Eurovision, the Olympics of musical performance, is back this week! On the surface, the Eurovision Song Contest is a celebration of pan-genre Europop ornamented with folk instrumentation and plenty of kitsch; about 40 mostly European nations have sent a top performer to Turin, Italy, to sing and dance their way into the hearts of viewers and judges. But this event is more than just a competition: It has helped make global superstars of past contestants such as ABBA, Céline Dion, Olivia Newton-John, and, most recently, Måneskin. This year, six countries lead the pack of likely winners as tallied by bookmakers — Greece, Spain, the U.K., Sweden, Italy (last year’s champion), and Ukraine, which, with a dominating lead, is currently estimated to have an almost 50-50 chance of winning.
The Eurovision competition was created after World War II to encourage international cooperation — an aspect almost as important as the music itself. Countries often vote in blocs that conform to (or confound) their political alliances: A few of the Scandinavian countries, the United Kingdom and Ireland, and Eastern European nations, which included, for a time, both Russia and Ukraine, are typical groupings. And though this is a supposedly apolitical contest, it is rife with musical subtexts that reflect the international order. Russia was banned from this year’s edition because of its invasion of Ukraine; Georgia was disinvited from 2009’s Moscow-hosted contest for submitting a song that was viewed as a dig at Vladimir Putin, who was Russia’s prime minister at the time.
Ukraine’s 2022 submission, Kalush Orchestra’s “Stefania,” is sung in Ukrainian — “Sing me a lullaby, mum, / I want to hear your native word” — and is seemingly about a son reaching out to his mother. It peaks with an instrumental melody played on a traditional telenka flute. The son sings about traveling back to his mother through “fields of blooms” (Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe) and “by broken roads” (many roads have been bombed out during the invasion). Even though the song was written before the Russian invasion, it has taken on greater meaning as a symbol of Ukrainian national pride. One of the group’s members even joined the Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv during the early stages of the fighting. With the vast majority of Europeans voicing support for Ukraine against the war, all eyes are on the country this year. Listen as Switched on Pop breaks down the top six entries and explains the deeper meanings of “Stefania.”