The ESC in the 21st century: Eurovision and/or Euro-visions?

The ESC in the 21st century: Eurovision and/or Euro-visions?

Lucie De Carvalho & Mikaël Toulza (Université de Lille)
Université de Lille
Findet statt
Vom - Bis
16.05.2024 - 17.05.2024
Solène Scherer, CREG, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès

At a crossroads between cultural, geopolitical and sociological studies, this conference offers to explore fresher interdisciplinary perspectives on the Eurovision Song Contest’s adaptation to 21st century structural transformations of the digital mediascape and ever-evolving, albeit contested European model.

The ESC in the 21st century: Eurovision and/or Euro-visions?

“While commentators often deem the Eurovision Song Contest to be a silly kitsch show of musical mediocrity, this review proves it to be an appealing and productive area for the serious study of European civilization and its discontents.” (Yair 2018, 5-6).

Keynote speakers:
Dr. Catherine Baker, Senior Lecturer in 20th-century history, University of Hull.
Dr. Dean Vuletic, historian of contemporary Europe based at the Research Center for the History of Transformations, University of Vienna.

The European Song Contest (ESC) was established in 1956 under the authority of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), a leading player in European broadcasting and public service media governance. As such, the EBU has cemented close ties with European political and cultural institutions; and ever since its inception, the EBU has undoubtedly contributed to projecting and amplifying policy objectives and values formulated by EU institutions, as cited in the Lisbon strategy and EBU literature, thus acting as a sound-box for EU cultural governance (Burnley 2017, 15). Since the late 1990s, part of its original mandate has been to encourage national broadcasters – both private and public services – to adapt their programming line to the demographic evolutions of their audiences and to strike a healthy balance between celebrating cultural diversity (eg. 2005 Unesco Convention on the Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions) and bolstering social cohesion.

That being said, if the symbiotic links between the ESC and European identity are very little challenged, much still needs to be determined as to the recipients of such a performative act of cultural diplomacy: is the ESC still crafting a specific brand image for Europe primarily geared towards EU markets or countries, or has not the focus of attention shifted and departed from European to non-European countries? Although theoretically ‘apolitical’ in nature as reflected in its tight regulation of lyrics and performances, the ESC remains inherently shaped by its close European context, from the Eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004 which led to the creation of semi-finals in the contest, to geopolitical tensions which regularly find their ways into the contest performances and operational practices, as illustrated by the latest ESC edition hosted by the British city of Liverpool on behalf of the 2022 Ukrainian winners. Scholarly attention cannot ignore how cases of controversies abound over its recent and less recent trajectory and treatment of civic rights and liberties. Overall, at a crossroads between cultural, geopolitical and sociological studies, this conference offers to explore fresher interdisciplinary perspectives on the Eurovision Song Contest’s adaptation to 21st century structural transformations of the digital mediascape and ever-evolving, albeit contested European model.

The EBU and ESC as Bards of Europeanness

Cyclical academic attention has been paid to the ESC’s role in enhancing cultural interchange and cementing both European integration and a common European identity, sometimes beyond the physical frontiers of the continent (Carniel 2017; Lam 2018). However, several scholars have long flagged out the inherent paradox of seeking to enhance unity through competition, arguing that, through a process akin to sports tournaments, the ESC has most likely contributed to inflating national sentiment rather than a common European consciousness (McLin 1969, 4; Fickers & Johnson 2012, 23). In that respect, the ESC has notably remained an essentially utopian and idealistic mission that seldom passes the test of its surrounding realities. The persistence of political voting blocs along deeprooted geographical and cultural divides challenges Europe’s and the ESC’s multicultural construction. However, as Motschenbacher shows in Language, Normativity and Europeanisation: Discursive Evidence from the Eurovision Song Contest, the ESC may also offer a platform to reconcile national and international identities more or less successfully through participants’ verbal and visual cues and code-switching instances. Participants are invited to delineate how this may have come to light notably in performances that combine nationalistic elements and visually and linguistically-coded stereotypes made understandable for an international audience.

Since the turn of the 21st century, the ESC has also frequently been criticised by popular journalists and scholars alike for displaying a very carefully-crafted ideological narrative presenting Europe as a hallmark advocate of human rights, peace and democracy – what could be interpreted as a tangible manifestation of liberal multiculturalism or liberal ‘westernity’ (Ismayilov, 2012; Fernàndez del Campo 2021). Despite its alleged apolitical policy, the ESC mandate has, over the years, been permeated with a clear liberal attitude toward women’s rights and LGBTQIA+ identities, hailing Europe as a force of inclusivity and a normative value maker, for instance turning “queerness into a non-menacing politics” (Lampropoulos in Tragaki 2013, 166) within that cultural space. In other words, the ESC remains a “mega-event” which has been approached as a key “field of contestation” and a political arena to engage with, where international relations or geopolitical diplomacy have given way to “identity construction, negotiation and contestation” for multi-level identity politics (Press-Barnathan & Lutz 2020, 729). However, enhanced inclusivity might have – in turn – produced binary dynamics of exclusion as well, since it “classifies external actors as non-inclusive. By projecting ideas of exclusion and homophobia to non-European cultures, […], it inherently creates an essentialistic binary that reduces complex issues to a simple national in/out” (Fernàndez del Campo 2021, 7). What was first construed as a barrier against the Americanisation of European cultures has potentially given birth to spatio-temporal and symbolic exclusionary hierarchies (Baker 2016; Tragaki 2013), contributing to further ossifying national clichés in the process. In short and beside its fundamentally normative organisation and delivery, the ESC can still be framed as a “cultural seismograph” (Yair 2018) which inevitably speaks to its time. Thus, participants are invited to discuss the ins and outs of this cultural seismograph in regards with contemporary political debates surrounding the place of the European continent on the global stage of identity politics.

Entertainment and self-reflexivity: order and disorder

As Professor of Politics Tim Bale underlines, “[j]ust because it's camp and kind of crazy, doesn't mean we shouldn't take this key cultural event in European (and even global) television schedules seriously.” (in Kalman, Wellings & Jacotine 2019). The ESC has no doubt updated its operational practices to remain relevant and keep entertaining its viewers. For instance, the shifts in production since 2016 have allowed for a more important proportion given to the televote points which, narratively, builds up the suspense until the very last minute. In addition, the show itself is not just about performing acts, but also about additional sections that have increasingly embraced camp and self-reflexive visions (Cook and Evans 2014). This is epitomised, for instance, by the Eurovision song parody “Love, Love, Peace Peace” Swedish anchors Petra Mede and Måns Zelmerlöw performed during the 2016 edition in Stockholm. In it, they comment on the various choices national delegations make to engage the viewers with their representative's performance, from musical composition to staging, through camera angles, lights and outfits. Drawing on these remarks, we welcome contributions which engage in media and performance studies and interrogate the contemporary evolutions of the norms and codes that have applied to the contest as well as the ESC’s structural adaptation to the Covid-19 pandemic since 2020.

The ESC showcases a plethora of music genres every year. Fernández del Campo notes: “there is no genre that has not been performed in Eurovision. 60s swing, punk, and hip hop, while not particularly popular, have been performed in the contest before, with an obvious preference for ballads and pop over other genres, such as rock” (2021, 20). Yet as some particularly observant Eurofans have noticed, the 21st century has also been propitious to the emergence, or even predominance, of Swedish songwriters in writing and producing music, not only for Sweden but also for other countries. For instance, Reddit user Melodifestivalen made, in 2021, a map and a chart showing that 36 Swedish songwriters had written 40 songs for a total of 21 countries from 2016 to 2021 (Melodifestivalen 2021). What does this Swedish song writing domination entail, especially regarding what some have believed to be an Americanisation of the representatives’ music?

In recent years, circulations across media and intermedial productions have contributed to the increase in international interest in the Eurovision Song Contest. 2007 Ukrainian participant Verka Serduchka’s brief appearance in the comedy Spy (Feig, 2015), for example, includes the “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” singer in a stereotypically humoristic portrayal of the ESC as a staple of European identity. Netflix’s comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Dobkin, 2020) starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams further partook in the mainstreaming of the Eurovision Song Contest to a whole new international stage, to the point where the U.S. attempted to host their own equivalent to the ESC with the short-lived American Song Contest (NBC, 2022). Other examples of such intermedial circulations include the British and Spanish franchises of Drag Race dedicating entire episodes to the ESC in their second and third seasons respectively. In turn, it appears the ESC can only permeate popular culture in heavily camp and humoristic productions. Participants are invited to question these productions’ portrayal of the ESC and to investigate the modalities of representation of the ESC across the mediascape.

The Eurovision Song Contest as Cultural phenomenon: Communication strategies and new social media platforms in the 21st century

France Télévisions group and head of the French delegation to Eurovision Alexandra Redde-Amiel states that one of her goals is to incite French audiences to get more involved in the contest and talk about the ESC. Given her former position in the ESC strategic board, her France-based strategy appears to reflect that of the ESC branding strategists. Over the past few years, the contest has been advertised on multiple social media platforms. Until the 2023 edition, snippets of semi-final and final rehearsals were uploaded on YouTube as the rehearsals were going. Yet last year the ESC shifted to a partnership with TikTok, on which they uploaded rehearsal snippets as soon as they were ready while YouTube was given end-of-day roundups. Participants are invited to engage with the ESC’s communication strategies and their adaptation to new social media platforms. This also interrogates the deals made with big sponsors (Moroccanoil since 2021 or in 2019), the logos of which are included in the Youtube videos of the performances.

The 2010s and early 2020s also saw the emergence of more and more virtual Eurofan communities gathering around popular YouTube channels (such as Wiwibloggs, Eurovision Hub or ESC United) and Tiktok Eurofan accounts which create content all year long. And if previous editions allowed said content creators to attend the Eurovision rehearsals for both semi-finals and the final, representatives from popular Eurofan YouTube channels were denied access to the 2023 Liverpool edition’s rehearsals altogether. Such a shift in the acceptance of content creators further brings into light the evolving nature of the communication strategies implemented by the ESC’s organising committee participants are welcome to discuss.

The conference aims at being fundamentally interdisciplinary as long as participants tackle issues pertaining to the changes the ESC has undergone in the 21st century. We welcome contributions that can focus on, but are not limited to, the following subjects:
- The ESC as a transnational, cultural phenomenon
- Nationalisms, multicultural communities and the ESC
- Identity politics and the ESC
- Cultural diplomacy and geopolitical tensions and the ESC
- Public service media and the ESC
- Politics of diversity and participation (Israel, Australia, for instance)
- National selection processes (Melodifestivalen, Benidorm Fest, etc.)
- Production of the ESC/Junior ESC
- Mutations of the ESC’s/Junior ESC’s live-show format
- Supranational v. fragmentation of national models
- National cultural politics and policies in the ESC/Junior ESC
- Hosting the (Junior) Eurovision Song Contest
- Guidelines and requirements for hosting cities
- Development of local (cultural) activities around the contest
- (Trans)Formations of urban landscapes in host cities
- Contemporary trends in the historiography of the ESC/Junior ESC and the input of interdisciplinary approaches
- Music: performance studies, production, etc.
- The development of podcasts and YouTube channels and the creation of virtual communities of Eurofans in the wake of the popularization of social media platforms in the 21st century
- The strategies put into place to create Eurofan channels and the branding strategies they resort to so as to differentiate themselves from others.

The conference will take place on May 16th and 17th, 2024 in Lille, France. Please submit a 300 word abstract and short bio in English or in French by January 14th, 2024 to the following addresses: and

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