Philip V. Bohlman's 2024 Eurovision Blog Post

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The year of singing politically: The 68th Eurovision Song Contest 2024 Malmö, Sweden

By Philip V. Bohlman
Published by the Oxford University Press's blog Academic Insights for the Thinking World
May 23, 2024

"Welcome to the show. Let everybody know I’m done playin’ the game. I’ll break out of the chains." —Nemo, “The Code,” winning song of Eurovision 2024

Breaking out of the chains had emerged as a central leitmotif and call for activism at the Eurovision Song Contest long before Swiss non-binary singer, Nemo, performed it as the winning song, “The Code,” at the Grand Finale on May 11 2024 in Malmö, Sweden. Though the lyrics could and did allow for different interpretations when the 2024 national entries first began to circulate on the internet—whose show, whose game, who’s everybody, who’s playing—ambiguity had been stripped away by the height of the Eurovision season in April. Nemo’s own breaking of the code became an allegory for direct engagement with the most unbreakable of all Eurovision codes: performance of politics, understated or overt, is strictly forbidden.

Violating the code would lead to rejection of a national entry by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the largest broadcasting network in the world and the organizational infrastructure for the Eurovision itself. In extreme cases, when the politics of a song mirrored the geopolitics of Europe, violation of the code could lead to banning a nation from competing entirely, as it did in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. The Eurovision Song Contest, in a word, should be apolitical. It should channel a cultural democracy for Europe heralded by an annual motto, this year “Unity by Music.” Such lofty goals for song may well be cause for celebration, but the reality of the largest music competition in the world, in which nation vies against nation on the global television stage, undermines the myth of a world without politics.

At Eurovision 2024, that myth would be fully dispelled. It was the announcement of the Israeli entry, Eden Golan and a song called “October Rain,” that in February forced the EBU into its attempt at apolitical activism. The title and lyrics of the song, according to the EBU, were direct references to the October 7th Hamas attack in Israel. Whether direct or not, always an abstruse category for EBU censors, Israel was given the option of withdrawing, substituting a new song, or altering “October Rain” to contain no political references. Israel chose the third of the options, entering with a song called “Hurricane”. With that entry, political controversy was unleashed, with calls for banning Israel because of its war in Gaza, which led in turn to massive demonstrations on the streets of Malmö and loud booing of Eden Golan at the semi-finals and finals—and a fifth-place finish in the May 11th Grand Finale, highly respectable under any circumstances.

Just how does the EBU and the organizers of the Eurovision Song Contest, including the host country that produces the shows for Eurovision Week, exercise its apolitical activism? To answer that question, one needs to consider the long history of the counterpoint between top-down organization by Europe’s media empire and the bottom-up participation of a musical citizenry seeking to win its place in a Europe constituted of diverse fragments. There are many ways to pose the question, but a critical way to answer it is to reflect on the different ways song itself expresses organization and participation.

Read the full blog post.