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Education, Education and... Eurovision!

17 September 2016 at 11:00 CEST
Last week it was announced that the University of Malta is to launch a study unit on the Eurovision Song Contest! The module, Interpreting Music Culture: Multimodality, MTV and Eurovision, will be on offer this coming semester. Since the 1990s there has been a growing list of scholars who have turned their attention to the Eurovision Song Contest, both in terms of research and teaching. What can the Eurovision Song Contest teach us? We spoke to some leading academics in the field to find out more.

The Eurovision Song Contest is one of the longest running television shows in the world. With more than 60 years of material to cover, an event with such longevity is literally music to the ears of inquisitive academics.

The beginnings

One of the earliest and most famous academic studies to reference the Eurovision Song Contest was published in 1992 by Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz. This particular piece of research focussed on so-called Media Events, which according to Dayan and Katz are "high holidays of mass communication", of which they consider the Eurovision Song Contest to fit the bill. Such media events allow viewers at home to feel part of the show and represent a sense of occasion or even something which is given historic reverence.

Since those early scholarly articles appeared, the Eurovision Song Contest has been used as a teaching tool across a variety of disciplines. Several books on the contest have been written, and an increasing number of students have chosen to undertake research into the show, studies that have ranged from school projects right up to PhD level. When it comes to studying the Eurovision Song Contest, the options appear to be unlimited.

Eurovision: A multi-disciplinary field

Several major studies on the Eurovision Song Contest have emerged from the sociological and anthropological field. Many focussed on fandom and how the show has been transformed by fans from a three hour television show once a year to a year-long interest where meaningful relationships and friendships are formed. Peter Rehberg (2006) and Dafna Lemish (2004) in particular pay attention to the influence and impact that the contest has had on many fans' sense of self, including how they see their own sexuality.

Other studies have come from fields such as Political Science, History and Media Studies. Göran Bolin (2006), Catherine Baker (2006) and Mari Pajala (2013) have used the Eurovision Song Contest as a lens to explore nationality, identity and wider geopolitics in Europe. 

Whilst the Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political event, it has reflected wider political developments. One example of such is the expansion of the competition to include new participants which coincided with the collapse of communism in Europe. What does the Eurovision Song Contest teach us and what is the value of studying it? Three leading academics in the field provided their insights on the topic.

Meet the academics

Brian Singleton

Brian Singleton holds the Samuel Beckett Chair of Drama and Theatre at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Brian has written extensively about the Eurovision Song Contest and in 2011 he delivered his inaugural professorial lecture on the subject. "In my view, any television programme or event that garners in excess of 200 million viewers must be worthy of analysis. Since the 1960s there has been a shift in Higher Education to include popular cultural forms of representation, which has led to the development of new disciplines. Musicology in most European universities now embraces popular music and its multiple forms of communication. Areas such as Performance Studies, Media Studies, Television Studies and Cultural Studies would also embrace the Eurovision Song Contest".

"In purely technical terms, the history of broadcast technology can also be charted through the annual contest, particularly in relation to audience engagement. Critics of scholars who engage with the contest are often the same people who think universities should only be teaching 'high culture'. They fail to see the wide-ranging implications of what the Eurovision Song Contest annually represents".

Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson has been a member of Edge Hill University's Media Department since 1997 and has been Associate Head since August 2010. Phil has a broad range of experience in media theory, new media theory and popular music. For several years he has included the Eurovision Song Contest as part of his teaching and research portfolio and was one of the founding members of the Eurovision Research Network. "The Eurovision Song Contest is woven into the fabric of European (and wider) popular culture and identity. It is more than a television programme, it really is a way of life. Studying the activities of fans and audiences is fertile ground, and tells us much about how music and media can bring people together. In doing so the sociological, cultural and musical perspectives provide ample avenues for research". 

"We established the Eurovision Research Network as the body of academic research became more noticeable, and we wanted to share and celebrate the multiple readings of the Contest that were being published and presented. The Eurovision Song Contest teaches us that the founding principles of the programme endure to this day: community, participation and pluralism. Also highly important is that the event has influenced debates about music tastes and national cultures under the umbrella of universalism, and showcased the cultural diversity of participating countries".

Karen Fricker

Karen Fricker is an Assistant Professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock University in Canada. She has written about fandom and identity and in previous years has covered the Eurovision Song Contest for the Irish Times. Her co-edited volume, Performing the 'New' Europe: Identities, Feelings, and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest, was published in May 2013. Karen has given numerous guest lectures on the Eurovision Song Contest and earlier this year she taught a six-week module on the contest to MA students. "I believe that teaching the contest is useful and relevant because it brings otherwise abstract concepts such as national identity and “Europeanness” into focus and provides examples that can be studied, discussed, and debated". 

"Certainly one of the big initial challenges about teaching the contest outside of Europe is recognition – it still remains little-known in North America. Luckily amongst my group of nine students were one of Ukrainian/Russian descent who was passionate about the show already, and another from Croatia who certainly knew the contest, but didn’t exactly love it! Having them in the group helped because they had memories of well-known songs, events, and controversies around Eurovision to bring to discussion, which communicated to the others that I was not making it up that the contest is a household-knowledge phenomenon in Europe!"

In his speech at the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, ABBA's Björn Ulvaeus stated that the programme is more relevant than ever. "For me the Eurovision Song Contest is a powerful symbol and I would say, even a weapon in the fight against the dark forces that want to drag us back to the middle ages again. It is the one show where people feel connected".

Dr George Cremona, who is leading the study unit on Eurovision at the University of Malta believes that the contest helps us to reflect on the past as well as learn more about the present. "Whilst many people only consider Eurovision to be a musical event, it is actually a mirror reflecting the contemporary situation in which the event is held".