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Column: Music did not unite in the most controversial Eurovision, and change is needed

Column: Music did not unite in the most controversial Eurovision, and change is needed Picture credits: © Corinne Cumming / EBU

In November of last year, it was announced that «United By Music» would be the permanent slogan of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), perfectly reflecting what the event aims to be: a point of unity for peoples and cultures through music. Ironically, the first edition with this permanent slogan did everything but that.

Ironically, the first edition with this permanent slogan did everything but that. It was a highly volatile ESC from a political standpoint, in a high-tension environment, probably the most controversial ever, mentally challenging not only for the participants but also for many fans. And this did nothing good to the image of the event, raising doubts about its real ability to be a beacon of peace and love through music.

In this article, we will only address the major controversies of this edition, the ones that truly divided. We won’t include, for example, the case of the inadvertent unveiling of partial results of the Italian televote in the second semifinal.


The core issue: Israel

Firstly: This is a reflection column on the events of ESC 2024. Therefore, we keep editorial impartiality from a political standpoint, refraining from taking any position on the situation in Israel. We will only report and present facts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or any other political situation.

It was clear early on that the atmosphere at ESC 2024 could be very complicated. In October of last year, Hamas launched strong attacks on Israel. The country responded with a massacre that continues, and is condemned by many. There were many calls to prevent Israel from participating, including petitions and boycott threats. None materialized, despite authorization from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

And here we find the first point of disunity in Malmö’s edition. Several artists chose not to remain silent, using the platform to express their support for Palestine, criticize Israel, and call for a ceasefire. The fuse for a highly politicized Eurovision 2024 had been lit, and that’s what transpired.

Backstage, there were several accusations of intimidation and harassment by journalists and even members of the Israeli delegation. True or not? One cannot assert with absolute certainty what we did not witness firsthand. What is certain is that the issue was brought to the attention of the EBU by at least five countries. Were there consequences? At least none visible to the public and journalists covering the online press center.


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Should Israel have been prevented from participating in ESC 2024, akin to what happened with Belarus and Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022? Both situations are reprehensible and inhumane, but very different, both in public perception and in terms of actions: Russia invaded a sovereign country recognized by the United Nations without suffering any aggression, for the sake of the imperialistic ambitions of a dictator.

Israel reacted (disproportionately) to the attacks by a terrorist organization that has taken authoritarian control of Palestinian territory – which is not a country or a UN-recognized state. However, there is an unnecessary massacre of the Palestinian people underway in the war against Hamas in Gaza, where civilians are not spared.

Regardless of one’s judgment regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the current situation, the most prudent course of action would have been to exclude the country from the ESC 2024. If only for the sake of the competition’s integrity and its participants, and to keep the politics away as much as possible, just like EBU wants. It was evident that Israel’s presence would make the event highly political among fans and participants, considering the express support of many artists for the Palestinian cause and people. And the issue reached politics, as evidenced by the statements of the Vice President of the Spanish government, who classified Israel’s presence as a way to whitewash its image.

Israel’s participation was a point of discord and high tension, perfectly avoidable, with the EBU ultimately making the event highly political by accepting the country – whether it met participation requirements or not, in a discussion that could fill an entire column. And also of suspicion. Eden Golan’s song, Hurricane, received a meager score from the jury and was the second most voted by the public. There was a boycott? There wasn’t a boycott? Is it censurable? Is it not censurable?

On the jury side, it gave rise to theories of a kind of boycott. Reality or not, suspicion remains. As does the suspicion that the strong televote was either an expression of support for Israel or a consequence of «vote buying» or some other scheme. We do not delve into or defend conspiracy theories or rumors. But they exist and convey anything but a sense of unity.

And then, something very regrettable: the constant boos towards Eden Golan in the arena. An environment far from easy to handle for an artist, who is far from being to blame for the bellicose actions of her country’s leaders. Consequently, there are suspicions that the production suppressed the noise of the boos in the broadcast and inserted fake applause. Again, no one can assert that it’s true. But it’s another point that contributes to an atmosphere of disunity and criticism of censorship.


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In addition, Israel’s participation required strong security measures, including the presence of snipers throughout the city of Malmö, given the great fear of terrorist attacks… which would have been a concern and a much smaller risk without Israel’s presence. More than enough reasons for, in a moment like the current one, if not for prevention alone, the country should have stayed out.


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All this politicized atmosphere had consequences: Alessandra (Norway) and Käärijä (Finland) withdrew from announcing the jury votes of their respective countries in the final. And Slimane stopped singing during the last rehearsal to appeal for unity through music with peace and love. In addition to the concerns with an unsafe environment reported by some delegations, the AVROTROS (Dutch broadcaster) has reported the situation to the EBU.


Zero tolerance or censorship?

Due to the highly politically tense atmosphere in the world today, the EBU had zero tolerance for political expressions. Bambie Thug from Ireland was forced to remove a message of support for Palestine and a ceasefire in Gaza in the Ogham dialect. A discreet way to convey the idea, which perhaps few people would have understood, but which would have given Bambie Thug the opportunity to express herself freely.


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And here we ask: should freedom of expression be compromised to prevent politics from entering the ESC? Is anything justified to make the rules and spirit of the competition prevail? And was there, at any point, a double standard? We have our stance, but we leave the answer for individual reflection, keeping editorial impartiality.

alyona alyona, Ukraine’s representative, revealed to the country’s press that the artists were under constant scrutiny, prevented from showing any manifestations that could have a political connotation. Still, iolanda, Portugal’s representative, managed to «get away» with her nails containing Palestinian motifs. And in the press conference after the second semi-final, some artists showed clearly their position about Israel.


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One of the guests of the first semifinal, Eric Saade, wore a Palestinian scarf in his performance and was criticized by the EBU for allegedly making a statement. It is worth mentioning that the artist has Palestinian roots and assured that he only intended to show his origins.

Accusations of censorship escalated with the ban on European Union flags, considering it a political symbol. A rigor that seems excessive and disproportionate to us, especially because for many it is a symbol of European identity and not political. And it is a symbol of unity among the countries of the community, which even constitute the vast majority of participants in the Eurovision.

The European Commission strongly criticized this prohibition, while the EBU admitted that the flag policy may have been applied more rigorously given the current circumstances. The rules only allow flags of participating countries and rainbow flags. But the truth is that Nemo, who won for Switzerland, revealed that he had to hide his non-binary flag due to the organization’s prohibition against using it. Fans themselves were barred from bringing such flags into the arena.

While it is true that the circumstances demanded special care, it is no less true that the perception left is one of a censorship environment, widely criticized by the fan community and some artists. No matter what the intention may be.

Even with the rigor, political messages did not fail to be present. One example: Dons, representing Latvia, called in a press conference for the fact that every country in the world deserves to be free.

Even outside the event, Malmö witnessed strong demonstrations of support for Palestine and against Israel, further politicizing the Eurovision Song Contest. All of this could have been avoided with a difficult yet, at the same time, straightforward decision that would have protected the event.


The Joost Klein Case

As if all the situation surrounding Israel and the current political environment in the world – which is inseparable from Eurovision – wasn’t enough, another strong controversy arose: the disqualification of Joost Klein, representing the Netherlands.

The facts of the incident are still not very clear. The Dutch broadcaster AVROTROS speaks of a threatening gesture by the artist towards a photographer who was taking pictures at a time when there were agreements not to do so. It may have been a more violent response after insistence not to be targeted by the cameras.

On the other hand, the newspaper Aftonbladet writes that Joost Klein allegedly admitted to the police that he raised his arm in a clenched fist and pointed it at the photographer, but without hitting her, immediately showing regret and apologizing. For now, the full reality of what happened cannot be ascertained. The case is in the hands of Swedish authorities.

However, one fact is undeniable: Joost Klein’s disqualification is another point of disunity in ESC 2024. There are several possible ways to view the matter, but the majority of fans defend the same as AVROTROS: that it was a disproportionate and unfair measure.

We cannot categorically assert this as we do not know all the details of the case. Therefore, we do not make value judgments, but it remains to be believed that the EBU had strong evidence to support its decision. Or, a strict policy of zero tolerance towards aggressive gestures, which go against the spirit of the rules. But some may even think, at the extreme, that it was an attempt by the EBU to demonstrate strength through an example to try to prevent cases of violence and disrespect in the future.

It seems, after the case broke out and given the police interrogations, Joost Klein did not have the conditions to continue performing. But while the disqualification focused on the artist, it was the Netherlands that were left out of the competition, as well as AVROTROS, which was not directly at fault. The question arises: why not prevent the artist from performing and maintain the country’s participation with the recording of the semifinal? Could this be a compromise solution, preemptively removing Joost Klein without impacting Dutch participation?

It is also true that fans were mad at the EBU for the decision regarding the Netherlands. The boos were clearly audible both times executive supervisor Martin Österdahl intervened in the final: when confirming that the votes were valid and when announcing the jury scores from the Netherlands.


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Did music ultimately prevail?

The most important aspect of the Eurovision Song Contest is the music. It’s the music and the sharing that should be at the heart of it all. But did music really win?

Amidst so many controversies, the day after the final was spent more discussing these controversies than highlighting Nemo’s victory with the song The Code – and, being completely impartial in terms of taste, it must be acknowledged that it was one of the strongest songs in the competition, so the triumph is deserved.

Certainly, the 37 participating songs will find their way into the playlists of many fans and occasional followers of the event, but a quick glance through specialized and mainstream media shows that controversies dominate the headlines. Not the music and the spotlight it should receive.

However, among the artists, a sense of unity was visible at various moments. During the final, representatives from some countries celebrated enthusiastically with those from other countries when they received maximum points. Nemo and Marina Satti demonstrated this.


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Nevertheless, the competitors were subjected to a negative environment throughout the week – some more than others, for sure. Silvester Belt, who represented Lithuania, admitted it was one of the worst experiences of his life after the first semifinal. And this is not what the ESC should be for the artists.

It’s supposed to be a source of unity, music sharing, and celebration. Which, in any case, based on the impressions we’ve been receiving, seems to have prevailed to some extent despite all the existing tension.


A possible point of unity

Amidst so much discord in ESC 2024, there seems to be some consensus – at least among fans: the demand for urgent changes in the European Broadcasting Union, with one figure at the forefront: the executive supervisor of ESC, Martin Österdahl.

Comments on social media demanding the resignation of the Swede have been frequent, as he – guilty or not, because decisions are not unilateral – is the face of the EBU for Eurovision and bears all the dissatisfaction.

We do not know the position of the participating broadcasters regarding the continuity or not of the current structure of the EBU dedicated to the event – there have been no official comments on the subject. However, judging by the tone of the AVROTROS statement regarding Joost Klein’s case, at least the Dutch broadcaster is likely to require changes to continue. And others, like the Portuguese RTP, requested a meeting with the EBU to discuss the events during the ESC 2024.

What seems clear is that, in such a passionate and intense fan community as that of ESC, Martin Österdahl and the Reference Group may not have the conditions to continue. Image is everything here, and the persistence of the current leadership may alienate many dissatisfied viewers from the event next year.

Renewal is needed, there is a sense of the end of a cycle. Nemo called for reflection on what Eurovision represents and should be, at the press conference after the victory.

And, in the face of the events of ESC 2024, this is indeed a reflection that must happen. There needs to be a change of course, perhaps even a change of leadership, new ideas. Not only for the format itself but also to make it more impervious to politics.

How to uphold what is the true spirit of ESC: to unite countries, peoples, and cultures through music. To be a point of peace and coexistence that sets aside wars and conflicts and erases differences. A difficult mission in a politically highly volatile world, with ongoing conflicts.

This task must be entrusted to people with the know-how, strength, and sufficient experience. Strength, without compromising freedom of expression and thought. In other words, a good balance must be found, which is so difficult to achieve.

Controversies will always exist. At the very least, there are the usual small controversies due to dissatisfaction with the results, regardless of the voting system – these are mostly normal discussions among fans in any competition and do not affect the atmosphere of the event. But a Eurovision as controversial, tense, and mentally negative as the one in 2024? It is urgent to reflect, think, debate, and change to avoid a repeat, otherwise, the future of the event may be at risk.


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Bernardo Matias

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