We were promised a naked man surrounded by wolves, but the winning performance from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest came from an unexpected place.
It turns out that Eurovision – very sanely – doesn’t allow animals on stage, so Belarus’ Ivan settled for a hologram. Meanwhile the visual effects worked in Russia’s favour, as Sergey Lazarev climbed around some sort of magical iceberg. Tipped as the favourite early on and taking out third place, the act recalled last year’s winning performance by Sweden’s Måns Zelmerlöw.
Among the highlights was Latvia’s cute-as-hell Justs performing a song by last year’s answer to FKA Twigs, Aminata, while Croatia’s Nina Kraljić took out best costume with a cape/dress/shroud a la Aliens’ Ripley in the workloader made of taffeta.
Dami Im represented Australia in our first legitimate appearance in the finals, giving one of the strongest vocal performances in the competition. At 511 points, Im placed second to Ukraine by a mere 23 points. It was also pretty special for Australian viewers to have our racial diversity represented on screen. (We have a good record of this at Eurovision, with Guy Sebastian of Malaysian descent performing as a wildcard in 2015 and Indigenous Australian Jessica Mauboy as a guest in 2014.)
An ASIAN person represented AUSTRALIA on a global scale does anyone understand how big a deal this is because I can't stop screaming.
— Michelle Law (@ms_michellelaw) May 14, 2016
The 2016 broadcast must be commended for its innovative scoring process that royally fucked shit up by throwing out any ability to predict the winner.
Australia emerged from the round of jury votes as the clear favourite – a full 100 points clear of Ukraine’s Jamala. The nation was gripped by the sudden realisation that we might actually win. Have we created a monster? Have we flown too close to the sun? Would we destroy the competition forever with our non-European southern hemisphere time zone? (We wouldn’t – if we did win we would co-host with a European nation.)
On the SBS commentary, Julia Zemiro very sagely warned Australia not to get excited about an early lead and, sure enough, all hell broke loose as public televotes were added to the jury scores. Announced lowest to highest, each country received a progressively higher number of points. It came down to Australia, Ukraine and Russia, impossible to know how many votes remained.
It was a curious combination: Australia, the outsider tolerated for our inexplicable exuberance and undeniable talent (and the sweet cash we paid last year), beleaguered Ukraine and the international villain Russia currently occupying its land.
It’s easy to dislike Russia and at Eurovision – AKA Gay Christmas – they are often criticised (and relentlessly booed) in public commentary for notorious homophobic policies. This year Russian immigration officials tore up Israeli Hovi Star’s passport on a trip to promote the song contest. And remember all that shit Russian MPs said about Conchita? Those guys are the worst.
It's like Risk plus identity politics with bad pop songs.
— The Real Jeff Jarvis (@mattcornell) May 23, 2015
While it can be frustrating for queer folk when Russia wins votes, a vote for Dami Im could similarly be said to support an Australia that continually breaches human rights conventions with our asylum seeker policies.
While restrictive, Eurovision can’t be blamed for attempting to keep politics out of it – all nations have seen atrocities committed in their name, some more recent than others.
At this year’s first semi-final, Armenia was threatened with disqualification after singer Iveta Mukuchyan waved the banned flag of separatist state Nagorno-Karabakh (pictured below, centre) on camera from her green room. Officially part of Azerbaijan, the region is controlled by ethnic Armenians and border skirmishes are a regular occurrence despite a ceasefire declared in 1994.
Eurovision only permits flags of competing nations (as well as the flag of the European Union and the rainbow flag symbolising gay pride). This means that flags of contested regions such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Palestine, Crimea, Kosovo, Northern Cyprus and Transnistria, among others, are not permitted.
Nevertheless, Ukraine’s Jamala circumvented the no-politics rule with her winning song 1944, which Eurovision deemed historical rather than political – despite Russia’s protests.
Written in honour of her grandmother who died, 1944 refers to the deportation of the Crimean Tartars by Joseph Stalin towards the end of World War II. Considered a form of ethnic cleansing and genocide, an estimated 100,000 deportees died of starvation and disease.
While the song is considered historical, it can also be read as a protest of the ongoing occupation of Crimea, unlawfully annexed by Russia following the 2014 Ukrainian revolution in Kiev.
Winning Eurovision is a pretty big deal for Ukraine – a country still far from joining the European Union – especially since Putin has been gunning hard for the title for some time. Some Ukrainian fans are already calling for next year’s song contest to be held in Crimea.
ТАК!!! Неймовірний виступ та перемога! Вся Україна сердечно дякує тобі, Джамало! pic.twitter.com/hpwYQ8m7NN
— Петро Порошенко (@poroshenko) May 14, 2016
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweets, “Yes! An unbelievable performance and victory. All of Ukraine gives you its heartfelt thanks, Jamala.”
Despite this conflict, however, the Russian and Ukrainian public voted for each other, granting the other 10 and 12 points respectively. And with Russia entering the competition as the bookies’ favourite and finishing up third, it seems Eurovision’s emphasis to focus on the song, not the country, is for the most part, heeded.
But it’s impossible to keep Eurovision entirely free of politics, and it’s what often adds depth to this weird, joyous spectacle. While the competition continues to evolve in unexpected ways (Australia as legitimate competitors; Justin Timberlake’s performance at the final), the spirit of the thing remains the same: camping it up and belting out a banger.
— Eurovision (@Eurovision) May 14, 2016
Jessica Alice is a writer, editor, broadcaster and speaker from Melbourne. She is the Poetry Editor of Scum. Twitter: @jessica_alice_