An EBU conference in Stockholm has explored the wider social and cultural impact of the Eurovision Song Contest ahead of the 2016 event.
“The Eurovision Song Contest and the Changing Europe”, hosted together with Sveriges Television, explored how the 60-year-old event contributes to European unity and belonging at a time when the idea and ideals of Europe are being challenged more than ever.
Following a similar successful event in London to mark the Contest's 60th anniversary in 2015, academics, journalists, delegation members and fans spent a morning at the Stockholm School of Economics discussing topics such as how the Eurovision Song Contest impacts the host city and country and how does the picture of Europe presented at Eurovision reflect migration and ethnic diversity in Europe?
Opening the conference, Jon Ola Sand, Executive Supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest, told delegates:
“This event united Europe like no other. At Eurovision you bring a cultural statement to the stage. You represent your country and everyone has an equal opportunity to perform a cultural statement to Europe.”
Conference organiser and moderator Dr Karen Fricker from Brock University Ontario added: “The Eurovision Song Contest has the capacity to reach across borders, across politics. The aspiration to overcome differences has been a key part of the Contest and is more relevant now than ever.”
The first panel saw Klaus Unterberger, Head of Research at Austrian Member ORF and Marco Schreuder, former MP and communications manager for Conchita Wurst discussing how her win in 2014 affected Austria and in particular the host city of Vienna in 2015.
“Conchita did change something,” said Unterberger. “There is a long term effect of changing understanding. Her win was a symbol of inclusion and social cohesion that can’t be ignored. The Europe of Brussels, the Europe of crisis is not the only face of Europe – at Eurovision we see the Europe of cultural diversity.”
Schreuder agreed: “Eurovision is where you see the diversity of Europe – the victory for Conchita was a statement of that when the political right is rising in Europe. Eurovision is more important than it’s ever been.”
Also on the panel were Prof. Andreas Önnerfors from the University of Gothenburg and Prof. Peter Rehberg from the University of Texas at Austin attending courtesy of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
Rehberg highlighted that the Eurovision Song Contest represents a utopian space and a vision of Europe.
“You never meet Europe,” he said. “Every community is imagined. This is why Eurovision is important – it gives us one of the few representations of Europe. Eurovision is a projection – a lot of people project their own image of their country.”
He continued: “It’s not just entertainment; it creates a community and raises the question for whom is it important to belong? Eurovision offers a platform for states to become part of Europe and fosters a sense of belonging for ethnic social groups and sexual minorities.”
Önnerfors’ discussed his sadness that when Malmö hosted in 2013 the city “gave its best to show its openness and welcome – there were 80,000 guest nights in Malmö and 30,000 in Copenhagen. But now we have the border to Denmark sealed. You have to show ID twice.”
“The motto for that year’s competition was We Are One – but we are one anymore. We are two travelling from Denmark to Sweden. The success of Malmö was not just the on stage feeling but off stage bringing all the players together. It was the right space to bring people together.”
The second panel looked specifically at diversity and belonging in the modern Eurovision Song Contest.
Director General of 2016 host broadcaster SVT Hanna Stjärne, told the 65 attendees: “There aren’t many European scenes these days – we have politics and sport but with culture there aren’t that many places where we can meet to explore diversity in countries and between countries.”
Stjärne said the 2016 Contest will reflect the current refugee situation in Europe – exploring parts of the issue that aren’t always seen.
“The Eurovision Song Contest holds up a mirror to Europe and we should discuss these issues. This is a human moment right know – its affecting people around Europe and should be visible at the Contest.”
“Eurovision is helping people feel more connected,” she added. “No matter if you are from a big or small country – it creates friendship. Having artists from every country performing is an example of diversity.”
Prof. Dean Vuletic from the University of Vienna pointed out that representations of diversity at the Eurovision Song Contest are nothing new.
“Back in the 1950s when the Contest began we had different names for diversity. We spoke of cosmopolitanism.”
“Even then,” he continued, "we had artists and conductors with diverse backgrounds. The first Greek singer in Eurovision performed for Austria – he was symbol of the migration from Southern Europe that was to become greater in the decades to come.”
Vuletic however lamented the lack of language diversity at Eurovision today. In 2016, 36 of the 42 entries are entirely in English.
Fellow panellist Olof Lavesson, Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs in the Swedish Parliament and spokesperson on LGBTQ issues for the Moderate Party disagreed: “Now people can understand what artists are singing about – (singing in English) actually opens up cultures in a single language we can all understand.”
Lavesson mentioned that the Song Contest even unites at political level.
“Parliamentarians at the Council of Europe have tense discussions about politics - but then stand together to discuss Eurovision!”
The Song Contest projects the values we all share – human rights, freedom of media, freedom of speech – the rights of women and children etc.”
Further discussions on the wider impact of the Eurovision Song Contest will be held by SVT on Thursday 12 May in Swedish.