Shortly after finishing our final exams and before most of us started working on our dissertations over the summer, some of my St. Andrews classmates and friends hosted a large cookout and viewing party for Eurovision, an annual singing competition that started in 1956, helped make Abba famous, and has around 180 million viewers (compared to around 110 million for the Super Bowl). Personally, like most Americans I had never heard of Eurovision, and the concept didn’t seem very appealing when my European friends described it to me, though some were über-excited (except the Brits—maybe because they tend to suck at Eurovision). But we were all exhausted after spending hours upon hours preparing for our three-hour exams, so a house party and cookout in surprisingly pleasant Scottish weather seemed like a relaxing way to spend a Saturday evening, at least until I could meet up with another group of friends at a pub on South Street.
Once we migrated from the patio and grill to the living room, another American and I sat next to each other and made fun of every performance. Some of the singers made me cringe when they sang a wrong note, and their ridiculous outfits surprised me. “Did butterfly wings just come out of their backs?” “Yes. Yes they did.” But then, there was a peculiar development. We started to say, “That was pretty good.” “I think that one should get a lot of votes.” Instead of only watching for 30 minutes and then leaving to meet my friends at the pub, I stayed for three hours.
For those unfamiliar with Eurovision, the singing competition is similar to American Idol in that viewers vote for their favorite contestant. In Eurovision, though, each contestant represents a country, and viewers (or televoters) vote as a group with their country. Each country has the same number of points to give out, regardless of size, and no country can vote for itself. Juries, usually of music professionals, cast 50% of their country’s vote. Thus, this year televoters in the UK gave 12 points to Lithuania, 10 to Poland, 8 to Bulgaria, and so forth. Separately, British jurors gave 12 points to Georgia, 10 to Ukraine, 8 to Australia, and so forth. At the end of the night, the winner is the one who has received the most points, and the contestant’s country hosts the next Eurovision competition.
For years, some neighboring countries have exchanged points with each other to form voting blocs, such as a group of several Nordic countries called the “Viking Empire” by some. Other blocs include Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Countries outside these groups, including some Brits, complain about being at an unfair disadvantage, so partially in response the competition brought juries back in 2009 to counterbalance televoters’ regional biases.
This year, of course, the drama has been over Ukraine and Russia. Going into the finals last Saturday night, the Russian contestant, Sergey Lazarev, was considered a favorite to win, in part because Russia invested heavily in him. Previously, the country’s contestants had been booed due to the Crimean invasion, and as the BBC argued, Russia threw in “everything but the kitchen sink” to win and help restore its global standing.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Jamala sang “1944”, a song about Stalin mass-deporting Crimean Tatars during World War II after some of them had supported Hitler. Of Crimean Tatar descent herself, Jamala was not shy about her intentions, saying she was not concerned about winning but about bringing joy to the Ukrainians after they had suffered revolution, annexation, and war.
Unlike most other Eurovision’s pop, kitsch songs that seem at least a decade behind music trends, “1944” was jarring and somewhat upsetting. That was the point. During Jamala’s performance, her voice portrayed the song’s dark emotions. The lyrics are hardly joyful: “Humanity cries. You think you are gods. But everyone dies.” Mixing modern and traditional Crimean music styles while switching between English and Crimean Tatar, the song (in my subjective opinion) is a piece of art, even if I would not listen to it often due to its depressing tones. As Stephen Colbert said, it’s a downer: “Think we’ve found the song of the summer, ladies and gentlemen, because nothing pumps up the jam like ethnic cleansing.”
Lazarev’s “You are the Only One”, in contrast, was much similar to a typical Eurovision song. With simplistic lyrics and a boy-band sound reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys, it can easily get stuck in a listener’s brain—though this may not be a good thing. His performance, including the way he integrated the screen into the choreography, was fairly entertaining by the competition’s standards.
After the jurors’ points had been announced, Australia was in first with Ukraine in second and Russia in fifth. However, Russia had received the most points from the televoters, while in this count Ukraine was second and Australia was fourth. When juror and televoter points were combined, Ukraine won.
Almost immediately, Russian media went ballistic. According to The New Yorker’s count, Russian state television networks released at least twenty stories attacking the result within the first day. The complaints have largely revolved around a voting system where juries could override the televoters’ will, even though the juries are in place partially to counteract bloc voting. In response to Russia’s loss, Elena Drapeko, a member of Russia’s State Duma, complained about Russia losing an “information war” due to propaganda and demonization. In some of the complaints it is unclear whether the central problem is that Russia lost or, what seems more likely, that Ukraine won. Perhaps, the biggest problem may be that Jamala’s protest song was the second most popular choice in Russia.
Still, Russia trailed Australia in the final tally. If Australia could have benefited from bloc voting the way Russia and Ukraine have benefited for years, then its contestant, Dami Im, would have probably won. Personally, her song was much more enjoyable and far superior. When asked about Australia coming second to Ukraine, former Prime Minister Abbott said he that Ukrainians had suffered greatly at the “hands of a bully” and that “if this helps their morale I think we should be prepared to accept second place.”
It is reasonable to assume that Jamala won because her song alluded to Russian aggression in Crimea, both past and present. If her song had been about sappy puppy-love like Lazarev’s song, she would probably not have done as well. Moreover, if Russia did not have such a negative reputation across Europe due to its invasion of Ukraine, a song about historical events 70 years ago would not have helped Jamala. Thus, Russia coming third at the Eurovision competition helps exemplify its lack of soft power despite its significant hard power.
Soft power may seem irrelevant as long as a country has sufficient hard power to enforce its will. As Caligula’s favorite saying goes, “oderint dum metuant”—let them hate so long as they fear. Judging by some rhetoric on the political campaign trail, many Americans share this mentality. Yet, wielding hard power without the soft variety is unwise. For Russia specifically, it has had military success in Ukraine, but these successes have cost Russia much more than what it has gained. Just one case in point: Europeans are now more united and have (finally) started to increase military spending.
Russian media’s lashing out against Eurovision is also counterproductive to developing needed soft power because it reinforces the negative perception that Elena Drapeko complained about. If the Kremlin wants Europe to lift sanctions against it, for instance, European citizens’ goodwill would be quite beneficial. But if the world reads about Russian political elites wanting to boycott next year’s Eurovision in Kiev, Europeans will be less enthusiastic about détente. Even if painful at first, responding in a way similar to Tony Abbott would have been a better approach.
This year’s Eurovision should teach Americans, especially Christian realists interested in using American power ethically and effectively, the value of soft power and how not to respond to a perceived insult. As more Americans are tempted to let the world hate us so long as they fear us, remembering this lesson is critical.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and has a specialization in civil conflict and European politics.
Photo Credit: Jamala performing “1944” at the Eurovision Song Contest finals on May 14, 2016. Promotional royalty free photograph by Andres Putting (EBU), via Eurovision.TV.