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Eurovision: A Melting-Pot Contest, Where Native Doesn't Always Mean Best

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By Kristin Deasy

This year's Eurovision Song Contest, the finale of which was held in Moscow on May 16, saw a number of nations turning away from native artists in favor of foreign-born stars with broader appeal.

Finalists at the 54th edition included a Ukrainian competing for Russia, a Dane for Iceland, a Palestinian for Israel, a Belarusian for Norway, two Americans for Germany, and an Iranian superstar headlining for Azerbaijan.

Critics say the "Euro" in Eurovision is already a stretch, given participants like Turkey and Israel, who fall outside what is traditionally considered European boundaries.

But others say countries keen on joining the European Union or NATO tend to see Eurovision as one small way to boost their legitimacy as a "European" country. With 42 countries having entered this year, it could be only a matter of years before the contest reaches the maximum Eurovision cutoff of 45 nations.

Some welcome a larger Eurovision. Still others want to bag the "Euro" aspect altogether and take the competition global.

One Eurovision performer who would favor such a change is Arash Labaf.

The Iranian-Swedish performer, who was singing with Azeri artist AySel for the Azerbaijani entry, told RFE/RL that his "biggest dream" was to sing for Iran -- which is currently ineligible for the Eurovision contest.

Arash's Persian-inspired pop songs -- performed in a number of different languages -- are top hits the world over. But the May 16 final was to mark his first performance in English, as he sings "Always" with AySel.

Azerbaijani sponsors reportedly paid handsomely to have Arash bring his star power to the Azerbaijani ticket. But Arash told RFE/RL that his performance was as much for Iran as it was for Azerbaijan.

"In this competition, you don't have to be from your original country. So I'm Iranian and everyone knows I'm Iranian, but Iran is very close to [Azerbaijan]," Arash said.

"But to be honest, my greatest wish is to be the representative of Iran. Pity that I’m not able to do it for the time being. I am just trying for myself to represent my own country, as I love Iran," he continued. "I am actually no one, but I hope I can continue to keep Iran on the top.”

Belarusian-born Alexander Rybak was another Eurovision favorite this year. His song "Fairytale," which he was to sing as Norway's entry, led many of the Eurovision spot polls. (Rybak was the eventual winner.)

Rybak was born in Minsk and spent some of his early years in Belarus. In an interview released by Norway's NRK media group, Rybak described how he got his start from his parents, both professional musicians.

"They gave me a pencil, which I had to practice with. I didn’t know what it meant and suddenly, the pencil was exchanged by a bow," Rybak said. "So I started playing violin without even noticing."

For other artists, such as Anastasia Prikhodko, things were less of a fairy tale.

Prikhodko was unsuccessful in her bid to represent her native Ukraine at Eurovision. She even sent Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko a letter of protest after she lost, complaining about the decision.

But then Prikhodko moved on to become Russia's Eurovision entry, traveling to Moscow and wowing audiences with her song "Mama."

But Russian patriots, while proud of Moscow's first-ever role as Eurovision host, were crying foul over their country's entry -- a song composed by a Georgian, with lyrics written by an Estonian, and performed half in Russian, half in Ukrainian by a 22-year-old born in Kyiv.

Russian pop star Aleksandr Panayotov, who holds a Ukranian passport, tried a similar tactic, trying out for both the Ukrainian and Russian competitions. He came in second in the Ukrainian contest, but was disqualified from the Russian side -- for not being "patriotic enough," he told "Time" magazine.

AySel (left) and Arash of Azerbaijan perform during a Eurovision dress rehearsal.
Prikhodko proved a difficult choice for Russia both inside and outside the country, especially after video recently resurfaced showing her making racist comments about Chinese and blacks during a 2007 televised music competition. Prikhodko apologized when the video first appeared, but its reappearance, together with tabloid accusations of family connections to neo-Nazis, did not help.

Eurovision was founded in the mid-1950s by a coalition of European broadcasters who wanted to use television and culture to bring European nations together after two world wars. A song contest, it was thought, would help. After all, countries can play nice for at least one music-loving week, right?


"It's the biggest musical event of the year," Panayotov told "Time." "Of course it's politicized."

In 1974, the Portuguese entry triggered a revolution back home, and more recently Ukraine was asked to water down the lyrics of its 2005 Orange Revolution anthem. Azerbaijani officials this year complained that the video accompanying the Armenian entry featured scenes from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, to which both Yerevan and Baku lay claim.

This year's Georgian entry, "We Don't Wanna Put In," was disqualified for its political content, judged a thinly veiled criticism of Russia's invasion of Georgia last summer. Defenders say the piece was simply misinterpreted by an overly sensitive Moscow.

As with Georgia, Eurovision politics can reflect real geopolitical tensions. But they can also be distant from realities on the ground.

Countries from the famously divided former Yugoslavia, for example, always manage to unite behind fellow contestants from the region.

In fact, some nations have learned to cooperate a little too well.

In what is known as "bloc voting," neighboring nations team up to vote for one another. As blocs have solidified in recent years, results have become predictable in the extreme.

The predicament prompted BBC’s Eurovision correspondent of 35 years, Terry Wogan, to step down last year, saying, "Those who care will have had it up to here with the blatant political voting."

Russia's 2008 win was widely attributed to bloc voting on the part of Eastern Europe.

So this year, the winner was to be decided by a newly established jury of music industry specialists and, of course, millions of fans voting by phone or by SMS.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Belarusian Service contributed to this report

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