With Russia banned and Ukraine poised to win, the Eurovision Song Contest is having an unusual year

TURIN It’s a year like no other for the Eurovision Song Contest.

The world’s biggest music event, famed for bringing Europe together, is happening during the biggest threat to unity on the European continent since the Second World War: the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Eurovision’s going global: an American edition of the contest launched earlier this year and Canada’s getting its own version soon.

In Eurovision, original songs representing different European countries battle it out to be named the best pop song of the year.

Seven countries competed when the contest was founded in 1956, a number that has ballooned as many Eastern European nations joined following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Originally a one-night event, the sing-off now includes two semifinals and a final. Votes are cast nation by nation, split between 50 per cent public and 50 per cent music industry experts.

There were supposed to be 41 entries in this year’s contest, but organizer the European Broadcasting Union announced on Feb. 25 that Russia would not be allowed to participate because “the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s contest would bring the competition into disrepute” given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The union insists that Eurovision is apolitical, something that’s often hard to square with a contest that feeds on historic rivalries between nations and recently featured acts that reference hot-button issues such as #MeToo and gender and racial inclusion.

Martin Österdahl, executive supervisor for the song contest, told the Star the broadcasting union’s position on Russia is about values rather than politics.

“There are some really clear values at the heart of the Eurovision Song Contest and they are not political,” he said. “They’re about unity, they’re about diversity, they’re ultimately about human values, which are universal … in politics, you’re taking a stand either to the one side or the other and with these values you don’t.”

Asked about the appropriateness of staging a major entertainment event in the context of war, Österdahl said the contest is a chance to “put that aside for three nights” and to foreground European co-operation: “I think that’s what makes the contest uniquely powerful,” he said.

The war in Ukraine is also reflected in the contest’s results: the Ukrainian group Kalush Orchestra is the odds-on favourite to win Saturday night’s final with its song “Stefania,” which mixes rap and folkloric sounds.

Written as a tribute to the mother of one of the group’s members, the song has come to be understood as an ode to Ukraine as a mother country. The band members were exempted from mandatory military service in Ukraine to participate in the contest. At Tuesday night’s semifinal, Kalush Orchestra received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd in the PalaOlimpico arena.

Winning Eurovision is no guarantee of international musical success: only two winning acts have gone on to global fame: Sweden’s ABBA, which won in 1974 with “Waterloo,” and Quebec’s Céline Dion, who launched her international career when she won for Switzerland in 1988 with “Ne partez pas sans moi” (performers do not have to be nationals of the country they sing for). Last year’s victors, the Italian glam-rock band Måneskin, have done unusually well out of their win: they performed on the American Music Awards and had a top 20 hit in the U.S. with the song “Beggin’.”

The winning country usually hosts the contest the following year — it’s Måneskin’s win that brought Eurovision to this northern Italian city — and this raises questions about what might happen if Ukraine wins: does a country at war have the capacity to host a major pop culture event? The broadcast union is taking a wait-and-see approach, and there is precedent for another country hosting if the winning nation is unable to take it on.

Part of the contest’s fame — perhaps notoriety — rests on the wacky nature of some of its entries. This year is no exception: Norway’s Subwoolfer — a duo wearing bright yellow wolf masks and black business suits — qualified Tuesday with “Give That Wolf a Banana,” a silly, catchy fairy-tale riff; and the tiny nation of San Marino is riding the glam rock wave with “Stripper” performed by the singer Achille Lauro, who at one point straddles a bright red mechanical bull.

Newer participants dominated the contest in the early 2000s — winners included Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine — but old Europe has found its Eurovision mojo again in recent years, as exemplified by Italy’s win last year. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this year’s contest is the U.K.: clawing back from a dismal few decades of last-place rankings, its entry this year, solo vocalist Sam Ryder with the rock ballad “Space Man,” is in second place in the bookies’ charts to win.

Under Österdahl’s leadership, the contest is in expansion mode. “One of the things that attracted me to Eurovision from the beginning was its incredible untapped potential,” said the Swede, who produced two Eurovision contests in his home country before taking over overall leadership in 2020.

“We’re working a lot with a new digital strategy and digital platforms, to grow the brand and to reach a new audience,” said Österdahl. Eurovision’s new digital partner this year is TikTok.

The 2020 Will Ferrell movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” was the start of a series of “brand extensions,” said Österdahl, which also includes the sale of the Eurovision format to producers who this year launched the American Song Contest and plan to launch Eurovision Canada in 2023.

The American version included 56 competing songs (from the 50 states, five territories and Washington, D.C.) and lasted for seven weeks. The show highlighted diverse ethnic, immigrant and musical traditions in the U.S., with Oklahoma’s entry, K-pop star AleXa, named the winner May 9.

NBC ran the show in the same time slot as ABC’s “American Idol” and ratings were not particularly strong. Österdahl said he’s not sure if the American Song Contest will come back: “I hope so,” he said. “This is something that’s completely new to the American market … it takes time to settle.”

It was “always part of the plan” that the next step after America would be to bring the format to Canada, said Greg Lipstone, one of the producers behind the North American extension of the Eurovision brand. They’ve paired with Toronto’s Insight Productions, which also produces the Juno Awards, to deliver Eurovision Canada.

“As a live music show, (the Eurovision Song Contest) is the very top, the very best,” said Lindsay Cox, Eurovision Canada showrunner for Insight. “It was always elusive. We’ve looked for many years about how to do this in Canada.” The production team is exploring the best way to adapt the format for Canada and approaching networks to present the broadcast.

Asked what Canada can look forward to in its own Eurovision contest, Österdahl underlined the “courageousness” of the performers and acts: “There’s nothing in Eurovision that’s middle of the road.”

The Eurovision Song Contest final takes place on May 14 at 3 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Canadians can go to eurovision.tv to stream the event.

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