Photo credit: HRT
Saturday 11th February, affectionately dubbed Super Saturday by Eurofans, saw seven songs win the opportunity to represent their countries at the Eurovision Song Contest 2023. One such song, ‘Mama ŠČ!’ by Croatian rock band Let 3, immediately drew attention for the band’s outlandish costumes, performance and – it quickly emerged – political lyrics.
Discussions immediately took place among fans as to whether such a song should be allowed in the contest; the EBU goes to great lengths to emphasise in its rules that Eurovision is a “non-political event” and that delegations should ensure “the ESC shall in no case be politicised and/or instrumentalized and/or otherwise brought into disrepute in any way”, including through the use of song lyrics.
However, is this rule as black and white as one might expect, and what could this mean for Let 3’s place in the contest? To find out, we’re going to dive deeper into the lyrics of ‘Mama ŠČ!’, as well as looking at when political lyrics have resulted in a ban or flown under the radar. Finally, we’re going to explore whether a music event spanning history and many nations can ever be truly apolitical.
Let 3 and ‘Mama ŠČ!’
When Let 3 competed in Croatia’s national final, Dora 2023, they dominated both the jury and televote portions of the voting. To a casual viewer, unfamiliar with the Croatian language or music scene, this may have been a confusing experience. A group of five men standing in a line, dressed in a parody of military uniform, sing what appears to be a fairly simple, repetitive song. Towards the climax of the song, they rip off their brightly coloured military greatcoats to reveal nude, sequinned body stockings, with the exception of one member who brandishes two large rockets, the word ‘NINLE’ emblazoned on his forehead. While the weird and wonderful has always been a staple of Eurovision, many fans feel that the contest has moved past so-called ‘joke entries’ and yet Let 3’s offering seemed to have all the hallmarks of one. Why then were both jurors and Croatian televoters alike seemingly so keen to have it represent them this year?
Firstly, Let 3 are a hugely popular band, not only in Croatia but in other former Yugoslav republics, and have been performing since 1987. They are known for their provocative performances and means of promotion, not limited to but including selling a blank CD for their first album ‘Nečuveno‘; refusing to sell or distribute the sole existing copy of their second album ‘Jedina‘ (and staging a fake suicide by firing squad when their record company tried to flout this), as well as copious amounts of nudity. Therefore, while the mere presence of Let 3 in Dora may have been a strange experience for a non-Balkan Eurofan, it was in all likelihood quite tame for what a Croatian viewer might expect from them!
However, the controversy in Let 3’s Eurovision offering stems not from the band’s presentation but from the lyrical content of ‘Mama ŠČ!’ Lyrics such as ‘Mama, mama, mama, I’m going to play/Mama, I’m going to war’ cement the song’s anti-war sentiment, equating dictators who start wars with children playing foolish and dangerous games. In and of itself, this might not be enough to make people question the song’s place at Eurovision. After all, plenty of songs criticising the concept of war have appeared in the contest, such as ‘Wars For Nothing’ by Hungary’s Boggie in 2015.
With that being said, the song also includes lyrics that appear to take a clear anti-Putin/Russia stance. The reference to a “tractor” throughout the song appears to refer to Putin’s 70th birthday last year, where he received the vehicle from Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. There is also speculation that the lyric “crocodile psychopath” refers to the semi-synthetic opioid desomorphine, which has the street name krokodil in Russia due to the scaly sores and necrosis that occur at the injection site. In his aforementioned military uniform, frontman Damir ‘Mrle’ Martinović appears to represent Stalin, with the rocket-brandishing man’s forehead appearing to refer to Lenin. Furthermore, the wearing of drag by the entire band may well have been donned to criticise the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments of Putin and his regime.
Once the meaning of the song was ascertained, many Eurofans speculated whether it would be allowed in Eurovision. This was only fuelled further by the fact that the Eurovision website did not immediately post the band as Croatia’s entrant, as it had with the other Super Saturday acts. While the official Eurovision Twitter account announced them as the winners of Dora 2023, there was no mention of them representing Croatia at Eurovision, as there had been for other winning acts that night. However, both band and song have since been confirmed as Croatia’s act, with their Dora 2023 performance also being posted on Eurovision’s official YouTube channel. Speculation aside, it seems that Let 3 will be allowed to perform ‘Mama ŠČ!’ in Liverpool for now.
When the EBU Said No
EBU’s assertion that Eurovision remain a non-political event has resulted in songs being banned from the contest before. In 2009, Stephane and 3G were to represent Georgia with their song ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’. However, it was speculated that – due to the pronunciation of the words ‘put in’ and the very recent Russo-Georgian war in 2008 – the act were actually using the song to express anti-Putin sentiments, namely “We don’t want Putin.” Although the group denied this, Georgia would ultimately withdraw from Eurovision that year, refusing to change the lyrics or song when asked to do so by the EBU.
Most recently, Belarus received a three year ban from the contest when, in 2021, they selected Galasy ZMesta and their song ‘Ya nauchu tebya (I’ll Teach You)’. Laden with idiomatic language, the song nonetheless appeared to criticise those who opposed Lukashenko’s regime, including 2020 participants VAL, who had not been asked to return for 2021 due to their presence at anti-Lukashenko protests, with the delegation accusing them of having “no conscience”. Conversely, Galasy ZMesta appeared to use their lyrics to accuse those against Lukashenko of blindly following his detractors: “I’ll teach you how to dance to a tune/I’ll teach you how to take bait/I’ll teach you how to walk along the line.”
Eurofans were outraged and a Change.org petition was immediately established, calling for Belarus’ withdrawal from the competition. Sweden also retaliated by removing Belarus from Melodifestivalen’s international jury, replacing them with the United Kingdom. Galasy ZMesta were ordered to change the song, which they did. However, their replacement, ‘Pesnyu pro zaytsa (Song About Hares)’, was still felt to criticise those opposed to Lukashenko (and perhaps even the band’s song itself) through the use of a fable: “Hey, little hare, you’re still a boy/Learn good sense from the hens/Hey, little fox, you are my little sister/But what the song is about, I myself don’t understand.” The EBU felt the new song would still bring the contest’s reputation into disrepute and Belarus will not be able to re-apply for membership until at least 2024.
There has been some argument that Let 3’s lyrics are even more on the nose than Galasy ZMesta’s, which mainly relied on analogies and idioms to get its point across. If enough people call for it, could Croatia’s delegation face further scrutiny from the EBU? As Let 3 are predominantly a political band, would this also result in their withdrawal, since such an act would likely to refuse to alter their stance?
When the EBU Said Yes
Although overtly political lyrics have been banned from Eurovision, songs that appear to reflect current political situations have been permitted to remain in the contest. The most notable example in recent years is ‘1944’ by Jamala in 2016. Although the lyrics referred to the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Stalin in the 1940s, a group including Jamala’s great-grandmother, many felt the song also reflected the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014: “When strangers are coming/They come to your house/They kill you all and say/’We’re not guilty.'” Jamala herself acknowledged the song’s relevance to the contemporary political climate, “Now the Crimean Tatars are on occupied territory…I would not want to see history repeat itself.” Russian politicians immediately accused the song of “capitalising on the tragedy of the Tatars to impose on European viewers a false picture of alleged harassment of the Tatars in the Russian Crimea.” However, the EBU found no political speech in the song’s title or lyrics and ‘1944’ was permitted to compete, ultimately securing a second victory for Ukraine.
There have also been instances were songs with seemingly political allusions have been allowed to remain in the contest, albeit with minor adjustments. In 2015, Armenian group Genealogy sent a song called ‘Don’t Deny’ to the contest, drawing the ire of Azerbaijan, who claimed that the title referred to their denial of the Armenian genocide, whose centenary was commemorated only a month before the contest. The delegation denied any political subtext, swiftly changing the title to ‘Face the Shadow’, although “Don’t deny” remained the song’s refrain. It seems then that the EBU’s issue arises only when a country blatantly uses their song to promote or criticise a political regime or situation. However, if this is the case, does ‘Mama ŠČ!’ not directly fall into this category?
Can Eurovision Be Truly Apolitical?
We have seen numerous examples of times when the EBU has prevented a political song from appearing in Eurovision, but should Eurovision remain as apolitical as the EBU wishes? In an article for Cambridge University newspaper, Varsity, Gabriel Humphreys points out that “Art is inherently political.” Indeed, some of the greatest songs ever written reflect the political landscape the artist finds themselves navigating. Two of this year’s Vidbir entries – ‘When God Shut the Door’ by Jerry Heil and ‘Kolyskova’ by KRUTЬ – were written with the current conflict in Ukraine in mind. Should music reflecting a political situation that shapes the artist’s life and experience not be heard on a large platform purely in the interests of keeping the contest apolitical? The EBU itself clearly doesn’t think so, or such songs would never appear in the contest.
Additionally, Humphreys points out in his article that “Art is also subjective, and what is ‘political’ to some is not for others.” He cites Armenia’s 2010 entry, ‘Apricot Stone’ by Eva Rivas, as an example, pointing out that some in Turkey felt it contained veiled references to the Armenian genocide, something Rivas strenuously denied. “For pieces of art to meet everyone’s requirements as apolitical,” Humphreys argues, “We would have to leach all meaning, imagery, emotions — all humanity from them.” Is this really something we want?
Of course, Let 3’s references appear to be anything but veiled and it remains to be seen if this will cause them or the EBU issues later down the line. However, it does appear that the desire to keep Eurovision apolitical is easier said than done. The contest itself was born from a desire to bring countries together after a global political conflict and current geopolitical conflicts continue to serve as the backdrop for numerous songs and contests. From geopolitical voting to the withdrawal of countries when an enemy hosts, politics will always influence elements of the competition, despite the EBU’s best efforts.
What do you think? Should Let 3 be forced to change their song to remain in the competition? What is your stance on political entries or allusions in Eurovision? Feel free to let us know in the comments and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube to get all the latest Eurovision content.