These past two weeks found me inhabiting a very particular space, physically and experientially far away from my everyday life. For the ninth year running, I attended the Eurovision Song Contest, a venerable cultural tradition based on the fabulously frivolous premise of choosing Europe’s favourite pop song.
I go to the contest as an academic researcher, and as a journalist (covering for the Irish Times). I also go because I love it.
I love to watch it the contest come together as a live performance (press accreditation provides access to rehearsals leading up to the two semifinals and grand final). While Eurovision music is often critiqued as out-of-date and market-unfriendly, as live entertainment broadcasting, the contest is state of the art, and it’s fascinating to see what innovations are experimented with each year. This time around, the Swedish organisers — in keeping with the larger European and global austerity agenda, and the stated desires of the contest producers, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) — were trying to bring budgets in check after the unprecedented extravagances of last year’s hosts, Azerbaijan (which included custom-building an arena for the occasion). Thus the innovations were low-tech, and focused on audience engagement.
For the first time, Eurovision had a mosh pit — there was no seating on the auditorium floor and the audience surrounded a runway leading off the front of the stage, enabling performers to interact directly with the crowds, and adding new opportunities for camera angles shot through waving flags and arms wearing illuminated wristbands. (Funny thing, wearing an illuminated wristband: I was part of the floor audience at one performance and found myself dutifully flapping my arm in the air when my wristband lit up, even when I didn’t like the song. The ideological European multi-state apparatus at work?)
I love Eurovision fans, who get into the spirit of the contest through dress-up, flag-waving, and general good-spirited carrying-on, like these three chaps (right) who didn’t previously know each other, and who posed for a photo in Malmö Central Station as we all headed to the contest final.
I love the intense micro-culture that is the Eurovision fan/press corps, a group of some 1,500 professionals and dedicated amateurs from across Europe and beyond, who pack into the media centre for up to two weeks before the contest. I intend amateur in the French sense, meaning ‘fan,’ ‘lover,’ or ‘aficionado’; as Brian Singleton, Elena Moreo, and I discovered in our research, many of those accredited to the press corps are not journalists by trade, but rather enthusiasts who come to the contest under their own steam, and blog and social network for their own or existing fan sites, sometimes alongside reporting for mainstream outlets. Fans blog about every rehearsal and about the parties and other promo activities that go on during the contest weeks. They adopt a few songs and acts each year as favourites, and are then heartbroken when the public and juries don’t share their enthusiasm (this year in my experience the fan faves were San Marino and Georgia). They start and extend rumours and conspiracy theories; they bitch about and compete with each other; and they bestow adoration and attention upon the ESC and its artists with a generous abandon that kept the contest vibrant even in the dark days of the 1980s and early ’90s when no one else was giving it much love.
And sometimes, fans do important work in pushing stories into the spotlight that may otherwise have gone ignored by a mainstream media conditioned only to pay attention to the contest for one week a year — as is happening at the moment with wiwibloggs.com and 12points.tv‘s investigations into accusations of vote-rigging in this year’s contest, which are now being addressed by the EBU and reported in the New York Times and the BBC. Escinsight.com was also ahead of the curve in querying the split voting system which appears to be contributing to the voting controversies (I’m still trying to parse the relationship between the vote-rigging thing and the split-voting thing; journalist/fan Dave Goodman does a good job trying to connect the dots here.)
Most of the people I hang with at the contest are scholar/fans (right); and we have our certain rituals, the most cherished of which is the ‘Napkin of Death’ (a tradition we borrowed from Irish blogger Keith Mills and his posse) — a poll of who we think will and won’t qualify for each semi-final, assembled and debated at pre-show suppers at which a bit of wine might just also flow.
Funny thing is, I never check the napkin once the real qualifiers are announced — I’m not invested in how right or wrong I was. It’s the ritual, and the fellowship, that I love.
Mainly what I love about Eurovision is its complexity. I love how the simple thing it seems to be on the surface — a European pop song competition – is in fact underpinned by layers of broadcast history and politics; European history and politics; performances of national, regional, ethnic, gender, sexual and other identities; and a profound capacity to produce affects among those who know about it (such as the love I am now professing). It’s this complexity that has made it an increasingly popular object of study in the academy, as was evidenced in a conference held during the contest last week at the University of Malmö, this year’s host city.
Several generations of Eurovision scholars (a classification I invoke in terms of lineage, not age!) assembled for a the 3-day event, from American co-editors of the first academic volume in English about the contest, Bob Tobin and Ivan Raykoff; to Milija Gluhovic and myself, who launched our new co-edited volume at the conference, to undergraduate and postgrad students looking at aspects of the contest ranging from the ESC’s place in the history of Antwerp’s gay subcultures; to the engagement of the former-Yugoslavian diaspora in Nordic countries with the ESC; to the ways in which certain Eurovision performances from Eastern European countries including Romania, Russia and Montenegro connect to nation-branding agendas.
The contest’s socio-political complexity — and its importance as a forum for larger issues being played out in the European and global public sphere — is underlined by the ways in which current hot-button issues end up being played out on the contest’s stages and in media coverage. This year one of the talking points became same-sex marriage, an issue at the top of the news round in the USA and around Europe — including, as we discover, Finland, where a citizen-led initiative is attempting to gather the 50,000 signatures necessary to bring a gay marriage bill to a vote in Finnish Parliament, in protest against the failure of that Parliament’s legal affairs committee to table the bill (Finland currently recognises same-sex civil partnerships but is the only Nordic country not to have legalised gay marriage).
In the run-up to this year’s contest, Finland’s Eurovision singer Krista Siegfrids declared that her act was in support of the gay marriage lobby, though, were we just to consider the music and lyrics, the song ‘Marry Me’ doesn’t communicate particularly progressive gender and sexual politics: it’s a Katy Perry-esque bit of boppy fluff in which the female singer enumerates the lengths she’ll go to get her man, including ‘skipping dinner to get thinner.’ The live performance, however, queers the song: Siegfrids, wearing wedding minidress and hot pink platform shoes, mugs and pouts, backed by three female dancers in half-masks and male drag, who transform into female bridesmaids at the end of the song. The big finish is Siegfrids kissing one of the female dancers.
This may have been a sincere attempt on Siegfrids’ part to do her part to move gender and sexual politics forward in her country. It certainly did effective work in garnering her publicity, but this started to turn when rumours started to circulate during the contest week that Turkey — which was already not participating in the contest as a protest at changes in voting rules — was not going to broadcast the contest because it objected to the lesbian kiss. These rumours appear to have been based on a single news story on the website gaystarnews.com. On the day before the contest final, the New York-based LGBTQ advocacy organisation All Out circulated an online petition claiming that ‘there is pressure on Eurovision to cancel the kiss before Saturday’s final. Eurovision organisers are worried other Eastern European countries might ban the contest too,’ though it includes no links or further references to press reports in question. Several days after the contest has ended, I could only find scattered reports in mainstream Anglophone news sources indicating that Turkey did not broadcast the contest, and no evidence that, if they did not show it, this was because of anti-gay sentiment and/or the Finnish performance.
This is worrysome, and seems to feed into a larger problematic my co-editor Milija writes about in his chapter in our book, which treats LGBTQ politics and human rights in ESC host countries Azerbaijan and Serbia: that by circulating what appears to be speculative information about a potential Turkish ban — at the same time wrongly classing Turkey as an ‘Eastern European country’, a descriptive that is itself homogenising — such well-meaning campaigns can contribute to stereotypical portraits of non-Western countries as repressive and sexually backward, without adequately considering local contexts and realities for sexual and other minorities. Given its large gay fan base and its important history as a platform for the performance of non-normative gender identities and alternative sexualities, it absolutely makes sense for Eurovision to be used as a site of advocacy for LGBTQ rights and greater acceptance of difference. But there is a danger, in the heat of the Eurovision moment, in buying so quickly into a perceived incidence of prejudice that other prejudices are fostered along the way. In the end, the Finnish act scored unexpectedly poorly in the contest final, finishing 24th out of 26, but as with any Eurovision result, what motivated individuals and juries to vote (or not vote) for any act will always remain at the level of speculation.
Enough with the politics. Time for a big Eurovision finish (Cue key change! Wind machine! Pyrotechnics!)
Denmark’s win this year, with the song ‘Only Teardrops’ sung by Emmelie de Forest, came of little surprise to anyone — including, it seems, the Danish broadcaster itself, which somehow mysteriously had this sign fully prepared and ready to display outside Malmö Arena immediately after Saturday night’s final (Copenhagen, the presumed next host city, is only a short jaunt over the Øresund bridge from Malmö). Certainly, having the contest produced by DR, the TV hit factory responsible for Forbrydelsen, The Bridge, and Borgen bodes well for a classy show in 2014 (and my campaign begins here: let’s keep the momentum of fierce and fab female Eurovision hosts started by Anke Engelke (2011) and this year’s Petra Mede going — Forbrydelsen and Borgen stars Sofie Gråbøl and Sidse Babbet Knudsen must co-host next year’s contest).
It also seems likely that the Danish hosts will, as did the Swedes, slip nicely into the EBU’s cost-cutting agenda, given the current executive supervisor of Eurovision for the EBU is a Dane, Jon Ola Sand (but mustn’t his blood pressure have been doing the loop-the-loop Saturday night as the hunky Azeri Farid Mammadov and his slickly staged act [right] nipped at pretty Emmelie’s heels throughout the voting period, eventually finishing second? Given their extravagances last year, we can be pretty certain that toeing the break-even-budget EBU party line would not have been high on Azerbaijan’s second-time-hosting agenda).
For Eurovision researchers, it’s great news that a 2014 conference is in the works, capitalising on the momentum generated by this year’s Malmö gathering (keep an eye at the Eurovision Research Network site for more information on upcoming Eurovision research events). And for the moment, those of who feel the love are nursing our P.E.D. (Post-Eurovision Depression) and counting the months until the madness starts again.