The Eurovision Song Contest is a European project – that’s to say not a project by Europeans, but a project that is about Europe – or even more: an attempt to construct Europe.
From its 1956 origin as a project of the European Broadcasting Union, it isn’t really a programme about music but rather about broadcasting. Its geographic reach still a plays part in the sensation of Eurovision even in an age of collapsed geography.
As the votes come in, the screen switches to presenters most often in front of a green-screen picture postcard backdrop a local landmark, sometimes even with an earpiece that they have to hold in place. ‘Belgrade calling’ they announce in a phrasing that still seems to echo radio transmissions of an entirely different era – echoes perhaps of radios history over very different formulations of Europe: echoes perhaps of the propaganda radio stations of the cold war (Radio Free Europe for example), of WWII broadcasts across a war torn continent (such as Gustav Siegfried Eins). Eurovision’s subject then might be an idea of Europe not as a geographic entity, but as Hertzian space.
Indeed the definition of the European Broadcasting Area by the International Telecommunication Union differs from our geographic or cultural mapping:
“The “European Broadcasting Area” is bounded on the west by the western boundary of Region 1 (see below), on the east by the meridian 40° East of Greenwich and on the south by the parallel 30° North so as to include the western part of the USSR, the northern part of Saudi Arabia and that part of those countries bordering the Mediterranean within these limits. In addition, Iraq, Jordan and that part of the territory of Turkey lying outside the above limits are included in the European Broadcasting Area.”
Or course, Eurovision is also an index of European culture. We can see in the national acts strategies that attempt to deal with the ever-present European identity crisis. On its stage is acted out the trauma of a continent saturated with history, riven with multiple Imperial guilts, overshadowed with grand faded heritages, where traditional ideas of sovereignty are undermined. Stretched by its schizophrenic condition of simultaneous fragmentation and centralisation, and its seemingly contradictory currents of towards nationalism and superstate.
Eurovision enacts these crises in the form of pop song, staging and choreography. Here for example, we see attempts to escape history and retain it at the same time. It asks the question of how we can be both Spanish, for example, and modern (this year, that meant white suits, a hot pink eurotrash frock, neon yellow palm tree fronds, flamenco guitar and arm gestures. Being French meant a kind of Miserables meets the Libertines costume, an operatic musical number, a nuclear sunset backdrop, and a sensation of having heroically survived some form of military struggle. Greece performed in melodramatic tragic form in front of horrifying Ionic columns of doom. In these examples, where regional tropes are deployed, we could conceive of Eurovision as a version of Kenneth Frampton’s Critical Regionalism but with better moves and more Autotune.
In other cases there is a conscious rejection of heritage – Austria for example regurgitated a gospelly tinged number (invoking a most un-Austrian cultural heritage). Equally geographically, culturally and temporally out of joint was Serbia’s candy coloured Mod styled 60s Carnaby meets Motown number.
Others – such as Moldova’s – seem to invent whole new forms of identity. In this case a kind of knitted gypsy-Devo.
Often we see the core of the European identity crisis: national identity acted out but in a way that makes it the same as everywhere else.
Equally, this crisis is sited within the form and medium that dissolve traditional formulations of national identity – the genericisation of folk song to pop product and the relentless ubiquity of media.
Eurovision is littered with attempts to express nationhood, with statecraft played through pop song – the sonic equivalent of a worlds fair. In its combination of geopolitics as entertainment (or perhaps it should be entertainment as geopolitics) it remains a relic of a time when Europe was in the process of post war reconstruction. Yet, Europe as a project remains in a state of perpetual conceptual reconstruction.
However kitsch it may be, however much we might laugh at it, Eurovision (now that the Euro is a form of crisis turned into currency and the European Cup is essentially a privatised sports franchise) is the sole public and popular interface of project Europe.