Portugal just made history as it hosted its first-ever Eurovision Song Contest and Dean Vuletic from the Department of East European History was there. At our #univieblog he writes about his impressions.
Portugal just made history as it hosted its first-ever Eurovision Song Contest, something that the Portuguese had been waiting fifty-four years for since their state’s debut in it. I attended this year’s Eurovision to promote my research on international song contests, especially my recently released book Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest (London: Bloomsbury, 2018). As the first-ever scholarly monograph on the history of Eurovision, it examines how the development of one of the world’s longest-running and most popular television shows has been intertwined with the politics of postwar Europe. The book is the product of a project which I led in the Department of East European History at the University of Vienna under a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. As a Lise Meitner Fellow, I am currently conducting a new project on the Intervision Song Contest, the Eastern European equivalent of Eurovision during the Cold War.
This year’s Eurovision featured films that highlighted Portugal’s history in the contest, especially how the state’s 1974 entry was used as a signal to start the Carnation Revolution which in that year brought down the ruling dictatorship. The 25th of April Bridge is one of Lisbon’s major sights: it was renamed to commemorate the date of the start of the Carnation Revolution, after having previously borne the name of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Portugal’s imperial and maritime history was also alluded to in the slogan for this year’s contest, “All Aboard!” Special acts in the show were performed by lusophone artists with African and Latin American connections, such as Mariza and Caetano Veloso, giving this edition of Eurovision a global dimension unlike any before.
In the several media interviews that I did, including for the Portuguese newspaper Público, I emphasised one of my book’s findings: that Portugal’s Eurovision entries have been the most political of any in the contest. They have, however, usually been more about national politics rather than international issues. Some of the Portuguese entries of the late 1960s and early 1970s were penned by Ary dos Santos, a communist poet who opposed the dictatorship and was also the first openly gay figure to participate in Eurovision. Portuguese entries just after 1974 celebrated the Carnation Revolution. The lyricist of the 1976 entry, Manuel Alegre, has been a candidate in the Portuguese presidential elections. There were entries in the 1980s and 1990s that recalled the Portuguese empire, and more recently, in 2011, “A luta é alegria” (The Struggle is Joy), was a protest song in the context of the European financial crisis that particularly affected Portugal. And the Portuguese António Guterres is the only secretary-general of the United Nations who has ever appeared in Eurovision: in 1996, as Portuguese prime minister, he featured in a good luck message that introduced the Portuguese entry. Guterres personifies the political prestige that Portugal now has on the international stage.
With the Portuguese economy growing again, it was furthermore an ideal time for Portugal to showcase its position in the world through hosting Eurovision. So it was rather ironic that the state that has had the most political entries in Eurovision staged one of the least politically tense contests of recent times. Sure, this year’s French and Italian entries had political messages about immigration, terrorism and wars. But no political cloud hung over the Altice Arena, the site of this year’s Eurovision, as it had over other editions of the contest since 2014, which were especially affected by the military and political tensions between Russia and Ukraine. The relative calm in Lisbon had something to do with the impact of new rules brought in by the European Broadcasting Union, the organiser of Eurovision, which has sought to depoliticise the contest. Yet, it also reflected how Portugal has good relations with its neighbours and a positive image internationally, helped by a booming tourism industry and success on the soccer pitch. However, there was controversy in this year’s contest after China’s Mango TV censored its broadcast of the first semi-final of Eurovision, especially because of references to homosexuality. In recent years, the Chinese broadcast has signified Eurovision’s global expansion – which has been most notable with the inclusion of Australia in the contest since 2015. Nonetheless, the European Broadcasting Union reacted to Mango TV’s censorship by barring it from broadcasting this year’s second semi-final and the grand final.
Cesár Sampson achieved one of Austria’s best results ever in Eurovision by placing third, and as the voting results were being declared it even seemed for a while that he could win the contest, especially as he topped the jury vote. But the winner of this year’s Eurovision ended up being Israel’s Netta with the song “Toy”, which is about women’s empowerment. Israel has participated in Eurovision since 1973 because the state lies within the European Broadcasting Area, the technical region upon which the membership of the European Broadcasting Union is based (the European Broadcasting Area was defined in the interwar era for the allocation of broadcasting frequencies). Israeli Eurovision entries have historically often been filled with political references, especially regarding Israel’s relations with other Middle Eastern states. Considering the current controversies over the international recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – Netta referred to next year’s contest being staged in Jerusalem just after her win, and the United States opened its embassy in Jerusalem two days after that – the 2019 Eurovision is set to be held in a much more political context than this year’s edition.