No One’s Neutral Come Eurovision Time

Nemo sings their way to Eurovision glory (YouTube).

The Eurovision Song Contest cannot be neutral. There is just one winner. That winner is chosen by combining the popular cellphone votes of millions of viewers with the tallies of the five-member juries in each country. There is just one contestant—whether a soloist or an entire band—from each nation that makes it into the finals. Viewers or juries are prevented from voting for the single contestant representing their own country since that would tip the scales in favor of the most populous nations.

The host country is that of the previous winner, though last year the event was held in Liverpool, England, since the 2022 laurels had gone to the Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine, still at war with Russia. Their folksy-techno number, “Stefania,” was a mash-up of traditional song and hip-hop, and could readily be heard, at least by this jaded Musical Patriot, as a performative enactment of Ukrainian reliance on American aid, musical and/or ballistic. The rocking rustics sang in their native tongue of leaving home, of broken roads, of strong storms, and of muzzles and bullets. These Artists of Allegory wouldn’t have been so obvious as to rap about shipments of Abrams tanks.

That year the professional Eurovision juries gave the Ukrainians low marks, but the overwhelming plebiscite vote swept the musical emissaries of the embattled nation to the winner’s podium. However, meager the musical merits of the Kalushes, the European populace was not neutral on Russian aggression.

The previous Ukrainian triumph had come in 2016, within two years of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The winning “1944” was performed by Jamala, a Crimean Tatar who sang both in English and in Tatar about the forced resettlement of her ancestors by Stalin during World War II. Objecting strenuously—and officially—to this this entry as a violation of the contest’s prohibition against political content, Russia’s own Eurovision voting also reflected that distemper. Perhaps surprisingly, both the Russian and Ukrainian acts (the former, a dystopian love song to an unnamed beloved, who might as well have been Putin) received massive popular support from Eurovision voters. But the jury counts shifted the winning balance to Ukraine.

More decisive was the Song Contest’s response—one that was, by inference at least, distrustful both of populism’s unpredictability and the panels’ professionalism—to the Russian invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24th, 2022. The next day, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs the contest and is based in Switzerland, banned Russian participation in the event.

The politics of (non-)neutrality continue to blur Eurovision. Sweden became a member of NATO just two months ago and they were this year’s host thanks to the 2023 victory of “Tattoo” as sung by Loreen, who became only the second two-time winner of the contest. Her performance, one that began with her sandwiched between two frigid, yet luminous walls exerting a stifling containment on her lithe form, admitted, as always, of diplomatic exegesis. Wedged between Russia and the West, this embodiment of the new Sweden clawed and crooned her way toward a new sound that would soon feature a beefed-up horn-and-howitzer section whose arrangements were made in Brussels.

But as the European Union’s own political travails have demonstrated, populism is not the answer to the world’s troubles, or the contest’s: heightened geo-political tension, ground and cyber wars, far right parties on the rise, and protests against Israel’s participation. In what looked to many like panic, the EBU went so far as to ban the waving of European Union flags at this year’s event.

Something was needed simultaneously to reassure and energize the masses—and to bolster the ratings.

It was time for the royals.

Last year’s official welcome was made by Kate Middleton from a grand piano in Windsor Castle playing along virtually with the cool kids of the Kalush. Last Saturday’s four-hour-long Eurovision broadcast of the 68th annual contest also began with a princess, her entrance fittingly announced by a Masterpiece Theatre-style trumpet tune boosted into the fray with martial timpani (this sonic pageantry composed not by Mouret but Charpentier—info provided here for the benefit of those fans tracking the billboard charts of the ancien régime on their Eurovision app).

After the high-culture fanfare, viewers rode on a carpet of shimmering synths into the Swedish Royal Palace. Once inside, we followed a handsome, immaculately manicured and coiffed woman proceeding down a long hallway past white marble statues and beneath glowing oil paintings of what one suspected were her regal forbears. She was filmed in slow motion, the cuffs of her salmon-colored Chanel slacks and cruciform pearl earrings dancing elegantly to the gently throbbing electro-echo of the soundtrack.

She brushed by a flower-stuff vase the size of a back-door barbecue, hushed past doors leading to spacious staterooms and galleries with views disappearing down the enfilade. Her steps silent on the checkered black-and-white stone floor, she pivoted with a deliberateness that suggested that she hadn’t yet emerged from slow motion, though she was now in real time—whatever that is. The caption now informed us who she was: “HRH CROWN PRINCESS Victoria of Sweden.” At last, she spoke: “Welcome … to … Sweden …… I hope you will all enjoy the show … and I wish all the competitors … good luck.”

From sumptuous rooms bathed in natural light streaming through the high windows of the palace, we were teleported into the mosh pit of the Malmö Arena and the brute realities of contemporary culture: partiers with inked skin and tinted hair brandished luminous dildos, but not EU Flags. The waving of the latter had been prohibited by the EBU. This lame and lambasted move spoke to a prevailing unease, not to say fear. However elusive, neutrality was still to be yearn for—in the air of song, and on the ground too.

And so, the winner had to come from that global symbol of neutrality, Switzerland. This Alpine nation’s posture accrues significant benefits as a banking haven for scofflaw corporations and oligarchs. Switzerland is also one of the top arms producers in the world, punching way above its weight relative to the small size of its population. This year, even with the world at war, the country’s armament revenues have plummeted by a quarter because of its ban on second-hand sales of its deadly products.

Switzerland is by any geographical definition in the heart of Europe, though not in the European Union or NATO. Hallowed Swiss traditions of neutrality can in many vital respects be seen as an exercise in semantics and public relations. For centuries Switzerland dispatched mercenaries to fight in European wars. The Swiss have long known that neutrality is a lucrative business.

The Swiss Guard at the Vatican is a quaint relic of that hallowed practice of profiting from conflict. Speaking of the Pope and his garrison: why, if Australia participates in Eurovision, isn’t the Vatican in the contest too? They’ve already got the costumes and charisma and theatrical flair. Funky Francis fronts a squad of break-dancing cardinals backed by a chorus of halberd-wielding, helmeted yodelers in stripy pajamas! This year plenty of Eurovisionaries on both sides of the binary gender equation wore dresses, and some non-binary performers did too. The celebs and celibs of the curia have been wearing dresses and gowns for centuries. Eurovision 2026 in Saint Peter’s Piazza!

Eurovision champ Nemo wore a pink skirt and boa-cum-cardigan, respectively one and two shades darker than Princess Victoria’s pantsuit. His song “The Code” was not a diaphanously veiled allusion to Swiss banking protocols, but rather a high-energy affirmation of non-binary identity. The opening lines offered a brave statement of their truth: “Welcome to the show, let everybody know / I’m done playin’ the game, I’ll break out of the chains.”

In an impressive display of balance and bravura, Nemo sang in the middle of the light-lashed stage from a large metallic disc set at a steep angle and spinning on its own axis. The singer’s performing position defied all orientations except that of pop’s pleasure surge. In the end, the disk flattened to the horizontal as an image of a solar eclipse and the sun’s corona shone in the darkness behind.

Nemo would not be eclipsed.

Directly after the big win, Nemo called for the Swiss government to reverse its recent rejection of calls to include a non-binary gender category on official forms. By Wednesday, Justice Minister Beat Jans, whose name has serious popstar potential, agreed to meet with the 24-year-old Eurovision star to discuss the matter.

The government asserts that the Swiss people overwhelmingly favor the male-female dichotomy—and not just on their official documents. Even as Nemo pushes for a new kind of neutrality within Switzerland, here’s betting that, in spite of unwavering pronouncements that the country will never join NATO, the welcome to Eurovision 2025 in Zurich by Swiss President Viola Amherd will include the biggest geopolitical surprise of the night.

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com