The Eurovision Song Contest, the world’s biggest annual musical competition and extravaganza, never fails to surprise. And why shouldn’t it? It has everything: music, glitz, dancing, some kitsch and scandal, and now a US superstar in Justin Timberlake
But also, it has always had a lot to say about Europe and the wider world. While it started in the 1950s to heal post-war wounds, in more recent years it has been increasingly on point regarding current social and political issues.
This year the Ukraine’s Jamala won with 1944, a powerful song about Stalinist deportations of the Crimean Tatars, just as the violent conflict between Ukraine and Russia remains unresolved. The Russian media is furious, accusing the Ukraine of breaching rules by singing politics, while also blaming a rigged voting system for their measly third place. Their singer Sergey Lazarev was always hot favourite and, in their view, should have won.
Angry Russian authorities are already organising a boycott of Eurovision 2017, to be held in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities are undoubtedly delighted about the victory and its obvious subtext. The Russians were just as angry in 2014 when Austria’s Conchita Wurst won, putting Russia’s treatment of gay rights in the spotlight.
Eurovision is also changing as it becomes increasingly commercialised and serious in approach, with much less kitsch as a result. Singers in most countries fight for the chance to compete. And why not? Eurovision gives singers potentially massive exposure and international reach in just a matter of days. Careers are made and broken here.
The final confirmation of Eurovision’s move into the commercial mainstream is this year’s presence of Timberlake as the interval act. The world’s biggest annual musical competition and extravaganza is no longer to be laughed at (or sneered at, as in the past). Instead with Timberlake’s visible imprimatur, Eurovision is now something for everyone.
Indeed it is now the new normal.
And the European Broadcasting Union, (EBU) which owns Eurovision, is very happy about this. It’s working hard to expand Eurovision’s reach – to make it truly global and an even bigger money-spinner. For the first time it was broadcast live this year in the USA and China.
With Timberlake the EBU knew it would pull in viewers everywhere keen to hear him sing his latest No.1 smash Can’t stop the feeling as well as Rock your body. For Timberlake, it’s an easy few minutes to reach his large fan-base in Europe and elsewhere. A win-win situation for both parties.
While Australians once participated from a distance as mere viewers, things have also radically changed for us. Australia was back for its second visit – after last year’s supposedly exceptional invitation that led to fifth place for Guy Sebastian. Korean-born Dami Im was sent to represent Australia this year and came second, also pipping Russia. Eurovision has done Dami’s career a world of good – her song Sound of Silence is now racing up iTunes charts around Europe.
At the same time Australia’s participation in a European event has triggered controversy in Australia and parts of Europe – British talk show host Graham Norton has called it ‘stupid’, generating considerable media attention and sympathy for Australia.
That Eurovision is now the new normal in Australia is confirmed by the tweet quickly sent by Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, in the midst of an election campaign, to congratulate Dami on her success. It was quickly followed by a tweet from the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Everyone wants to be in on the act.
Meanwhile Australia could do well to learn from Sweden, which now earns billions every year in music exports. Its songwriters dominate world charts, keeping a low profile but writing hits for top acts including big American stars such as Taylor Swift and her global smash Shake it off.
Sweden’s transformation into a global music powerhouse has everything to do with Eurovision. The Swedes take it deadly seriously – with 85 per cent of the population watching the final and a big national competition to pick its annual entrant. Abba’s 1974 win with Waterloo was only one step in the process, and the cool Swedish musical touch is now increasingly evident, from the 2012 Eurovision winning song, Euphoria, to the 2014 winner Heroes. At this year’s competition 17 of 42 entrants had some kind of Swedish involvement and 13 made it to the final 26 - an amazing track record in anyone’s language.
Banner Image: Justin Timberlake performs during the Eurovision Song Contest on May 14, 2016. Picture: Martin Meissner/AP