Eurovision means a great childhood memory for my generation. I was born around the mid 1970s and was a young boy during the heydays of the contest when there was only one channel to watch. It was surely a part of the popular culture, but a great fun aspect of it. Along with Disney cartoons, Dallas, Knight Rider and the Ice-Skating Competition, the Eurovision Song Contest was the king for most of us.
The history of the Eurovision Song Contest began to test the limits of live television broadcast technology by EBU in 1956. The Contest was based on Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival and only seven nations participated. In the following years, the Contest grew into a true pan-European tradition. Initially each country had to sing in their country’s national language, but the rules on language use were relaxed in 1973, and the following year ABBA would win with Waterloo.
The Turkish state broadcaster TRT started the first TV broadcast in January 1968 three days a week. In 1969, the first moon landing of astronauts and Zeki Muren’s Ankara concert was broadcasted. Turkey’s journey of Eurovision started in 1975 with Semiha Yanki’s ‘Seninle Bir Dakika’ (One Minute with You) which finished last in the debut. The second half of the 70s was a tough period for Turkey. The conflict and fight between left & right on the streets, lack of petrol, queues for basic materials were quite common. All these issues had their place in the lyrics of the songs of the era. In 1980, Ajda Pekkan placed the 15th with a funky Attila Özdemiroğlu song, Petr’oil and the song was a hit in the country. Ajda was already famous with her Turkish versions of songs of Enrico Macias, Dalida, Gloria Gaynor and more. She was remembered by her performance with Enrico Macias during a concert in Olympia, Paris in 1976.
A Spark in the Dark, Eurovision in the 80s
Turkey had a massive stroke due to the coup d’etat in September 1980. Although this was not a good period for Anatolian Pop and Rock artists such as Moğollar, Selda Bağcan, Cem Karaca and Edip Akbayram, it was going to be the heyday for some pop, classical artists and Arabesque music as well. Most were unable to perform music due to the political unrest in the country based on their leftist stance. Some musicians had to flee abroad, while some had spent days in jail and were unable to make a living with music. The genre was never popular for the state broadcaster, TRT who was the sole organizer body for Eurovision, as a member of the EBU. Most songs and musicians were banned from the screen during the 70s and it was a tough job to bypass the authority of TRT with its infamous strict censorship. One of the most successful artists was Barış Manço with his humanistic approach, taking no sides. He had good relations with TRT, became a TV personality during the 80s with shows for kids, travel programmes and a popular musical style leaving his 70s progressive and psychedelic stance as a nice memory in music history.
The 80s were quite dark times for Turkey. It was such a disaster that all the efforts in the last two decades were completely wasted. Music business was gloomy. Hope that was cherished by the ‘68 generation left its place to fear and despair. The social rebellions of the 70s left its place to an expression of personal pain and grief through music.
Despite the negative atmosphere, Turkey joined the Eurovision every year in the 80s and in the following decades. Being the only TV channel, these were the best years for TRT. Taking the stage on the TV screen was the only way for artists to become publicly known and sell albums or perform concerts. We all grew up watching the well-known TV series, films, European sport events as well as Turkish movie stars and music artists, glued to the screen for hours with the whole family. TV was the best entertainment in those years.
Many artists with different music styles represented Turkey in the contest during the 80s. Modern Folk Trio, Neco, MFÖ, Seyyal Taner were big names in Turkish Pop but never managed to get into the top 10. The best result came with Halley by Klips ve Onlar, placing the 9th in Norway with a song that celebrated the visit of the comet, Halley. Similarly, worse than average results followed until 1997 when Şebnem Paker & Group Ethnic placed the 3rd with the song ‘Dinle’ (Listen). This was the best result a Turkish band won by a song with Turkish lyrics.
Although Turkey never had great results until 1997, the joy and excitement that the contest brought homes of Turkish people was highly recognized. It was a big ceremony and fun to watch the magnificent show on the TV. Whole family was gathered to have a feast and watch their popular song contest while supporting their country with exuberance.
The Rise of Turkish Music in Eurovision
Between 1997 and 2003, popular names stayed away from representing Turkey in Eurovision, but 2003 was a turning point. Sertab Erener won the victory in Riga in 2003 with ‘Everyway That I Can’, composed by former Pentagram (Mezarkabul) guitarist Demir Demirkan. Demirkan was quite famous for his hard rock career in the country, but the song was arranged by Ozan Çolakoğlu, known for his works for Tarkan, so the result was a pop song and he was quite successful to bestow the belly dance Europeans expected to see from Turkey.
The 2004 Eurovision Song Contest held in Istanbul was a breakthrough competition featuring the first ever Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final. The official Eurovision heart logo was also introduced where the flag of the host country came to be the centrepiece of the logo. In 2004, I was a part of the contest organization team in Abdi Ipekci Sports Hall in Istanbul and I can sincerely admit that it was a fantastic experience. I guess it was one of the rare international musical events held in Turkey at such a big scale.
The upcoming years were a time of great success for Turkey and the country regularly took place well inside the top ten, often in the top five. 2012 was the last time that Turkey participated in the Eurovision Song Contest. TRT renounced the contest, stating that the change of rules which was decreasing the audience votes (televoting) to 50% and adding jury votes was unfair, yet protesting the guaranteed places of the “Big 5” (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom) in the final.
Eurovision was normally a Pop Song Contest and the contestants were usually pop musicians. After Sertab’s victory, rock bands such as Athena, Manga, Mor ve Ötesi, Yüksek Sadakat and also an alternative – indie musician Can Bonomo were sent to the contest and returned with good results until 2012. Last year the concert was cancelled due to the pandemic and we’re not sure what will happen in 2021. The latest statements of TRT officials were revealing the fact that they have no intention to enter the contest again in the near future.
Especially in recent years, the contest has also focused on important subjects such as celebrating diversity, supporting gender equality and it has always been a form of social and cultural contraction. Looking at the world today, don’t we already need all of these?