All eyes are on Ukraine as the song contest is threatened with derailment
What’s so significant about the number 21?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not how many times we’ve won the Eurovision (we’re good, but not that good).
Twenty one senior members of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest organising committee in Ukraine walked out last week - including executive producers Victoria Romanova and Oleksandr Kharebin, the event manager and head of security.
It’s the latest in a series of setbacks for the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza - Ukraine’s finances have previously come under scrutiny, as well as the seemingly-controversial location for this year’s show.
From the off, Ukraine has found itself on the back foot. Jamala won for the country in 2016 with her politically-charged power ballad 1944.
Seemingly an outlier for first place, Jamala - a Crimean Tatar jazz singer - evoked imagery of the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Josef Stalin with the track, which has been interpreted as a criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Jamala, whose real name is Susana Jamaladynova, has not been home since shortly after the annexation of the peninsula. Her parents and extended family still live there.
Prior to her victory, Jamala had said if she did win it would show that Europeans were "ready to hear about the pain of other people".
Russia reacted accordingly - how did a song with such an obvious political motivation make it into the contest; the second home of Johnny Logan and Jedward? Not only did they threaten to boycott the event in the future, they requested a full inquiry into the conclusion.
“This is partly a consequence of the propaganda war of information that is being waged against Russia,” claimed Russian MP Elena Drapeko. “There is a general demonisation of Russia – that we are all evil, that our athletes are doping, that our planes violate airspace.”
Konstantin Kosachev, the top foreign policy official of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said the vote had not been about the quality of the performances: “Music lost, because victory clearly did not go to the best song, and the contest lost because political attitudes prevailed over fair competition.”
Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, wrote on her Facebook page that next year the Russian entry should be about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and even offered a bizarre English-language chorus for the potential song: “Assad bloody, Assad worst. Give me prize, that we can host.”
“Eurovision is their bloodsport,” William Lee Adams, journalist and founder of Wiwibloggs - the largest Eurovision fansite in Europe - told Newstalk. “They are probably smiling pretty now watching the situation unfold in Ukraine.”
It’s worth noting that despite these tensions, Russians gave the Ukraine entry 10 points, while Ukraine gave the Russian entry the full 12 points in the popular vote in 2016.
It costs a pretty penny to host the annual cultural event.
A team of economists calculated that the last four host cities forked out a combined total of £129m (€150m) putting on the song contest. Royal Bank of Scotland put together a nifty list about the amount of programming you can produce for the total cost of the Eurovision, among other novel purchases (spoiler: Sweden’s budget could get you 24,000 iPhone 6’s).
Inevitably, the cost is far too great for some to even compete - most notably, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) successfully persuaded Hungary in pulling out of the competition in 2010.
But despite pressure and increased attention from their fellow competitors, Ukraine persisted. The country allocated €15m to the show’s 2017 proceedings. Minister of Culture Yevhen Nyshchuk said that additional support was likely to come from elsewhere in an attempt to alleviate fears.
“These are usually sponsors’ funds from different media companies, sponsors. This happens almost every time,” he said. “People’s concerns and Ukrainian Finance Minister Oleksandr Danylyuk’s anxiety about earnings and expenditures are natural.”
Despite these reassurances, it was too much for the former National Teleivions Company of Ukraine's Director General, who tendered his resignation in an effort to draw attention to the broadcaster’s Eurovision budget crisis.
Adams said that the events that followed turned into “a bit of a circus”, speculating that the walk-outs were prompted by a bigger internal issue due to their past professionalism and experience.
Despite this, the committee are more determined than ever to pull off the show.
“After their win, it’s clear the Ukraine want to show their professional capability in hosting the show. They wanted to prove that they can. They want to be seen as looking West and as being a part of the European community.”
Another issue that arose this year for fans was the allocation of tickets.
Tickets were due to go on sale on February 8th, but this was subsequently cancelled without warning. The European Broadcasting Union released a statement saying the decision “was taken by the Anti-monopoly Committee of Ukraine”, without clarification as to why.
Jon Ola, executive supervisor of the contest, criticised this statement saying “the European Broadcasting Union recognises that any tender process needs to be transparent and fair”, implying that some party was benefiting from organisers bypassing standard selling process. (Concert.UA is the official ticket seller for the Eurovision Song Contest, as appointed by the National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine).
Technical issues also left many fans frustrated. Adams said for some fans, the website didn’t recognise phone numbers that weren’t Ukrainian. On top of that, some potential buyers experienced the site freezing - this paired with the fact that the website would time out every 15 minutes meant that many people couldn’t secure tickets initially. Some people thought they had purchased tickets after receiving PDF tickets by email, only for their payments to be later rejected.
A spokesman from the Eurovision Song Contest blamed the high demand for tickets for some people experiencing problems in purchasing.
This is also the first year in which a pre-sale hasn’t taken place for Eurovision 'superfans', in which a reserve of premium tickets are allocated to fan-club members and the like, in an effort to avoid front rows being crowded with "corporate suits".
“Fans are the lifeblood of the Eurovision,” Adams said. “They make for good television. This is the first year that no special packages have gone on sale before the general release.
“They’ve now been put in a weird position where they don’t know whether to purchase a ticket now, or wait it out in the hopes that these special packages are released.”
The Orthodox Church? Not big fans of the Eurovision, apparently.
The venue choice for the opening ceremony - the Saint Sophia complex, a well-known religious landmark which dates back to the 17th Century - has also proving to be controversial, with organisers receiving several complaints.
“Ukraine wants to show a modern take on tradition,” Adams explained. “The choice has ruffled feathers, obviously due to the perception that the competition is a gay festival. Personally, I think it’s fantastic.”
He sees more of an issue with the venue choice due to its capacity and its look, rather than the religious connotations, describing the current venue as resembling an exhibition hall. In his opinion, Odessa would have been a better choice.
“It’s in a decidedly unsavoury part of town. Apparently, there is nothing there. It’ll look fantastic [on television] regardless.”
As regards to the potential winner? It’s still far too early to tell. However, William reckons Italy’s Francesco Gabbani could be in for a shout with his song Occidentali's Karma, as well as Australia's yet-to-be-decided entrant.
When it comes to our own Brendan Murray, however, Adams is unforgiving.
“He sounds like Ed Sheeran if he was castrated,” he said. “That could be a good thing, because nobody else will sound like him.”
He also called the United Kingdom’s entrant Lucy Jones’ song “dire”, but said her ability to emote on stage could save her.
Our issue - and the UK’s issue with qualifying lies i our ability to move with the times, according to William.
“Ireland lost their way in the nineties,” he said. “Eurovision moved from small state show to a technicolour extravaganza, but they didn’t move with it.
“We can blame voting blocks, but it comes down to more than that. It doesn’t help either that established artists fear getting into the Eurovision game. Ireland needs to do more to encourage these artists to get involved.