Voices: Olly Alexander isn’t even the most political thing about Eurovision

By Isaac M December 21, 2023

When Olly Alexander was confirmed this week as the UK’s entry for the 2024 Eurovision Song Contest, the singer said he was going to bring some “drama” to proceedings.

Before he’s so much as draped himself in a Union flag and dyed his trademark orange bowlcut red, white and blue, he’s already caused a storm.

Yesterday, it was revealed that the 33-year old singer – who has duetted with Elton John, Kylie Minogue and the Pet Shop Boys, and starred in last year’s Channel 4 Aids drama, It’s A Sin – was a signatory of an open letter condemning Israel as an “apartheid regime”, and criticising its “Zionist propaganda” and “unthinking philosemitism”.

Wrong kind of drama, Olly. And, it turns out, not very original, either.

You don’t need to be a Eurovision nut to know the show doesn’t do politics – at least, not officially. Born out of the destruction of the Second World War, the competition was devised as a way to try and unite a broken continent. Today, its blandly inoffensive slogans – “Building Bridges”, “Under The Same Sky”, “We Are One”, “Celebrate Diversity” – have been precision-made to frighten no horses.

But the trouble with trying to be apolitical is that it sets you up as a prime target.

But politics runs through Eurovision like a stick of Brighton rock. Portugal’s 1974 entry was used as the signal to trigger the Carnation Revolution that overthrew the fascist regime that had ruled for four decades. To this day, Cliff Richard, runner-up at the 1968 contest with “Congratulations”, maintains that he lost by a solitary point thanks to vote rigging by Spanish dictator General Franco.

Last year’s grand final had to be held in Liverpool on Ukraine’s behalf – but, amid concern about what he might say to a worldwide audience of a billion people, Volodymyr Zelensky was barred from making a televised speech. Lucky, then, that in recent years, the man with the biggest bullseye on his back at Eurovision has been Vladimir Putin.

Georgia’s 2009 entry was disqualified when organisers realised that disco banger “We Don’t Wanna Put In” might have a hidden meaning. Last year, at the Liverpool final, Croatian punk rockers Let 3 performed an “anti-war” song, dressed in tattered babydolls. They later confirmed, to no one’s surprise, that their entry was in fact, a satire on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the “crocodile psychopath” Putin.

But even at Eurovision, you can’t keep a brilliant song down. Russian officials argued that “1944” – Ukraine’s entry in 2016, and the greatest winner of this century (don’t @ me) – should have been disqualified under rules forbidding political content. But the haunting ballad about the mass deportation of Tatars from Crimea under Stalin’s orders during the Second World War, and with lyrics about strangers coming to “kill you all”, saying “we’re not guilty”, received a record 534 points… beating the favourites, Russia.

As well as occasional big-P political songs, Eurovision has been witness to several notable acts of social justice. In the 2013 semi-final, Finland’s Krista Siegfrids kissed one of her female singers at the end of her song Marry Me, an unannounced lesbian snog that prompted Turkey to the pull on broadcasting the grand final. It now refuses to compete in the “degenerate” contest.

Flags are a recurring problem for Eurovision organisers. A few years ago, members of Iceland’s entry, the industrial metal band Hatari, were fined for waving Palestine signs in the green room. In 2000, Israeli broadcast authorities disowned its official entry, “Seamach (Happy)”, a song about finding love across Middle Eastern borders. At the live final, which was held just weeks before a critical peace summit at Camp David, the band – who had only ever put themselves forward as a joke – pulled out Syrian flags and, less explicably, cucumbers.

Some political acts at Eurovision are more forgivable than others. In 1983, when Germany won with “A Little Peace”, it received an unexpected top marks from Israel – which was widely taken as a gesture that the past had been buried.

Perhaps the truth is that, sometimes, Eurovision and politics aren’t allowed to mix for good reason. As soon as Mae Muller was declared as last year’s entry, she was unmasked as a socialist activist – one who had campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn, branded the Conservative Party “racist and elitist”, and had declared: “I hate this country.” She finished second from bottom.

How’s that for a warning from history, Olly?


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