It ain’t so queer. The success of Conchita Wurst across continental divides.

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Some Russians shaved off their beards in protest, church officials objected and right wing (and main stream) commentators in a number of countries, including Serbia and Croatia, are offended and offensive at the success of Conchita Wurst because of her deliberate blurring of gender boundaries and sexuality.

In an insightful blog, Alan Renwick noted that while there is a clear east-west divide in terms of the overall vote for Conchita Wurst last Saturday, the variation is insignificant among the voting public, while the jury displayed greater variety. His argument might be even low-balling the small variation. There is a selection bias among those who vote for the Eurovision contest. In many Western European countries there are strong fan constituencies who enjoy the contest for its odd performances, the meeting of ‘banal nationalism’ with a European public sphere and the horrendous music. In other countries, in particular in Europe’s East, Eurovision is more serious business. States invest heavily into winning the contest and its participation is a away to afirm Europeanness (no were more so in countries whose Europeanness is challenged such as Turkey, not participating this year, Azerbajian, Georgia and Armina). Thus audience and voters are likely to be from a broader social background less than those where the viewers take a more ironic distance to event and the voting. Thus, the gap might even be smaller than the voting spread would indicate.

All of this would suggest that the opinion makers, from jury members and politicians are more homophobic and upset by the Austrian victory than the broader public. This seems not implausible. Jury member vote in public and thus in homophobic, patriarchal and authoritarian contexts might either worry about voting for an act like Conchita or might in fact be selected to represent the ‘official’ taste.

The more intriguing question is whether voting for Conchita Wurst is a sign of greater tolerance. At first glance the answer would appear to be yes. Voting for a drag queen with a beard seems hard to reconcile with stereotypical gender roles (for that there was the Polish entry to this year’s Eurovision). However, one should not jump to conclusions. Eurovision itself as a long history of giving more space to openly gay and lesbian performances than the general public in most states would accept. Dana International won for Israel already some 16 years ago. Consider also Serbia where gay pride parades have failed repeatedly and homophobic attitudes remain social acceptable, Marija Šerifović, the Serbian winner of the Eurovision contest in 2007, was not only lesbian (while she did not openly acknowledge this years later, it was not secret to tabloids) but also a Roma (and that did not stop her for endorsing the Serb Radical Party, not particularly enlightened on either groups).

More importantly, even fairly homophobic and patriarchal societies have been tolerant of gay and lesbian or gender-bending entertainers. Take two cases. Azis in Bulgaria. Azis has been one of the most successful singer of chalga music, the widely popular musical genre that combines (pseudo-)traditional music with Western pop like turbofolk (I am aware of the problems of the terminology) in former Yugoslavia or Arabesque in Turkey. Azis, who is also of Roma decent, has been playing with gender roles just as much as Conchita (see here). Similarly in Turkey has had extremely successful performers who challenged gender roles: Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren. Carol Silverman in her wonderful book “Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora” carefully analyses the success of Azis and his performance, playing with gender stereotypes and the image of the Roma and the oriental. To some degree the combination of the exotic and the bending of gender roles made both more easily acceptable. However, Bulgaria and Turkey remain among the countries in Europe least tolerant of homosexuality, thus suggesting a disconnect between the success of openly homosexual or transsexual performers and popular attitudes.

Not unlike elsewhere it being was ok to be gay or lesbian in the world of entertainment, but not in “normal life”. As the world of entertainment is unreal, artificial even when not playing with gender roles, there is more space for those who might not fit into the conventional societal expectations. In fact success in entertain can compound certain gender roles that perceive gays and lesbians as flamboyant, and, well, entertaining. Of course, earlier gay, lesbian and transsexual entertainers were able to flourish through ambiguity and not openly acknowledging their homosexuality, but Azis in Bulgaria became popular in Bulgaria despite open references to his homosexuality (on the boarder implications of Conchita Wurst on LGBT rights see, Catherine Baker’s blog).

What is more striking is the politicization of performance. On the one side the interpretation of Conchita Wurst’s success as a victory for diversity and tolerance, as she herself stated during the victory speech. Similarly LGBT organisations and political parties (rightfully) push for greater rights for gays and lesbians in terms of marriage and adoption (in particular in Austria after her victory was widely celebrated, including by the conservative party, but not by the xenophobic Freedom Party). On the other side is the visceral criticism and rejection by conservative and nationalist politicians, particularly in Europe’s East. This reflects a broader discovery as homophobia as a potent topic for the nationalist and conservative right in Russia (such as the law banning “homosexual propaganda”), but also in Southeastern Europe. While gay and lesbian rights used to be low on the list of issues for conservative groups to rally around more than a decade ago, the violence at Serbia’s first gay pride parade in 2001 was symptomatic for what has become an issue for the right to define itself around.

The politicization also takes on a different dimension. Not only Russian clowns who happen to be called politicians use the victory of Conchita Wurst to juxtapose their own identity with a hedonistic, sexually confused Europe. In Russia at the moment such rhetoric comes as little surprise (just as some argued that the victory of Conchita Wurst as some kind of anti-Russian statement), but also on internet fora in many countries in Southeastern Europe homophobic messages are mixed with skepticism towards the EU (along the lines of ‘this is not the kind of Europe we want’ see here, here and here).  Of course, such different views can be found in every country from the winner of Eurovision onwards, what differs is the balance between the views and their intensity. It would be important to not allow latent or open homophobia to justify views as those promoted by the populist right in some European countries (such as Wilders in the Netherlands) that use homophobia to justify their own xenophobia.

 

Of Eurovisions and Riots in Macedonia

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What links Eurovision, EU mediation and riots on the streets of Skopje? Not much at first glance. It is still an odd coincidence that a scandal over this years contribution to the Eurovision song contest by Macedonia and major riots in Skopje occur at the same time these days. The song “Empire” by Esma Redzepova and Vlatko Lozanovski (aka Lonzano) is at first glance the class kitschy pop that works well at the Eurovision song contest (although definitely not the caliber to do particularly well there). The lyrics are banal, but what to expect from ESC song:

Vlatko:
Odam,cekoram po nebo,      I walk, I walk through the skies,
Letam jas niz vremeto,          I fly through the times,
I koga zaspivam,                      And when I fall asleep,
Pesni jas sonuvam                   I dream of music

Background vocals
Ejgidi more dejgidi,
Nasi pesni ubavi                       Our beautiful songs

Esma:
Zivotot e muzika,                     Life is music
Energija,                                       Energy
Nasata imperija                         Our Empire

Chorus:
Imperija,imperija,                    Empire, Empire,
Muzika caruva na zemjata,    Music rules on earth
Imperija,imperija,                    Empire, Empire
Najmokna sila na planetata   Most powerful force on the planet

Vlatko:
Koga spie cela vselena,            When the whole universe sleeps,
Peam vo nokite,                          I sing in the nights,
Gi dopiram svezdite                  I reach for the stars,
So krilja na notite                       With wings of musical notes.

[the video of the original song imperija has been deleted and is now been purged from cyberspace and replaced by the new song, F.B. 19.3.2013]

Of course from the lyrics it is clear that the empire they are singing about is music. However, the link between a video clip that looks like a promotion of the controversial Skopje 2014 building program and references to “Empire” with images of the statue of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Arc de Triomph do evoke not only musical empires. So unsurprisingly some media in Greece took offense (‘ONCE AGAIN FYR MACEDONIA PROVOKES GREECE’ and a moronic comment by the Greece ESC participant Agathonas Iakovides: “The Greek history cannot be insulted by anyone I am Greek from head to toe”), as did Bulgaria and Esma and Lonzano cancelled their trip to Bulgaria. Luckily Germany did not protest over the video showing a monument that looks a lot like the Brandenburg gate & Siegessäule in miniature or France (and Romania) for the depiction of an obvious copy of the Arc de Triomphe or the Bucharest Arcul de Triumf.

Also domestically, the video came under extensive criticism for showing off Skopje 2014 project that is rejected by many as kitschy, wasteful and nationalist. The combined international and domestic protests thus made the MRT withdraw the clip as “it did not comply with the broadcasters requirements.” In its stead, some really funny spoofs popped up, the one being the clip below, a wonderfully cut duet of Darth Vader and Jabba the Hut

[unfortunately this spoof has been deleted for copyright infringement, F.B. 19.3.2013]

So what does this silly story have to do with the unrest that has been going on in Skopje in the days since Talat Xhaferi,  a former NLA commander, was named Minister of Defense or the mediation of the EU in Macedonia a few days ago over the opposition boycott of parliament and the threat to boycott elections?

The current government has maneuvered the country in a very difficult and volatile situation. The unrest first by Macedonian war veterans against Xhaferis nomination, followed by Albanian counter protests demonstrate the volatility of Macedonia and the risks of playing with nationalism in an environment were few of the underlying prejudice and segregation has been tackled. Instead, the ruling VRME-DPMNE has been combining its nation building strategy with accommodating the largest Albanian party–a double act that seems to be running out of steam. At the same time, the opposition boycott and EU intervention is reminiscent of the polarization that has plagued neighboring Albania for more than a decade and is both a sign of weakness of the opposition and the government. Finally, the Eurovision ‘scandal’ (the only real scandal or rather sad part of the story is that Esma Redzepova is one of the two singing the song) signals either naivete or willful confrontation the current Macedonian government seems to be good at provoking Greece and Bulgaria. These three dimensions–rising nationalist confrontation, polarization of the main parties that requires external mediation and continued confrontation with Greece–cannot be good news for Macedonia and filming a new video clip is the least of all troubles coming from all of this.

Notes on Eurovision

eurovision

It will come as pleasant surprise that Terry Wogan will no longer comment the Eurovision song contest on BBC, but instead Graham Norton will be his replacement. After having to hear about the Eastern Block, block voting (which one of my more gifted students at Kent used in his/her final essay as evidence of the continued divided between East and West) and the need to reinstate the Berlin Wall, things can get only better. Rather than ranting about the laziness and colonial arragoance displayed towards the small peoples of the east, I have decide this year to write a few notes for Graham Norton so that they can guide his commentary–not be accused of being an academic who only criticises after it is too late:

Fact 1

42 countries participate, 22 are former Communist countires, plus Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Israel: Western Europe is in a minority. Thus, odds of a West European country winning are just not that that good (or to be precise: 38%)

Fact 2

There is little political voting during the Eurovision (except the ethnic voting between Cyprus and Greece). And no, Armenia and Turkey are not countries who always vote in the same ‘block,’ neither are Romania and Russia, Albania and Serbia. Studies of voting patterns indicate that there are cultural patterns, which create voting regions. If a song from Armenia sounds familiar to a listener in Greece who then votes for the song, this is not block voting.

Fact 3

Performers are trying to please their potential audiances–just that the voters are not in their own country and this leads to some very entertaining ways in which some acts think they can garner votes: Montenegro this year tries to appeal to the gay community with the George Michael cum Village People dancing background in the video. Romania’s Elena on the other hand is appealing to the Balkan ‘block’ by praising the virtues of Balkan girls with lyrics written by a true poet: ‘The Balkan girls they like to party like nobody, like nobody, For crowd delight, we’ll shine all night.’

Fact 4

Some acts are useful lessons in counterfactual history: Moldova this year shows us what Eurovision would have been like, if Communism had not fallen 20 years ago and still the countries east of the Iron Curtain were participating. According to an official bio, “Despite her youth [she is one of the oldest participant in the Eurovision song contest], Nelly is the most authoritative singer in Moldova confirmed by the VIP award, offered every six years.” This winner of the morning star award and many other honors tries to convince the world that they have never seens a dance like the hora from Moldova (which looks surprisingly familar to certain dances in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Ukraine etc.)…

Fact 5

Eurovision is the most successful form of Euroatlantic Integration. Forget NATO and EU, where is Belrus voting for the UK? In no organization in Europe are all countries of the continent included (except the sore loosers who no longer participate like Italy and Luxembourg) and can vote like equals. Maybe this is what might make many West Europeans unconforatble, being outvoted by these ungrateful Easterners who are all of a sudden equals. And some, like the Ukraine this year, are beating Western pop divas easily. On the other hand, the ‘Eastern’ hand in Norways song surely contributes to his frontrunner status.

Fact 6

Eurovision is silly, fun and thus to be taken seriously (or the other way around). It is rare to find such a mixture of genuine fun and playfulness with true camp and musical horrors. You can love the show and hate the music, that is the beauty of Eurovision. This mix of seriousness, kitch, camp and fun is what makes this continent such a fun place.

The Politics of Eurovision

So Serbia won for the first time the Eurovision contest (the last and only time Yugoslavia won with Riva in 1990, the country fell apart…). Goran‘s blog at B92 is great on the domestic debates on Marija Serifovic and the fact that she does not resemble the conventional singers who make it Serbia…
Yesterday I was able to witness Terry Wogan’s legendary commentary for the first time…and instead I got Jacques Chirac. Wogan’s view of Eastern Europe was awfully reminiscent of Chirac when he called the countries of Eastern Europe “mal élevée” (badly educated). Wogan, annoyed at the apparent block voting, even called a new wall (I shall not comment on the tastelessness of this suggestion). Teaming prejudice, his commentary displayed a great degree of ignorance. He was upset at the voting along certain geographic blocks (ex-Soviet Union, Baltics, Balkans, etc.) and apparently had particular disdain at the East European for this habit.
His commentary ignored the fact that although Western Europe might be economically more powerful, there are simply more countries in “Eastern Europe”. Of the 42 participating countries, only 16 are from ‘Western Europe’ (without Greece), so a disbalance in favor of the East should not surprise anybody (and let’s not forget that the only four countries which do not have to earn their place are… Germany, France, UK and Spain). Furthermore, the accusation of block voting ignores the real regional political dynamics. Geographic proximity often makes voting for each other more difficult. Nationalist stereotypes would suggest that it would be easier for Turkey to, let’s say vote for the UK, than Armenia. This is in fact the fascinating bit of the competition how televoting meant that politically problematic votes (like Turkey for Armenia, Croatia for Serbia) are no longer excluded by ‘politically correct’ juries. Eurovision-Citizens calling in have often demonstrated to the break some conventional animosities. When Austria supports Germany, Turkey Armenia, Croatia Serbia, etc. then this is voting despite (past) political considerations, not because of them.
Geographical patterns exist, but they are not rigid blocks but rather patterns determined not only by geography or supposed regional sympathy. Musical tastes differ across Europe and not everything will appeal everywhere, and this after all the fun of the whole spectacle.

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