By Philip V. Bohlman
4–10 May 2014. The annual Eurovision week offers Europeans a chance to put aside their differences and celebrate, nation against nation, the many ways in which music unites them. Each nation has the same opportunity—a “Eurosong” of exactly three minutes, performed by no more than six musicians or dancers, in the language of their choice, national or international—to represent Europe for a year. Since its founding in 1956, one of the deepest moments of the Cold War, as Soviet tanks prepared to enter Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) has provided a counterpoint to European politics, providing a moment when Europeans witnessed claims to a common Europeanness.
In early spring 2014, however, as the Ukraine crisis unfolded, the ESC seemed deaf to the deterioration of European politics. A few songs expressed soft nationalism; hardly any made more than a mild gesture toward human rights. Granted, the competitive run of most national entries—through local, regional, and then national competitions—began before the Ukraine crisis, before the occupation of the Maidan in Kyiv, the Russian annexation of the Crimea, and the violent turn of separatism in Eastern Ukraine. The Eurovision Song Contest, nonetheless, had lost its moral compass. It was veering dangerously close to irrelevance for a Europe in crisis.
All that changed during Eurovision week. Though Austria’s Conchita Wurst, the female persona of 25-year-old singer Tom Neuwirth, had captured the attention of many with her sincere flamboyance, she was favored by few and shunned by many, particularly the countries of Eastern Europe. As the evening of the Grand Finale arrived, however, few doubted that Conchita Wurst would emerge victorious, and many realized that their worst fears were about to be realized. Europe had found Conchita’s voice, and she truly did “Rise Like a Phoenix” from the stage of the Copenhagen Eurovision stage.
As I write this blogpost in the immediate wake of the Grand Finale, the explanations and evaluations of Conchita Wurst’s victory at the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest spread across the European media and beyond. Standing on stage in a gown bathed in golden glitter, the bearded Conchita sang powerfully and with full conviction that there was more at stake than finding the right formula for the winning song. “This night is dedicated to all who believe in peace and freedom,” she proclaimed upon receiving the trophy. Supporters and detractors alike saw the moment as evidence that the queering of the ESC had finally and fully come of age. Eurovision historian, Jan Feddersen, had predicted as much in the Berlin liberal newspaper, tageszeitung, the day before. The queering of the ESC had given common meaning to Europe. Feddersen writes: “One communicates throughout the year. What could be a greater cultural flow of Europeanness, even independent of the borders of the European Union” (taz.europa, 9 May 2014, p. 9).
The political and aesthetic trajectory of queering, of course, is precisely not to come of age, rather to engender and regender critical questions of identity and ideology. It is this moving with and beyond queering that Conchita Wurst’s victory signals. The winning song, “Rise Like a Phoenix,” provides, thus, an anthem of a Europe of post-queerness. The Eurosong and the tens of millions who embrace it as their own enter a European space opened by diversity.
In the months and years before Conchita Wurst’s victory on Saturday night, there were probably few grounds that would lead one to predict a winning song for Austria. The self-styled “Land of Music,” Austria simply could not figure out the Eurovision Song Contest. In recent years, it had sent wacky folk-like music and banal power ballads, only occasionally passing beyond the semi-final competitions. For much of the 2000s, Austria sent no entry at all. If Austria was perplexed about its musical presence in the ESC, Conchita Wurst was not. Born in Styria, Tom Neuwirth dedicated himself to a music of difference, a music that provoked, and a music that did political work. As the drag queen, Conchita Wurst (most readers will recognize “Wurst” as the German word for sausage, but in Austria, it is also commonly used in the phrase, “es ist mir wurst,” meaning “it’s all the same to me”), performs songs of action, directed against prejudice and mustered for diversity. There is no contradiction when queerness and nationalism occupy common ground, all the more in an Austria that provides shelter to a higher percentage of refugees than any other European nation. When Conchita remarked upon qualifying after the second semi-final on May 8, announcing proudly that “I’m going to do all I can for my country,” there was no irony.
The Eurovision Song Contest 2014 had found its voice. The ESC had returned to Europe. At a critical moment of struggle in Ukraine, when right-wing European political parties on the eve of European parliamentary elections are calling for their nations to retreat from Europe, the ESC has reclaimed its relevance, and it has done so by recognizing its historical foundations. In many ways, Conchita Wurst, performing as a transvestite, offers a less provocative stage presence than the transsexual Dana International, who won for Israel in 1998 and competed again in 2011. ESC queerness begins to demonstrate the attributes of a historical longue durée, and it is for these reasons that it elevates a music competition to a European level on which it is one of the most visible targets for official Russian homophobia and the violation of human rights elsewhere in Europe. It is a return to that history that “Rise Like a Phoenix” so powerfully signifies.
On Saturday night, there were other entries that took their place in the more diverse, post-queer Europe given new and different meaning by Conchita Wurst. Political meaning accrued to songs in which it had previously remained neutral (e.g., Pollapönk’s “No Prejudice” for Iceland, and Molly’s “Children of the Universe” for the United Kingdom). Several quite outstanding songs came to envoice a fragile Europe in need of change (e.g., Elaiza’s mixture of cabaret and klezmer in “Is It Right” for Germany, and András Kállay-Saunders’s “Running” for Hungary). Kállay-Saunders transformed the narrative of an abused child to a call for action in European human rights. The son of Fernando Saunders, Kállay-Saunders is a stunning presence on stage, an African American Hungarian, calling attention to the violation of human rights while representing a nation sliding to the right, so much so that many Hungarian artists, musicians, and intellectuals (e.g., András Schiff) will not enter their homeland.
On Sunday morning, 11 May, the Berlin tageszeitung opened its lead article on the Eurovision Song Contest with the celebratory claim, “there is hope for Europe.” It is perhaps too early to claim that we are witnessing music and nationalism in a new key. From early April until the Grand Finale, I gave a regular series of newspaper, radio, and television interviews in Germany, where I currently teach as Franz Rosenzweig Professor at the University of Kassel, and I realize only now that my own observations about nationalism and the ESC underwent radical change, all the more as Conchita Wurst brought a new Europe into focus (see, e.g., the interview with the Austrian-German-Swiss network, 3sat, just before the Grand Finale). The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) itself had predicted 120 million viewers, but estimates the day after the Grand Finale raised the number to 180 million, a fifty-percent increase. Nationalisms proliferate often; rarely do they subside. In the Ukraine crisis, each side accuses the other of being nationalistic, laying claim to their own right to be nationalistic. These are the nationalisms in the old key, collapsing in upon themselves. In contrast it may be a quality of a post-queer Eurovision Song Contest that it can foster a nationalism of tolerance and diversity, and that its song for Europe truly rises like a phoenix, enjoining the many rather than the few to join the chorus.
Philip V. Bohlman is Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago. Currently, he serves as Franz Rosenzweig Professor at the University of Kassel, and on the editorial board of Grove Music Online. He writes widely on music and nationalism, most recently Focus: Music, Nationalism, and the Making of the New Europe (Routledge 2011). He is writing the book, Music after Nationalism, for Oxford University Press, a project for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013.
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