment and ongoing sentiment in recent Eurovision history, one that emphasizes folk roots and Eastern chic. Javine and Erener are actors in this new Eurovision, a Eurovision perhaps reflecting moves towards a “New Europe,” promoting not only a nationalized but hybridized aesthetic, using the international stage to make both nationalist and cosmopolitan claims. Ruslana and Erener’s entries speak to a supposed “folk” history and culture, playing up imagery of an “authentic” past while sonically presenting a mixture of folk sounds with Western pop, creating an easily digestible “ethnic pop” for the ESC audience. This reflects a tenuous balance between desires to retain one’s history and culture while moving through and past the homogenizing modernity of nationalism. In this way these entries are assertions of both uniqueness and conformity, laying claim to a connection with a special past all the while asserting — and demanding — relevancy. Javine then utilizes this imagery in a failed attempt to gain votes, representing one nation with another’s stereotyped symbols, stripping them of any previous sense of direct cultural context (which was already dubious enough) in an attempt to reach out to an audience supposedly seeking connections with Europe’s “ethnic” past.
It is worth ending with a brief look at Russia’s entry this past year in Düsseldorf. A radio channel owned by the Russian government “internally” selected Alexey Vorobyov’s “Get You,” an ambiguously aggressive and militaristic song presented with visuals reminiscent of a 1980s “Greaser” aesthetic. Vorobyov sings “I’m coming to get you” in the historically ironic site of Germany, telling Europe: “I rule my world like brave men do, and I fight, I fight for mine” and “I’m gunning for you.” This moves far beyond the 2009 entry, which celebrated and summarized a supposedly “authentic” Russian past with Soviet-approved imagery and artists. It may be pushing the envelope to view these lyrics as reminiscent of past imperialism, but, especially when viewing this entry in the context of the rise of a widely discussed “Eastern bloc” and a Europe struggling to “realize Eastern Europe is in [their] genes,” it is difficult to not view these messages as troublesome. The implications of this song may never be fully developed in real politics, but I will certainly be watching the upcoming Contest very closely.
Jordan, Paul. “Eurovision in Moscow: Re-imagining Russia On The Global Stage.” eSharp, Issue 14, Winter 2009, 39-61. Retrieved from http://www.gilmorehillg12.co.uk/media/media_138647_en.pdf.
Solomon, Thomas. “Articulating the historical moment: Turkey, Europe, and Eurovision 2003” in A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest. Ivan Raykoff and Robert Tobin (Eds.). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.