The Slavic Song Contest: the home of kitsch Eurovision classics
The Return of Eurovision
It’s that time of the year again. While half of Europe roll their eyes, the other half rub their hands together because the wonderfully weird and controversial Eurovision Song Contest is returning. For some, it’s a joke, but for others, mainly Slavic countries in Central/Eastern Europe, Eurovision is a serious competition with some serious benefits.
This year’s grand final, which is the competition’s 66th year, will be held on May 14th and hosted by last year’s winner, Italy.
Rock and roll band Måneskin helped seal the deal for the Italians, and in just under a year, they’ve taken the world by storm. Fronted by gender-fluid Damiano David, Måneskin have rocketed to the top of the Global Spotify charts with their Tik-Tok viral sensation, ‘Beggin.’ They have presented at the Grammys, been nominated for Brit Awards and even performed on Saturday Night Live. Eurovision’s potential for up-and-coming artists has never been stronger.
But in Eastern Europe, there is less of a priority for individual worldwide domination, but rather, a focus on creating acts that celebrate culture, history, and tradition. And for this reason alone, these Slavic nations have created some of the most iconic and memorable moments in Eurovision history.
But why is this the case? It’s best to look at modern history. The 1990s were a decade of immense change for Europe. 1989 marked the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it fell Communism. This ideological shift opened up countries from the Eastern Bloc to Western Europe. One of the many doors that opened as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the Eurovision Song Contest.
After being stifled for decades under communism, the contest allowed countries in the East to reclaim their identity, culture and pride while also presenting their nation to interested tourists from the west. Some nations succeeded, and some failed, in spectacular fashion. Here is a pit-stop tour of Slavic Europe through a Eurovision lens.
One of Eurovision’s most memorable moments came from Poland’s 2014 entry by Donatan and Cleo, with a saucy track called ‘We are Slavic.’ The performance infuses modern pop-rap with Polish folk aesthetics. The video became the most-watched video in Poland that year and has been watched by over 50 million people on social media.
Seductively washing clothes and massaging wooden sticks, the performance was considered by many as pornographic and sexist. But by others, it was considered tongue and cheek — poking fun at the stereotypes of Slavic culture. Lyrics include:
We Slavs know how vodka affects us
I always eat everything my mom puts on the plate
This is the turbulent blood
This is the call to brawl
We Slavs know how to sculpt our bodies
Blood full of testosterone
Strength, weight, and crafty bluff […]
We do what no one else does
Stealing cars from all over the world
Regardless of your take, it is an undeniable classic.
When it comes to selling your culture, no country does it better than Ukraine. In 2016, Ukraine won the contest with Jamala’s historical ballad, ‘1944.’ The track was an incredibly powerful narrative of the deportation of Crimean Tatars in the 1940s by the Soviet Union at the hands of Joseph Stalin. Jamala drew upon her family history and Crimean Tartar heritage when giving her captivating performance.
The ambiguity of the lyrical content means that it can be attributed to other tragedies, past and present. Because of this, Jamala faced being removed from the contest due to its rules against having songs with political messages. Fortunately, ‘1944’ was allowed to compete, allowing Ukraine to tell its story to an audience of over 100 million viewers.
In last year’s contest, Ukraine put forward another belter. Electronic band, Go_A performed their up-tempo track ‘SHUM,’ meaning ‘Spring’ — in Ukrainian. The track was well received by an electronic loving Europe. Their music video, which was released a few months before the contest, was successful in drumming up hype ahead of the competition. The concept of the video featured Chernobyl and the disturbing beauty that engulfs the town of Pripyat, which lies north of Kyiv. Again, this is a classic example of how Eastern Europe utilises their own stereotypes and connotations — turning them into incredible art.
But sometimes, there are no words.
Serbia’s songs are often a mixed bag. But Konstakta is this year’s dark horse. It is the classic formula that works so well for Balkan countries; a catchy folk-inspired melody, with some simple but effective on-stage gimmicks. Serbia is one of the few countries that embrace their native language, relying on authenticity for a positive reception.
Occasionally, the Balkan states can throw you a curveball. In 2021, Serbia passed the baton to Hurricane, a three-piece girl band with a high energy track called ‘Loco Loco’ – which can only be described as three minutes of pure mania.
Despite out-of-time choreography, pitchy vocals and an erratic song structure, Hurricane scored surprisingly high, placing above some of the favourites in the competition. One component of the ranking is that they were entertaining. But more critically, Hurricane embodies a specific genre of music that is famous throughout the region: Turbo- Folk.
Turbo-Folk is a subgenre of pop, with its origins in Serbia. The stars tend to be tall, glamorous women with big hair and revealing clothing. The labels and performers tend to be associated with nationalists and gangsters, giving the artists a dangerous but exciting image.
But this style of music is not exclusive to Serbia and the Western Balkans; it has parallel genres across Central and Eastern Europe, such as Chalga in Bulgaria, Manele in Romania and Disco Polo in Poland. This folk take on pop music is what Eurovision is all about: a catchy song, a sprinkling of culture and a big dose of fun.
When Eurovision was created in 1945, its purpose was to unite a continent ravaged by war. It was meant to celebrate talent, culture and music in a way that isn’t toxic and overtly nationalist. Yes, Eurovision is a bit trash, a bit kitsch and cheesy, but who cares? As war rages in eastern Ukraine, the message of Eurovision is more pertinent than ever.
It’s time for Europe to spend an evening together, celebrating each other through 39 strange songs — not taking ourselves too seriously along the way.