Finally facing my Waterloo

When I was a little girl in the 1970s, ABBA was big. In fact, they were bigger than big, they were huge.

It’s fair to say that like most girls my age at the time, I was in love with ABBA. Specifically I was in love with Agnetha and Frida.

Four ABBA albums and three corresponding fridge magnets

Georgina from across the road would come over and the two of us would put my ABBA albums on and sing into our hairbrushes, pretending to be the two Swedish singers, who in our eyes were more beautiful and glamorous than anyone we could possibly imagine. Georgina would be Agnetha and I was always Frida.

After my friend Rachael and I left Denmark following Eurovision a few weeks ago, we made a beeline for Stockholm. The purpose: to visit ABBA The Museum.

Building with lights spelling out "ABBA The Museum"

What can I tell you? It’s not a huge space at all but ABBA The Museum is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. It comprehensively covers its subject in every way imaginable.

There were stories: who they were, when they met, when they won Eurovision in 1974, what happened next, and how they broke up.

Waterloo costumes

Fernando and Australia

There were mocked up sewing rooms full of fabrics, offices with memos, holiday houses that they worked in and dressing rooms in a mess.

There was memorabilia: costumes, a complete display of all records released, a display of many of the gold and platinum albums, and much, much more.

ABBA discography

ABBA gold and platinum records

ABBA the museum - costume gallery

cats costumes

But that’s not even the best bit. The absolute best thing about ABBA The Museum is that it understands and caters for its visitors. Throughout the museum there are interactive activities that allow visitors to participate in the ABBA dream.

You can be the producer that has a go at mixing a song to achieve the ABBA sound (turns out I’m no Quincy Jones).

You can sing and dance on stage as the 5th member of ABBA (I danced completely out of time but didn’t care).

You can ‘audition’ in a recording booth which scores your karaoke performance (Rachael and I sang together, and I use the term ‘sang’ loosely as we actually laughed till we wept at how bad our Australian accents sounded put together with ABBA’s music; we didn’t score well).

And you can have your photo taken and avatars created of all four ABBA members (but with your face) which you then dance as (I busted moves Bjorn would’ve been proud of).

Avatar Len

Basically ABBA The Museum gives the little kid in us the opportunity to go back in time and relive singing ABBA songs into a hairbrush and dancing like Agnetha and Bjorn, Frida and Benny, on a pretend stage in our living rooms.

In short, it was ABBA fan heaven.

I felt perfectly at home.

Four cut out figures of ABBA with Frida's face swapped for the writer's face

Euro Visions

A few weeks ago I found myself in Copenhagen for Eurovision with my friend Rachael.

Eurovision 2014 stage in background and green room with performers in foreground

We’re both big fans of Danish TV (shows like The Killing and Borgen), and we both love Eurovision. So when Denmark won Eurovision 2013, Rachael began petitioning me and, despite having no regular employment and no idea how I’d pay for the trip, after two months of lobbying on her part I said yes.

Eurovision is much-loved in Australia. Over three nights, but especially during the Grand Final, people have Eurovision parties, compete to have their #SBSEurovision tweets appear during the telecast, and indulge in drinking games (Smoke machine? Drink! Male artist takes his shirt off? Drink!).

Still from live act - Eurovision 2014 - men in colourful suits

Still from live act - Eurovision 2014 - red and white traditional Polish design

Still from live act - stage shows words "I wanna have a moustache"

That Australians should love Eurovision so much is perfectly understandable given our European migrant history and our love of all things daggy. We love to laugh at the costumes, the props, the songs and the whole over the top aesthetic. For us Eurovision is utterly foreign and utterly hilarious.

But going to Eurovision is a very different experience from watching it on telly.

Absolutely the fun is still there: the fans who dress up, the festival atmosphere in the host city, the general excitement of an event as massive as Eurovision is (as well as the three televised finals there are another three family rehearsals and three jury finals).

Fans in Spanish and British flags

Fans in pink suits and hats.

Fans wearing sequinned clothing

Fans in red and white with drawn on beards

What is different, however, is the realisation that for the European fans, Eurovision is still an important song contest. The artists and performers are not trying to be over the top, or kitsch, or weird. That’s just how they are. And the music is the music of Europe. That’s what they listen to over there.

There are still a lot of fun elements. Interval entertainment for the last couple of years has included a comedy piece, usually the host city or nation poking fun at itself self-deprecatingly.

Ironically, given we’re a nation that loves to laugh at Europe, when the second semi final interval entertainment included a piece that poked fun at many Australian stereotypes, a lot of Australians back home cringed. “But that’s not what we’re like!” was the refrain on social media. As if the act was a serious examination of Australia’s culture and diversity. We’re always happy to laugh at Europe, it seems, but not so comfortable if Europe laughs at us.

Still from live act at interval of Eurovision 2014 semi final 2 - shows Michaelangelo's God and Adam clinking beers

You also get a far better understanding of how Europe chooses its winners when you’re there. Yes, there are a lot of politics and block voting going on in Eurovision. But countries that win rarely do so because their block voted them through. And countries that are not in blocks have won in the past, too.

Conchita Wurst, singing for Austria, was not the favourite going into the semi-finals. It wasn’t clear whether Europe was ready for a bearded drag queen diva singing a song that sounds like the theme from the next James Bond film.

Silhouette of woman on stage

As it turns out, they were. Overwhelmingly so. There is a great post on My Blue Danube that examines some of the politics behind Austria’s win.

I have now watched Conchita’s performance twice live and several times on YouTube and television, and have heard (and sung along!) with her song many times. So this is my take on Austria’s win:

Conchita gave an outstanding performance, never faltering once, with no props or dancers or musicians on stage to distract from her. Mostly standing still, her only movement was to raise her arm dramatically at the chorus.

Woman in gold dress on stage, arm extended upwards

Which brings me to the song. Let’s just recap part of the lyrics:

Waking in the rubble

Walking over glass

Neighbors say we’re trouble

Well that time has passed



You wouldn’t know me at all today

From the fading light I fly


Rise like a phoenix

Out of the ashes

Seeking rather than vengeance

Retribution

You were warned

Once I’m transformed

Once I’m reborn

You know I will rise like a phoenix


Conchita sang this song for all the LGBTI men and women like her who had been put down in life and told they weren’t normal. The people who believe, as she said in her winner’s speech, in peace and freedom. In unity.

But the song is bigger than one individual. As she sang, all underdogs saw themselves in Conchita’s song. And that included European underdog nations who are waiting to rise like a phoenix from the economic ashes they find themselves in.

How else to explain why Spain, Italy and Greece – known more for their macho, if not entirely homophobic, culture – all gave Austria 12 points?

Conchita Wurst singing for Austria captured the zeitgeist.

The voting score board at Eurovision 2014 and a woman wearing a fake beard on screen

Many of the fans we met at Eurovision asked us if this was “our first Eurovision”; they had all been to several. I can understand the addiction, though of course it’s much easier when you don’t have to travel from the other side of the world to get there.

I found Eurovision exhilarating but exhausting, too. Going to all three televised shows was pretty full-on.

On the other hand, now that I’m home and some time has past, I find myself thinking about Eurovision 2015. After all, I’ve always wanted to see Vienna….!

Rachael???