It’s Called Eurovision. So Why Is Australia Part of It?
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The confluence of outlandish costumes, soulful folk ballads and an ode to the great American writer Edgar Allan Poe can only mean that Eurovision, the world’s largest, gaudiest and, perhaps, most eccentric song competition is gracing our screens again.
The event usually carries political undertones, and that has become more overt this year, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looming large over the proceedings. Eurovision is usually held in the country that won the previous year, but Liverpool, England, is hosting the competition on behalf of last year’s champion, Ukraine. Liverpool has incorporated symbols of and tributes to Ukraine into its festivities, including a memorial garden. This year’s Ukrainian entry, the pop group Tvorchi, is performing a song that it says was inspired by the bravery of its country’s soldiers.
Australia’s entry, the Western Australia progressive synth-metal band Voyager, has made it through to the finals, much to the delight of fans who either stayed up very late or woke very early to watch it live, at 5 a.m. local time. (Strange fact: Voyager’s lead singer is an immigration lawyer whom we interviewed last year during the tennis star Novak Djokovic’s battle to get into the country while unvaccinated against Covid for the Australian Open.) Voyager has a lot riding on its performance, given this is the last year Australia is guaranteed to compete in Eurovision.
While Australia is not the only non-European country to compete in Eurovision — Israel made its debut in 1973 — it is certainly the most distant. Since Australia started participating in 2015, fans and commentators alike have wondered: Why does a country on the other side of the world participate in what is ostensibly a European song contest?
The reason involves Australia’s migration history; the role that SBS, which broadcasts Eurovision, plays in the national culture; and a push by Eurovision to tap into new global markets, said Jess Carniel, a senior lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland and a Eurovision expert.
Australia’s invitation to participate in 2015 was intended as a one-off, in recognition of how popular the contest was in Australia, said Dr. Carniel. “At that time, Australia probably constituted one of largest non-European audiences,” she said.
SBS, a government-funded broadcaster catering to multicultural and multilingual communities, has aired Eurovision in Australia since 1983, and the show first became popular among the communities of European migrants who had moved to Australia after World War II, she said. Interest in the competition also grew among migrants from non-European backgrounds who discovered it while watching the channel, she said.
Later, interest in the competition widened. In the 1990s, it became a cult hit among young people who tuned in to the channel — which was branding itself as “cool” and “cosmopolitan” — for its foreign movies and television shows. And the contest’s popularity snowballed from there.
The other part of the reason for Australia’s involvement was that “we represented an ostensibly Western broadcaster in the middle of the Asia Pacific,” as Eurovision was pushing to tap into new markets, including the Asia Pacific, Dr. Carniel said.
In 2016, after Australia participated in the competition for a second time, SBS announced that it secured the rights to develop an Asian version of Eurovision. It was while this contest was being developed that SBS was given, in 2018, a five-year guarantee that Australia would compete in Eurovision — a guarantee that expires after this year’s event (the 2020 contest was canceled due to the pandemic).
But creating a new regional song competition proved to be more difficult than when Eurovision started in 1956. SBS announced in 2021 that its plans for an Asian contest were canceled — although a spinoff competition in the United States was held as a one-off event last year.
Through it all, viewership has remained strong here. And overseas, fans have gradually come to accept Australian participation in a European competition, Dr. Carniel said. “A big part of that is that we’ve taken it so seriously — we’ve taken great effort to send high-quality artists we’re proud of,” she said.
That has helped portray Australia as “a young, dynamic, innovative, creative nation, and that’s an important image for us to have out there,” she said.
The diverse range of contestants Australia has sent — including artists with migrant and Indigenous backgrounds — “disrupts some of the stereotypical images that people might have of Australia as blond, blue-eyed, Anglo,” she added.
Although it’s unclear if Australia will continue participating after this year, Dr. Carniel hopes it will.
“It has been a really fantastic opportunity for so many Australian artists,” she said. “And it’s not like Eurovision is going to go away from our screens.”
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