STOCKHOLM, May 11, (Agencies): Will it be a fierce musical duel between geopolitical foes Russia and Ukraine? Or is it at last France’s turn to melt hearts — albeit singing in English — at the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm on Saturday?
The familiar “Good evening Europe!” will once again bring former rivals and allies together in the annual celebration of weirdness, glamour and music, as Eurovision marks its 60th birthday.
After bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst won the 2014 edition, Swede Mans Zelmerlow brought the competition to Stockholm for the sixth time by winning last year, closing in on Ireland’s record of seven wins.
A cast of hopeful artists from 42 countries will be reduced to 26 by Thursday evening, after semifinals in which the only ones exempt are hosts Sweden and the contest’s biggest sponsors Germany, Spain, France, Italy and the UK.
Eurovision officially aims to be a song contest free of politics — but few believe that, and this year looks to be no exception.
Betting shops anticipate an arm-wrestling match between Russia and Ukraine, currently torn apart by the conflict that began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The duel could turn fierce as Ukraine’s contestant Susana Jamaladinova is set to perform her contentious song “1944”, which recounts Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars.
The 32-year-old jazz singer-songwriter known as Jamala was said to have been inspired by the memories of her great grandmother, who was deported from the peninsula with her five children in 1944 along with 240,000 other Tatars.
“When strangers are coming/They come to your house/They kill you all/And say/We’re not guilty/Not guilty,” the lyrics begin.
Russian officials and some politicians in Crimea have complained that the song was intended to denigrate Russia. But the Geneva-based organisers decided the song was not in breach of the competition’s rules against political speech.
“Musicians should express their feelings, their real feelings, not sing meaningless words like we hear all the time,” said the artist, defending the song in Stockholm.
But the Moscow-Kiev duel could yet have its spotlight stolen by another gamblers’ favourite, French-Israeli Amir Haddad, who will represent France with upbeat tune “J’ai cherche”.
The handsome 31-year-old dental surgeon is trying to charm other nations with an unusual trick in a French performance — singing partly in English.
Should he succeed, he would be the first French performer to win the contest in nearly 40 years.
Since its inception in Switzerland deep in the Cold War in 1956, Eurovision has tried to bring unity to quarrelling European nations.
At the same time, it has always been a reflection of nationalistic rivalries.
“Eurovision is the celebration of all (of) Europe”, intoned Hanna Stjarne, the chief executive of Sweden’s public broadcasting company SVT.
“Europe is going through a bad moment, it is divided, but thanks to Eurovision people can come together with a sparkle in their eye,” she told AFP.
For the first time in its history, the competition will be transmitted live in the US by Logo, a channel aimed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Eurovision has for decades been a hugely popular event in gay circles, to the extent that the only flags authorised in the venue during the broadcast are those of the UN member states, the European Union and the rainbow flag.
The flag rule became a source of controversy this year when Palestinians, Welsh, Basques and even the Nordic-Russian Sami realised their flags were on Eurovision’s black list, together with the flag of the Islamic State.
Eventually the European Broadcasting Union relaxed its rule by allowing “national, regional and local flags of participants, for example the Welsh and Sami ones.”
Native people of the Nordic countries and Russia, the Sami will be represented at the contest by Norwegian Agnete who wants to bring her ethnicity’s flag to the stage.
Up until now the competition’s winner has usually been clear long before the lengthy tally of points from different countries was over.
This year, to save some of the spice till the end, organisers decided to change the tally so that results from the national juries will be announced first, and the less predictable television viewers’ votes will be revealed last.
At Tuesday’s semifinal, the first of two leading up the grand final on Saturday, Armenian singer Iveta Mukuchyan waved the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist region that is officially part of Azerbaijan but currently under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces.
“I just want peace on our borders,” Mukuchyan said at a news conference after the show.
The European Broadcasting Union, the alliance of public service broadcasters that produces the show, said it would discuss the flag-waving with Armenia’s delegation.
“Given the ongoing tensions and instability in the region this may be perceived as a political gesture,” the group said in a statement.
In the run-up to this year’s contest, the EBU warned both performers and fans not to use flags as political tools.
The general rule is only the national flags of participating nations and other full members of the U.N. are allowed. Two non-national flags are exempt — the star-studded banner of the European Union and the rainbow-colored gay pride flag — as long as they are not displayed in a political way.
“It’s how you wave the flag and when you wave the flag and how many flags are waved at the same time,” EBU spokesman Dave Goodman said.
At last year’s event in Austria, the rainbow flag was waved with particular intensity during Russia’s act in an apparent statement against the country’s views on gay rights.
Eurovision officials were embarrassed when an internal document with examples of banned flags was published online by accident ahead of this year’s event. It included the Basque, Kosovar, Palestinian and other flags as well as the black banner of the Islamic State group.
Some fans took offense at their regions and territories being mentioned in the same context as militant extremists, and contest officials quickly apologized, saying they weren’t making any comparisons. “It was merely for guidance,” Goodman said.
The backlash didn’t stop, though.
Joe Woolford, one half of Britain’s entry Joe and Jake, is Welsh. Norway is represented by Agnete Johnsen, who has indigenous Sami roots. Their fans demanded the right to wave the Welsh and Sami flags to support them.
Last week the EBU agreed to relax the flag policy “to allow national, regional and local flags of the participants.” It also promised “a more tolerant approach to other flags as long as the audience respects the nonpolitical nature of the Eurovision Song Contest.”
The politics ban also applies to song lyrics, and this year Eurovision judges paid special attention to Ukraine’s entry.
In her song “1944,” Ukraine’s Susana Jamaladinova describes the hardship of Crimean Tatars, including her great-grandmother, as they were deported to central Asia by Soviet authorities in that year.
The gloomy subject matter stands out among the 42 contestants, most of whom explore lighter themes like love and desire, accompanied by techno beats, swirling dancers, pyrotechnics and hypnotic digital graphics.
Jamaladinova, who performs under the stage name Jamala, opens with the English lyrics “When strangers are coming, they come to your house, they kill you all and say ‘We’re not guilty’.”
The focus on Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, could be considered a swipe at Moscow, but Jamaladinova insists there’s no political subtext.
“For me personally, music is about feelings. Politics doesn’t have feelings,” she told The Associated Press.
Contest officials agreed, saying the lyrics allude to history rather than politics, and allowed the entry.
Songs that are deemed too political can be banned from the glitzy show. That happened in 2009, less than a year after Georgia and Russia fought a brief war, when Georgia’s entry “We Don’t Wanna Put In” was disallowed because it was seen as lampooning Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Last year Armenia could compete only after changing the title of its song from “Don’t Deny” to “Face the Shadow.” The judges found the former could be interpreted as a reference to the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915, which Turkey denies was genocide.
Sometimes the song contest becomes politically charged just because of where it is, like in 1969 when Austria boycotted it because host country Spain at the time was ruled by dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.
The winner is determined through votes in all participating countries, which some say gives it a political dimension because neighboring countries often give each other the highest points. Others say the point-trading isn’t due to politics but to similar tastes in music.
Christer Bjorkman, one of the producers of this year’s show, said Eurovision is all about joy.
“It’s all that matters,” he said. “That people get together and that we actually meet in friendship and leave everything else outside.”
Zoe Straub, a 19-year-old blonde who’s representing Austria with a song in French, said she just wants her music “to make people feel happy.” Politics, she told the AP, is not her thing.
“Because I am a dreamer,” Straub said. “And all I want is peace and happiness and everything.”