Eurovision Goes to University Scholars See Deeper Meaning in European Kitschfest
It is ridiculed in Britain, Germany and elsewhere, and is the butt of jokes about bad pop music. But a group of academics from across Europe say the Eurovision Song Contest is a "treasure trove" of European cultural history. It's time, they argue, for one of Europe's genuinely unifying events to be taken seriously.
For many, the Eurovision Song Contest is nothing more than a glitzy exercise in questionable taste. The kitsch factor is personified by the pylon hairstyles and red-sequined costumes of this year's Irish contestants, the irrepressibly energetic Jedward. Not to mention Russian contestant Alexej Vorobjov, who stooped to shedding his shirt and bearing his chiseled torso to attract attention this week. Then there is the Portuguese act Homens de Luta, who fell out of competition during the semi-finals with an act that came across like a grade-school impersonation of the Village People.
To others, though, the contest is the launching pad for the international careers of pop immortals like Abba, Sandie Shaw, Celine Dion and many more. They see Eurovision as a showcase of the continent's best pop music that brings Europeans together -- at least for one night each year.
A group of academics belonging to the latter camp are now giving the Eurovision Song Contest closer scrutiny. They are scratching beneath the surface to find deeper meaning in what is the world's largest live non-sporting television event.
One of those leading the effort is Karen Fricker, an American scholar from Los Angeles who first experienced the exuberant contest just short of a decade ago at a party held by two gay friends in Dublin, where she was completing her Ph.D. "They all talked back to each other and the screen, with each trying to outdo the other with wittier and bitchier comments," she recalls. "It was compelling in a lot of ways."
'A Treasure Trove of Different Meanings'
After working on a post-doctoral project on Eurovision and fandom, Fricker, now a lecturer in contemporary theater at Royal Holloway, University of London, teamed up in 2008 with Milija Gluhovic, an assistant professor of theater and performance at the University of Warwick. Together they launched a project titled "The Eurovision Song Contest and the 'New' Europe."
Armed with 35,000 pounds (40,000 or $57,000) in British government funding, the project aims to provide the first major academic review of Eurovision. It has featured a series of workshops that will be completed this weekend in Düsseldorf, Germany, where the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest is being hosted, and culminate with the publication of a book of essays.
"I don't understand how it has taken academia so long to cop on to the fact that, with the Eurovision Song Contest, you have 56 years of European pop, gender and representational history," says Fricker. The project brings theater, music and performance studies scholars together with political and social scientists who are exploring Eurovision's role in post-Iron Curtain Europe. "It's a treasure trove of so many different meanings that it really takes international and multidisciplinary perspectives to even start to pick away at what it means."
By 'New' Europe, Gluhovic doesn't just mean Eastern Europe -- the project also explores the way all of Europe has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In addition to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, the academics are also exploring how an influx of migrants to Western Europe and other trends have reshaped the continent.
Kitsch, Lamé and European Unity
For the most dramatic change of all, one need look no further than Eurovision, which in the period since 1989 has grown faster than either NATO or the European Union: The number of participating nations has swelled from around 25 during the Cold War period to well over 43 today. It is an expansion that has led some of Europe's greatest contemporary thinkers -- including Timothy Garton Ash and Rem Koolhaas -- to question where the actual psychological borders of Europe lie in the 21st century.
"Eurovision is an arena for European identification in which both national identity and also participation in a European identity are confirmed," says Gluhovic. "At the same time, it is a site for struggle over meanings, frontiers and the limits of Europe."
Fricker agrees, arguing that Eurovision has always troubled definitions of Europe. "The first question everyone always asks me is, Why Israel? And is Russia really a part of Europe? Then you have Azerbaijan and Georgia, who are pouring enormous resources into Eurovision to win."
The reason for Eurovision's geographical diversity lies in the nature of its organizer, the European Broadcasting Union, which has no relationship to the European Union and allows any national broadcaster that is a member to participate in the song contest. In the past, countries as far flung as Morocco and Kazakhstan have taken part.
Fricker argues that Eurovision has the power to change perceptions, despite the kitsch, camp and façade of lamé, sequins and LED walls -- or perhaps because of them. When you hear a song from Azerbaijan, she argues, it may not tell you anything about the experience of being an Azeri, but at least it gets people thinking about a country which normally wouldn't cross their minds. "Maybe they'll look on a map to try to figure out where it is," she says. "There's a power in the map that Eurovision creates in terms of making people think about what they understand Europe to be and contain."
A Night When Europe Comes Together
The millions of faces glued to their TV screens are, it seems, doing their part for European unity. They offer a beacon of hope at a time when the euro common currency is in a state of crisis, EU countries are unilaterally reintroducing border controls, European leaders are divided and solutions to common problems are elusive. Eurovision, it seems, is one of the few engines of unity in Europe at the moment that is working as it should.
"Eurovision is a night when Europe comes together symbolically," Gluhovic says. "The performances have great symbolic value and they do perhaps contribute to changes in perceptions of understanding of certain countries." Fricker adds: "It is clearly a ritual that people from all across Europe come together to watch it, and I think that is a very positive unifying gesture."
At the same time, Eurovision can also stir up issues about national identity, Fricker says. "There will be competition and stereotypes whenever you put nations and competition into the same frame."
- Part 1: Scholars See Deeper Meaning in European Kitschfest
- Part 2: 'The Division Between West and East Has Persisted with Tenacity'