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Politics and Prejudice at Eurovision

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I’m just a singer in a fabulous dress, with great hair and a beard.
Conchita Wurst, Eurovision Winner for 2014.

Eurovision has been the classic battleground of prejudice amidst unity since it began in 1956. Lay down your weapons, men and women of Europe, and wage war via song, vote and indignant commentary. Its origins have shown one continuous trend: music is the sideshow, whatever the tasteless denizens think. Music is, in fact, the excuse, necessary fluff to cover broader machinations. The rest of the excitement tends to unfold in the bitter rivalries that emerge either before, or during the competition. Neighbours vote for neighbours; situations of war cause grunts of angst and indignation between sessions of competition.

The big powers of the west – France, Germany, the United Kingdom – tend to poll in the lower ranks as a matter of course. Many European states can’t punish them with weapons and plague, so they do so via the Eurovision ballot, a sort of gang assault by ethnic solidarity by weaker powers. Scandinavian countries, who tend to keep their streets, and noses, clean, do well across the spectrum, grabbing, if there is such a thing, the “neutral” positions. The Slavic super blocs of the old Warsaw Pact huddle together as a general rule, but that rule breaks when Slavic powers find themselves at odds in conflict. Squabbling brothers and sisters can throw larger large spanners into the works, if only momentarily.

This year, the Ukrainian-Russian divide was more than slightly apparent, with the audience piling jeer and bile over countries happy to give points to the Russian entry, Shine, by the Tolmachevy Sisters. The lyrics did not help, which were given an unfair historical significance beyond the setting: “Living on the edge/Closer to the crime/Cross the line a step at the time.” Fraternal fractiousness had spilled over into the voting, and the scenes were not attractive. Ukraine’s own entry, Tick-Tock, featured a hamster wheel, more appropriately termed a mansterwheel.

Austria’s bearded transvestite Conchita Wurst, for that reason, is an aberration in more ways than one. That she won Eurovision with 290 points – the nearest being the Netherlands with 238 points – is itself a testament to more adventurous voting patterns. “This is for all those who believe in the future of peace and freedom – you know who you are. You are unity, and you’re unstoppable.” Her song, Rise Like A Phoenix, was sung in surrounds of dry ice in a gold dress.

Protest against her participation began in 2013 when it became clear that Wurst would be Austria’s 2014 candidate. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia frowned with disapproval via petitions placed on the American website, Change.org – remove Wurst, or at the very least, desist from participating in the immoral stage show. One Belarusian petition gathered over 4 thousand signatures, and a Russian petition over 23 thousand (Global Voices Online, May 11). The wording of the latter was heavy with pride at Russia’s efforts against immoral European liberals, upholding those strong heterosexual ties between men and women.

Austria, never the star locomotive of progressive politics, did sport an angry response from the right-wing FPO party. Russian politician Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg legislator behind the “non-traditional relationships” bill in Russia, was unmistakably clear in his position: Wurst was a “pervert” representative of a competition that had become a “hotbed of sodomy.”

Milonov, in fact, has been in the business of keeping Russian purity intact for some years, now, fearing the rampaging hordes of Western vice. Seeing propaganda everywhere, he could not help but find Wurst to be the vital source of it, a bearded anti-Christ with a terrible potency to insult and inflict spiritual decomposition. “The participation of the obvious transvestite and hermaphrodite Conchita Wurst on the same stage as Russian singers on live television is a blatant propaganda of homosexuality and spiritual decay.”

In Milonov’s view, Russia’s own participation was a violation of the country’s recent development and would “contradict the path of cultural and moral renewal that Russia stands on”, insulting “millions of Russians” who might be watching (The Independent, May 2). Of course, it never occurred to Milonov, as it never does to the morally righteous, that the show can vanish at the flick of a switch on television or broadcasting device.

Even the contestants mucked in with comments. Armenian Eurovision favourite Aram MP3 could not resist a dig – Wurst should “eventually decide whether she is a woman or a man.” Feeling a need to, the singer modified his response by terming it a “joke”. Such views did not prevent Wurst’s own music from marching up the charts on Azerbaijan iTunes to an impressive third spot.

Wurst was bound to stir the pot, given her astonishing looks, a figure to match, and a voice to project that did not require any stage crowding and redundant gyrating. Eurovision this year has been spectacularly dull, and it would not necessarily have taken much to stand out. But the terror of the inner drag queen was simply too much to bear for patriarchy and tradition. The main thrust of any position of fear is the idea of a permanent emergency, a struggle against phantom terrors and threats.

Tenured American shock jock Rush Limbaugh, for instance, finds it astonishing that gay men might be able to play American football with any degree of success. Limbaugh and Milonov do share the common sentiment of being under permanent, sexual attack. Wurst’s fearless display would have struck even more terror into their fragile beings. Facial hair, worn with fearless indifference to the bigot brigades, rules, okay?

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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