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Politics Creep Into Eurovision Despite Efforts To Keep It Camp

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Ukraine's Jamala reacts upon winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm. Critics say her song about the deportation of Crimean Tatars in the 1940s should not have been allowed compete in this year's contest as it was too overtly political, which is against competition rules.

Ukraine's Jamala reacts upon winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm. Critics say her song about the deportation of Crimean Tatars in the 1940s should not have been allowed compete in this year's contest as it was too overtly political, which is against competition rules.

Was it historical, political, or personal? Ukraine's victory in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest has invited questions and controversy like never before.

Performer Jamala says her song, 1944, is a tribute to her great-grandmother, who was deported along with around 240,000 other Crimean Tatars by Soviet leader Josef Stalin during World War II.

Russians, however, were inclined to see the song as a thinly veiled swipe at Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and subsequent treatment of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula, and wanted it banned from the competition.

Organizers concluded that Jamala's song dealt with a historical event and was therefore not political.

It's not the first time that Eurovision, which draws a global TV audience of over 200 million, has struggled to keep its performers in tune.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the alliance of public-service broadcasters that produces the show, explicitly forbids songs with a political message. It has tended to reward lighter, more upbeat fare, a recipe that has won the contest a cult following among the public, if not necessarily the critics.

Still, performers in the past have tried -- blatantly or subtly -- to get political messages across in their songs.

And the record suggests that the EBU has scrutinized some songs more than others.

Crossing The Line

For example, in 2009, a year after Russia and Georgia fought a brief war over the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Tbilisi's entry was rejected as overtly political.

The EBU ruled that We Don't Wanna Put In, by Stephane and 3G, with its conspicuous pun on Russian leader Vladimir Putin's name and lyrics asserting that "the negative move is killing the groove," crossed the line.

WATCH: We Don't Wanna Put In (Stephane and 3G)

In that case, the EBU gave the Georgians two options: either change the lyrics or enter a different song. The Georgians protested the decision, but ultimately withdrew from that year's competition, a decision that pleased Russia, where there had been small demonstrations against the song.

In 2015, the EBU scrutinized Armenia's entry by the group Genealogy. This time, judges decided the text of the song was acceptable but the title, Don't Deny, was not. They said the phrase could be interpreted as a reference to the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks, a tragedy that Turkey denies was genocide. The song was eventually green-lighted, but only after its title was changed to Face The Shadow.

The official video to the song also raised alarm bells, with some alleging that its visuals alluded to the killings -- in particular a scene showing the group posing for a family photo in World War I-era clothing before vanishing.

WATCH: Face The Shadow (Genealogy)

It's not only the states of the former Soviet Union that have courted controversy at Eurovision.

In 2008, Spain's entry by Rodolfo Chikilicuatre made specific references to Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela, and Spain's King Juan Carlos. The song, Baila El Chiki Chiki, also included the line, "Why don't you shut up?" ("Por que no te callas?"), something the Spanish king had demanded Chavez do at an Ibero-American summit in 2007. The EBU judged the entry to be blatantly political and said it would reject the song if the political references weren't dropped. Eventually, they were.

In 2010, Portugal's Homens Da Luta (Men Who Struggle) dropped out after EBU judges deemed its entry, whose lyrics included "submissive people will always be cheated," to be more of a political protest song than a lighthearted ditty.

A year later, in 2011, the same band toned down its alleged political message and got an OK by the EBU judges for its new entry, Luta E Alegria (Struggle And Joy).

Surprise And Dismay

Many Eurovision followers expressed surprise if not dismay over this year's Eurovision outcome.

John Kennedy O'Connor, a U.S.-based commentator on entertainment and a Eurovision expert, expressed regret that Jamala's performance had won.

"I'm disappointed that a dirge about genocide and delivering a pointed slap in Russia's face has won this year."

Alasdair Rendall, president of the Eurovision fan club OGAE UK, said immediate reaction to Jamala's victory was "mixed."

"Many people admired her strong voice and the impressive visuals on show. However many are already saying it won due to the strong political message it carried rather than its musical quality."

Some questioned how Jalala's song was different from Armenia's 2015 entry.

In response to such queries, the EBU had taken the unusual step of using Twitter in March to explain that 1944 did not "contain political speech" and therefore did not break any of the contest's rules.

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