- Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest by Dean Vuletic
Return again, color of the sky, The fragrance I knew in my twenties.—Lys Assia, "Refrain," winning song, 1956 Eurovision Song Contest
The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC)—its symbols, its competitive practices, its media networks, and, above all, its songs—has long worn history on its sleeve. With the very first winning song in 1956, Lys Assia's entry for Switzerland, the narrative impossibility of beginning with a refrain gave the ESC its historical significance that it retains to this day. Over the sixty-three years of televised musical entertainment, Eurovision historiography grows from the contributions of multiple constituencies, from fan clubs to popular music scholars to academics identifying with Eurovision studies. From Cold War beginnings through conflicts between east and west, north and south, the struggles for European unification and most recently European disintegration, Eurovision history has formed a counterpoint between two registers: first, the larger forces of European political history; second, the ESC as a chorus that responds to, even shapes, the history of postwar Europe. Just how these two registers fitted in consonant or dissonant counterpoint has proved difficult to sort out; that is, until Dean Vuletic's fascinating new history of a missing middle register: the many institutions that constitute the enduring framework of the ESC. [End Page 178]
The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.—ABBA, "Waterloo," winning song for Sweden, 1974 ESC
Histories of the ESC are not in themselves new, but even the substantial body of existing documentation has not stopped Vuletic from attempting a new approach to history, and doing so very successfully. Vuletic is himself a historian, for a number of years the leader of a project on the ESC at the historical institute of the University of Vienna, and he amasses evidence in the book in order to fill the space between the prevailing two registers of Eurovision historiography. The book unfolds as a series of chapters that together represent the expansion of the ESC from the early years of the Cold War through nationalist struggles in the European Union to the present. His focus falls on critical moments, and then he illustrates the responses from exemplary singers, national committees, telecommunication networks, and continent-wide cultural organizations. In Vuletic's narrative those responses are overwhelmingly positive, with agency afforded especially to singers and national endeavors that seek ways to promote the positive role of a Europe cohering around common values, whether about oppressed peoples, the tolerance of cultural and sexual difference, or the conflicts between diversity and sovereignty. It would be difficult not to conclude upon reading this book that the Eurovision Song Contest has been a positive force in shaping postwar Europe.
Where is your mind? Humanity cries. You think you are gods. But everyone dies.—Jamala, "1944," winning song for Ukraine, 2016 ESC
One of the most important contributions of Vuletic's history is the way he takes the first part of its title seriously. The political and musical counterpoint of "Postwar Europe" also contains contributions from Eastern Europe, which are here the subject of chapter 3, "A Contest for Communism" (89–122). Just as the ESC emerged in 1956 as a Western European response to the Cold War, especially after Soviet military repression in Czechoslovakia and Hungary later in the same year, so too would the telecommunications network of the Soviet Bloc establish its popular song competition, the Intervision Song Contest. Their similarities and differences notwithstanding, the Intervision Song Contest and the Eurovision Song Contest mirrored each other in certain ways, at least according to Vuletic's account. He argues for what amounted to a popular music détente, in which "communist governments in Eastern Europe were not as hostile toward the ESC as simplistic assessments of an antagonistic, binary Cold War would assume" (122). Be that as it may, such mutual accommodation has not carried over to the ESC in the New Cold War, which, at least since the Ukrainian ESC victories in 2004...