Feature

The Armenian Genocide, as Power Ballad

Glitter, glam, and ethnic nationalism: The tricky politics of the South Caucasus come to Eurovision.

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The controversy began long before the first fog machines appeared on stage.

It was still months before anyone would cast a vote in the Eurovision Song Contest — that explosion of glitter and lyrical gibberish that constitutes the campest night of television Europe has to offer — but Armenia’s entry, a three minute tour de force power ballad released March 12 titled “Don’t Deny,” already had organizers on edge.

Armenia’s Eurovision team claimed it had no intention to insert politics into the glam fest, which holds its final round of competition Saturday, May 23. The song was about family, generational relationships, and love, they said.

But coming, as this year’s entry does, in the wake of the centennial commemorations of the 1915 Ottoman-era mass slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians — Armenia and other countries call the events a genocide, a label that Turkey, well, denies — organizers were skeptical. Lyrics like “time is ticking and you keep thinking that you are tricking your heart, so don’t deny, ever, don’t deny,” did not reassure. Neither did the video, which included scenes of a family dressed in World War I-era clothing slowly disappearing.

The Armenian team played coy: The song “is about love, unity and peace: the family as a symbol of humanity, alternation of generations, the bird as a symbol of peace, the keeper of the national values and traditions,” said Gohar Gasparyan, head of Armenia’s Eurovision Delegation on her public Facebook page on March 14. “Eurovision is a song contest with its strict rules and not a political platform.”

But per Eurovision rules, countries can be disqualified for “lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature.” Faced with potentially having to withdraw, in late May, Team Armenia agreed to change the name of its entry to “Face the Shadow” — though the lyrics remained untouched — and performed the song in the semi-final round, to mixed reviews. (Turkey, which might have kicked up a fuss, has not participated in Eurovision since 2013, though plans to return next year.)

Armenia, along with its South Caucasus counterparts Georgia and Azerbaijan, is a latecomer to the nearly six-decade-old spectacle that is Eurovision, an annual song contest that attracts hundreds of millions of viewers. The country only joined the contest in 2006, Georgia in 2007, and Azerbaijan in 2008. But in their brief time on the stage, these countries have shown themselves willing to inject an element of unpredictability into what is supposed to be an apolitical contest that brings European countries together.

The South Caucasus region marks Eurovision’s furthest eastern boundary. For these countries, how they fare in the contest is a high-stakes matter: Eurovision provides a rare opportunity for them to be seen and heard on an international stage, and they take opportunity for exposure in the West seriously. When Azerbaijan won hosting rights for the contest in 2011, for instance, the country spent, by some measures, approximately a whopping $721 million on Eurovision-related expenses, including $277 million on construction work on a new venue specifically for the contest, called Crystal Hall. (By comparison, when Norway hosted the event in 2010 it spent $37 million.)

“Eurovision offers a platform and opportunity to be on an equal footing, so that they can compete at the same level with Russia, Sweden, and the U.K.,” said Paul Jordan, a London-based commentator and expert on the song contest whose Ph.D. thesis on the topic has earned him the nickname “Dr. Eurovision.” “With the World Cup or Olympics, they can’t.”

But if the stakes of the contest are high, political tensions are higher in a region characterized by national rivalries and frozen conflicts always on the verge of boiling over. And so, from fights over song lyrics to the location of the contest itself, the Caucasian countries’ brief time as Eurovision rivals has been marked by tit-for-tat spats that seem aimed less at winning, and more at defending national dignity.

In 2009, a video montage during the opening sequence of Armenia’s semi-final round performance featured a shot of the monument known as “We Are Our Mountains” — a statue of a man and a woman carved from rock that has become an internationally-recognized symbol of Nagorno-Karabakh, the slice of disputed territory that sits between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani team lodged an official complaint with Eurovision authorities. The image was edited out during the final round performance, but — never a country to give up easily — Armenia found a roundabout way to ensure it would be broadcast a second time: When presenting its voting results, singer Sirusho held up a clipboard with the image mounted on the back.

That same year, Azerbaijan’s national broadcaster, Ictimai Television, was fined after a European Broadcasting Union investigation found it had deliberately blurred out the number to vote for Armenia’s entry. Azerbaijanis who had voted for Armenia in the contest that year also reported being questioned by representatives from the national security ministry.

Armenia, for its part, has been no more willing to set aside differences for the sake of pop harmony. When Azerbaijan won the chance to host the contest in 2012, Armenia withdrew from participating, citing security concerns related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. (In the months leading up to the contest, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had said that “the Armenians of the world” were “our main enemies.”)

Not to be left out, Georgia entered in 2009 with a song not-so-obliquely-titled “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” which alluded to a series of post-Soviet grievances with Russia that culminated in the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. Despite protests, Georgia insisted that the song did not contain political statements.” The team refused to alter its entry and eventually withdrew.

For the South Caucasus, Eurovision is “a show of real life diplomacy,” said Arzu Geybullayeva, a regional analyst, correspondent, and blogger originally from Azerbaijan who has previously worked in conflict resolution in the region. “Because we are so used to politicizing everything … this contest also becomes a tool to show who is stronger, better, and faster.”

The injection of politics into Armenia’s entry this year didn’t stop at the song title. This year, Armenia has shaped its entry in an effort to harness its most powerful weapon for achieving Eurovision glory: its widespread diaspora which, at approximately 8 million, numbers more than the actual population of the country itself, and spans the globe from Los Angeles to Tehran to Buenos Aires.

Armenia has sought to take advantage of these numbers by assembling a motley crew of Armenian artists — one from each continent — to form a band called Genealogy. They’re reportedly all descendants of survivors of the 1915 massacre, and, according to their official Eurovision bio, are “united by the blood in their veins, which contains Armenian genetics, and by music as the universal language of the world.” (Members of Genealogy were given citizenship in the Republic of Armenia in order to represent the country at Eurovision.)

The group also happens to fit perfectly into Armenia’s 2015 national branding effort, which has prominently featured a forget-me-not flower with five petals, each symbolizing the five continents where Genocide survivors found new homes. The symbol has been showcased on everything from jewelry, to umbrellas and ceramic dinner plates.

The song “is part of the same state-sanctioned package of commemorative symbolism,” said Rik Adriaans, an anthropologist who is researching the role of popular culture in the relations between Armenia and the Armenian diaspora at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

That branding, coincidentally, happens to give Genealogy an upper hand in Eurovision. Voters are not allowed to vote for their own countries. But Armenia, because of its large diaspora, can get around this rule, said Adriaans. “Whereas in the Netherlands, the reporter always tell you ‘please keep in mind that you cannot vote for our own country,’ if you watch the broadcast from the Armenian state television channel, the reporter is always urging viewers in the diaspora to vote for Armenia.” Genealogy, with its diverse cast of artists, caters to these far-flung fans.

On May 19, Genealogy made it through the semi-finals, joining dozens of other countries that will compete for the title of Eurovision 2015 on May 23. Two days later on May 21, the Azeris also made it through, setting the stage for a potential clash. Some words of advice for those looking to catch a glimpse of national rivalry rearing its head through all of the fog and glitter: Keep an eye out for any suspicious clipboards.

Photo credit: Nigel Treblin/Getty Images

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