Skip to main content

Europe's version of 'American Idol' a joke

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 9:03 PM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
Greece's Eleftheria Eleftheriou at dress rehearsal of the Grand Final of the Eurovision 2012 song contest in Azerbaijan on Friday.
Greece's Eleftheria Eleftheriou at dress rehearsal of the Grand Final of the Eurovision 2012 song contest in Azerbaijan on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Eurovision is campy, unserious and this year has taken on more controversy
  • He says host Azerbaijan has squelched pro-democracy protests, made bad PR
  • He says Azerbaijan not even in Europe, contest marred by politics, skews to Eastern bloc
  • Stanley: Contest also reflects polarization of Europe

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- Normally, its viewers don't associate "Eurovision" with global politics. The annual singing show is a camp retread of the cultural wasteland of the 1970s -- all crashing ballads, gaudy europop and singing penguins. Britain has signaled its contempt for the contest by sending 76-year-old Engelbert Humperdinck as its representative, a man once regarded as a stud but who now looks eerily like one of those Mexican mummies. The crooner was born two decades before Eurovision even started, and it's touch and go whether he'll survive the weekend.

However, this year the contest, which holds its finals Saturday, has taken on an unexpected degree of controversy. It is being held in the oil-rich tyranny of Azerbaijan, and while contestants were warming up their acts this week, pro-democracy demonstrators were getting beaten in the streets of Baku. The annual singing contest draws an audience of 125 million across Europe, so the dictatorial regime of Ilham Aliyev had hoped to use it as an opportunity to sell his country to the world. Instead it has been a public relations disaster.

Explainer: What is Eurovision?

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Arguably, the outrages in Azerbaijan have exposed a hidden dimension of Eurovision. It is and always has been a very political event. That's more obvious this year than most because the politics of Europe are so blatantly and unavoidably polarized.

The most obvious problem is one of definition. What on Earth, you might ask, is a central Asian country like Azerbaijan doing in a contest called Eurovision? Nothing about contemporary Azerbaijan marks it out as distinctly European -- it's Islamic, undemocratic and many, many miles away from the continent.

It's in the contest by an accident of history: Azerbaijan used to be part of the Soviet Union. Its leaders desperately wish to claim some European identity because they want to participate in capital and labor markets -- something that should, theoretically, encourage democracy. But Ilham Aliyev also wants to retain the integrity of a classic Asian despotism. As the European Union engages farther eastward, through Turkey, it has to deal with nations and cultures like these that don't precisely fit its Western, liberal template.

There are plenty of divides within continental Europe itself. Voting has always been political. Britain's 1997 victory was widely interpreted as a "thumbs up" for having elected the popular liberal leader, Tony Blair; its defeat in 2003 was punishment for the Iraq War. Likewise, Eurovision has traditionally operated a buddy system. Nordic countries often vote for each other and Cyprus typically favors Greece. In a way, that's a good thing, because it means that no matter how awful an entry is, someone is duty bound to vote for it. Britain has been bailed out by faithful little Malta several times.

But the end of the Cold War dramatically enhanced the role of politics and favoritism in voting. For many of the new, Eastern participants -- particularly in the war-torn Balkans -- Eurovision became an extension of diplomacy, used to cement alliances with Russia or make amends with former enemies. Songs about regional reconciliation were touching when they debuted in the early 1990s. But now they elicit groans from West European voters because they are interpreted as a plea for geographic solidarity.

The results support the contention that this has become an Eastern group hug. From 2001 to 2011, seven out of 11 winners have been Eastern, with a strong preference for the former Soviet bloc (the pattern is just as pronounced in the junior contest).

Such is the frustration of Western countries that many of them have opted to send novelty acts. Sometimes that accidentally works (Finland's Hard Rock Hallelujah was surely a joke, yet it came in first in 2006), but it often means the folks back home end up humiliated. Britain's longstanding Eurovision presenter, Terry Wogan, quit the show in disgust after the UK's entrant, who was black, received only 14 points in 2008. Blaming the result on East European racial prejudice, Wogan observed that a contest invented in the 1950s to forge a sense of unity in the Cold War era has actually become a symbol of how polarized the new Europe is.

And how poor, too. Spain's entrant, Pastora Soler, has admitted that it would be better if she didn't win on Saturday because she wasn't sure that her country could afford to host the contest. Struggling with soaring debt and unemployment, this former economic miracle is now a pauper state. Directors from Spain's broadcaster, TVE, sent a message to Soler that read, "Please, don't win!" Never has a sadder truth been spoken in jest.

Eurovision was probably at its most hopeful and exciting in the early 1990s, when Europe was emerging from the nightmare of the Cold War and it had fantasies of a prosperous, democratic, unified future. But Azerbaijan in 2012 offers a very different vision. Modern Europe is struggling to integrate countries that have little cultural affinity for it, it is divided by regional loyalties and it is still a long, long way from recovering from the Credit Crunch.

The European dream has ended; the fat lady stopped singing years ago.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT