LONDON — We are living in the age of soft power. Planting a tree with a golden shovel, hosting a tournament where 22 men kick a ball around, wearing a feathered cape to a royal reception — these events are deconstructed, analyzed and imbued with significance.
This weekend, Europe celebrates the most glitter-encrusted of all the soft-power displays: the Eurovision Song Contest. The final takes place this Saturday in Lisbon, following two semifinals during the week. After last years politically weighted performances in Ukraine, the focus is expected to be more on the music.
But theres still plenty for the Brussels wags to discuss — from songs tackling big themes like the refugee crisis, #MeToo and terrorism to a controversy about an Estonian e-dress and the English languages spectacular retreat.
Most years are less political than the 2017 edition, when Russia withdrew because their singer, Julia Samoylova, had previously visited occupied Crimea. Shell compete this year instead. Ukraine were hosting after winning with “1944,” a song about Stalins enforced wartime deportation of Tatar people to barren Central Asia.
Frances song, “Mercy,” by Electro duet Madame Monsieur takes on the refugee crisis.
This time around, the contest has travelled to Lisbon thanks to Salvador Sobrals “Amar Pelos Dois,” a melancholy jazz waltz about getting over heartbreak, which means the pendulum is swinging back toward a contest that is all about the music.
“The Portuguese entries have been the most political entries in the history of Eurovision, from some of the songs that were critical of the dictatorship in the 60s and 70s to the song that was the signal for the Carnation Revolution,” explained the University of Viennas Dean Vuletic, author of “Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest.” “But its always been about internal Portuguese political issues — I find it quite ironic that the Portuguese edition of Eurovision should be so nonpolitical.”
Still, its not as if the contest exists in a vacuum: plenty of songs take on political themes. Israels song, “Toy,” sung by Netta Barzilai, is currently one of the favorites to win. It includes lyrics like “Wonder Woman dont you ever forget / Youre divine and hes about to regret” and “Im not your toy (Not your toy) / You stupid boy (Stupid boy),” vocal looping, and what sounds an awful lot like a chicken clucking.
“Its a song that expresses female strength, and Im super proud to sing it because I know how many women feel under pressure to be what society demands,” Barzilai told Tagesspiegel. According to Eurovision blog Wiwibloggs, the songs (male) writer Doron Medalie said in a recent interview on Israeli radio that the song has a strong connection to the #MeToo movement. More concrete is the Portuguese broadcasters choice to have an all-female line-up of presenters this year.
Frances song, “Mercy,” by Electro duet Madame Monsieur, takes on the refugee crisis. It tells the story of Mercy, a baby born in March 2017 on board Aquarius, a humanitarian ship operated by NGO SOS Méditerranée. The video features people standing at European landmarks wearing life jackets and emergency foil blankets. Plenty of other countries also have messages to get across.
Jean-Karl Lucas and Emilie Satt, the two members of French Electro duet “Madame Monsieur” | Francisco Leong/AFP via Getty Images
“The Italian one is about wars and terrorism, but you can also see these themes in the Danish entry, the Icelandic, the Swiss, which all take an anti-war stance,” said Vuletic. “The Danish song is also about resolving conflicts peacefully, its inspired by a Viking legend, the legend of chieftain Magnus Erlendsson.” You dont get to learn about the 12th-century Earl of Orkney watching “X Factor.”
Theres a bit of controversy in Ireland, too. And its not — as it might have been 30 years ago — about the gay couple dancing through Temple Bar in the video. Its about the use of a songwriting factory to create “Together,” sung by Ryan OShaughnessy over the course of two Eurovision songwriting camps.
A total of 43 nations are part of this years contest, matching the record set in 2008 and 2011. Of these, 26 feature in the final: host Portugal, the “big five” nations who make the largest financial contributions to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), and 20 qualifiers from the semifinals. Bookmakers have Cyprus, Israel and Ireland as the three most likely to win, though favorites rarely go the distance.
Belgium was also riding high with the bookies — but didnt make it out of the semifinals. In true Belgian style, the country alternates between the French and Flemish language broadcasters sending an entry each year. This year, VRT, the Flemish national public broadcaster, sent Sennek, with “A Matter of Time.” She has worked on projects including the 50th anniversary celebrations of the James Bond franchise, “007 In Concert,” and it showed in the songs big, sexy chord sequences. But they werent enough to make the final.
Other political points you might want to make at a viewing party full of diplomats: Just as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán repeatedly raises hackles in Brussels with his policies, Hungary is going against the grain by sending in this years only metal entry. AWS, who describe themselves as “a modern metal band with attitude,” will perform “Viszlát nyár,” inspired by the death of the singers father with lyrics that depict — in Hungarian — the struggle and thoughts of a dying man.
Meanwhile, Estonia got embroiled in a row about a dress. No, not sexy milkmaids a la Poland 2014 — this is e-Estonia, land of the blockchain land registry and virtual e-residency. Elina Nayachevas performance involves an on-brand, tech-enabled dress covered in projections, lighting displays and lasers.
Elina Nechayeva, the Estonia entrant at Eurovison 2018 | Francisco Leong/AFP via Getty Images
However, getting it to Lisbon and running the electronics cost a cool €65,000. The Eurovision team appealed to the government for funding, but were rebuffed: in the end a consortium of private companies came up with the cash. Not that its to everyones taste: “Big dress, looks like shes vomiting over it,” concluded Andrew Latto, a British civil servant who also creates an impressively in-depth Eurovision guide for his colleagues, and other enthusiasts, every year.
A final point of interest in the Brussels beltway. As the debate continues about the role of English as a language in the post-Brexit EU institutions, this year has a bumper crop of songs in languages other than the global lingua franca. Last years winner was sung in Portuguese, showing it can be done. This year, there were 13 songs not in English, compared to just four last year, according to Vuletic. Could it be a sign of the French language-dominated Continent some would like to see?
This article has been updated.
Frances Robinson is a freelance journalist based in London.