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Tales of two Europes: sameness and difference at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015 Vienna

Already during the heady years after European reunification (from 1989 into the 1990s), visitors to Vienna were greeted by billboards and posters announcing that “Wien ist anders” (Vienna is different). Part advertising slogan, part imperial nostalgia about the multicultural past of the Habsburg Monarchy, part recognition of Austria’s willingness to accept a higher percentage of refugees amid its population than any other European nation, the claim that “Vienna is different” became a source of self-identity and tolerance during a quarter-century of European transition, in which nations across Europe sought to repair their differences and to embrace their sameness, becoming more than the sum of individual parts on a global stage.

The negotiation of sameness and difference seemingly moved to Central Europe again with the 60th Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in Vienna, which took as its motto “Building Bridges.” Austria became the host of the 2015 Eurovision after the sensational victory at the 2014 ESC in Copenhagen by Conchita Wurst, whose winning entry, “Rise like a Phoenix,” ascended to continent-wide popularity as an anthem for the diversity of sexual identity. Transgender and transsexual performance was not new for the ESC in 2014—the transgender Dana International had famously won for Israel in 1998—but Conchita Wurst’s performance as a drag queen opened a more expansive and inclusive meaning for the Eurovision at a moment of disintegrating political and humanitarian conditions in Europe, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, and the growing wave of refugees from the Middle East and Africa crossing the Mediterranean in search of asylum in Europe. If European governments and the European Union increasingly struggled to find ways to resolve the crises at its peripheries, the Eurovision bridge to the shores of the Danube promised an alternative Europe, in which differences of all kinds would be fully embraced and celebrated for their sameness.

The organizers of ESC Vienna left nothing to chance: Difference was everywhere. Public spaces were covered with images of difference; streetcar and subway announcements employed the voice of Conchita Wurst; a Euro-Village was built on the square in front of the Vienna City Hall, a twenty-first-century addition to the historicizing architecture of the Ringstrasse; and most popular of all, pedestrian traffic lights in the central districts were replaced to show same-sex couples waiting with red or crossing the street with green. Austria’s investment in the display of difference didn’t come without significant cost to the Austrian public, perhaps as high as 120 million Euros (ca. $140 million).

It might have been easier to forgive the costs to Austria as investment in tourism had the Eurovision not occurred at a moment of growing financial, cultural, and moral crisis. Whereas the Euro-Village in central Vienna hosted 25,000 guests at a party during and after the Grand Finale on Saturday evening, the Austrian Interior Ministry was resisting the European Union request to build tent cities outside of Vienna for the unrelenting flood of refugees. Whereas no costs were spared in bringing musicians from throughout Europe (and the Middle East and Australia) to sing for three minutes on the Eurovision stage, discussions were ongoing about the ability of one of Austria’s most venerable symphonic ensembles, the Tonkünstler Orchestra (founded 1907), to survive.

The message of the Eurovision Song Contest 2015 couldn’t have provided clearer evidence for the return of the two Europes: one imagined through sameness, the other divided by difference. Would it be possible for the ESC to build bridges between them, or would the 60th Anniversary be one more grand show for the longest televised music competition in history? Could a song contest reconcile difference, or must it simply survive for another year as a spectacle of panem et circenses, bread and circuses, that even the two Europes could enjoy together?

The dissonance and interplay between the two Europes emerged the moment the contestants and fans (myself among them) arrived in Vienna and the Eurovision week began to unfold with the first Semi-Final on 19 May. The 2015 entries—40 in total, this year including Australia as a special guest, the first time a non-member of the European Broadcasting Union would compete—brought a broad range of songs with them, notable especially because of the density of titles and lyrics that juxtaposed self and other, the personal pronouns that joined I, we, and you in common purpose. Austria’s The Makemakes would compete with “I Am Yours,” Slovenia’s Maraaya would sing “Here for You,” and Russia’s Polina Gagarina established the collective selfness of her title, “A Million Voices,” with the opening lines: “We are the world’s people / Different yet we’re the same.”

Polina Gagarina – A Million Voices (Russia)

The musical styles of the 40 entries were remarkable for their differences—and no less so for their sameness. Anyone familiar with the history of the Eurosong would be hard-pressed to identify a song in 2015 that broke new stylistic ground or experimented with sound and sense. Throughout the history of the ESC it has been common for songs to emulate and expand upon the successes of the previous year. Echoes of Conchita Wurst’s “Rise like a Phoenix,” firmly in the genre of Eurovision female power ballads, were abundant in Vienna. Some suffered the fate of look-alike imitators, but others were able to capture some of Conchita’s artful delivery. Latvia’s Aminata Savadogo, with family heritage from Burkina-Faso and Russia, placed sixth with “Love Injected,” and Polina Gagarina’s “A Million Voices” concluded the evening in second place. National styles and genres were sparser this year, but by no means absent. Montenegro’s Knez sang “Adio” in Montenegrin Serbian in the folklike style of sevdalinka, and France’s Lisa Angell packaged her call for remembering the destruction of World War I, “N’oubliez pas,” unequivocally as French chanson. National signifiers were more generally universalized, at least to the extent this was possible. Armenia’s vocal sextet, Genealogy, wore costumes that were undeniably Armenian for their “Face the Shadow,” the highly political song calling for acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire. For Italy’s tenor trio, Il Volo, national style needed but weave the signature Sanremo style to convey the apolitical message of “Grande Amore.”

Genealogy – Face The Shadow (Armenia)

Il Volo – Grande Amore (Italy)

More than in recent years, the gap between winners and losers at ESC 2015 was quite considerable. Only three countries were ever really competitive: Sweden (1st place); Russia (2nd place); and Italy (3rd place). These were the favorites entering the contest, and they remained the favorites through the final vote tallies from the national committees. Another group of competing nations accumulated a respectable number of votes—Belgium (4), Australia (5), Latvia (6), Estonia (7), Norway (8), and Israel (9)—largely because these were favorites of a different kind; for example, the sentimental favorite was Australia’s Guy Sebastian (“Tonight Again”), the special guest from the non-European nation (and continent) most devoted to the ESC. Below the top six, the bottom simply fell out, with most votes coming through regional bloc-voting or because of the special interests of political and musical interest groups. Hungary’s Boggie (20th place) attracted a bit of attention with the eco-ballad, “Wars for Nothing,” and Romania’s Voltaj (15) performed “De la capăt,” a song narrating the problems Romanian children faced growing up without parents who had been forced to work in Central Europe, particularly Austria. Armenia’s call for recognition of the genocide, “Face the Shadow,” fell roughly in the middle of the field (16th place) at the end of the evening, achieving its most important goal, recognition on a European stage. More than in the years since the introduction of semi-final competitions—thirteen entries did not reach the Grand Finale—there were several big losers in 2015, notably Germany and the host country, Austria, both of whom received the infamous “nul points,” zero votes. Just ahead of them at the bottom of the voting were France and the United Kingdom, with four and five votes respectively. More than anything, such poor showing had less to do with song and performance than with a lack of interest, the turn of Eurovision voters to the issues that were for them most critical.

Those issues arose from the resurgence of the two Europes and the struggle to reconcile sameness from difference. The Europe formed from sameness was clear, but therefore virtually unachievable: music in general, and the Eurosong in particular. Time and time again, we heard the mantra from musicians and media commentators that the Eurovision was about the songs and the singers. “There’s no place for politics,” proclaimed announcer after announcer, even during the tally of the votes after the Grand Finale. The “place for politics,” however, was everywhere, despite the fact that many wished not to see it. Ultimately, ESC 2015 was reduced to a fierce competition between Sweden and Russia, between Gagarina’s “A Million Voices” and Måns Zelmerlöw’s “Heroes.” Both songs were heavily favored; both were imagined to suppress political differences; both failed to do that on the way to securing their success. During the course of the voting, the two Europes could not have been in tighter competition. At the halfway point in the voting—20 of 40 voting countries had submitted their decisions—Russia was in the lead, and comfortably so. The countries of Eastern Europe, many again with tense relations with Russia, overwhelmingly gave Russia the coveted douze points, the highest tally of twelve points from the range from one to twelve that each nation is able to award. As Western Europe began to vote more frequently in the second part of the voting, the douze points accrued increasingly to Sweden, and Russia received increasingly fewer votes, sometimes none at all.

Måns Zelmerlöw – Heroes (Sweden)

As the final national votes were announced, it was clear that, at least at ESC 2015, despite the narrowness of the waters separating the two Europes, any bridge capable of mediating difference would be built only on the Swedish side. It was Måns Zelmerlöw who chronicled how “we are the heroes of our time,” singing “the greatest anthem ever heard.” When interviewed after the final reprieve of the winning song at the end of the broadcast, Zelmerlöw struggled not to lose sight of the sameness reconciled through difference, feebly paraphrasing his winning song: “We are all heroes, no matter who we love, no matter who we are.” As we looked back on the Eurovision Song Contest 2015, there were very few heroes left in the wake of the Pyrrhic victory for the two Europes still unconnected by the bridges of history.

Headline image credit: Måns Zelmerlöw celebrates his win on stage. Photo by Elena Volotova (EBU). © Eurovision, European Broadcasting Union.

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