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Eurovision: A History of Europe through Popular Music

Final Report Summary - EUROVISION (Eurovision: A History of Europe through Popular Music)

The project “Eurovision: A History of Europe through Popular Music” was led by Dr. Dean Vuletic under the supervision of Prof. Philipp Ther, and it was based in the Department of East European History at the University of Vienna. Established in 1956 and held annually since then, the Eurovision Song Contest is the world’s largest popular music event, one of the most popular television programmes in Europe and a major cultural reference common to Europeans. The project examined how Eurovision has affected and reflected cultural, economic, political and social change in postwar Europe, focussing on issues such as democracy, integration, nationalism, prosperity, sexuality, technology and war. It addressed how “Europe” and “Europeanness” have been defined through Eurovision in cultural, economic, political and social terms throughout the contest’s sixty year history, and how Eurovision has reflected changing ideas about the values that are considered integral to Europeanism.

This project traced the origins of Eurovision back to the nineteenth century when the first international organisations for telecommunications were established. The contest itself was a product of the Cold War as it was initiated by the European Broadcasting Union, an organisation for national radio and television broadcasters that was formed in 1950, for its Western European members. Eastern European states had their equivalent organisation to the European Broadcasting Union that organised its own international song contests. However, Eastern European national television broadcasters sometimes broadcast Eurovision during the Cold War, and the project examined the impact that Eurovision had on Eastern Europe as well. With the end of the Cold War, East European states joined the European Broadcasting Union and hence became eligible to enter Eurovision. The contest gained a new political significance in the 1990s as it was appropriated in the cultural diplomacy of East European states in order to express their aspirations for European integration, and the project addressed how the contest has become a forum in which concepts of European values have been defined and challenged since 1990.

The results of the project demonstrate that states have always considered Eurovision to be important in their cultural diplomacy, be it to promote their national distinctiveness, highlight political issues or affirm their “Europeanness.” Although Eurovision has usually been viewed as a Western product that has symbolised West European political values, cultural freedom and economic prosperity, my research showed that throughout its history the contest has also been appropriated by authoritarian governments in their cultural diplomacy. This was the case for Portugal and Spain in the 1960s and 1970s when they were governed by right wing dictatorships, for communist Yugoslavia throughout the Cold War, and for Azerbaijan, Belarus and Russia since 2000. The project therefore also addressed whether Eurovision has had an impact on political and social change in authoritarian states. Another focus of the project was on minority rights and how they have been highlighted at Eurovision through the performances of members of ethnic and sexual minorities. The victory of Austria’s bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst at Eurovision in 2014 provided a new case study of this, but the project showed that diversity has always been a present and controversial theme in Eurovision, especially with regards to immigration.

In undertaking this project, Dr. Vuletic developed his analytical, empirical and theoretical approaches and research skills through discussions with Prof. Ther and other members of the Department of East European History. Drawing on this guidance, he conducted research based on academic studies, media reports and audiovisual recordings in various libraries in Vienna, especially the University Library and the National Library, in the libraries of the European University Institute in Florence and the University of Amsterdam, and in the National Library of Liechtenstein. Dr. Vuletic also advanced his research skills through archival work in the Historical Archives of the European Union in Florence and the archives of the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva. He conducted interviews with persons involved in Eurovision and observed concerts in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden. He obtained accreditation for the 2014 and 2015 editions of Eurovision that were held in Copenhagen and Vienna respectively, where he participated in press conferences and discussed his project with persons involved in the event.

Another aim of the project was to demonstrate how Eurovision can be used to innovatively teach the history of postwar Europe. Dr. Vuletic has honed his teaching skills by developing and teaching a proseminar based on the project in the Department of East European History in the 2014 and 2015 summer semesters. This is the first regular university course in the world to use Eurovision to teach the history of postwar Europe, and its innovativeness was further underlined by the use of multimedia teaching methods. In the course Dr. Vuletic presented lectures and assisted students in researching and writing their papers in both English and German. He also arranged workshops for the students with the Austrian national television broadcaster ORF during the period in which ORF was preparing to host Eurovision, thereby giving students a direct insight into the organisation of the contest.

In terms of disseminating his research and further developing his presentation skills and professional network, Dr. Vuletic gave ten guest lectures in Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia and the United Kingdom, including a keynote speech at “The Eurovision Song Contest 60th Anniversary Conference” in London in April 2015 that was organised by the European Broadcasting Union. He gave another ten presentations about his research at international conferences, seminars and workshops. He was invited to participate in three panel discussions in Vienna organised by ORF, Unique Relations and the Vienna Tourist Board, which brought together Eurovision artists, television producers, local politicians and tourism officials to discuss the economic, political and social impact of Eurovision. He also gave two additional presentations on his experience as a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, including one at a workshop in Ljubljana in which he promoted the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions.

Concerning the project’s outreach activities, Dr. Vuletic moderated and organised the panel discussion “What Does the Eurovision Song Contest Mean for Europe?” in May 2014 at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. The panel discussion included three international speakers: the American journalist William Lee Adams, the Austrian member of parliament Marco Schreuder and the Bosnian singer Maya Sar, who performed in Eurovision in 2012. During the week that Eurovision was held in Vienna in May 2015, he moderated and organised the symposium “Eurovision Relations: The Eurovision Song Contest and International Organisations.” This was held at the House of the European Commission in Vienna with the support of the local offices of the European Commission and the European Parliament, the embassies of Australia and Slovenia and the University of Vienna. The symposium brought together fifteen international speakers, including artists, academics, diplomats, journalists and politicians, to discuss the political significance of Eurovision. The keynote speakers were three women who performed in Eurovision and have since established political careers at the national and European levels: Claudette Buttigieg from Malta, Ismeta Dervoz from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Åse Kleveland from Norway.

During the fellowship, Dr. Vuletic published two book chapters in collected volumes, and he is currently writing two more of these based on the results of the project. He also wrote a review on the book “That’s amore! La lingua italiana nella musica straniera” [That’s Amore! The Italian Language in Foreign Popular Music] for the European Journal of Communication, a piece for a catalogue for an exhibition about the Yugoslav record company Jugoton, an article on Eurovision and international organisations for the professional journal Texte published by ORF, and six internet blogs about various aspects of his research. Regarding the main result of the project, the monograph Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest, Dr. Vuletic has written a draft of it and signed a contract for its publication with Bloomsbury Publishing. Although there are many academic articles and much popular literature on Eurovision, a comprehensive scholarly study of its history has not yet been produced, making this monograph an original contribution to European historiography.

The hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna – which of course could not have been predicted in the original work plan for the project - provided an array of opportunities for advancing and promoting the project and the Marie Sklodowksa-Curie Actions. Dr. Vuletic shared his expertise with figures from ORF and other media outlets, as well as embassies and tourism organisations, as they were preparing for the 2015 contest. As this was the 60th edition of Eurovision, there was a particular interest in the history of the contest which proved timely for the project. This demonstrates how the results of this project can be relevant for organisations that are involved in Eurovision and cultural diplomacy more broadly. Dr. Vuletic took courses at the University of Vienna in advanced German and working with the media, which helped him to establish himself as a leading academic commentator on the historical and political significance of Eurovision for postwar Europe. He gave interviews to dozens of international media outlets about his project, including Austria’s major newspapers and radio and television stations, radio and television broadcasters in Australia, Croatia, Denmark, Slovenia and Sweden, and international magazines and newspapers such as Delo, Die Zeit, Frankfurter Rundschau, Newsweek, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Pogledi, Politico, Sábado, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Vecernji list.