Officially, the Eurovision Song Contest is an apolitical event. In reality, it’s anything but. Chris West’s new book Eurovision!: A History of Modern Europe Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest, just out from Melville House, reveals the political triumphs, tragedies and dirty dealings that have always gone on behind the scenes. Chris will be at the shop for our May Late Shopping Eurovision Spectacular on Wednesday 3 May, but in the meantime, here are seven bizarre political facts about the world’s greatest song contest.
1. General Franco got personally involved in Spain's song choices
The winning song in 1968 – Spain’s ‘La, La, La’ – was originally to be sung in Catalan by Joan Manual Serrat, but due to an intervention by General Franco himself, ended up being sung by Massiel in the official language of Spain, Castilian. As Chris West says, ‘the irony that a row should take place about the language a song called ‘La, La, La’ should be sung in is delightfully Eurovision.’
2. Portugal’s 1974 entry sparked revolution
In the early years of Eurovision, Portugal often used its entry to voice opposition to Salazar and the Estado Novo; this came to a head in 1974, when their song was the actual signal to launch the coup that finally overthrew the regime:
On 24 April at 10.55 p.m., the Lisbon radio station Emissores Associados de Lisboa broadcast the nation's Eurovision entry, ‘E Depois Do Adeus’ (After Goodbye). This was a secret signal for a group of young army officers to launch a coup d'état. Early next morning, key locations … were surrounded. A few high-ranking old-guard loyalists escaped from the last of these and set up a rival HQ – but hardly any servicemen obeyed their orders. Instead, crowds came out onto the streets and started handing out red carnations, in flower and in plentiful supply at the time, to soldiers. By the end of the day it was ‘after goodbye’ to the Estado Novo; Portugal had a new government, commited to the ‘three ds’: democracy, decolonization and development.
3. Most of the Middle East could join in if they wanted to (but only Israel do)
Israel’s inclusion in a specifically European contest has been seen by many as peculiar (and no doubt given birth to a thousand outlandish conspiracy theories), but the reason behind it is, in fact, extremely dull: anyone who is a member of the European Broadcasting Union can enter. The geographic area covered by the EBU includes most of the Middle East and North Africa. The reason no other countries from that area have competed is that Israel got there first (1973), and since very few of the countries around them recognised Israel as a state, they all subsequently declined to enter. (The exception was 1980, when the contest happened to fall on the Israeli military Remembrance Day Yom HaZikaron, and in Israel’s absence Morocco made their only appearance.) None of this explains Australia’s continued inclusion in the contest, however.
4. The Soviets had their own Eurovision
A lesser known frontier of the Cold War was that of rival singing competitions. Between 1977 and 1980, the Warsaw Pact nations staged their own version of Eurovision: the Intervision Song Contest. While Eurovision voting was still decided by small juries from each nation, Intervision came up with an ingenious system of public voting: ‘if you liked a song, you turned all your lights on; if you disliked it, you turned all your lights out. The electricity distributor in each country measured the change in usage during each song.’ (As hostilities continue to grow between Russia and the West, we could see Intervision make a comeback; after the controversies of the 2009 competition, Vladimir Putin suggested setting up a rival contest with members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Presumably this time round they’ll have a more hi-tech voting system.)
5. Bosnia’s 1993 entrants escaped the seige of Sarajevo to be there
While some see Eurovision as a bit of silliness, others have risked their lives to be part of it: 1993 debutantes Bosnia-Herzegovina thought it worth escaping besieged Sarajevo for. ‘The last part of their flight involved crossing the city’s exposed airport in darkness, running across two runways to reach a ditch, from which one could crawl to a peninsula of Bosnian-held territory.’ Six people died that night trying to make this journey, but all the members of Fazla made it to Millstreet in Ireland to sing ‘Sva Bol Svijeta’ (‘All the Pain Of the World’).
6. Eurovision is a training ground for future politicians
A remarkable number of ex-Eurovision stars have gone on to become elected politicians. Dana, the voice behind Ireland’s first of seven wins in the competition, failed twice to become Irish president, but served as MEP for Connacht-Ulster between 1999 and 2004; Domenico Modugno, performer of one of Eurovision’s earliest, and best, entries, 1958’s ‘Volare’ was elected to the Italian parliament in 1987, where he campaigned fiercely for the rights of disabled people; and Ruslana, mere months after her victory with ‘Wild Dances’ at the 2004 contest, was out on the streets addressing crowds as the Orange Revolution got underway – she later served as a Ukrainian member of parliament and a UNICEF Good Will Ambassador.
7. Eurovisiopsephology is a thing
Given all of the above, it should come as no surprise that the political aspects of Eurovision are the subject of intense academic study. It’s called ‘eurovisiopsephology’, a term coined by Derek Gatherer in a 2006 article in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, although you don’t need to have read that to predict where Cyprus’s douze points are going in this year’s contest.
Chris West, author of Eurovision!: A History of Modern Europe Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest published by Melville House, will be joining us for our May Late Shopping Eurovision Spectacular! Read more and book your free ticket for the evening.