Right Song, Wrong Reason

Hello Dear Readers!

As you know, Dansk Melodi Grand Prix was this past weekend and for those if you who are longtime readers, you know my DMGP post starts my coverage for the new year. That post is forthcoming. But it just didn’t feel right to move forward without a post that’s been in the works for the past few months. Not because I had trouble writing it, but because I know, no matter how I phrase my argument, people will misunderstand what I am saying. So, in the name of clarity, I want to state this article’s main points here:

1. I love Rise Like a Phoenix. It was my favorite song from 2014. It’s precisely the type of music I go for. Not only that, I think it was the most complete song lyrically, musically, and in its presentation.

2. Homophobia and transphobia are real and are major issues worldwide.

3. Tom Neuwirth’s bearded-lady character, Conchita Wurst, was created to combat these issues.

4. While this mission is noble and to be commended, they are not reasons to vote for a song in a contest that prides itself on being apolitical and ideology-free.

With that in mind (and the reminder that this blog is predominantly based upon my opinion and understanding as I have experienced the world as a black, gay man), I present “Right Song, Wrong Reason.”

As Vienna prepares itself for the magnificent spectacle that is the ESC, I want to take a moment to reflect upon the reason for the Contest’s return to Austria. The indomitable Conchita Wurst presented an anthem of triumph in a James Bond-esque setting. Rise Like a Phoenix inspires hope within its listeners that, they too, can overcome heartache, setbacks, and adversity. However, would this song have won if it was performed by, say, a woman?  Or a man?  Or even, a non-bearded drag queen? I would predict not.

Right Song…

As I said, I love this song! The fact that it sounds like it fell out of a Bond movie is the primary reason for that. The composition is stunning; it builds in all the right places without ever overwhelming Wurst’s airy voice. Likewise, the staging was near perfect; if only the LED wings on the screen were a little higher so that they consistently looked like they were sprouting from Wurst’s back. But I digress.  For what it’s worth, Wurst’s voice was on par. She does not have the strongest or the biggest voice, but the song was written in such a way to maximize her strengths. The lyrics are inspiring and are broad enough to not apply to just one kind of situation. Universally-applicable lyrics + Well-staged performance + Beautifully composed music = Strong ESC Entry.

Normally, I would be excited for my favorite song to win the ESC (first time since 2007!), but, the media around this song, before and after the Contest, made it quite apparent that this song won, not because of its superiority, but due to the symbolic nature of its performer.

Some Context

Conchita Wurst is a bearded-lady character created by singer Tom Neuwirth to battle the rampant homophobia and transphobia that he witnessed in Austria and his travels. So, some context:

Homophobia = hating and discriminating against someone due to the fact that they are homosexual (this term is often used to also incorporate discrimination against people who identify as any other non-heterosexual orientation by those outside of the queer community).
Transphobia = hating and discriminating against someone because they do not identify as a gender that falls into the typical alignment with their birth sex (i.e., someone born male who does not identify as a man)
These issues are more complex than I am making them; for more information, the University of California, Davis has a great page that dives into these topics: http://lgbtqia.ucdavis.edu/lgbt-education/.

While Neuwirth does identify as a gay man, he does not (nor has he ever) identified as anything other than a man. Hence, Conchita Wurst is a drag queen, not a transwoman (unlike, the performing artist of the 1998 winning song Dana International, who is a transwoman). However, as Neuwirth has said, in and out of character, Conchita Wurst stands for acceptance for all peoples – not just those with which he identifies.

Conchita Wurst has been at the forefront of these issues within Austria. And, since her victory, across Europe and even in the Western World (I’ve encountered people here in the US who have heard of ESC simply because of Wurst’s win).

…Wrong Reason

Anyone who follows the Contest, even distantly, would have encountered articles and stories about Wurst, highlighting what she represents and, eventually, deifying the draq queen for it. This deification piqued around Eurovision Week when the press realized how sweet and funny Conchita Wurst is. The verbage around Rise Life a Phoenix was not about the staging, or the music, or the lyrics (though, a few folks did offhandedly mention the Bond-esque sound of it), but about Conchita Wurst.

While I commend the efforts that Wurst is making to end discrimination, Eurovision is supposed to be a Contest free from politics. This should go both ways. Just because the cause is good does not mean it should influence the voting, just like bad politics should not affect the voting.

Why Make a Post About This?

So, why make a post about positive politics positively affecting the odds of my favorite song? Because I want the Contest to remain open everyone. The ESC was founded to unite all of Europe, regardless of their beliefs. The folks with the most to learn will be the first to stop watching if the Contest if becomes a platform for preaching. Think about the television show Glee. It became quite popular, used its platform to share lessons about acceptance, then descended into weekly preaching sessions, usually about lesbian/gay issues, and now has a fraction of the audience it once had. Preaching to the choir (that is, telling your supporters what they already know) is okay if you want to rally support, but to make change, you have to make sure you are using a platform that is open to everyone. It is bad enough that media is trying its hardest to pigeon-hole into a gay-man only event (which is something I have railed against previously on this blog), but the more we lift up folks with certain types of politics or messages – AND present them as nothing more than their messages (and not their songs) the more we alienate and push away those that we want to inform.

Yes, Rise Like a Phoenix was the best song at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest. Unfortunately, it won because of what the character Conchita Wurst represents and not because of the fantastic song that she presented. Winning entries tend to start trends, hopefully, the trend for songs winning for their politics stops here.

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