This weekend marks the only time of the year I let myself watch anything even close to a reality show: It’s Eurovision time!
For the uninitiated, here’s the gist of it: on Saturday, finalists from 26 countries will take part in what could be best described as a cross between American Idol, the World Cup and a political caucus: the winner is chosen by viewer voting, by phone, in real-time, across the continent. You can’t vote for your own country, and scores are added up on a sliding scale, so things can turn around quickly, if you impress people in enough nations. About 100 million people are expected to tune in, and that’s not counting the 39,000 people who will be watching live in and around the host site, the Baku Crystal Hall in Azerbaijan.
But there’s a whole host of stories around the event this year, including a couple of controversies that we were tipped off to by some readers, involving two particular finalists this year. Let’s start with the Ukrainian representative, Gaitana:
Gaitana, who was born in Kiev to a Ukrainian mother and a Congolese father, Gaitana has lived in Ukraine for most of her life, and almost swept her way to a Eurovision berth: not only was she the winner of the fan voting, but she was the NTU network’s second choice for the spot. So no worries, right?
Not according to Yuri Syrotyuk, a member of the country’s Freedom Party, a right-wing group. As the BBC’s Oleg Karpyak reports:
“Millions of people who will be watching will see that Ukraine is represented by a person who does not belong to our race,” said Yuri Syrotyuk, whose party is preparing to contest the parliamentary elections later this year.
“The vision of Ukraine as a country located somewhere in remote Africa will take root,” he added.
A right-wing politician who’s a xenophobe? Wow, American democracy really is spreading around the globe! On the brightside, Time’s William Lee Adams says Gaitana’s compatriots seem to have her back:
The response from Gaitana’s fellow celebrities and musicians has been swift, as has the response from the public. A number of NGOs have suggested publicly that Gaitana has recourse to laws that criminalize hate speech, though the chances of Syrotyuk being successfully prosecuted are slim. “We do have legislation on racism and xenophobia,” Yana Salakhova of the International Organization for Migration told EuroNews. “But it is not being used to sentence those who are guilty and to develop a culture where people are held responsible for their actions and their words.”
Syrotyuk’s ultranationalist invective seems even more vulgar when Gaitana speaks of the pride she feels in being Ukrainian. “In my childhood I played table tennis professionally,” she remembers. “I represented Ukraine together with an Asian girl at different competitions. Nobody told us that we shouldn’t represent this country. People always rejoiced at our victories. All my achievements both in music and in sport are devoted to my beloved motherland – Ukraine!”
Meanwhile, Turkey’s representative, Cam Bonomo, is also caught in a controversy he didn’t create. Bonomo will be the first Turkish Jew to represent the country at the event, something he’s downplaying to the public:
“My family came from Spain 540 years ago,” Bonomo said in an interview on the “Aksam” news show in a video posted Jan. 11 that has gone viral. “I am Turkish and I am representing Turkey, I will go out there with the Turkish flag and represent Turkey. I am an artist, a musician. That’s all that everybody needs to know.”
Prior to his appearance on “Aksam,” radical right-wing papers had accused Bonomo of being a tool of Zionists and Freemasons.
It didn’t help matters that Bonomo wasn’t selected via a popular vote; the TRT made the pick unilaterally. Our reader Kat, who sent the tip in, says Bonomo’s selection also caused an uproar because it was seen as a political message to Israel, following the killing of Turkish activists by Israeli troops two years ago.
But for his part, Bonomo is keeping it positive, appearing with both his country’s flag and that of the host nation at a press conference following the first semifinal round.
In the near-miss department, the Netherlands’ non-Native American Joan Franka was eliminated in the second semifinal round … and that’s a good thing, judging by her choice of wardrobe. Apparently, the headdress represents her playing “Indians” with a boyfriend. Oooookay, then.
Not to be outdone, Kat told ESCInsight that Austria’s Trackshittaz – that’s their name, I Shittaz you not – dropped this lyric in the middle of their entry, “Woki Mit Deim Popo”: “We are hipster party Indians with feathers on our head”. You can see one of the dudez doing a “feathers” motion around 28 seconds into their performance:
There’s also an activist presence around the competition: protestors are using Eurovision as a platform on which to draw attention to human rights violations in the country under President Ilham Aliyev:
When Mr Aliyev took the presidency nine years ago, there were hopes that he would erode the personality cult that had grown around his father, Heydar.
Azerbaijan’s economy has boomed as it exploits vast reserves of hydrocarbons in the Caspian seabed. Baku’s old town of caravanserais and the exquisite, tapering Maiden’s Tower, built of stone in the 12th century, is overlooked by huge neo-classical apartment blocks and a trio of brash skyscrapers shaped like flames
Last week, workers were scrubbing stucco and trimming flowerbeds in anticipation of thousands of foreign Eurovision fans descending on the city. Hundreds of purple London-style cabs – dubbed “aubergines” – have been commissioned to ferry the guests around town.
Yet the polished city is a facade. Aliyev Junior turned out to be even more of a hardliner than his father. Nepotism is rife, parliament is neutered and opposition politicians are prosecuted on trumped-up charges.
Poverty is widespread and neighbourhoods of Baku have been razed for new construction and oil development, in a sometimes ruthless process.
So there’s a lot to keep an eye out for this year, not just in the Crystal Hall but out. There also seems to be an increase in star power: Britain is sending Englebert Humperdinck(!) into the fray, while Ireland is redeploying the peculiar phenomenon known as Jedward. Me, I find it impossible to root against these ladies: