Hello Dear Readers!
As promised, the first of four posts in the series “Eurovision: More than just…”
The fallout from Ukraine’s victory last May is still resounding, particularly as the host broadcaster, The Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (UA:PBC) is struggling to complete preparations in a timely manner. The winning entry in Stockholm was 1944 performed by Jamala, who wrote the song based on the experiences of her great-grandmother who had to go through the forced migration of the Crimean Tatars by the USSR, even incorporating words from a Tatar folk song about the event as the chorus. Clearly, while this song is about a historical injustice, there are clear parallels to the 2014 invasion of Crimea by Russia. Despite Russia’s protest about the song being potentially political (which violates ESC rules), the argument made by NTU (UA:PBC’s former name) was that it was a song about history, not current politics. This was enough to allow the song to compete. There is also a history of other countries using Eurovision to send thinly veiled political messages, such as Armenia’s 2010 and 2015 entries that marked the 95th and 100th anniversaries of the Armenian genocide (and event that Turkey still denies). Many countries also send very blatant political songs about peace (Hungary 2015 is the first I think of) or saving the environment (Ukraine 2010 and Armenia 2013 both come to mind). And being political is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a role of music within our society is to express the narratives that we actually live with day to day. And for smaller countries in particular, Eurovision can be the rare opportunity to express themselves in a wide-scale venue (hence, why microstates like San Marino continue to compete). The guys at Overthinking It did a good job of discussing this.
But, we’re not here to discuss the merits of politics at Eurovision, but the ways in which the Contest transcends them. I am going to focus predominantly on the voting and coordination of the event as opposed to the music. Music is art and can take any direction it pleases. The more important aspect is how the EBU enforces its rules against politics and actions it supposedly takes to convey a political message.
So often, people dismiss the results as being orchestrated by the EBU to favor Western countries or “friendly” Eastern nations. This is despite the fact that less liberal nations, such as Serbia, Azerbaijan, and Russia have all won and hosted the Contest over the past ten years. In 2016, countless fans put forward conspiracy theories that Western nations’ juries purposefully stiffed Russia to avoid a return to the nation in 2017 as they knew that it would win the televote. This is despite the fact that Russia still finished in the top five among the jury scores. And despite the fact that Poland, which finished third in the televote, garnered a mere 7 points from the juries. Poland is a West-friendly Slavic nation, it’s even in the EU, why wouldn’t the juries swing their support behind it if they truly wanted to sink Russia? Or why not swing that support behind one of their own, such as Germany or Spain? The answer, of course, is that juries remain independent from the EBU’s direct influence. There is no statistical evidence to support any concerted effort between juries.
From the beginning of the Contest there has been disputes over the allegedly political nature of votes. I have said it before (and I’ll say it again), there’s a difference between political votes and diaspora votes. Political votes implies a televote is actively moving in a direction to promote (or stop) a country for political reasons. It requires a conscious, concerted effort to do so. This is the reason why we don’t see votes between Armenia and Azerbaijan (though, Armenia gave Azerbaijan one point back in 2009). We don’t see this complete refusal to exchange points between any other countries, including between Russia and either Ukraine or Georgia, both of whom gave televoting points to the nation with whom they are at war.
The splitting of Yugoslavia was particularly bitter and there are very deep divides between the various former Yugoslav nations, particularly between Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia as well as between Slovenia and all of them. Yet, these countries routinely swap votes among themselves. Why? This is the effect of unconscious cultural bias — diaspora voting. Humans tend to like the familiar. While, politically, the countries that formerly comprised Yugoslavia may hate on another, they have strong cultural connections, they have overlapping music industries, and mostly mutually intelligible languages. It makes sense that they would naturally be attracted to the entries from the others. This is also why the Nordic nations tend to swap points, why Greece and Cyprus always swap points, and (to lesser extent) between the Netherlands-Belgium-France.
This may seem like a small difference but it’s important. There is a big difference between ascribing something to conscious effort and instinct/preference. Does this disadvantage smaller nations? Most definitely, and that’s why the EBU instituted things like the allocation pots and brought back the juries. The truth is, even if country names were removed from entries entirely, the diaspora effect would continue. It’s culture, it’s human nature, it’s comfortable — it’s not politics.
I would be remiss if I did not address the controversy around Russia and 2017. For those who need the step-by-step layout of events:
Russia internally selected Julia Sachenko to represent them with the song “Flame is Burning” mere days before the submission deadline.
Ukraine announced that they were launching an investigation into Sachenko, as they had suspicion to believe that she illegally entered the country to perform in Crimea without passing through a Ukrainian checkpoint back in 2015.
Sachenko confirms that she did, in fact, perform in Crimea in 2015.
Ukraine officials announced in mid-March (with fewer than eight weeks to go before Eurovision) that Sachenko had indeed entered the country illegally and that she was prohibited from returning for five years – no exception.
The EBU expresses dismay over this decision. Initially, they offer to find a way to allow Sachenko to perform in Moscow and have it telecasted in the arena. Both Russia and Ukraine scoff at this. Russia, because the rules state performances must be live in the arena AND that telecasting denies them full participation benefits. Ukraine, because showing Sachenko on Ukrainian television would violate the law and circumvent the punishment of banning her entry.
The EBU reaffirms that Ukrainian law must be respected and that it will work with the host nation to find a solution.
One of the highest ranking administrators at the EBU issued an ultimatum to Ukraine: provide an exception for Sachenko or risk being banned from Eurovision events (ESC, JESC, Eurovision Young Musicians, and all its entertainment content one imagines) for several years (a punishment that was doled out to Lebanon after it said that it would not broadcast the Israeli entry in 2005, forcing it to remove itself from the Contest – where it was set to debut – and drop any expectation of receiving a refund of its participation fee as well as received a five year ban from Eurovision competitions).
Russia is offered the solution of replacing the artist of the song (which is the most sensible solution and consistent with past situations of similar natures, in my opinion).
Again, Russia scoffs at this solution while Ukraine refuses to budge.
Russia ultimately decides to withdraw and refuses to broadcast EC 2017.
This just goes to show you that, try as they might, the EBU cannot prevent politics from creeping into the Contest. Of course, this all could have been avoided if they had made Jamala change the lyrics of 1944 last year. Or if Russia decided to be the bigger man and choose an artist that did not break the law.
So, is this whole post moot? Doesn’t this just prove that my arguments against the political nature of Eurovision are wrong? No. One example, even one as big as this, does not unravel my argument. Nor does it prove the Contest as a whole is political. In fact, it can be said that the EBU was trying its best to mitigate a political event to avoid politics entering the Contest.
Hello Dear Readers!
Wow! What a show! Twenty-seven fantastic performances, exhilarating mid-voting & interval acts, and voting that kept us on edge until nearly the end. Some initial reactions and notes from Saturday night:
-Congratulations to Sweden! It’s second win in four years, and sixth overall. Sweden now stands alone in second place in all-time victories. The UK, France, and Luxembourg are now in third place with five wins. Ireland is still in first with seven – Sweden is setting its sights on the coveted top spot. Rumor has it that it will be in Gothenburg next year, not Stockholm, but we’ll see.
-Overall, I am not too surprised by the Top Ten; I was only 60% accurate. I am very happy that both, Latvia and Belgium, were able to make it to the Top Ten, that they did not cancel each other out. I am disappointed that Azerbaijan did not make it, but I guess it’s nice to see that it is starting to normalize within the Contest as opposed to always being in the top – like what Armenia starting experiencing in 2011.
-Biggest Surprise: We have the first nul points in a Grand Final since the UK in 2003. Not just one, but two: Germany and Austria. It is the first time a host country has received the infamous score and only the second time a host has come last (the Netherlands came joint last in 1958). Regardless of your opinion of these two songs, neither deserved nul points. The performances were solid, the songs are catchy, and it’s inconceivable that, among forty countries, not a single one found a single point for either. It’s mind-boggling and I am sure will be a source of chatter within the fan community for years to come.
-Fans are desperately and deeply split on Russia. On one side, we have people who oppose Russia’s politics (on multiple fronts) and view their entries as an extension of Putin. On the other side, we have fans that argue that we must be neutral and that Russia’s song deserved its widespread support. I try to stay out of the arguments, but given it is becoming one of the biggest issues (and not just with Russia, but Azerbaijan as well), I feel like I must comment. Personally, I think that if we think Russia should not compete, then we must petition the EBU to punish Russia, which could include blocking them from participation in Eurovision programming (ESC, JESC, Young Musicians, etc.). Until the EBU decides to take action, we must treat every competitor with respect. We can also take action by not attending an event in a country we protest and pressuring our broadcasters to withdraw in a year that we think that a country has politics contrary to the ideals of the Contest.
-The Big Five (except Italy) all ended up at the bottom if the scoreboard. The UK missed an opportunity to capitalize on a truly unique and fun entry. France was screwed by its running order position (again! Just like 2013). Spain was a victim of its own over-production. Germany, inexplicably, earned zero points – why, I have no idea. It seemed like country really tried to do its best this year, so, as of right now, I have no suggestions for improvement other than to lick their wounds and move forward with renewed optimism.
-The production was lovely, even though I thought it was a bit too heavy on promoting Conchita; her agent must be amazing. I appreciated that there were nods to the gay male fans, but we were not lifted up as the “ideal fans” or the only fans out there (something that I fear Sweden will return to doing, especially if Petra Mede is invited back to host). The organization left much to be desired, which I will dive into in a future post about my experience in Vienna.
-Finally, something needs to be done about this flag situation that’s become much worse since the standing section was introduced in 2013. The easiest solution would be to build a stage that is higher up or at least raise the angle of the cameras. It will result in much different kids of shots, but would help alleviate the problem.
I spent a combined total of 34.5 hours standing in queues ahead of the show. Most of those hours were outside, many in the rain, some in crowded, tight spaces. At times, we asked ourselves “why we were doing this?” And had to constantly remind ourselves that, despite the rain, despite the disorganization of the security staff, despite the pushing, shoving, and disrespect from other fans – experiencing the show was going to be worth it.
And it was. It simply was.
Not just for the reasons I mentioned at the top of this post, but also for the community. The new people that I met, the people I saw again from last year, and the overall crowd. I love Eurovision, not just for the combination of geography, pop music, and competition, but for ideal of unifying a continent (and beyond!) for a week. ESC is at its best is when shared in community. I guess that’s why I started this blog, to expand my ESC community. So I want to thank you, my dear readers, for it is you that helps keep this passion, this Eurovision Obsession, going and growing.
Eurovision is about people – die-hard fans, noobs, casual viewers, Europeans (regardless of their national origin), and non-Europeans alike. While we can argue about who should participate and how, we must all agree that the shared experience of enjoying the Contest is open to everyone. Thank you for your readership and I look forward to seeing how this blog continues to grow and expand into the future!
Stay tuned for my wrap posts from this year’s event, including my annual awards and a post about my time in Vienna!
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.
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.
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).
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.
Hello Dear Readers!
Finally, after much struggle and anguish and many hours, I have finally resolved enough of my technical woes to finally be able to post my notes for y’all!
Reactions from the Jury Final
Last night was the jury final and I can safely say that only one country had a bad enough performance to hurt themselves. Though, Italy had, by far, the worse performance. It was pretty flat. This will definitely be Italy’s worse finish since returning. Even if Emma has a mind-blowing performance tonight, I see little reason to believe that she will score any higher than 15 based on the jury performance alone.
The UK also had some minor issues when a backing singer tried to end the song a few seconds early. I am sure that will not happen again tonight. Poland also seemed to suffer from some timing issues that affected the performance.
A few countries also helped their case. Azerbaijan, a song that was already jury fodder, will likely score very highly for the performance she gave last night. Likewise, Austria, Sweden, and Switzerland also gave exhilerating performances that are sure to go over well with the juries. I won’t go into more detail because they were minor improvements to their semi-final performances. Spain gave a good performance as well. Valentina Monetta from San Marino was the most improved from her semi-final performance and has secured that she will at least be spared the embarassment of a null points.
Well, I think (and really, really hope) that this will be the closest Contest in quite some time. The odds favorite is now Austria, with Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK right behind. After that, the odds begin to drop. After much back and forth and consultation with my new friends waiting in line for the shows, I truly think that Sweden will take the crown. Denmark’s song and staging is weak. The Netherlands will benefit from being so close to the end and so different from everything else, but at the end of the day, country has never placed higher than second at ESC and I do not think that will change this year. I do not think the juries will be as enamored with the UK entry as the fans are. Even though the Austrian entry is my favorite this year, I do not think it will be a winner. Aside from Conchita Wurst’s look, songs in this style – big, dramatic, ballads that sound like they should be on a James Bond soundtrack – do not have as much mass appeal as one would think. Especially, not compared to more traditional pop ballads such as the one Sweden has. Sweden has a simple staging that emphasizing the song; its subtly and power seperate it from the other entries, the juries traditionally like these kinds of songs, and the drama is just enough to captivate audiences without scaring them off. Undo has the perfect combination of factors to carry the trophy, and the Contest, back across the Øresund for the sixtieth edition in 2015
After Sweden, I think the remaining Top Ten will be:
- The Netherlands
As far as the Bottom Five, I would predict Italy, Belarus, Iceland, Slovenia, and Finland. These five lack a combination of adequate public appeal, public interest, and stagning.
Final Thoughts Ahead of the Grand Final
Let’s try to keep the politics out of ESC! This goes both ways. As far as Russia is concerned, booing Russia does not help anything and only encourages the true villains more. What happens when you boo the Tomaschevy Twins is that you are booing 17 girls who are Junior Eurovision champions – that’s all. The best way to handle the situation is to sit quietly; lack of reaction is much more impactful. Additionally, with Austria. What the character of Conchita Wurst represents is great, but that is no reason to vote. Give Austria points because Rise Like a Pheonix is an amazing song, not because you want the drag queen to win.
And with that, enjoy the show!! It promises to be fantastic! I will be keeping live notes the best I can from the ESC party that I am attending. See you this evening!