Eurovision: Pop, Politics, Dancing Ape – But No Russia

Sprinkle the sequins, spark up the disco lights and get ready for battle — it’s time for the Eurovision Song Contest , a celebration of kitsch and cheesy pop with an undercurrent of politics and patriotism. More than a singing contest, it’s diplomacy in dancing shoes.

This week musical acts from more than 40 countries are taking the stage in Kyiv to vie for the Eurovision crown, watched by some 200 million television viewers. The 62nd annual contest has clean-cut crooners, electro beats, yodeling Romanians and even a dancing gorilla. But there is also a big absence: Russia, whose participation has been scuttled by the country’s diplomatic and military conflict with neighbor Ukraine.


Russia is one of Eurovision’s heavy hitters, tied with Sweden for the most top-five finishes this century. But this year’s Russian entrant, Yuliya Samoylova, was blocked by host Ukraine because she had toured in Crimea after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula.


In response, Russia’s state-owned Channel 1 television is refusing to broadcast the contest, replacing Saturday’s final with a screening of the film “Alien.”


Russia has been angry since last year, when Ukrainian singer Jamala won the contest with “1944.” The song described the deportations of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but also hinted at their recent treatment under Russian President Vladimir Putin.


As the 2016 winner, Ukraine is this year’s Eurovision host.


John Kennedy O’Connor, author of Eurovision’s official history, said Ukraine has long used Eurovision as a way to annoy Russia.


“Last time the contest was in Kyiv it was a song about the Orange Revolution and it was allowed to compete,” he said. “Ukraine has been needling away for a long time and now the contest is going to be in a real crisis.”


The Moscow-Kyiv split is a headache for Eurovision’s producer, the European Broadcasting Union, which strives mightily to keep pop and politics separate. Overtly political flags and banners are banned, and lyrics are monitored for provocative content. In 2009 the EBU nixed the Georgian entry “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” a dig at Putin. The union has been criticized for not barring “1944” last year, allowing Russia-Ukraine tensions to fester.


The acrimony is ironic, since Eurovision was founded in 1956 to bring the recently warring countries of Europe together. It launched a year before the foundation of the European Economic Community, forerunner of the European Union.


“Eurovision, like the EEC, was born out of this passionate belief that we mustn’t have another war in Europe,” said Chris West, author of “Eurovision!” — a history of the contest and the continent. “Both institutions were driven by this sense of ‘never again.'”


From its launch with seven countries, Eurovision has grown to include more than 40, including non-European nations such as Israel and — somewhat controversially — far-off Australia.


The contest helped launch the careers of Sweden’s ABBA — victors in 1974 with “Waterloo” — Canada’s Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988, and Irish high-steppers Riverdance, the half-time entertainment in 1994.


Eurovision has a huge gay following and has become a symbol of optimistic liberalism — this year’s motto is “celebrate diversity.” Victories by transgender Israeli singer Dana International in 1998 and bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst in 2014 were hailed by liberals and condemned by conservatives — notably in Russia, where nationalist politicians cited the contest as evidence of Western degeneracy.


Onstage, many Eurovision-watchers expect this year to bring resurgence for western Europe after years of eastern and Nordic dominance. The bookies’ favorites are Portuguese balladeer Salvador Sobral with the syrupy “Amar Pelos Dois” (”Love For Both of Us”) and Italy’s Francesco Gabbani , who is accompanied by a dancer in a gorilla suit on “Occidentali’s Karma,” (”Westerner’s Karma”), a cheekily sardonic look at human evolution.


O’Connor says the Italian song has the qualities of a Eurovision classic.


“It’s so out there and it’s so outrageous and it’s so silly,” he said. “But it’s also very, very catchy.”


One country not expecting a first-place finish is Britain. The U.K. has not won since 1997, and many Britons suspect politics lies behind the country’s poor showing. Winners are decided by the votes of viewers and national juries, and regional alliances are often evident. Greece and Cyprus routinely give each other maximum points, as do the Nordic and Baltic states.


Britain is seen as having few allies, and some worry the country’s decision to leave the EU may further harm the chances of U.K. contestant Lucie Jones , performing the ballad “Never Give Up On You.”


West says the truth is simpler: Recent British entries just haven’t been very good.


“Bloc voting won’t make a rubbish song win,” he said. “I think a song’s got to be decent in order to win.


“It’ll be helped by bloc voting, and that is a problem for Britain because we don’t really have a bloc. But I think if Adele or Ed Sheeran entered the competition they could still win it.”

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