When I arrived at Copenhagen airport last Friday, I was met with signs telling me that Denmark is the world’s happiest country, as it has been ranked by the United Nations’ World Happiness Report and other studies. Vienna is usually ranked in similar surveys as one of the world’s most liveable cities. But now is not the time to compete with the Danes over such titles, especially when you have Conchita Wurst on your side.
The competition that Europeans are focussed on this week is the Eurovision Song Contest, which is taking place in Copenhagen. Like previous host cities of Eurovision, Copenhagen is using the contest to promote itself as a cultural centre and tourist destination, and this branding is one of the issues that I research in my project on Eurovision. The contest is being staged in the impressively refitted hall of the B&W Hallerne, a shipyard on the island of Refshaleøen that is now being called “Eurovision Island.” Around the city there are several other places where people can enjoy the Eurovision atmosphere, such as the “Eurovision Village” on Gammeltorv and Nytorv squares and the “Eurovision Fan Mile” running through the historical centre. On Saturday a red carpet was laid out in front of Copenhagen’s City Hall, and the Eurovision contestants paraded down it as part of the opening reception. Copenhagen has been “Eurovisionised” for a week, turning it into the capital of a transnational pop community and drawing thousands of fans and journalists from all over the world.
The host city is but one of the actors on the Eurovision stage seeking to attract some more international attention. There are also the artists who see Eurovision as a way to advance their careers, as well as many countries who consider participation to be valuable for their nation branding. This especially applies to small countries that, just like the bigger participants, have only three minutes on the Eurovision stage to make an impression on the pan-European viewing audience. The small countries hope that these three minutes might convince more tourists to visit them, or in some cases even teach viewers that these countries exist. In the first semi-final of the contest held last Tuesday, two of the smallest countries in Europe, Montenegro and San Marino, qualified for the first time ever for the final, which will be held on May 10. For San Marino it was also the third time in a row that Valentina Monetta was representing the micro-state. Each of her entries in the past three years have been composed by the German Ralph Siegel, who is famous for having produced hits such as “Ein bißchen Frieden“ (A Little Peace), which was sung by Nicole in 1982 and gave West Germany its first Eurovision win. Montenegro’s entry is one of the few from the former Yugoslavia this year, with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia deciding not to participate for financial reasons. As the Montenegrin entry Sergej Ćetković is popular throughout the former Yugoslavia and his delegation includes individuals from different parts of the region, his success has both promoted Montenegro internationally and also demonstrated how popular music can bring together people from countries with histories of mutual conflict.
These are some of the hopeful aspects of Eurovision 2014, which is being held against the background of the crisis in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine both appeared in the first semi-final on Tuesday, and both qualified for the final. The breakdown of the voting results for the first semi-final will not be released until after the final, so we cannot yet analyse which audiences voted for the two countries. But one response from the audience in the arena was notable: when the show’s hosts declared that Russia’s Tolmachevy Sisters, a duo of teenage twins, had qualified for the final, the audience booed the result. When Ukraine’s entry Maria Yaremchuk strutted down the red carpet on Saturday, she and her delegation wore black outfits with blue and yellow ribbons in honour of those who had recently died in fighting in Ukraine. The Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet also brought up the issue of whether the votes from Crimea should be counted as part of the Russian or Ukrainian vote, making Eurovision one of the first practical tests for how Europe should react to the Russian annexation of the peninsula (the European Broadcasting Union, the organiser of Eurovision, has said that it will depend on whether the Crimean calls are made through a Russian or Ukrainian mobile operator).
Russia’s participation in Eurovision this year is also controversial in light of the law against the promotion of homosexuality to minors which was adopted in June 2013. It does not appear that the law is being applied to Eurovision, as the first semi-final started with an image of the Finnish entry Krista Siegfrids kissing another woman on stage at last year’s Eurovision, and the hosts made several gay references throughout the show. An attempt by the Russian broadcaster to censor any part of the contest would result in Russia being disqualified, as all participants are required to broadcast the show in full. The City of Copenhagen has joined in this campaign of promoting gay rights by offering gay and straight couples the opportunity to get married during Eurovision Week, also as a way of commemorating the first gay civil partnership enacted in Denmark – and the world – twenty five years ago. On Tuesday, the Icelandic entry Pollapönk qualified for the final with the song “No Prejudice,” which also promotes the rights of sexual minorities.
But if there is one person at Eurovision 2014 who is an icon for sexual minorities, it is Austria’s entry Conchita Wurst. In the second semi-final on Thursday, the bearded drag queen put on a stunning performance with her song “Rise Like a Phoenix”. No other artists received as much applause from the audience, and the tension in the arena was palpable when her qualification into the final was the last one to be announced. With her performances at other Eurovision locations around Copenhagen, her playful humour in media interviews and her appeals for diversity and tolerance, Conchita is one of the most popular entries this year. She is a media sensation who is being covered by outlets worldwide, making her one of the Austrians who has in recent times most contributed to Austria’s international image. After her semi-final success on Thursday, Conchita has risen even further to become one of the top three favourites to win the contest, which would bring Austria its second Eurovision win since Udo Jürgens in 1966.
The other favourites to win this year’s contest include Sweden and Armenia. With the world’s third largest popular music industry, Sweden is usually a strong contender for the Eurovision crown, and this year it has a powerful ballad sung by Sanna Nielsen. A Swedish win could be a little controversial considering that Sweden won the contest in 2012 and then hosted it in Malmö – just a short drive from Copenhagen across the Øresund Strait – and might prompt other participants to criticise the contest for being too concentrated in Scandinavia. However, such controversy would pale in comparison to that which would be prompted by a win by Armenia, whose entry Aram Mp3 sings “Not Alone.” Since it first joined Eurovision in 2006, Armenia’s participation in the contest has been marked by its political tensions with Azerbaijan, and Armenia did not attend Eurovision in 2012 when it was held in Baku. As fans left the first semi-final on Tuesday in which both Armenia and Azerbaijan participated and qualified for the final, groups supporting the countries waved flags and competed in chanting the countries’ names. A win for Armenia might thus result in Azerbaijan not participating next year, and Turkey – which has withdrawn from Eurovision for the past two years because of its criticisms of the voting system – would also likely not return. One of the major issues straining Armenian-Turkish relations is the acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Should Armenia win this year’s Eurovision, the staging of the contest there next year would take place during the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and Eurovision could draw greater international attention to the commemoration of this. Armenia has already been accused of using Eurovision to draw attention to this historical issue, as in 2010 the lyrics of its entry “Apricot Stone,” sung by Eva Rivas, were interpreted by some as alluding to the Armenian Genocide.
Upon my return to Vienna after the final, I will conclude this blog series on the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest with my reactions to the results and how they are being discussed in Europe.