Eurovision 2012: From the outside looking in

This weekend marks the end of yet another Eurovision Song Contest. My last post had to do with my initial reaction from the show, but with this one I would like to look at the event more critically.  As an American living in Europe, this event is incredibly interesting both for its humor, spectacle and the politics involved. 

Azerbaijan is south of Georgia, east of both Turkey and Armenia on the Caspian Sea, west of all the major ‘Stans that you probably don’t remember the names of.

Americans are internationally notoriously famous for not really knowing much about world politics or geography, and understanding Eurovision isn’t really any different. I personally had to look up where exactly Azerbaijan was located on a map. I also didn’t know how to spell it (see my last post), now having typed the name of the nation at least a dozen times I don’t think I will make that error again. For those of you that don’t know, Azerbaizan isn’t technically in Europe, which as an outsider confuses the hell out of me, but which I will explain.

The Eurovision Song Contest, originally known as the “Eurovision Grand Prix” began in 1956 and is the longest running television program in the world, consisting of participating countries of the European Broadcasting Union. The Associated Press reports that the program is viewed by about 125 million people worldwide. The AP also says it’s “hailed by its legion of devoted fans as harmless, kitschy fun that allows Europeans to forget their differences and economic troubles for at least one night.”  Created as ‘light’ entertainment in the aftermath of World War II, attempting to link participating countries long before satellite television and reality  TV. “Eligibility to participate is not determined by geographic inclusion within the continent of Europe, despite the “Euro” in “Eurovision” — nor does it have any relation to the European Union […] Most of the expense of the contest is covered by commercial sponsors and contributions from the other participating nations. The contest is considered to be a unique opportunity for promoting the host country as a tourist destination (wikipedia).” What makes Eurovision entertaining with both participating countries and those elsewhere (read: the USA) is that with only a few exceptions (ABBA in 1974 and Celine Dion in 1988 mainly) most winners as well as participates fade into black (obscurity), not necessarily to be heard from among member states again.

Map showing debuts in the Contest by decade:
red – 1950s
brown – 1960s
purple – 1970s
yellow – 1980s
green – 1990s
black – 2000s
blue – 2010s

Well, I have learned that some countries have an automatic ‘in’ because regardless they help fund the contest, which the Guardian recently called  “the cheesy ballad equivalent of a permanent seat on the UN security council (Panorama, , 24.05.12). These countries mainly include Great Britain and Germany but a few others as well. This year especially, Azerbaijan was deep in controversy even before it won the 2011 song contest. If nothing else, Eurovision offers an opportunity for the hosting country to showcase itself as a beautiful tourist destination full of democratic and progressive harmony.

This most recent Eurovision posed an interesting international dilemma, being that Azerbaijan is a young country, seeming to fall under the presidential dictatorship of Ilham Aliyev who has positioned his family into positions of power which support his regime (Panorama  Season 60, Episode 19 – 21.05.12). The country is 95% Muslim, but seemingly somewhat more religiously relaxed than its more extreme eastern or southern neighbors. It also appreciates vast wealth from crude oil reserves, something that at least in America is overlooked by the general public thanks to Azerbaizan’s louder neighbors in the Middle East. Reporters without Boarders cites Azerbaijan as 147 out of 179 nations listed in their “Press Freedom List“. The group stated in a press release that “in Azerbaijan, where special emphasis was put on surveillance of social networks and where netizens were jailed just for issuing online calls for demonstrations. Violence is back in a big way there, with threats, beatings, and abduction of opposition journalists and, for the first time in five years, an Azerbaijani journalist murdered (RWB – Europe).” The group Human Rights Watch  claims that the young nation is violating human rights at every turn, not allowing people to protest or to speak out against injustices perpetrated by their own government:

“The government cracked down on all forms of public protest, at times violently, and imprisoned activists on politically-motivated charges. The atmosphere for journalists is hostile, and government officials continue to initiate criminal and civil libel cases against journalists. The government tightened restrictions on religious groups, and banned women from wearing head scarves in schools and universities, leading thousands to drop out. Torture and ill-treatment in police custody continue with impunity. The Baku mayor’s office has forcibly evicted thousands of residents and demolished their homes, including in a neighborhood next to the National Flag Square, where the anticipated venue for the May 2012 Eurovision Song Contest is being built (HRW).

 Furthermore,  according to “Updated News International (Canada) “:

Human Rights Watch last month urged the contest’s organizers and other nations to put pressure on Azerbaijan’s government to prevent “violence against journalists, social media activists, and human rights defenders; refrain from using politically-motivated criminal charges against journalists and others; release people imprisoned on politically-motivated charges; and allow peaceful assemblies.”

Rights group Amnesty International says 12 people are currently in prison in Azerbaijan because of their connection to anti-government protests held last year. Eleven of the prisoners began a hunger strike on 15 May which they intend to maintain until the end of the Eurovision Song Contest, Amnesty said. (26.05.2012)

Apparently, Germany’s Foreign Ministery’s latest situation report on Azerbaijan, and uncovered by SPIEGEL (and reprinted by tert.am) states, “The confidential report describes a country whose state organs have apparently ‘abused arrested individuals in police custody’ in the past.” Azerbaizan is Germany’s seventh largest crude oil importer. David Herszenhorn, with the Brisbane Times wrote recently that western nations haven’t been much help and will likely continue not to be.: “Ms Yunus and other critics say they have received little official support from Western governments, in large part because the US and Israel view Azerbaijan and the Aliyev administration as a crucial ally in their standoff with Iran and its nuclear program, and also as a supporter of American operations in Afghanistan (Herszenhorn, 25.05.12).”

Add to this the longstanding conflict between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. Who warred against each other from 1918 – 1921 and 1988 – 1994 apparently over their border region, Nagorno Karabakh, who the president claims will never be independent. The two countries are also technically still at war over this issue. With regard to Eurovision, conflict came to a head in 2009, when Azerbaijan television failed to air the Armenian portion of the contest, resulting in many sympathy votes for Amenia by Azerbaijanis and subsequent investigations of those who voted in favor of Armenia by Azerbaijani police and government officials. This issue goes much deeper than I will present here, not because it is not worthy of further investigation, but because most Americans probably do not know about it. The bottom line however, is that Eurovision, in all its non-political harmonizing of participating nations, is exactly the opposite. Armenian music from past participants wasn’t played at this year’s Euro-Club, nor was the nation represented on maps on display around the city, of the region and its neighbors – Armenia was conveniently left off the map.

However, in an attempt to appear modern, Time reported that the government ordered hundreds of “London-style taxis, painted them with the Eurovision logo and its slogan ‘Light your fire!’ for its capital city.” Whose drivers frequently placed shower caps and bubble-wrap inside the vehicle in order to protect the taxis from wear. “The city also provided complimentary bus tours for the 1,600 journalists in town to cover Eurovision.”

In Europe at least, specific nations are notorious for favoring or shunning specific countries, making it more about politics than singing. Cyprus and Greece  as well as Montenegro and Serbia are just two examples of nations showing political solidarity, while Germany’s utter lack of votes for Greece and vice versa showcase a political shunning founded in the European Debt Crisis fiasco.  Even Great Britain, this year seemed to have few friends, utilizing a seasoned professional crooner as their representative, Engelbert Humperdinck, who was only saved from last place by Norway receiving votes from Estonia (5), Ireland (4), Latvia (2) and Belgium (1). All in spite of the fact that Great Britain props up the contest year after year with a flood of financing. In fact, if our viewing party were able to cast deciding votes based purely on the song delivered, Spain and Italy should have been of the top choices. Both of those nations entries, we could imagine, on the radio long after this years Eurovision song contest has faded into history. However, most of the singers and bands chosen, even this year’s winner will fade into cultural history, making way for next years spectacle.

In spite of the numerous video postcards from the country in between each of the 42 singing acts, which showcase Azerbaijan as a beautiful modern oasis with ancient culture side-by-side with modernity, the whole spectacle seemed highly staged and manufactured. Never mind that after an hour in, my friends and I began recognizing the same shots of the same scenes and were visually growing tired. Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, located on the Caspian sea,  is the largest city in the country, home to roughly two million inhabitants. Also, according to Lonely Planet, the city is a magnet for urban night life in the region, ranking eighth out of ten international locations.

Since the 1990s, when it started taking off as a hub for Caspian Sea oil and gas, Baku has been transformed and this newfound economic stimulation hasn’t failed to influence urban nightlife. The cash injection from energy projects, enhanced by the presence of thousands of international oil workers and wealthy consultants, has turned Baku into an oasis of excess in an otherwise fairly traditional Muslim country (Reuters, 13.09.2009).

While watching the program, with all its cheesy, glitzy pomp. As an American not really understanding the whole hoola-baloo, it is easy to laugh at the main hosts, two beautiful women and the male vocalist of the duo that won the previous year. The man, Eldar Gasimov, looked like an overly excited puppet every time he spoke. I began to wonder if his generally expressionless face was the fault of too-much botox or something else entirely. Then there were the two female hosts: Leyla, a television presenter and musician and Nargiz, a lawyer. Wait, what?!  As they were presented onstage, Nargiz was not presented as anything else and my first thought was why is a lawyer presenting here? It is Eurovision and stranger things have happened, but this is only my third year of watching the program, so as I said, it’s easy to laugh at even the little things. Eurovision seems like a very European thing to do. Every time poor Nargiz spoke, she sounded so very flat, unexcited, tone-deaf and unaware of the concept of pacing, in other words possibly unpracticed and incredibly nervous.

The opening ceremony (sorry for the poor quality):

Then there were the performances, which clearly some countries take very seriously and others clearly take the piss! My husband is now convinced that Russia invented sarcasm. While I am left wondering if countries like Ireland and Greece collectively purposely voted on their acts in order to not win, in any way shape or form.

The awesome Russian Grannies:

Jedward representing Ireland: How could you take this seriously, and prove to me that they are not singing to each other:

After all the performances it was time for the various 43 nations to call in with their scores. Each country ranks all the entries and assigns twelve points to their favorite, ten points to their second favorite, and eight down to one point to their third to tenth favorites. Countries are not allowed to vote for themselves. This is perhaps where the show actually became interesting because there seems to be a lot of political positioning by various countries in spite of the fact that it isn’t technically allowed. When Greece and other nations voted for Cyprus, no one clapped or  cheered and I think it had much to do with the program beginning in Azerbaijan at 1 a.m.

Additionally, throughout this section of the show, many representatives made very political comments directed often at Azerbaijan. For example:

Graham Norton, BBC Commentator for Eurovision 2012, “Under a dictator, what are the chances that this is from the man with the most popular television show AND he happens to be married to the dictators’ daughter”.  Later, the Lithuanian representative said, “Good evening Azerbaijan. Love is blind, but we love you anyway.” While the German representative stated, “It’s good to have a vote and it’s good to have a choice, good luck Azerbaijan on your way to democracy!” And finally, the representative from Hungary added, “Let’s see what we can do when we follow the sounds of our hearts.” All of these comments add up to quiet protests against the hosting nation. Will they do anything for the overall condition of those being oppressed or attacked in the country? Likely not. Apparently however, these comments were not otherwise censored on Azerbaijan national television.

Actually, in the aftermath of the contest and Sweden’s win, people speculate that the reason Sweden’s Loreen won has more to do with her political posturing than her singing (or her dancing, for that matter). Later, at a press conference when asked about her odd dancing, which Time reporter, William Lee Adams called more “women in a straight jacket” than anything else, Loreen stated, “The dance represents freedom, and not to have any rules,” she said at a press conference after her landslide victory. Perhaps she was speaking in a veiled way about the right of the people of Azerbaijan  to have freedom too.

As Reuter‘s reported on 25th, May, 2012, the singer met with  the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Human Rights Defenders, the organization of Sweden and the House of Human Rights:

Loreen met with activists who accuse the government of Eurovision host Azerbaijan of human rights violations, some of which are related to the building of the arena where the song contest final will be held on Saturday night.

“Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day. One should not be silent about such things,” Azeri opposition newspaper Azadliq quoted Loreen as saying after her meeting.

So, in the weeks leading up to this weekend’s Eurovision, Europe at least and the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union as well as their voting bodies are keenly aware of the deep controversy surrounding this years host, even if Americans don’t. While adding a few quips of criticism might not make too much of an impact against the controversy, it does prove at least to this American that Eurovision is from only being about cheesy pop numbers with nations struggling to speak English, or giving up entirely, speaking and singing only in their native tongues.

The closest thing I can liken Eurovision event to the absolute bizarre oddity that is the run up to the presidential primary election in the United States, especially this years. With a seemingly endless supply of nutters posturing for America’s attention to be the representative politician running against the incumbent. Who each state votes for depends on the politics of that specific state and their standing relationship with this candidate, or the incumbent and their policies. It too looks a lot like reality tv gone off the deep end with spectators left with their mouth agape shunned into silence by both the verbal and social ‘dancing’ of these ‘stars’. The difference being that Eurovision is annual whereas Americans only pick who will represent the two political parties once every three years and then their president, every four. Believe me, if this political process is America’s version of Eurovision, I can safely say that I am not alone in appreciating the fact that it ISN’T an annual event.

2 thoughts on “Eurovision 2012: From the outside looking in

  1. When Eurovision comes each year I always look at the live twitter comments.

    I didn’t think many Americans would enjoy Eurovision but it’s nice to see a few are.

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