A stolen youth: Eurovision, spring festivals, and concerts

For many in Turkey, especially young people, Turkey’s withdrawal from Eurovision, the cancellation of the METU Spring Festival, and the disappearance of music festivals are seen as directly political. As young people in the country know, it is impossible to separate arts and culture from politics. The situation feels so hopeless that they believe they’ll regain their lost youth only with a change in government.

Resentment against the Turkish government is constantly bubbling up in different forms. Over the past two weeks, scores of people have been discussing Sedat Peker’s YouTube videos. The revelations of this mafia boss have shed light on the close ties between organized crime and politics. Other resentments have more to do with everyday life. As summer nears and cherished fruits are back in season, many are up in arms about the exorbitant prices of watermelon, cherries, and Turkey’s famous green sour plums. With rising inflation and a faltering economy, basic foodstuffs have become luxury items overnight.

This anti-government resentment also takes more unexpected, cultural forms. For instance, last week was the 65th edition of Eurovision, a song contest in which many European nations compete by sending an artist or band to perform. Turkey pulled out of the contest in 2013 citing discomfort with LGBTI+ visibility. Today, watching the competition is a source of anger and nostalgia for many citizens, who feel increasingly distant from their European peers.

Likewise, during the month of May, students in Ankara would usually be enjoying Middle East Technical University’s famous Spring Festival, a decades-old tradition in which students drink and dance while watching their favorite bands perform. The government-appointed rector of METU attempted to cancel the festival in 2019 and since then it has not taken place due to COVID-19 restrictions. May was also once the time of year when music fans would begin buying their tickets for summer music festivals like Rock’n Coke. Years before the pandemic began, Istanbul’s once-thriving festival culture was brought to its knees by anti-alcohol regulations.

For many in Turkey, especially young people, Turkey’s withdrawal from Eurovision, the cancellation of the METU Spring Festival, and the disappearance of music festivals are seen as directly political. Many frustrated citizens took to social media to express their discontent, linking the absence of these seemingly trivial cultural events to the highest echelons of power. A common was refrain was that as soon as the current ruling party goes, the first thing youth want to see in Turkey return to Eurovision and the Rock’n Coke festival start up again. Similarly, many people who are student-aged today are angry about the Spring Festivals they haven’t had the chance to enjoy. Events like this have become the symbol for a youth stolen from them.

Of course, the resentments of young people aren’t only about music, drinking, and fun. Surveys show that their main grievances are unemployment, poor working conditions, lack of freedoms, and general political insecurity. Yet we should not underestimate the importance of pleasure and entertainment in contributing to a youth worth living. 

It is not normal that people who are in their 20s today should be nostalgic for things that were normal for people who were in their 20s only a decade ago. Yet Turkey has transformed so rapidly in the last 10 years that the life experiences of Generation Z are radically different than that of even younger millennials. Hence the resentment and the burning desire to leave Turkey, no matter how. Despite many political differences, one of the only things uniting young people across the spectrum is the dream of resettling in Europe or North America. That is how deep this generational hopelessness goes.

Things as music competitions or festivals carry real importance in the popular imagination. And in the case of Eurovision, the METU Spring Festival, and music festival, the role of the government in making such things disappear is quite clear.

Turkey first joined the Eurovision Song Contest in 1975 with the singer Semiha Yankı. In 1997, Şebnem Paker won Turkey third place with her song “Dinle.” Then in 2003 came the long-awaited victory when Sertab Erener’s song “Everyway That I Can” won first place. This meant that in 2004 Istanbul got to host the competition. In the years that followed, Turkey was unable to win another first-place, but performed decently with Kenan Doğulu, maNga, and other acts. 

Yet in 2013, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) announced that Turkey was pulling out of the competition. The official reason was dissatisfaction with a change in voting regulations. However, another reason for Turkey’s decision was discomfort with growing LGBTIQ+ visibility in the competition. TRT’s director told the press that he was uncomfortable with a same-sex kiss in the 2013 competition and an Austrian drag queen who performed in 2014.

In fact, even looking at Turkey’s performances over the years show how conservative the country has become. Referring to the shoulder-shaking and bare midriffs of Sertab Erener’s first-place 2003 performance, Kemal Büyükyüksel (a writer and political science research assistant at Koç University) had this to say on Twitter: “Forget representing Turkey at Eurovision, today TRT would even ban Sertab Erenter’s performance for ‘disturbing public morality.’ They would call it ‘indecent.’ This is what they have done to the country in 20 years.”

The situation of METU’s Spring Festival is also directly political. This festival began in 1987 and for generations of students at METU and surrounding universities in Ankara, it was the highlight of the year. Performers like Yeni Türkü and Şebnem Ferah would come and perform for thousands during this extended festival full of dancing, drinking, and revelry. In 2015 the festival was canceled by the rector and in 2019 a government-appointed rector again tried to cancel it. While the initial reason given was financial and infrastructural problems, rector Verşan Kök admitted that another reason was LGBTİ+ people, HDP voting-students, and “extreme left-wing groups.” In recent years, the festival had been celebrated along with Pride Week and also has a long tradition of left-wing involvement, as it is held in the famous “Revolution” Stadium, as students have called it since the 1960s. And so once again, another beloved event falls casualty to right-wing, anti-LGBTIQ+, and conservative sentiment.

Music festivals have suffered a similar fate. Music fans who were born between 1980 and 1989 got to enjoy university years full of multi-day camping festivals featuring famous bands from across the world. Starting in 2013, the situation took a turn for the worst. Changes made to alcohol advertising laws hurt the majority of festivals since these events depend on sponsorship from alcohol companies. Similarly, due to political instability in the country, fewer bands from abroad had the courage to add Turkey to their tour schedules. Even if foreign bands wanted to come, the falling lira has made it increasingly impossible to pay them enough to make it worth their while. Now with COVID-19, the festivals and venues that had managed to hang on are on death’s door as the so-called “entertainment sector” receives little to no state support.

As young people in the country know, it is impossible to separate arts and culture from politics. The situation feels so hopeless that they believe they’ll regain their lost youth only with a change in government.