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Love it or hate it, Eurovision keeps pushing boundaries

This Saturday, millions of Europeans will watch 26 contestants perform in the flamboyant Eurovision Song Contest. Courthouse News asked a Danish expert how the competition remains relevant in 2022.

(CN) — The contrasts are many when it comes to Eurovision.

Is it a musical competition or a superficial pop music show? An outdated concept or a modern party event? A cultural tradition or an extreme TV stunt?

One thing is sure — the numbers don't lie. The show attracts close to 200 million viewers worldwide and has seen an increasing number of participating countries since it began in 1956.

Italy, the 2021 winner, has been hosting the 66th Eurovision Song Contest with two semifinals this week and the finale airing Saturday evening in Turin.

And according to Eurovision expert Lisanne Wilken, we can expect to hear several songs about timely topics that the individual countries wish to put on the collective European agenda.

“The contest is apolitical. Yet it is also a place where all countries in Europe must decide how they want to represent themselves," Wilken said. "Some just send in a catchy pop song and hope to win, but many attempts to show a certain aspect of their culture. Or speak up for important values."

She lectures on European studies at Aarhus University in Denmark and has researched the development of the song contest. Because, as she puts it, if one is interested in European culture, identity, and politics, then Eurovision is a prominent field.

This year, certain topics have already proven dominant in the lyrics on stage. Both Latvia and Norway strike a blow for vegetarianism, the latter through a catchy chorus with the lyrics “Before that wolf eats my grandma, give that wolf a banana," a nod to the tale "Little Red Riding Hood."

Another common thematic denominator is anxiety and depression. The Dutch contribution, ”De Diepte” ("The Depth"), talks about mental health issues, Switzerland´s song ”Boys Do Cry” deals with masculine vulnerability, and Serbia´s "Corpore Sano" ("Healthy Body") takes on the contemporary obsession with health and perfection.

”Within the last two or three years, ethnic songs have had a revival in Eurovision," Wilken said. "France, for example, sends a mysterious Celtic melody from Bretagne. And Ukraine, who is the absolute front-runner to win the competition, turns up with a mix of folk music and rap."

Naturally, Russia´s invasion of Ukraine has affected the competition.

“Russia and Ukraine are both strong contestants, who traditionally do very well in the Eurovision. We have increasingly seen Ukraine choose songs about their unique culture to separate and demonstrate strong sovereignty. Now, Russia got expelled, and the Ukrainian contribution, which already had good odds, has gained extraordinary support," Wilken said.

Currently, bookmakers give Ukraine´s song “Stefania” a 60% chance of winning.

However, there are always two major voting blocs. One is a national professional jury from each country while the general public makes up the other set, and the question to be answered is how determined both groups are to avoid letting the political situation affect their decision.

The paradox that a seemingly apolitical song contest is tightly interwoven with macropolitics has been present from day one. Wilken has studied two extended periods where the songs often skewed political — during the Cold War and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s.

“During the Cold War, Western countries knew that people in Eastern Europe were following the competition. So, they used Eurovision to communicate messages to the communist and Soviet republics. For example, the value of democratic voting, which half of the show is still dedicated to today," Wilken said.

As more countries joined the show, Eurovision gradually developed into a yearly celebration of cultural, religious and sexual diversity. It is also a place for the different countries to greet, meet and stay updated, which is otherwise hard due to geographical spread. 

Wilken pointed to increased international interest for Eurovision. Australia was able to join in 2015, and viewer numbers keep going up.

The U.S. meanwhile launched its equivalent to Eurovision this year, hosted by pop superstar Kelly Clarkson and rap mogul Snoop Dogg. Representatives from all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia performed, and this past week Oklahoma's K-pop star AleXa won with the competition with the song "Wonderland."

And on Saturday, U.S. audiences can view the 66th Eurovision Song Contest on the Peacock streaming service.

Courthouse News correspondent Mia Olsen is based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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