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