Voices: What do we want? A cheesy Eurovision Song Contest without the messy politics, please…

“Dirty, dirty competition!” chanted the Eurovision protesters, which is not something that happens often at the song contest. More surprising, they weren’t talking about this year’s UK’s entry, which appears to be performed in a derelict locker room.

Yesterday, thousands took to the streets of Malmo, host city of the 68th song contest, to march against Israel’s participation. Greta Thunberg – whose opera-singing mother represented Sweden at the 2009 competition – joined the fray, saying: “It’s outrageous and inexcusable for Eurovision to let the Israelis take part while committing a genocide.” Okay… except where were the protests against Russia competing in 2014, after its annexation of Crimea?

The focus of the anger is 20-year-old Eden Golan and her entry, “Hurricane”. Originally titled “October Rain”, which was widely interpreted as a reference to the Hamas attacks of October 7th, it was hastily rewritten so as not to breach Eurovision’s strict no-politics rule.

The ballad –  whose refrain is “I’m still broken from this hurricane” – was loudly booed by the arena crowd during Thursday’s semi-final. And yet it remains a favourite to win; overnight, its betting odds have shortened. A leak by Italian TV suggested that, of the 16 countries that competed yesterday, it had won almost 40 per cent of the televote.

You don’t need to be a Eurovision nut to know the show doesn’t do politics – until it does. And it rarely sits well.

This year’s contest has been particularly agitated. Local superstar Eric Saade, who reprised his 2011 entry, “Popular”, wore a keffiyah around his wrist – and got wiped from the official replay. Australia’s entry painted a pro-Palestinian message on his torso in an aboriginal language – and got knocked out. On Belgian TV, coverage of the second semi-final carried a message calling for a ceasefire in Gaza – and its act got knocked out, too.

The trouble with trying to be political at an apolitical event is that it sets you up as a prime target. Just ask Olly Alexander. When he was revealed to some fanfare as the UK’s entrant – draped smilingly in a Union flag, which he has since decried as “divisive” and “nationalistic” – he said he wanted to bring some “drama” to proceedings.

Careful what you wish for, Olly! He went on to sign an open letter by Queers For Palestine condemning Israel as an “apartheid regime”, and criticising its “Zionist propaganda” and “unthinking philosemitism” – but ever since, the 33-year-old singer has been dogged by calls by BDS activists demanding he withdraws from the contest. His gymnastic routine to “Dizzy” is nothing compared to the contortions in which he has found himself since he confirmed his performance would go ahead.

Like it or not, politics runs through Eurovision like a stick of Brighton rock. Portugal’s 1974 entry was used as the signal to trigger the Carnation Revolution that overthrew the fascist regime that had ruled for four decades. To this day, Cliff Richard, runner-up at the 1968 contest with “Congratulations”, maintains that he lost by a solitary point thanks to vote rigging by Spanish dictator General Franco.

Last year’s grand final had to be held in Liverpool on Ukraine’s behalf – but, amid concern about what he might say to a worldwide audience of a billion people, Volodymyr Zelensky was barred from making a televised speech. Lucky, then, that in recent years, the man with the biggest bullseye on his back at Eurovision had been Vladimir Putin.

Georgia’s 2009 entry was disqualified when organisers realised that disco banger “We Don’t Wanna Put In” might have a hidden meaning. Last year, at the Liverpool final, Croatian punk rockers Let 3 performed an “anti-war” song, dressed in tattered babydolls. They later confirmed, to no one’s surprise, that their entry was in fact, a satire on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the “crocodile psychopath” Putin.

But even at Eurovision, you can’t keep a brilliant song down. Russian officials argued that “1944” – Ukraine’s winning entry in 2016 – should have been disqualified under rules forbidding political content. But the haunting ballad about the mass deportation of Tatars from Crimea under Stalin’s orders during the Second World War, and with lyrics about strangers coming to “kill you all”, saying “we’re not guilty”, received a record 534 points… beating the favourites, Russia.

As well as occasional big-P political songs, Eurovision has been witness to several notable acts of social justice. In the 2013 semi-final, Finland’s Krista Siegfrids kissed one of her female singers at the end of her song “Marry Me”, an unannounced lesbian snog that prompted Turkey to pull the plug on broadcasting the grand final. It now refuses to compete in the “degenerate” contest.

Flags are a recurring problem for Eurovision organisers. A few years ago, members of Iceland’s entry, the industrial metal band Hatari, were fined for waving Palestine signs in the green room. In 2000, Israeli broadcast authorities disowned its official entry, “Seamach (Happy)”, a song about finding love across Middle Eastern borders. At the live final, which was held just weeks before a critical peace summit at Camp David, the band – who had only ever put themselves forward as a joke – pulled out Syrian flags and, less explicably, cucumbers.

This year’s ugly protests against Israel seem to be of a different order altogether. How is it that a song contest launched after the Second World War to return peace and unity to a broken continent now requires police to be drafted in from a neighbouring country to help maintain order?

Perhaps what Eurovision needs right now is a little less politics, and more cheesy songs about “Love Love Peace Peace”?