On specters and spectacle: tales of two Eurovisions, Liverpool-Ukraine 2023
By Philip V. Bohlman
Published by the Oxford University Press's blog Academic Insights for the Thinking World
May 25, 2023
Phantoms from the past, ghosts of the present, specters of the future, all gathered on 13 May to haunt the Eurovision Song Contest, cohosted in 2023 by the United Kingdom in Liverpool and by Ukraine in the spectral spaces of a Europe divided by war, but singing in concert under the banner, “United by Music.” Two Europes and two Eurovisions were on full display, each summoning its many specters in the chorus of the nation at its most spectacular: three minutes of song, dance, and theater in the most widely-viewed annual cultural event in the world.
One Eurovision was the temporary safe space of competition among a community of nations. The annual run-up to Eurovision Week in Liverpool unfolded according to well-worn tradition, the internet flooded with videos from national song contests and their winning entries, the full range of genres from intimate love songs to no-holds-barred extravagance. Fans would gather in Liverpool in the thousands (estimates claimed ca. 100,000, a figure significant only because of its symbolic excess).
The other Eurovision was Ukraine, the nation as a whole rather than a host city, a place of precarity, whose life as a European nation was under siege. The annual run-up to Eurovision Week in Ukraine was one of war and suffering, of pride in the long history of Ukrainian sovereignty to which song and music had borne witness, chronicled by the Ukrainian entries in the Eurovision over the past two decades, three first-place finishes among them, most recently the 2022 winner, Kalush Orchestra’s “Stefania.”
The tale of two Eurovisions in 2023 is the story of a Europe riven by the conflict between East and West, unsettled by migration and unabated refugee crisis, and staggered by the threats of rising fascism, antisemitism, and anti-LGBTQ politics. Europe has been here before, and far too often. So, too, had the Eurovision Song Contest, first established in 1956 at the height of the Cold War, and on the eve of the Soviet military intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and the establishment of the European Commission, the precursor of the European Union. The phantoms of the past are all-too-familiar, the specters of the future once-again-threatening.
This year’s competition witnessed a substantial retreat in the number of nations competing, only 37 after a decade and a half when the numbers hovered between 42 and 43. Recently competing nations choosing not to enter this year came entirely from Eastern Europe: Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Russia, and Slovakia. There are many explanations for the retreat of Eastern European nations—Russia was banned from entering—but the most common one claimed that costs for smaller nations were prohibitive. The investment in sending a national team to the Grand Prix are not insignificant, but smaller nations in Western Europe routinely manage them, among them San Marino (population 33,745) and Luxembourg when it re-enters the Eurovision next year.
There is much about the two Eurovisions in Ukraine and Liverpool in 2023 that seems hard to reconcile. Though I have written about the Eurovision Song Contest since the 1980s, from the multiple perspectives of ethnographic fieldwork, close analysis of the songs themselves, and active integration of Eurovision courses into university curricula in the United States and Germany, I am unable, in 2023, to write about the two Eurovisions as one big party, conjoined by kitsch and camp. The phantoms and the ghosts are too haunting. Public celebration takes on more spectral meaning in the Ukrainian Eurovision when public curfew sends viewers to their homes and shelters after 8:00 pm.
At the Liverpool Eurovision the desire to celebrate by no means disappeared. It was the spirit of celebration that lifted the Swedish popstar Loreen to first place after she garnered the largest number of votes from the professional juries in each competing nation for her song, “Tattoo.” As she had in 2012, when she won the Eurovision in Baku, Azerbaijan with “Euphoria,” Loreen brilliantly captured the magic of the Eurovision stage with a Eurosong par excellence. When I wrote about her in my 2012 blogpost, I claimed that, as a child of Moroccan immigrants in Stockholm, Loreen (Lorine Zineb Nora Talhaoui) “represents the New Europe, with a multiculturalism and religious diversity that undoes the nationalism of the Old Europe.” In the 11 years since her first Eurovision—much rejoiced as the first woman to do so, and on the fiftieth anniversary of Sweden’s greatest Eurovision victory, ABBA’s “Waterloo”—Loreen’s performance relies on an earlier history, comfortably situated in the Liverpool Eurovision.
The favorite of the public voting was, however, not Sweden’s Loreen, but Finland’s Käärija, whose “Cha Cha Cha” successfully cobbled together the Eurosong’s tried-and-true formulae of over-the-top spectacle, with a refrain of countless iterations of “cha cha cha,” to which ecstatically entertained fans in the Liverpool arena and on the internet could sing along. Käärli’s public could not, in the final moment, outweigh Loreen’s media professionals.
The spectacle of the Liverpool Eurovision was plentiful, and yet the specters of the Ukrainian Eurovision were present, and painfully so. These were the specters that drew me to the other Eurovision, the one haunted by the phantoms tearing apart Europe along its very borders. These were the ghosts of misogyny and physical violence. The Czech entry—and my overall favorite—Vesna singing “My Sister’s Crown,” placed tenth in the Grand Finale, singing proudly of the resistive power of sisterhood, every verse framed by the couplet, “My sister won’t stand in the corner / Nor will she listen to you.”
It was the call to listen that most powerfully opened the spaces of the Eurovision that took place in Ukraine on 13 May 2023. We were reminded that song and sound draw us to places we cannot be, spectacle transformed to oracle, amplified by the beauty and horror of the sirens, past and present. If we watched one Eurovision on the stage in Liverpool, the sounds of the other Eurovision in Ukraine refused to be silent. I had the good fortune to watch the Grand Finale with my friend, colleague, and visiting professor at the University of Chicago, Olha Kolomyyets, who holds a professorship in ethnomusicology at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Ukraine. Even as the spectacle in Liverpool was broadcast, the air raid sirens in Ukraine were sounding through Olha’s cellphone, fully in disharmony with a contest professing “Unity in Music.” The ensuing Russian missile attacks, not least among them a strike on the home city of Tvorchi, the two singers of the Ukrainian entry, Ternopyl, immediately prior to their performance. It is to Tvorchi, then, whose song, “Heart of Steel,” placed sixth in Liverpool, that I give the final words for the Eurovision in Ukraine:
Don’t be scared to say just what you think,
‘Cause no matter how bad, someone’s listening.