The Eurovision Song Contest Just Keeps Getting Better

by Chris Borgen

Last month, I wrote a post about the upcoming Eurovision song competition and European politics. I wanted to point out that the competition will be hosted by (and televised from) Moscow and that the Georgian entry was going to sing a disco song that teases Vladimir Putin called, ahem, “We Don’t Wanna Put In.” See it performed here.  

Anyway, in the final paragraph I asked who “would have expected Georgians finding a way to make fun of Putin on a TV show being broadcast from Moscow?”  I had spoken too soon.

The Contest’s Reference Group ruled that the Georgians had to change the lyrics because the existing lyrics broke the contest rules by being political. The rule in question states:

4.9 The lyrics and/or performance of the songs shall not bring the Shows or the Eurovision Song Contest as such into disrepute. No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the Eurovision Song Contest. No swearing or other unacceptable language shall be allowed in the lyrics or in the performances of the songs. No commercial messages of any kind shall be allowed. A breach of this rule may result in disqualification.

While this ruling came from a board that includes representatives from more than one state, I’ll leave it to you to decide whether anyone would have called Georgia on this if Russia had not been upset.

Anyway, Georgia refused to change the lyric and chose to withdraw instead. The Telegraph reports:

 “There really is nothing negative about this song,” lead singer Stephane said. “In any democratic country it would be taken as a harmless joke.”

In a letter sent to the EBU, the producers of the song said that they had their suspicions that the decision to ask Georgia to revise its entry came about as a result of pressure from Russia, where this year’s contest is to be held.

 In case you are interested, MSNBC reports that the chorus of the song is

“We don’t wanna put in,
Cuz negative move,
It’s killin’ the groove,
I’m gonna try to shoot in,
Some disco tonight,
Boogie with you.”

Regardless as to whether you think this song is “political” (or even just “sensical”) or not, did Russia really need to go to the mats on this (assuming that they pushed the issue)? As my previous post had mentioned, there are some interesting synergies between politics and the Eurovision song competition, and it seems that those linkages are especially pronounced for Russians.  A reporter for the BBC wrote that:

Russia’s main TV evening news ran a report the other day in which it praised the staging of the final as sign that “after decades of isolation, our country is finally returning to Europe and reclaiming the status of a superpower in politics and culture, including popular music, that rightfully belongs to it“.

[Emphasis added.]

Wow. Russia a pop music superpower? Really? That is a particularly tough claim to make since the Russian entrant in this year’s Eurovision song competition is actually Ukrainian. (Here’s her performance.) Wait… it gets better. The music was actually written by… a Georgian. And the lyric? Half was written by an Estonian. The BBC provides the context:

In the last 12 months, Russia has had a gas war with Ukraine, and a real war with Georgia. Two years ago, it had a bitter row with Estonia when that country moved a Soviet-era war memorial.

It would be hard to pick three former Soviet republics that have worse relations with their one-time masters in Moscow.

Maybe we should chalk this up to Russia wanting to kiss and make-up (well, besides possibly throwing the Georgian entry under the bus). Maybe not. The BBC continues:

The producer of one of the rival acts in the contest to represent Russia has exploded in patriotic outrage.

“Let’s get Ukrainian footballers to represent the Russian national team at the European football championships – Dynamo Kiev, for example, and a coach from Georgia,” Iosif Prigozhin told Ekho Moskvy radio. “It is all a bluff. It is all a farce.”

Some of the Moscow rush hour crowds seemed to agree.

“It’s not right that Russia will be represented with a song in the Ukrainian language. It’s just not right,” said Anna.

“Yes, it’s no good – after all, the Russian language is mighty and much nicer than Ukrainian,” agreed her friend.

Some may see in Russia’s multilingual, multinational effort an attempt to recreate a communist-era idea of “friendship of the peoples”.

Others sense a sophisticated scheme to draw the sting from any organised anti-Russian voting.

OK, who else smiled when the guy on the street said “the Russian language is mighty and much nicer than Ukrainian.” Yeah, dude, you tell ’em!

So, what have we learned?  Institutional membership, such as who gets to sit on the Eurovision Contest Board (or even institutions that receive less attention, such as the UN Security Council) can provide structural power. Eurodisco and punnery do not innoculate a song from being “political,” but they can be used to make your opponents seem like they have no sense of humor and are taking a song competition way, way, too seriously. We’ve also learned that Russia believes it has returned to its pop music superpowerdom. (See, that soft power stuff is pretty important after all. Take that, realists.) And it seems that Russian sounds much nicer than Ukrainian. Which, seriously, I never knew.

For me, the Eurovision Song Contest is like a gift that just keeps on giving.

5 Responses

  1. This is so, so much fun!

  2. Professor Borgen,

    I hope that one day you will become objective in your posts concerning Russia, start approaching critically what the current Georgian and Ukranian governments do and stop seeing Russia as the “bad guy.”

    Let me explain why I think you are biased. Let us talk about the Georgian Eurovision entry first. You offer no evidence for your contention that, in your words, Russia went “into the mats on this.” The Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union (“EBU”) rejected, according its rules, a song that insults a leader of a country, what is wrong with that?  You offer nothing to challenge to the EBU’s integrity and independence. Do you seriously think that Europeans are not concerned with insults to leaders of foreign countries?

    You may have fun with the lyrics of the Georgian entry, but recent events in Georgia, such as numerous protests of the opposition (e.g.,, indicate that the choices of the Georgian rule do not necessarily represent the will of the Georgians to whom you are imputing this “disco” insult. Georgian singer Diana Gurtskaya, who represented Georgia at Eurovision 2008, declined to pass the baton to “Stephane and 3G” (the band that was hoping to perform the song in Moscow). Gurtskaya said, “I spoke to the former parliament speaker of Georgia Nino Burdzhanadze who told me that it is not in the traditions of our country to insult the host during the visit.” Really, in the past thousand of years, Georgians, like poet Shota Rustaveli or film director Giorgi Danelia, shared with the world the ideas of humanity and understanding… Let us just say, this song is not representative of Georgia’s talent and true artistic potential.
    Insults (whether clever or not so much) rarely help to build peace, and peace is what ordinary people in the region–Georgians, Ossetians, Russians, or Ingush–want. Insults are the opposite of the “soft power,” so there is nothing amusing about this insult for refugees in the zone of conflict who only dream to return to their homes and to see again their neighbors and long-time friends back in the zone of conflict (as contrasted to, perhaps, someone who is reading news about Georgia in a morning paper while sitting at home in a cozy chair and drinking coffee). This “disco” move (including the singer’s gesturing where she imitates a gun brought to her head) may be good PR for both “Stephane and 3G” and the current government in Georgia, but this move only hurts people in the region, for example, about half a million Georgians who work in Russia and remit to Georgia in aggregate at least 140 million euros annually.
    Now, let’s discuss the Russian entry. So Russians picked a Ukranian to represent Russia. One may say it only shows that Russia is a country where people, regardless of their ethnicity, have a fighting chance to prove their talent. Perhaps this shows that people of Russia (Russian, Tatar, Chuvash, Ukranian, Burat, or of any other ethnicity in this country uniting 11 time zones) judge performers on the basis of merit and reject ethnic tribal instincts. But no! You do not see it this way. You use it as another opportunity to poke fun at Russia, its people, and even its language. Russia picked a Ukranian – haha! Russia has no talent. European integration for Russia—what a joke! You seriously entertain the nonsense about which language sounds better.  What is next? Which race looks prettier?
    So here you go – did you know that Latvia has chosen to perform its 2009 Eurovision song in Russian? (And this is after years of discrimination against ethnic Russians in the Baltic Republics.) See: What do you make out of this? Hint: Europe has rejected a wholesale bailout of Eastern Europe, while Russia has already spent billions helping its neighbors such as Belarus, Armenia and others. Maybe a conciliatory gesture seeking to improve relations with a neighbor is a sensible thing to do?

    In sum, your bias against Russia, Russian people, and Russian language is inappropriate and inconsistent with what law should promote, namely, tolerance and objectivity.

  3. Reader:

    You make some interesting points but overall, I think you take my post much too seriously and overstate what I am actually saying…
    In particular, you seem to think I note the multinational aspect of Russia’ entry to argue that Russia has no talent. No, of course not.  Rather, I found the multinational aspect somewhat ironic (a) in light of the rather nationalistic veneer that this year’s Eurovision competion has taken on and (b) that the nationalities involved were those of countries that have been on the business-end of Russian power projection over the past couple of years.

    Moreover, regarding the Russian entry, you wrote that “it only shows that Russia is a country where people, regardless of their ethnicity, have a fighting chance to prove their talent.” This implies that she is an ethnic Ukrainian but a Russian citizen (and that I had a problem with an ethnic Ukrainian representiung Russia).   Once again, you have taken the wrong implication: my point was not that she was an ethnic Ukrainian representing Russia but that, as far as I understand from reports, she is a Ukrainian citizen, who was disqualified on a time technicality in the Ukrainian competition, and was brought into the Russian competition (possibly to peel votes away from Ukraine).  My point was not about ethnicity but about citizenship in light of the nationalistic rhetoric. (In any case, the issue of her citizenship seems to be the least of her problems right now.)

    If comedy is found in the distance between our pretentions and our reality, then you might see there is some humor in the distance between choosing to make loud proclamations of Russian pop music supremacy and at the same time having a Russian entrant who isn’t even Russian. That is not me implying that there is no Russian talent–that’s me saying that this competition is being laden with political overtones that are self-contradictory.
    And it seems that other Eurovision competitors, members of the European media, and at least some Russians on the street find all of this a bit strange as well.

    Moreover, if you are correct in your implication that a substantial group of Georgians–perhaps the majority–did not want “I Don’t Wanna Put In” to be their entry, then you are actually agreeing with my main point: that a song competititon, of all things, is very politicized and reflects various issues that have nothing to do with music. (Note, also, the various media reports, such as those to which I have linked above, that claim there was similar anger in Russia by the Russian citizenry over the choice of the contestant representing Russia.)

    Which brings us to what my point about soft power actually was: not (as you misunderstood) that Georgia was using it effectively with their entry, but rather that Russia was trying to. That has nothing to do with whether Russia actually asked for the Georgian entry to change its lyrics (wheter or not that happened is uknown) but rather that it is claiming some type of cultural power based on its role in the competition.

    And, for the record, I never made fun of the Russian language… although I did make fun of a guy telling a reporter that one language is much nicer and mightier than another. Because, yeah, I do think someone choosing to say that is kinda funny.

    As for the more serious points you make, such as comparing Russian aid to its near abroad versus EU assistance to its eastern neighbors and the ongoing conflicts over South Ossetia and Abkhazia: as far as I’m concerned, those are issues for other posts (ones that were actually meant to be taken seriously).

    These are issues I have already written about at length and they are topics to which I will return on other days.  I look forward to discussing those more topics with you at that time.

  4. Professor Borgen,

    We agree on many issues, but I would like to clarify two points.

    First, with regards to the distinction between ethnicity and nationality in the former USSR space.  Generally, as the ICJ Nottebohm case explains, nationality under international law is not established by a mere formal grant of citizenship.  “Nationality is a legal bond having as its basis a social fact of attachment, a genuine connection of existence, interests and sentiments, together with the existence of reciprocal rights and duties.” Nottebohm Case (Liech. v. Guat.), 1955 I.C.J. 4, 23 (Apr. 6).  Here, Russia’s entrant, Ms. Prihodko, was born in the USSR.  Russia is a legal successor of the USSR, and thus, under international law, Ms. Prihodko has a significant nexus with Russia.  After the collapse of the USSR, Ms. Prihodko had to get a Ukrainian passport (in order to continue to reside in the Ukraine), but she travels to Russia, she chose to represent Russia in an international competition and sing a song “Mamo” (“mother”) in Russian and Ukrainian.  So at a minimum, Ms. Prihodko’s Ukrainian travel papers, under international law, do not preclude her from claiming allegiance to Russia.

    More importantly, Russia and Ukraine (and other former USSR republics) are joined at the hip, and, for historic, cultural and other reasons at this time it is almost impossible to distinguish Russian and Ukrainian “citizens,” many of whom are technically dual citizens anyway.  (This is a point that a lot of Western commentators, who live in countries which have maintained the same borders for many decades, cannot wrap their heads around.) 

    Russia does have “cultural power” in the region as Russia has brought very different nations together.  The middle-age generation of people living in the former USSR republics, whatever their current citizenship, grew up watching cartoons in Russian and speaking Russian, and this is what can unite a Georgian, Estonian, and a Ukrainian in a joint project like “Mamo.”  And this is a beautiful thing!  It is ironic that when foreign ministers of Ukraine and Georgia (both at this time vehemently deny their interest in being friends with Russia) were recently giving a press conference, but could not find the appropriate interpreters, they gave their press conference in, what else, Russian (and not English). 

    So if a woman with Ukrainian papers can artistically express what people in Russia would like to express at the Eurovision competition, and they chose her by both professional and popular vote, that only proves Russia’s cosmopolitan view. 
    This brings me to my second point regarding the claim of the Russians’ “nationalistic rhetoric.”  Ok, BBC reports that some people (like the sore-loser-contestants and their producers who lost their bids) said some things that are now dubbed as an expression of “anger by Russian citizenry” because a Ukrainian citizen represents Russia.  But what should have more weight–the grumbling by losing contestants or the fact that the Russians judged Ms. Prihodko by her professional qualities and not her travel papers?
    Now, why do the Russians constantly talk about reclaiming their status (which Westerners find “strange”)? This should be viewed in context.  In the 1990s, Russia was a basket-case and a world beggar.  Last year, Russia won Miss World, Eurovision, and the UEFA Cup (a European soccer competition), excelled in the Olympics, got an Oscar nomination, and so on.  The West may not have invited the Russians to the WTO, but the Russians are genuinely happy to see that their country is back in the international arena in other ways.  It is not about supremacy, it is about saying – we are not on our knees anymore, please respect our pride or, in words of a U.S. song, “R-e-s-p-e-c-t / find out what it means to me!” 

    Ok, may be the Russians’ assertion of their role in the region sometimes, from the point of view of Western culture, comes off awkward, and the West perceives it as “nationalistic rhetoric.”  But look, the Russians are serious about it because they are simply trying really hard.  And because this is a “Russia’s thing” other Europeans may not care about it and not understand what’s really the big deal.  The Russians seek validation, and we can choose to dismiss or laugh at it.  Or, we can try to be kind, listen and understand.  I think the latter would be more productive.

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