Europeans tune into the Super Bowl not least to marvel at the festive absurdity of the half-time extravaganza—one the world’s greatest displays of sonic and visual excess. There is really nothing like the imperial America’s grandest circus.
But the Eurovision Song Center, which, in its 59th installment this past weekend crowned the bearded and begowned Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst as its latest laureate, offers an illuminating transatlantic comparison. The global television audience for both events is roughly the same, around 120 million, though the expanding popularity of Eurovision pushed its viewership well past the Super Bowl this year. Smaller in population than that of the Eurovision zone, the fifty United States nonetheless corresponds to the fifty-one involved in the song contest, a group of nations that includes not only the EU countries, but many others as well, among them Morocco, Israel and Turkey. I don’t know if any impresario has yet dreamt of an Amerivision spin-off pitting coal dust-covered quintets from West Virginia against baywatch beauties from the Golden State against cowgals and guys from Texas or Montana. Eurovision bands do not necessarily adopt the traditional markers of the nation-states they are called on to represent, but folkloric spices, stale as they are, continue to flavor the fare.
Deprived of such pageantry in our own country, Americans turn their attention in increasing numbers to the Eurovision Song Contest for a view of that continent’s cultural self-fashioning at its most hilariously campy and contrived. The New Worlders look back at the Old and chuckle at the often volatile choreography of ethnic kitsch, cheesy pop anthems, and sexy display. This year it was the Polish group and their rendition of the seemingly tautological “We are Slavic” that most provocatively mixed the indigenous and the indecent. The buxom singing models Donatan and Cleo, rigged up in fetish-farm garb, were front and center while alongside, one of their mute bandmates saucily shed her colorfully rustic jacket to reveal an ample décolletage that shone and shook above the milk churn she worked at. Her suggestive grip on the handle gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “pole dancing.” Just how titillating this tableau was to large swaths of the viewership could be gauged in the British response: the U.K. jury of experts ranked the Poles dead last, the island’s drooling public put them first.
On the seemingly wholesome end of the spectrum, the Swiss sent an all-male sextet in white shirts and black waistcoats. These bright lads whistled, banjoed, and fiddled their way through a sunny alpine reel: Calvinist Club Chic as against the Slavic Softcore of the milkmaids.
The devotees of Eurovision—and there are many on this side of the Atlantic—will dismiss my condescending attitude towards the high-tech ceremony and its performers as superficial and snobbish. They’re right, but that doesn’t change the fact that this stuff really can’t be taken seriously, except to the extent that it shows how debased multiculturalism has become in our globalized age. Still, it has to be acknowledged that there is real talent in the Eurovision jamboree, however misguided in application it may be.
This Musical Pageant of the Nations, which itself has a long history in European culture, draws millions to its rituals, from enraptured fans to ponderous academics. This international pop competition is kind of like American Idol meets the European Cup Soccer Championship—both of which Eurovision predates. Born of the internationalist ideal that grew out of the embers of World War II, the Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956, preceding by a year the establishment of the European Economic Community.
Could it be, then, that Eurovision is a crucial instrument of peace and prosperity on the continent and with those neighbors lucky enough to be admitted to the club?
This was a certainly a year to test that proposition, given the tensions seething between the Ukraine and Russia, neither an EU member, but both Eurovision participants. The ongoing crisis has filled up the period between internationalist spectacles of the Sochi Olympics and last week’s Eurovision, this time around held in Copenhagen.
That Russia was even allowed into the contest shows you how wimpy the international response to its annexation of the Crimea has been. Freezing a few bank accounts and canceling some visas barely registers with the alleged transgressors, but exclude the Russian Grannies from Eurovision—they were runners up at the 2012 contest in Azerbaijan—and you’re well on your way to World War III.
In the event, every announcement of points for Russia’s representatives this year, the seventeen -year-old Tolmachey twins was greeted with boos from the live audience. None of the large countries of Western Europe awarded these girls a single point, regardless of how alluring the sisters were in their virginal nightgowns with slits revealing long, leggy views.
Meanwhile in the conflict zone itself, the Russians and Ukrainians respectfully rated each other fourth and third best respectively. This result suggested not only that the regional bloc voting of Eurovision is still in place, but that the Easterner Europeans rather than the Westerners are capable of rising above politics when it comes to indulging in the mindless fun of the evening.
One of the favorites going into the finals, the Austrian act Conchita Wurst claimed victory with a performance lauded by commentators as sultry and self-affirming. Wurst’s rendition of Rise Like a Phoenix was likened by many to Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger, but with a gender twist that is by now hardly shocking.
Conchita’s apotheosis was not without political resonance, being taken by millions as a thumb in the eye—or perhaps up the backside—of bad guy Putin. His deputies duly fulminated against the “end of Europe” and the disappearance of real men. Russian males eager to demonstrate their hetero masculinity were soon publicly shaving their beards to avoid identification with the brazen Eurovision queen. In so doing they reenacted a watershed moment of Russia’s modernization the some three hundred years ago, when, after his return from his incognito trip through Western Europe, Peter the Great demanded that his courtiers and officers be shorn of their beards. Peter barbered the highest officers and aristocrats himself, but it turns out all he had to do to enact his facial hair reforms was to put on a dress.
In fact a vote for Wurst, whose real name is Thomas Neuwirth and whose previous pop incarnation was as the clean-cut lead singer of an Austrian boyband, allowed room for plenty of polymorphous perversity: a message to Putin and the homophobe oppressors; a statement that gowns go well with beards; vigorous endorsement of the morally uplifting sentiments of the in-your-face individualism of the lyrics; and an unabashed admission that the singing was to die for. Each one of those proclivities is a valid and crazy as the other.
Wurst is the first Austrian winner since 1966, the year after The Sound of Music won the Oscar for Best Picture. Wurst’s success comes just a couple of months after the death of the last of the Von Trapp Family Singers, Maria (not to be convinced with the governess turned stepmother) at the age of 99 in Vermont in February. If only Maria had lived long enough to see this latest Austrian sensation burst onto the international stage with her song Rise Like a Phoenix. To me the striking creature ascending with the Eurovision flames was a melding of Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews: stern and feel-good; knowing and naïve—and just wanting to be loved.