Behind the kitsch, glitz and smoke machines of the Eurovision Song Contest — hosted Saturday by Vienna — hide more serious international geopolitical tensions, says the creator of the world’s first university course on the popular music competition.
Historian Dean Vuletic leads a EU-funded research project at the University of Vienna, focusing on the annual Eurovision sing-off as a vehicle for diplomacy and socio-political messages.
“It is an effective tool to approach history because it prompts people to talk about political issues through cultural references,” Vuletic told AFP in an interview.
For instance, it served as “a great mirror” for the complex relationship between the West and Soviet states during the Cold War.
Communist Yugoslavia’s entry into Eurovision in 1961 — barely six years after the contest was first launched — helped demonstrate that it was the Eastern European nation most open to Western cultural influences back then, Vuletic argued.
“It was the only communist country that participated in it throughout the Cold War,” he said.
Meanwhile, Austria sent a “highly symbolic message” in 1968, when Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, by sending Czech singer Karel Gott as its representative.
“From the Austrian perspective, it was an expression of support for the reforms that were taking place and desire for closer ties with its eastern neighbors,” said Vuletic.
The following year Austria boycotted the contest because it was being held in Spain, then under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eurovision gained even greater political significance as countries of the former Eastern bloc began joining the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes the song contest.
Accession was easy because the group had no political or economic entry requirements — all a country needed was a public television service.
“From the early 1990s, it was really the first Western European organization that former communist nations could enter,” said Vuletic.
“They used it as a forum, in which they could express and affirm their aspirations for European integration.”
Once these countries became members of NATO and eventually the European Union, however, Eurovision lost its luster: “You can see that many of them stopped putting so much effort into the contest after their political aims were accomplished.”
Israel, with no illusions of joining NATO, still competes every year despite facing stuff odds in the contest seemingly tied to its geopolitical standing.
In recent years, Israeli performers have also had more to worry about than being snubbed.
The Jewish Chronicle reported that Israeli singer Moran Mazor was under heavy guard when she performed Israel’s Eurovision entry in Malmo in August 2013, and Israeli journalists who went to cover the contest found themselves under threat as well, according to Haaretz.
This year Ilan Mor, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, protested Hungary’s entry into the contest, which contains text shown on a screen behind the singer criticizing the summer military campaign in Gaza and accusing Israel of having killed hundreds of Palestinian children during the operation.
A senior official of Hungary’s broadcasting authority told Mor that the Eurovision’s rules banning political content would be upheld, and that the sentence about Operation Protective Edge would be erased, the European Jewish Congress’s website reported in March.
Israel’s entry to the contest this year, “Golden Boy,” written by Doron Medalie, is performed by Nadav Guedj, the 16-year-old winner of the reality television program “Rising Star.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.