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The Eurovision Song Contest is about more than just music. Should Canada compete?

A Canadian diva is singing for France at the annual festival of sequins and songs known as Eurovision.

While La Zarra’s participation is welcomed by many fans, some Eurovision watchers feel that by not competing directly in the contest, Canada is missing out on a chance to wield cultural influence abroad.

“Eurovision is in and of itself a form of international relations, except it’s focused on music,” said Saskia Postema, a Dutch academic who has written about the song contest.

After almost 70 years on the air, the Eurovision Song Contest has amassed an annual worldwide audience of more than 160 million people. And while ‘Euro’ is in the name, there’s precedent for non-European countries getting involved.

Australia has been in the contest since 2015. Israel joined in the 1970s and has won several times. Winning nations get to host the contest the following year. That exposure is valuable, said Paul Jordan, a British academic who wrote his doctoral thesis about Eurovision.

CBC News: The House12:34Canada competes at Eurovision, vicariously

Canadian singer La Zarra is representing France at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. CBC’s Jennifer Chevalier speaks to academics, journalists and diplomats about how nations can use the annual contest to wield soft power on the world stage, and whether Canada could benefit by joining.

“Soft power comes into it, which is why a lot of countries see value in hosting this event,” Jordan told CBC’s The House. Ukraine, he said, entered the contest in 2003 with the goal of improving its international image.

“Other countries might kind of mock Eurovision, but for smaller nations, particularly newly independent ones, it’s a really big opportunity to showcase your country,” he said.

A group of musicians celebrate after winning a contest.
Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest last year with ‘Stefania’, a folk hip-hop anthem to the struggles of mothers who came to symbolize the plight of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

Ukraine won Eurovision last year but the UK — 2022’s runner up — is hosting this year on Ukraine’s behalf because of the war with Russia. The UK has a series of celebrations planned for the event, including a watch party at the High Commissioner’s residence in Ottawa.

“Part of our job as diplomats is around public diplomacy, and soft power is a really important part of that,” said High Commissioner Susannah Goshko, adding that music and culture are “really an important part[s] of telling the story about a country.”

Zelenskyy’s speech request turned down

On Thursday, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the group of public broadcasters that ran the contest, rejected a request from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the Eurovision finale. The EBU said it would breach the contest’s “strict rules and principles” prohibiting political statements.

But politics still plays a role in many aspects of the contest — including how the songs are ranked.

The UK won the professional jury vote last year — but after the public telephone votes were counted, Ukraine won by a landslide. People across Europe voted overwhelmingly for the embattled nation.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 08: Let 3, representatives for Croatia, perform during the first dress rehearsal for Semi Final 1 of the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 at M&S ​​Bank Arena on May 08, 2023 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)
The group Let 3 is representing Croatia. The group’s act features a rocket and blood-stained dresses, as well as what can be interpreted as dictatorial mustaches. (Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

“Everything becomes political when the whole reason of your contest is being challenged, which is the unity of Europe. And suddenly that was at stake,” said Postema.

“Ukraine winning was symbolically imbued with the idea of ​​Europe supporting Ukraine,” Toronto Star theater critic Karen Fricker told CBC’s The House from Liverpool, UK, where the contest is being held.

Jordan said the response to Ukraine’s song was less of a political event and more “a very, very emotional moment.”

A couple stands behind a small yellow podium on a dark stage, with swirling rainbow colors displayed on screens behind them.  The screens read: Eurovision Song Content.
King Charles and Camilla switch on stage lighting as they visit the host venue of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool, UK, on ​​April 26, 2023. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

It’s not unusual for voting at Eurovision to be influenced by global politics.

Azerbaijan and Armenia, for example, are locked in conflict over disputed territory. They typically rank each other last in the scorecard.

On the other hand, the EBU rejects overtly political songs. In 2021, Belarus fielded a song which mocked anti-government protests against dictator Alexander Lukashenko. The EBU rejected the song.

A Georgian song with a veiled reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin [“We Don’t Wanna Put In”] was similarly denied in 2009.

But coded political songs do make it into the contest. This year’s entries from Ukraine, Croatia, Switzerland and the Czech Republic include what appear to be subtle nods to the war in Ukraine.

The Czech song, “My Sister’s Crown,” has voices in different Slavic languages ​​singing, “My sister’s crown, don’t take it down … She is her own queen.”

“It almost feels like it is a sort of Slavic community, former Soviet Union states, saying, ‘Don’t touch my sister Ukraine,'” Postema said.

A singer performs during the Eurovision Song Contest.
Conchita Wurst, who won in 2014 for Austria, performs during the finale of the Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna on May 23, 2015. (Kerstin Joensson/AP)

“When we say Eurovision is apolitical and the rules call for it to be apolitical, there’s a gray area there,” said William Lee Adams, author of Wild Dances: My Queer and Curious Journey to Eurovision. He said the EBU allows some veiled political references and disallows others.

“The EBU seems very willing to let it stay gray when the values ​​align with the West.”

WATCH | Canadian singer competes in Eurovision contest:

Montreal singer makes it to Eurovision finals

Montreal singer La Zarra has made it to the Eurovision song contest final while performing for France. Canadians are now allowed to cast votes in the contest, which attracts an enormous international audience.

Those European values ​​include inclusivity, especially when it comes to LGBTQ representation. A trans woman won the contest for Israel in 1998 and Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst won in 2014. Their performances were followed by backlash in several countries.

“After Conchita won, there were … petitions in Russia and Belarus to withdraw,” said Adams. “I’d say that Eurovision brings us together, yes. But it also divides us because there’s so many cultural cleavages all across the continent.”

Should Canada join Eurovision?

Some Canadians (including Ryan Reynolds in a tongue-in-cheek Twitter post) have bemoaned the fact that Australia is part of Eurovision but Canada is not.

So should Canada join?

Jordan said it doesn’t need to.

“I’m not sure that Canada necessarily needs the visibility that countries may crave because it’s so well-known,” Jordan said.

Three people dance wearing sunglasses and costumes.
The electronic music group Tvorchi is representing Ukraine with the song ‘Heart of Steel’, said to be inspired by the soldiers who defended the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol from a Russian attack. (Martin Meissner/AP)

Fricker said he believed Canada could benefit by taking part. She pointed to how Australia has used Eurovision to showcase its diversity, including through Indigenous performers.

“The contest is an incredible platform to represent your country in a way the world might not necessarily know,” she said, adding Canada could use Eurovision to highlight its work on Indigenous reconciliation.

“Any smart national broadcaster can use the content to convey meaning.”

The CBC, as Canada’s public broadcaster and an associate member of the EBU, would be a vehicle through which Canada could join the contest. But Chuck Thompson, head of public affairs for CBC, said the broadcaster would not be taking Canada into Eurovision.

In a statement, Thompson said “CBC has been considered participating, however our programmers don’t believe it would resonate here the way it does in other countries, some of which have broadcast the show for decades.

“While not the only factor in our decision making process, Eurovision is very expensive to produce, and especially so if we were to host it.”

While that might be disappointing to some, at least Canada can participate vicariously this year through La Zarra.

“It’s very exciting when you think about it from a Canadian perspective that we don’t compete in Eurovision, but yet we have a singer who’s from Quebec who’s representing France, who’s one of the most talked-about artists in the contest,” said Fricker.

“It begs the question — why can’t we enter?”