It’s that time of year again. Eurovision – a TV extravaganza that spans almost all of Europe – plus Australia and Israel for some reason. Nationally selected acts compete to perform a pop song that is catchy enough to be noticed yet somehow bland enough to appeal to an audience of countless different cultural tastes. In general, the whole thing is usually seen as harmless, if colourful, fun. Nonetheless countries still feel a vague sense of hurt pride when their performers flop. Even in the UK, where the public generally feigns a wittily sarcastic sense of indifference to the contest, scoring the dreaded ‘nul point’ (i.e. zero) makes national news, as happened in both 2003 and 2021. Ostensibly the Eurovision Song Contest, and its organizing body – the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) – pride themselves on being completely apolitical. Of course, in reality, it has often been common during the contest for both public voters and ‘expert’ juries to award points that seem suspiciously warped by political allegiance with less focus on musical merit.
The video of Nadir Rustamli’s Fade to Black is filmed on the jetty of the Chenot Palace, one of Azerbaijan’s most exclusive spa retreats.
Politics by Other Means
This year entries from both Armenia and Azerbaijan made it through their respective heats to the grand finale. On the big night, there was never much hope that Baku would give a Rosa Linn’s upbeat ballad Snap 12 points – if any – nor that Yerevan would put Nadir Rustamli’s wistful Fade to Black top marks. Indeed, trawling through a decade of voting tables, it seems that Armenia or Azerbaijan has not once awarded one another so much as a single point. And indeed, that ‘tradition’ continued in 2022.
Armenia’s Rosa Linn and the date, June 22nd, when she experienced the personal emotional ‘Snap,’ which became the title of her song. Image: eurovision.tv
Ukraine – Favourite or Sympathy Vote?
Meanwhile, linked to a different conflict altogether, the bookies’ favourite for this year’s top spot was Kalush Orchestra, a rap-meets-folk outfit from Ukraine. The bookmakers were counting on a continent-wide sympathy vote for a country suffering an invasion. And they were right. In the end the song did indeed top the scoring thanks to a massive public vote, giving a score of 631, the second highest in Eurovision history. The only song ever to beat it was Salvador Sobral’s Amar pelos dois at the 2017 Eurovision, a show coincidentally performed in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Kalush Orchestra was not the original choice of act to represent Ukraine at Turin. Originally the qualifying song was to have been by Alina Pash, winner of Ukraine’s X-factor equivalent. However, politics intervened here too – she was discovered to have visited Russian-controlled Crimea in 2015, a controversial move for high-profile Ukrainians and potentially illegal if the visit went via Russian territory.
In Turin, 2022, Kalush’s rapper, Oleh Psiuk, demanded that the audience “Help Ukraine, Mariupol, help Azovstal right now.” This was personal. Psiuk’s brother is thought to be ‘missing’ as one of the besieged last defenders of the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol. But it’s obviously highly political too.
In a soft power sense, Ukraine had essentially ‘won’ Eurovision even before the contest started. That’s because their invader, Russia, had been disqualified from participating. The EBU statement at the time said “the decision reflects concern that, in light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s contest would bring the competition into disrepute.”
The decision was a tough one. Russia usually provides the big viewing figures for Eurovision and the glittering Moscow final was, in 2009, by far the most expensive edition ever held (though the 2012 (Baku) and 2014 (Copenhagen) versions would later top that). Some hope that the disappearance of Eurovision on their TV screens will inform ordinary Russians of Europe’s general distaste for the war. Others have questioned whether by ‘siding with’ Ukraine in the conflict, Eurovision was once again in danger of being seen as getting too political.
Russian news agency TASS covered the Eurovision result with a very bland 90-word online Eurovision article noting Ukraine’s victory, the number of points scored and the fact that Russia couldn’t attend.
However, there is in fact a partial precedent. In 1992, Serbia was ejected from the EBU and left for years in the Eurovision wilderness following UN sanctions imposed for Yugoslavia’s civil war brutality in Bosnia. The fact that much of the attack on Bosnia was also perpetrated by Croatians went unpunished as newly independent Croatia became a contest participant.
You May Have Missed…
Georgia’s Circus Mircus failed to make it to the finals with their rhythmic groove, Lock Me In. Image: eurovision.tv
Arguably some of the most interesting acts failed to get through the qualifying semi-final rounds, held on May 10 and 12. The latter evening included some particularly notable exits. The press focused on Ireland’s elimination for the first time despite what some called “one of the best bops Eurovision has seen in years.” Were the voters upset by Brooke Scullion’s dancers not being model-sized anorexics? Others questioned how San Marino’s popular rock-anthem Stripper could be shunned. Maybe the voters found performer Achille Lauro’s sexual ambiguity too hard to stomach. As hosts, Italy’s LGBQT love song didn’t need to qualify. Then there was Georgia’s Circus Mircus. Their song, Lock Me In, had a refreshingly simple 1990s-indie style groove but they were probably not helped by a bizarre Tim Burton sense of anti-fashion.
As mentioned above, Azerbaijan’s Fade to Black did make the final. It finished just 16th, which seemed a little harsh to some viewers. Notably Harry Potter author JK Rowling tweeted “Azerbaijan were robbed.” After all, to some ears, Nadir Rustamli’s song – penned by Scandinavian hitmakers – seemed very much in the same musical class as the UK’s Spaceman which romped to second place.
 On jury votes, the UK’s entry was actually ahead.
 To host the contest, Ukraine had won in 2016 with 1944, a song about the Russian/Soviet crime of brutally deporting the whole community of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia and the Urals during WWII.