It’s the world’s largest—and probably strangest—music event, and every year nearly 200 million viewers tune in for the loopy, addictive competition that is Eurovision. This year, the winner made history: Kalush Orchestra, a Ukrainian folk-rap band, won the contest on Saturday with the most points ever awarded to a country’s act.
The annual songwriting contest pits mostly European nations against one another in what Forbes‘ Robert Hart has called “ … an annual tradition that consumes the region in an enthusiastic fervor culminating in a high-energy musical extravaganza so utterly bizarre in nature that it leaves the rest of the world scratching its head.”
Though often hailed as one of the few events that can bring the world together, this year’s competition took place in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The always-eccentric show opened on the streets of Turin, Italy with a message of unity: a group of 1,000 musicians performing John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.”
The contest is a way for each country to get bragging rights for its homegrown musical talent. But this year, it was also a way for sympathetic nations to show support to Ukraine. During the event, many people in the audience waved yellow-and-blue flags, and some artists even made brief statements while on the stage despite a ban on political messaging onstage.
Ukraine’s win had already been predicted “ ... as much on sympathy as on merit,” writes Ani Bundel for NBC. Its entry in the competition, Kalush Orchestra’s “Stefania,” is a tribute to frontman Oleg Psyuk’s mother, who still lives in Kalush, Ukraine—the place that inspired the group’s name.
With lyrics that translate to phrases such as, “I’ll always find my way home, even if the roads are destroyed,” the song has also been interpreted as a homage to Ukraine as a motherland during the conflict.
“On some days there are rockets flying over people’s houses and it is like a lottery—no one knows where it will hit,” Psyuk told CNN before the band’s performance. “As we speak, our country and our culture is under threat. But we want to show that we are alive, Ukrainian culture is alive; it is unique, diverse, and beautiful.”
“It could be that all European citizens might think of giving a political signal through a vote to Ukraine. And I think that it could be a right signal,” said Carlo Fuortes, the chief executive of the national broadcaster RAI, last month, per the New York Times,
It wasn’t the first time war has marked the competition. And despite its purported neutrality, writes cultural historian and Eurovision expert Jess Carniel for the Conversation, Eurovision has always been political.
“Eurovision and Ukraine’s landslide success in the popular vote demonstrates what we can think of as participatory diplomacy–when an audience actively participates in the cultural platform to shape their own political message in response to what is communicated to them,” Carniel notes.
Organized by the European Broadcasting Union, the competition has catapulted artists such as Céline Dion and ABBA to international fame.
The all-male members of Kalush Orchestra were given special permission to leave Ukraine, which has forbidden most men from leaving the country during the war. One of the members of the group, dancer and social media manager Slavik Hnatenko, was not present at the competition—he decided to stay behind and fight for his country.
In an interview from Kyiv, Hnatenko told the Times that Kalush Orchestra’s performance at Eurovision was just as important as his service in the war.
The win is a morale boost both within the embattled nation and for a growing diaspora of Ukrainian refugees. It brings “ ... incredible happiness for Ukraine and Ukrainian people,” Ivanna Khvalyboga, who fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion and is now in Poland, told the BBC. The song is being hailed as an inspiration for both soldiers and civilians.
Given that the winner usually hosts the event the year after their victory, the current situation in Ukraine raises the question of whether the country will be able to stage the contest. The decision will be up to the European Broadcasting Union.
But for now, Ukrainians remain hopeful that next year’s competition will take place in their country. Among them is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In an Instagram post, he vowed to host the show if it is viable: “We will do our best to one day host the participants and guests of Eurovision in Ukrainian Mariupol. Free, peaceful, rebuilt!”