“Nothing Comparable to National Identity in Europe”: What the American Song Contest Tells Us About Diversity and Identity in Eurovision and Europe

10.5.2022
The Eurovision Song Contest brings glitz, glamour, drama and politics to European and global audiences every year, but what can we learn about the contest by watching its new spin-off, the American Song Contest? Researcher Zoë Jay discusses how Eurovision audiences understand European and national identities, and how the politics of culture and diversity will influence the 2022 competition.

Eurovision fans around the world have been extra lucky this year with the launch of the long-running contest’s transatlantic spin-off, the American Song Contest (ASC). The new US-based adaptation takes the inter-national format of Eurovision, where European countries compete against each other and vote for the best song in Europe, and applies it to the US federal states and territories. It’s a chance to expand the Eurovision brand and attract new, American audiences. It's also a chance to look back on Eurovision from a new, external perspective. What can we learn about Eurovision – and Europe – from the American Song Contest? 

US = same, boring, Europe = diverse, exciting

Pouring over tweets from fans and commentators as they watched the semi-finals of the ASC reveals a curious discourse that draws attention to how audiences understand US culture and European culture as two separate entities. In particular, many fans are worried that the ASC would not – and could not – be as good as the original Eurovision, because US states lack the distinct cultural and linguistic identities of European nations. Those watching ASC have commented that state-vs-state competition within the US is ‘nothing comparable to national identity in Europe’. In this view, the linguistic and historical differences among European countries produce forty distinct music industries with unique national identities and musical tastes. The US music industry, in contrast, is apparently monolingual and homogenous, unable to showcase regional diversity because there isn’t any.

Even more importantly, the historic geopolitical and nationalist rivalries between European countries apparently make the competition fiercer; the American Song Contest will never be as interesting to watch as Eurovision because, according to one Twitter user, “You’ll never get the same rivalry as between countries that have literally been to war with each other.” 

This narrative presents a version of Eurovision that pits a supposedly homogenous, apolitical, and therefore boring, USA against a diverse, competitive, and therefore exciting Europe. It also has consequences for how we understand Europe beyond the song contest. The rich, varied national cultures are what makes Eurovision great, but they are also what makes Europe dangerous. Eurovision helps to save nationalistic countries from warring with each other by channelling that competitive energy into music. 

But like most narratives, the idea that Europe is full of (musical) national diversity while the USA is not, reflects a narrow and heavily stylised image of both continents. For starters, the US states and territories are not homogenous. The ASC is linguistically and culturally diverse – Las Marías (Arizona) and Cruz Rock (US Virgin Islands) sang in Spanish, while other artists’ performances paid tribute to their personal music heritages, from Korean K-Pop (AleXa, Oklahoma) to Samoan dance (Tenelle, American Samoa). And of course, the US states did go to war with each other, leaving legacies that continue to influence American politics and culture.

On the flip side, are European countries really so different from each other that the national music cultures are completely distinct? How does focusing on national differences at Eurovision shape how we understand the contest, and what do we overlook if we assume difference only occurs along national lines?

Diversity as national identity

National identity and country-vs-country competition are clearly still a core part of Eurovision. Audiences can’t vote for their country of residence but diasporic communities do often vote for the artist from their country of origin. The artists and national broadcasters frequently use their performances to present versions of their national identity and culture – ‘nation branding’ through particular musical or costuming choices has long been recognised as an important part of selling a particular version of a country’s national identity to the rest of Europe. 

National diversity at Eurovision therefore also ties into broader narratives of European integration and the idea of unity in diversity, where seemingly vastly different countries are brought together through a common ideal – whether it be economic and political cooperation or the quest for the perfect pop song. 

But this isn’t the only way we experience diversity in Eurovision – or Europe in general.

Diversity as creativity

The contest provides a stage for many forms of diversity and creativity that are not necessarily or exclusively national. This is clearest in the range of genres and styles of music present at the contest – Eurovision is famous for pop music and ballads, but is also home to rock, metal, rap, country, opera and everything in between. 

Performers express personal identities relating to gender, sexuality, personal experience, and subnational communities. Ukrainian singer, Jamala, won the contest in 2016 with her song, 1944, about the Stalinist purge of the ethnic Tatar population from Crimea. Meanwhile, at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, Wales competes instead of the United Kingdom. 

Global political dynamics also affect the contest in ways that transcend national politics – in March 2022 the European Broadcasting Union expelled Russia from the contest following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, but Israel continues to be permitted to participate despite its ongoing settler occupation of Palestine, highlighting hypocrisies in perceptions of who deserves support or recognition from Europe. The Covid-19 pandemic, too, has perhaps permanently changed the nature of the contest by requiring performers to pre-record backup versions of their songs in case they can’t attend live, and by limiting the size of artist and press delegations. 

National and Global Music Influences: Geopolitics vs Taste

Meanwhile, the idea that national music industries are totally separate overlooks how embedded Eurovision is in the global music arena. It provides huge audience to launch international careers, from ABBA to Celine Dion to Måneskin. 

These overlaps mean the factors that contribute to particular song choices each year reflect a mix of local, regional and global influences that can be hard to separate. What makes a song ‘Balkan’, ‘Scandinavian’ or ‘Australian’ rather than ‘European’? And how do we separate taste from identity? Eurovision is famous for being ‘rigged’ by bloc voting and neighbouring countries swapping their coveted ‘douze points’, but determining whether one country votes for another because they are geopolitical allies or because being neighbours means they share musical influences is very tricky indeed. 

The question of geopolitics vs taste will be an especially important one to watch out for in this year’s competition: fans and media commentators are already speaking about the Ukrainian entry receiving ‘sympathy votes’, but Stefania is an incredibly catchy song in its own right, combining elements of Ukrainian folk culture with contemporary hip-hop – if it does well, the claim that Ukraine received sympathy votes because of the war will potentially undercut the effort and expertise the artists, Kalush Orchestra, bring to the performance.

Looking beyond the national

Ideas about national, cultural and linguistic differences, as well as the broader narrative of warring countries being united through the power of song, are clearly still a central part of how we think about what makes Eurovision special. 

But for those of us who love the contest and want it to continue for many years to come, it is also important to be able to look beyond rigid narratives that contain or restrict our perceptions of it. Change and evolution are what keeps Eurovision fresh and exciting. Recognising that diversity and competition appear in many different forms, not purely through national boundaries, will help us to appreciate Eurovision and its new international spin-offs in all their glory.