Exactly one year from today, the final of next year’s Eurovision Song Contest is scheduled to take place in Austria. I returned to Vienna on Monday from this year’s contest in Copenhagen, and I came back to a changed country. Before I left Vienna for Copenhagen, there was not widespread interest in Austria for Eurovision, nor was it widely expected that the country’s bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst would win it. After having not won Eurovision since 1966, and with a track record of low placing entries in recent years, it appeared as if Austrians had lost interest in and adopted a defeatist approach towards the contest. Some complained that Austria did not fit into any Eurovision voting bloc that it could rely upon for support (despite being, together with Serbia, the country in Europe with the most neighbours). In my course “Eurovision: A History of Europe through Popular Music,” my students also suggested that Austria did not even want to win the contest because of the cost of hosting it, as well as the fact that the country has enough other international events to promote itself and draw tourists. Now the media is full of reports about what Austria’s Eurovision win means for its image abroad, and various Austrian cities are vying to host next year’s contest. Conchita has changed both Austria and my work.
Watching the final of Eurovision in the B&W Hallerne arena in Copenhagen on Saturday, I witnessed audience support for Conchita that was unlike that for any other entry that I have seen at Eurovision. It soon became clear that she had huge support outside of the arena too, as she eventually achieved 290 points and had a 52 point lead over the second place entry from the Netherlands. Conchita received scores from most participating countries, and even from some countries that are usually perceived as being conservative or intolerant when it comes to the rights of sexual minorities. Even Russia gave five points to Conchita: with the Russian public she ranked third, while the Russian jury ranked her eleventh (the final votes given by each country are half determined by the votes of an expert jury, with the other half being a public vote; scores are then given to the resulting top ten entries). This came as a surprise considering that Conchita had been presented in the international media as a challenge to the repressive policies towards sexual minorities that have been adopted by the Russian government. During the final, the live audience booed Russia every time its entry, the seventeen-year-old twin Tolmachevy Sisters, was awarded points; it was a stark contrast to the cheers that followed the votes for Conchita. Eurovision was once again turned into a political battleground, a function that, as my research project emphasises, it has had throughout its history.
After this year’s contest, the ultranationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky referred to Conchita’s win as “the end of Europe”, adding that the Red Army should never have withdrawn from Austria after the Second World War. In my last blog article, I wrote about the significance that the staging of Eurovision would have had in Armenia in the context of the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, had that country won this year. Now Austria will host Eurovision during the ongoing commemorations of the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War, and in the year of the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. 2015 will also mark the sixtieth anniversary of the withdrawal of Allied forces from Austria, following the Austrian State Treaty which restored the country’s sovereignty and established its neutrality. The treaty was signed on 15 May 1955, and the Eurovision finals next year are scheduled to take place around that date on May 12, 14 and 16. Full of these anniversaries, 2015 is a poignant year in which to reflect on the changes that Austria and Europe have undergone in their postwar history, the role of Austria in Europe and the world, and how Eurovision can be used to explain such issues.
Together with Conchita, the Icelandic group Pollapönk also had a song about diversity and tolerance in this year’s final. It was simply called “No Prejudice.” Made up of four heterosexual men, including two preschool teachers, the group wore dresses when they paraded down the red carpet for the Eurovision opening ceremony. Joining them on stage at Eurovision as a backing singer was Óttar Proppé, who is a member of the Icelandic parliament. None of this was controversial for a country that has had the world’s first openly lesbian prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, and which provides more legal equality for sexual minorities than Austria, including the right to same sex marriage. After Austria’s political leaders rushed to congratulate Conchita on her victory and praised her message of diversity and tolerance, this week its government also discussed expanding the rights of sexual minorities, including with regards to adoption, artificial insemination and marriage. As Conchita’s victory has resonated internationally, it has also given momentum to political changes at home.
This year Poland also submitted an entry to Eurovision that tackles prejudice, albeit in a different way to Conchita or Pollapönk. The song “We are Slavic”, by Donatan & Cleo, parodies stereotypes of Poles and other Slavs as backward, conservative and folkloric, through sexual references in its lyrics and stage performance and a combination of rap and folk influences. Its music video became an international hit on YouTube after it was released in November last year. When I met the group at a press conference at Eurovision, I asked them if the song was also meaningful in light of the tenth anniversary of Poland’s entry into the European Union and its status as one of the most economically successful countries of East Europe. I interpreted the song as an expression of a self-confident country that could now poke fun at the outdated stereotypes that others have about it, as well as joke about itself. Such stereotypes have been apparent in West European media commentaries on Eurovision, which have often portrayed the previous success of East European countries in the contest as a kind of joint conspiracy, especially through the notion of bloc voting. Prejudices against “the East” were also evident in the surprise expressed by some commentators when East European countries voted for Conchita. But East Europe is a diverse and divided place, and the extent of cultural and political solidarity between its countries differs across the region, as do social attitudes towards sexual matters. In the Eurovision final, all of the Slavic countries gave Poland votes, except Russia (Poland itself gave no points to Conchita, but this was because of its jury vote – the Polish public ranked her fourth).
While sexual diversity was well promoted at Eurovision this year, when it comes to linguistic diversity Europe failed the test. The highest placing entry that was partly in another language was from Spain, which came tenth, followed by Poland at fourteenth. The songs that were not in English, from France, Italy and Montenegro, all finished from nineteenth to last – with the French group Twin Twin appearing at the bottom of the scoreboard. During the Cold War, French-language songs had the most wins in Eurovision; it even took eleven years after the start of the contest until the first English-language song won in 1967. Austria won its first contest in 1966 with Udo Jürgens performing a German-language song with the French title “Merci chérie“. This year, the multiracial trio Twin Twin sang the song “Moustache”, which has a refrain that contains the line “I wanna have a moustache” but is otherwise all in French. The song plays smartly with language as “moustache” is, after all, a loan word from French into English; the lyrics also have a political message as they parody the consumer society that we live in. It’s a shame that the song did not translate better to the audience, especially because Twin Twin were amongst the most energetic and humorous participants in the events surrounding Eurovision week in Copenhagen. But their humor has not been discouraged by their last place in the final: after the contest they appeared on French television almost completely naked, as a way of expressing that they had been “stripped” by the public in the Eurovision vote.
I am looking forward to the last class in my course on Monday, when I will get to hear the opinions of my students on this year’s Eurovision. I am also organising a panel discussion on Eurovision at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna on May 27, where the other participants will be the Bosnian singer Maya Sar, the Austrian parliamentarian Marco Schreuder and the American journalist William Lee Adams. You are all welcome to attend this event, and further details about it can be found here.