The annual Eurovision Song Contest, which holds its 63rd edition this week in Lisbon, Portugal, is best known stateside for its generally glitzy, gaudy, and goofy gimmickry. No performance can be too preposterous; no outfit can be too outlandish.
But under that layer of carefree glitter, the political realities of life in modern Europe have increasingly pushed through to the surface, and never more so than this year.
Eurovision’s rules theoretically prohibit overt statements: “No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the ESC.” But lax enforcement of that clause has made the contest at once more inclusive and divisive, perhaps a reflection of the continent’s current identity crisis.
This year’s pre-contest front-runner, from Israel, was inspired by the #MeToo movement; “I’m not your toy/ you stupid boy,” proclaims the chorus sung by Netta. Italy’s “Non Mi Avete Fatto Niente” (“You’ve Done Nothing to Me”) lists the locations of terrorist attacks (Barcelona, London, Nice), shoutily proclaiming resilience after the carnage.
But the clearest, most effective message comes from France, with the song “Mercy” sung by Madame Monsieur, the husband-and-wife duo of Jean-Karl Lucas and Émilie Satt.
The song was inspired by a news story about an infant born upon a rescue vessel ferrying African refugees to safety in the Mediterranean Sea, named Mercy. (French journalists tracked down 13-month-old Mercy and her mother, Taiwo Yussif, at a refugee camp in Italy in April.)
The simple lyrics, in French but with a rudimentary vocabulary that any first-year student could grasp, are sung from the perspective of the newborn infant, born at sea, in flux. “I’m all the children/ who’ve been taken by the sea,” Satt sings. “I will live for a hundred thousand years/ My name is Mercy.”
In an interview at the couple’s hotel in Lisbon, Satt said that writing a song to communicate solely with the most basic vocabulary was a conscious, challenging effort. “We think that you can make good things while being simple,” she told me. “That doesn’t mean simplistic, but simple is good. We think this the hardest thing to do, to make things simple and to say big things without big words.”
That simplicity matches the perspective of the song’s newborn narrator. “A baby is at the same time very naïve and very wise,” she said. “This baby sees the world she comes into, and who saved her life and her mother’s life. It’s a mix between being wise and brand-new.”
The song, at once bleak and hopeful, has attracted some critics, with anti-migrant listeners calling French radio stations to protest its airplay. But the message of humanity has resonated both in France, where it has become a domestic hit, and throughout the continent. And, importantly to Madame Monsieur, the song has started conversations about the issue.
“Children ask questions to their parents,” Satt said. “It’s a very soft and kind way to start to talk about migrants and what migrants are. It’s sweet: It’s just a baby talking about her birth.” “And it’s a pop song too,” Lucas added. “It’s a modern, catchy song, so everyone can understand the music, and it’s an easy way to talk about the subject.” Indeed, despite anti-immigrant sentiment becoming a caustic, tidal force in politics throughout the continent, “Mercy” is currently top five with oddsmakers to win the contest.
“It’s a song we wanted to sing, and we don’t know if it fits or not in Eurovision,” Lucas told me. “There’s no problem to have a message and this kind of song at Eurovision, as long as you can touch people with it.”
The track record of political entries at Eurovision is mixed, however, with nearly all-or-nothing results. Some of the most successful have been artists whose political punch is primarily symbolic. In 2014, the drag performer Conchita Wurst won the contest for Austria with the song “Rise Like a Phoenix,” an anthem of identity and resilience that quickly gained rabid support among LBGTQ Eurovision fans once it took the stage.
Twenty years ago, transgender Israeli singer Dana International won the contest with the song “Diva,” in which she celebrated her femininity through the lineage of women who came before her, name-checking Aphrodite and Cleopatra.
Usually, though, the songs struggle. In 2010, the Lithuanian band InCulto sent “Eastern European Funk,” in which they bemoan their country’s perceived status as second-class members of the European Union. “You should give us a chance, ’cause we’re all victims of circumstance,” InCulto sings, later adding: “No sir, we’re not equal, no, though we’re both from the EU.” InCulto failed to reach the final.
In 2008, as Russian troops encroached further and further into two breakaway republics, Georgia sent a plea called “Peace Will Come,” sung with urgency by blind singer Diana Gurtskaya. “My land is still crying, torn in half,” Gurtskaya sang. “My world is slowly dying/ My heart is only crying/ ‘Peace and love!’ /Oh, no, no.”
Peace did not come right away. Within months, Russian troops rolled into Abkhazia and south Ossetia and full-scale war began. Russia won the 2008 contest and earned the right to host the 2009 edition in Moscow. After initially withdrawing due to the conflict, Georgia defiantly re-entered with a disco track that had a defiant message for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, barely disguised as a pun in its title: “We Don’t Wanna Put In.” “The negative move, it’s killin’ the groove,” sang performers Stephane & 3G. The song was disqualified by the European Broadcast Union, the only time it has enforced its rule against political content.
Russia itself hasn’t offered an edgy Eurovision entry since sending the pseudo-lesbianism of t.A.T.u. in 2003. Instead, the country has stayed militantly make-nice, with several ballads yearning for peace and unity that can seem painfully at odds with the country’s foreign policy.
Russia’s next armed conflict with a neighbor made an even larger impact on the contest. In 2016, Ukraine sent the song “1944” by Jamala, which alludes to the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars, a wound reopened by the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
“They come to your house, they kill you all, and say we’re not guilty,” Jamala sang, beginning a wrought, raw performance the likes of which Eurovision had never seen before.
Despite complaints from some Russian political figures, the song was allowed to compete—and it won, riding a wave of anti-Russian sentiment. Though Russia’s pop entry, “You Are the Only One” by Sergey Lazarev, won the televote, its hopes were dashed by the music professionals who make up the juries in each country that account for 50 percent of the vote. Despite the Russian song’s popularity with viewers, juries in 21 of 41 countries kept it out of their top 10s.
Unsurprisingly, the greatest disparities in points awarded to Ukraine and Russia that year came from two of the countries with the tensest relationships with Russia: Georgia and Lithuania.
Lithuania, whose president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, has been an outspoken critic of neighboring Russia, was most transparent, with four of its five jurors ranking the Russian song last, and the fifth putting it fourth to last.
The Crimea issue lingered into the next year’s competition in Kiev, when Ukraine barred the Russian contestant, Julia Samoylova, from entering the country because she had “illegally” performed in Crimea during Russian occupation there. Russia withdrew from the competition and again nominated Samoylova to compete this year in Lisbon, this time with a song called “I Won’t Break.”
“1944” achieved scant commercial success by the standards of any Eurovision winner, especially compared to the previous winner to allude to a war: ABBA’s “Waterloo,” which won in 1974 for Sweden and is the contest’s most enduring hit.
Though France and Belgium clashed over a bicentennial commemoration of the Waterloo battle on a Euro coin in 2015, ABBA survived unscathed.