It's that time of year again. Once a year it's the Eurovision song contest, when countries throughout Europe compete to present the best song. It's emphasised that it's all about the quality of the songwriting, not the quality of the artists singing the songs, but in practice this subtlety is lost.
This year is the 60th anniversary of the first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956. The contest started humbly with only seven countries and now has 42 countries this year. In the early years all the participating countries appeared in the contest on television. Now there are too many for a television show of reasonable length, so there are two semi-finals held. The top 10 countries from each semi-final (based on a jury vote) qualify for the final broadcast. The winning country of the previous year qualifies automatically. (In 2015 it was Sweden). The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Italy also qualify for the final automatically, because they are the countries that contribute the most to the cost of the contest. Money talks.
In the early years the winner was decided by juries casting votes in each of the participating countries. After years of experimenting with different systems, both juries and the public vote in each country, their votes weighted equally. No country is allowed to vote for its own song.
Are the songs any good? That depends on what you like. Apart from occasional exceptions they're easy listening. I personally find the Eurovision songs better than the current chart hits, but nothing exceptional. Nice songs, but forgettable. Nevertheless, I think it's a reasonable premise for a contest to search for Europe's best new song, if it weren't for one thing: the political voting. The Eurovision Song Contest has never been about picking the best song, it's about politics. Last night I didn't even listen to the songs, I just turned on to the last 45 minutes to watch the voting. Here are a few examples of political voting:
- Countries either give their immediate neighbours the most points (12) or none at all, depending on how friendly they are.
- A few years ago the British entry was the favourite to win, but scored almost no points. Commentators said it was because Britain was participating in the Iraq war.
- Last night the voting was polarised by the Russia-Ukraine war. The former Soviet countries all gave 12 points to either Russia or Ukraine, depending on who they support.
- Last night Germany finished last out of 26. It's the country everyone loves to hate, because of the austerity measures they're imposing on the other EU countries.
The introduction of telephone voting by the public was expected to eliminate political voting, because it was thought that the general public would vote on song quality rather than politics. This assumption has since been proved to be false. There are sometimes differences between the juries and the public votes, but if anything the public is more likely to vote politically than a jury.
This year's winning song, "1944", is about Stalin's ethnic cleansing of the Tatars in Crimea. If it hadn't been for this there would never have been an ethnic Russian majority in Crimea, and the Russia-Ukraine war would never have begun. Songs are barred from the contest that are about current political events, but "1944" is only indirectly about the Russia-Ukraine war. Russia complained about the song being allowed to compete, but the other countries in the European Broadcasting Union (all of which oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine) rejected Russia's complaints.
There's some confusion about which countries are eligible to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest. All European countries are eligible, of course. Also countries that lie partially in Europe, such as Russia and Turkey. That makes sense. In 1973 Israel was invited to join the contest. That was a controversial decision, probably more about showing political support to Israel than anything else. In order to pretend to be neutral, it was later stated that all countries bordering the Mediterranean sea could take part in the contest, although in practice only Morocco ever accepted the offer, just once in 1980.
But now, amazingly, Australia has been allowed to join the contest. That's practically the most distant country on Earth. Australia took part last year as a guest, but now they're officially allowed to participate every year. Some people have joked that they only take part because an official got them mixed up with Austria. Let's hope that Japan can soon join the contest. It would be good to see Ai Shinozaki representing her country. Oh, did I say it's all about the songs, not the performers? In Ai's case I'll make an exception.