On Eurovision 2024

May 14, 2024 23:23

The Eurovision Song Contest is a regular fixture on the European arts and cultural scene – indeed, I’d go a step further and posit that it is an event that would catch the attention of those who are not particularly well-versed or intrigued in entertainment and music.

Some would attribute its cross-sectional appeal to the overwhelming inundation and fanfare of info-commercials. Others would cite the enduring historical legacy and reputation of the show as something that purportedly transcends political and ideological divides. Still, for many, Eurovision presents the rare opportunity to bond across serious divergences in personal opinions, beliefs, and attitudes.

I have once seen a Brexiteer and a diehard center-left Blairite share a pint over their shared love for ABBA (who won the contest in 1974 and have sold over 385 million records). I suppose, I had a dream – though the dream was not set in Waterloo. ABBA reference.

In any case, Eurovision 2024 found itself marred by controversy – indeed, perhaps with the most ignominy and heated vitriol -- in recent years. And such contentiousness is understandable – after all, the contest is taking place in a world rocked by civil wars and strife, and an ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It is understandable, if not downright justifiable, that many amongst the prospective audience would feel incredibly uneasy about cheering on and jubilantly celebrating the acts’ successes, whilst the body count continues to pile up in conflicts from Gaza to Sudan, from Myanmar to Haiti. How could we feign that nothing is going on – when everything is going on all at once?

A backstage altercation between a participant and a production staff member culminated in the Netherlands representative getting the boot between the second semi-final and the final. Whilst the country retained the right to vote, the sheer embarrassment and frustration felt by the entourage and supporters act, speak to the voluminous weight and pressure under which acts are placed under. For some, the Eurovision is the platform to shine as individual acts. For many others, it is a primary venue for one to discharge one’s purported duty and responsibilities towards one state, as a through and through beneficiary of parochial nationalism.

Then there’s the looming geopolitical backdrop, with the inclusion of Israel met with consternation and opprobrium. Some have argued that there can be no place for what they take to be an unjust and wanton perpetrator of crimes – not even a place for a performer who has little to do with the events unfolding on the ground. Others are concerned about the spillover implications of potential altercations involving the Israeli delegation. Still, many more have subscribed to the all-too-tantalising fixation of the zeitgeist: the yearning for absolute moral puritanism, the craving for ‘clean hands’, and the drawing of stringent yet arbitrary lines to ‘keep out’ those who deemed to belong to the Other.

Whilst music had previously been used to shatter walls, facilitate dialogue, and broker uneasy ceasefires, the growing politicisation and state capture of music as a tool of soft power projection has contributed towards a precipitously sterile ethos worldwide, where conversations never held have shaped decisions not to be taken. Individuals are told that they must listen to and support, or boycott and trash, particular songs in accordance with the political beliefs and ethnic identities of their composers and performers, as opposed to the lyrics, the music, and the actual performances.

Tragically, music is no longer the healing force as it used to be. Something has changed – whether that be the compression of our attention span and the priming of us to be short-term gratifiers (thereby by no means the best audience for classical music); or the growing sense and resigned acceptance that musicians and artists must serve as merely vehicles of political and ideological tussles. The real tragedy is that as antagonism continually swells and rises between great powers, it is people like the musicians, artists, and creatives who must suffer the most.

This was why I found the winning entry, “The Code” by Nemo (Switzerland), so refreshing. Musically, it transcends categorical divides and defies labels that seek to pigeonhole it into a particular genre. Lyrically, it soars effortlessly – “I broke the code//whoa-oh-oh//Like ammonites//I just gave it some time//Now I found paradise.” – in depicting the struggles and turmoil of those who refuse to give into the gender binary, who see value in defying undue and arbitrary sexual boundaries. And the live performance was truly breathtaking – from the inexorable energy on display to the intricate dance moves, from the aura and persona donned to the exceptional vocal acrobatics (in a good sense) performed by Nemo, the singer.

A truly world-class act that most definitely deserved the victory. May Nemo’s aspiration to challenge and problematicise the stifling, staid Code, serve as an exemplar and inspiration to millions across the world struggling with accepting and articulating their own identities.

Welcome to the show – let everybody know!

Assistant Professor, HKU