The Eurovision Song Contest, celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2015, is about much more than just music. By closely tracing the path of post-Second World War institutions, politics and society over the past six decades the event has made a major contribution to the feeling of what it really means to be European.
This was one of the main messages to come out of the EBU’s ground-breaking Eurovision Song Contest: 60th Anniversary Conference held in London in April. Experts, academics, journalists and fans gathered at BAFTA 195 Piccadilly to discuss the impact the song contest has had on the European public sphere over the last six decades.
Academics who have studied the power of the song contest, together with commentators and past performers examined how the contest has been used as a platform of expression for diverse communities, creating national and European identities and as a tool for nation branding.
For keynote speaker Dr Karen Fricker from Brock University in Canada, being European is more about how you feel than what you think. Europe is not a fixed entity on a map defined by its institutions, she said, it is a shifting, abstract concept that is made real each year by the Eurovision Song Contest. Watching Eurovision is often when people first realise that their nation is only one of many in Europe and around the World, she said. This helps viewers "feel" more European and plays an important part in forming contemporary European citizenship.
Dr Fricker noted that major societal changes can be reflected at Eurovision level. For example, the arrival of the former Soviet states by the early 2000s turned the spotlight on the phenomenon of so called "bloc voting". And the Eurovision glitz and glamour is being noticeably toned down in these more austere times. These days the focus has shifted back to the music, she concluded, although as she argued it has never been just about that.
Dr Dean Vuletic from the University of Vienna also delivered a keynote tracing the life of the Eurovision Song Contest through links to the development of the inter-governmental institutions that have shaped Europe and the world since the end of the Second World War. The song contest would not have been possible had it not been for the EBU and its cooperation with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), he argued.
And, while the Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political event its impact on the political and world of international relations has been palpable since it began. Following its birth in 1956 as the Cold War began to heat up the Contest has attracted attention over the inclusion of non-liberal democracies like Spain and Portugal in the 1960s and the participation of Israel and Turkey in the 1970s.
It also provided an international platform for the warring former Yugoslav nations in the early 1990s and included the ex-Communist Eastern European countries a full 10 years before they joined the European Union. Latterly, the contest has also brought attention to broader issue over human rights in Azerbaijan. Most recently, the success of Austrian winner Conchita Wurst in 2014 prompted Russian calls for an alternative contest to be established.
Dr Vuletic argued that the event not only provides a platform for the promotion of a country’s pop music but also an "affirmation of their political belonging, legitimacy, modernity and power."
The Eurovision Song Contest has outlived all of the shifts in international relations in the post-war era. It has been held without fail every year since 1956 and so is a unique lens through which the changes in international cooperation, politics and society can be viewed. It is a song contest first and foremost but, as has been demonstrated, this 60 year old cultural landmark is about much more than just the music.