It’s been almost 10 years since Australia was first invited to be a part of the European song contest, and we keep coming back.

Australia is 14,085 km away from Europe, but that hasn’t stopped us from participating in Eurovision for close to a decade.

Although Australia’s entry did not make the grand finale this year, fans of the event are still preparing early morning watch parties and strategically going on social media cleanses to avoid spoilers. But the question remains. Why is Australia involved at all?

Why is Australia in Eurovision?

The simple answer is that to participate in the song contest, countries need an active membership in the European Broadcasting Union — the organisers of the event. It is a group that Australian TV network SBS happens to belong to.

There are other ‘non-European’ nations that have participated in the contest, although all are closer geographically than Australia. Armenia and Ukraine are not part of the European Union but still compete. Morrocco made its first and only appearance in the 1980 contest, and Tunisia and Lebanon withdrew before they were meant to debut, likely due to tensions around the broadcast of Israel’s performance. Eurovision has always had a political element.

While Australia was first invited as a non-competing interval act in 2014, we have been invited to compete every year since. In 2018, SBS was given a guarantee that Australia could compete in Eurovision until 2023, a deal that was extended for this year.

Colour, costumes and national pride

Dr Kristin McGee from the School of Music at The Australian National University (ANU) says that part of Eurovision’s strength is its ability to capture complex contexts, cultures and identities.

An American by birth, McGee first encountered Eurovision when working in the Netherlands.

“The cultural and political context of watching the show very much intrigued me; noticing things like block voting, or how the queer community rallied against and for certain performers that would push the boundaries of gender performativity,” McGee says.

“And it seemed to be so unique in terms of representing European culture — having something that’s really a vehicle for looking at contemporary forms of voicing national identity through this European contest, was exciting to me. And it was something that I didn’t see in any other format throughout the world.”

McGee says Eurovision has increasingly become a platform where performers are able to not just represent a nation, but also question what a country’s national identity should represent.

“In the last 10 to 20 years, there’s been more experimentation of what could a national identity mean? And what should it mean? And how do we use this platform to create more inclusivity?” she says.

“You see a moving away from just purely traditional folk music, but not a complete rejection of it.

“You would expect elaborate beat design, elaborate production aesthetics of the voice. But at the same time, within those arrangements, you have room for folk singing or traditional instrumentation — such as the fiddle or didgeridoo.

“That blending seems to be an important formula for popular acts. I won’t say winners — but popular acts.”

What does Australia bring to Eurovision?

While at first McGee was sceptical about Australia’s inclusion in the competition, as she does not like the idea of Eurovision becoming an “Olympics for popular music”, she has since been won over.

“I thought this was a platform for Europe, we shouldn’t start opening it up to all these other countries,” she says. “But I started to see how Australia was taking this quite seriously, and not just because it gives them extra exposure or connects them, in some way, to Europe.

“And some of the entries were absolutely spellbinding, my favourite Australian entry so far was Kate Miller-Heidke’s Zero Gravity.”

McGee says she has wondered about the colonial context in which Australia engages with Eurovision.

“I couldn’t help but speculate on the colonial context of Australia with the United Kingdom and its role throughout Europe,” she says.

McGee notes that this year’s entry from Electric Fields embraces Indigenous culture and language, and queer performers, continuing the legacy of using Eurovision to question national identity. The group’s song ‘One Milkali (One Blood)’ incorporates Yankunytjatjara — an Aboriginal language of the Aṉangu peoples.

“It seems like they’re embracing the flexibility that Eurovision embodies by picking a song that could represent different communities than would be typically represented in an Australian high art context.”

Will Australia continue to be invited to push the boundaries at Eurovision? We will have to watch and wait to see.

Top image: A performance at the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Photo: Ben Houdijk/shutterstock.com

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