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Music: Eurovision: Not Just Another Song Contest

By Leslie Herman
ART TIMES Summer 2014

Conchita Wurst winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest
Conchita Wurst, winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song ContestPhoto Credit: Milenko Bedzic (ORF)

Have you heard the song ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ (written and composed by Charly Mason, Joey Patulka, Ali Zuckowski, Julian Maas)? I won’t go on about the fact that it has been my latest ear worm – it is very catchy, and hopes are pinned on it being the next Bond movie theme tune.

It is the song that won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest for Austria, sung by bearded lady Conchita Wurst. Conchita Wurst’s victory in this song contest, which has been running for 59 years, is headline news in Europe.

You can hear it on Spotify (see link and other references at end of essay):

Why, until now, have I not been compelled to share my intrigue of the Eurovision Song Contest with my fellow Americans?

The Eurovision Song Contest has been a pan-European annual event since 1956. It has been a launch pad for the mega careers of the likes of ABBA as well as a significant platform for others. Sweden took the prize for the very first time in 1974 when ABBA won with ‘Waterloo’; Bucks Fizz won for the UK in 1981 with ‘Making your Mind Up’, and Celine Dion sang for Switzerland in 1988.

Domenico Modugno, singing for Italy, came in third with ‘Volare’ in 1958; Julio Iglesias sang for Spain in 1970; and Olivia Newton John represented the UK and came in fourth with ‘Long Live Love’ in 1974 the year ABBA took first prize.

In all my 30-plus years of watching the spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest, I never considered it was something Americans would want to hear about. My instincts did not tell me to, so I didn’t. And only now am I wondering why. My guess is because Americans don’t participate and there is nothing remotely American about it that Americans would have no interest in it. But after this year’s show, aired live from Copenhagen on 10 May, I felt very compelled to share.

Before moving to Europe I had never heard of the Eurovision Song Contest. I moved to the UK in 1984, the year the contest was held in Jerusalem. According to the official website www.eurovision.tv, ‘the 24th Eurovision Song Contest was held outside the geographical area of Europe for the first time. Jerusalem played the proud host of the annual European event. The Israeli capital...was this year's host city that welcomed 19 different delegations. Turkey withdrew from the contest because it took place in Israel and many Arab countries put some pressure on Turkey not to go to Jerusalem....

‘Israel won for the second time in a row [the host city is determined by the previous year’s winner] with the song Hallelujah’ which became a Europe-wide hit. Spain was the last country to cast its votes. At that moment Spain was in the lead with one point ahead of Israel, but the Spanish 10 points gave Israel its second victory. It was later rumoured Spain had deliberately given its points to Israel because they didn't want to win themselves.’

This is exciting stuff! The Eurovision Song Contest is camp and kooky, but it is not just another glitzy music contest.... it’s a political hotbed, with clear trends that reflect political goings on over the years. And amazingly, all the while, the majority of folks in the USA were content watching Johnny Carson, Dallas, Saturday Night Live....

While preparing this piece I came across a few American-based blog sites and webcast sites reporting on the contest pre-show, webcasting from the contest live, and blogging the results, indicating some US-rooted interest -- enough to cause me to wonder, from a chicken and egg perspective:

Could America’s prior lack of interest be due to its insularity or to lack of access or both, and if so, which came first? When did Americans become less introspective and more interested in events from outside of the US? Have Americans broadened their spectrum to include cultural events and activities other than American-dominated ones because they are being given easy access to them? Or is a genuine interest driving them to seek more information about them – which is now easier than ever before?

Now, in 2014 I can search the web and see that the Delegation of the European Union to the United States held a Eurovision Song Contest party in Washington DC, and brought the contest in Copenhagen, Denmark this year not just into our living rooms via live feeds but into our back yards for garden parties! . And until more indie web outlets like The Wire.com came on the scene, there was not much goss to be had in the US about this itty bitty little European contest, which now attracts 100 million viewers.

The internet has provided a global platform for anyone and everyone to have their say and has played a huge role in bringing world news and events into the mainstream of our daily lives wherever we are. The effect the web has had on the major players of news and events coverage has been seismic.

This seems especially true in the US where, it was not until the late 90s that the major television networks and print media outlets became real and constant players online. Prior to that, it seemed that mainstream television and radio network news fed the population mostly local and national-centric news, and that the rest of world’s news got covered with a series of one-liners. The US populous had to rely on their own resourcefulness to gather any real insight and information about world affairs.

The most profound change came in around 2007 when social media started taking the lead in breaking news. That was a serious challenge to the control and power the broadcasters had over how news was disseminated. It really woke the networks up with a play ball or get out of the ballpark message.

Writing in The Observer in January 2011, Alex Krotowski observed: ‘The web's effect on news reporting is considered the most clear evidence that this is a revolutionary technology: news editors – and in some cases, the governments that they observe – are no longer the gatekeepers to information.... If knowledge is power, the web is the greatest tool in the history of the world’.

We are a vast and vastly diverse nation, and I would not like to go on record saying the American public has opened its eyes to events other than American-led ones simply because they are now right in front of them but, taking a mainstream view, if it’s placed right in front of us, the chances are we will eat it.

Case in point: I started talking about Skype when it first came out in 2004. My words literally fell on deaf ears. I remember marvelling about this futuristic free-to-use phone system and the conversation whooshing right past, me in full swing, over to something quite banal in comparison. Oddly, even the word free did not raise an eyebrow! I suppose I should not have been so surprised: Skype was founded by Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis and developed in Estonia in August 2003. AT&T opened up its 3G calling network to allow internet calling apps like Skype in October 2009, and Skype was acquired by Microsoft for $8.5 billion in October 2012. Skype is now a global brand, a mainstream activity, and a word on everyone’s lips.

Referencing some of the websites that my search revealed, the Eurovision Song Contest ‘ started as a pan-European competition for light music, presumably an effort to unite a continent devastated by World War II,’ states James Montgomery (mtv.com), giving a succinct overview of the Eurovision’s history and how it works. He continues: ‘the contest has slowly morphed into a way for Euro-nations to trump one another with a series of vapid (and increasingly bizarre) pop songs. Every competing country submits a tune, which seem to fall into one of three categories — formulaic, vaguely nationalistic pop; batsh – crazy Euro trance; or vaguely homoerotic, leather-clad metal — then performs said song during a marathon live event.

‘Viewers in member countries of the Eurovision Broadcasting Union (which includes most European countries as well as countries in North Africa and the Middle East) then vote to determine a winner, except rather than award points based on things like creativity or talent, they will sometimes — in a much-debated process called bloc voting — just vote for neighboring countries (or, in the case of Russia, for the Eastern European countries they brutally oppressed for decades.’

Bringing it swiftly to the present day, Lucy Westcott (thewire.com), states: ‘Beneath the annual extravaganza of sequins and lights, the Eurovision Song Contest is an undeniably political event, from the strategic voting to using the competition as a way to boost a country's image on the continent.’

‘This year, turmoil in Ukraine and Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws further politicised an event already known for its combination of bombastic enthusiasm and subtle lessons in international relations.’

And tying it up with a bow (or with, should I say, a boo), Tom Phillips (buzzfeed.com): Russia was booed repeatedly by the audience. From the first set of votes - when Azerbaijan gave them maximum points - the audience made clear their disapproval of Russia.

‘This continued throughout the show; any time the Russian act, 17-year-old twins the Tolmachevy Sisters, was awarded a significant number of points, large sections of the audience booed and heckled.

‘And, in the end, the contest was won by Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst , whose acceptance speech dedicated the win to ‘peace and freedom’. Wurst’s presence in the competition had led one Russian lawmaker to call for a boycott of Eurovision , on the grounds that it was a ‘pan-European gay pride parade.’

As the bearded lady, Conchita Wurst (aka Thomas Neuwirth) rings remarkable changes in the socio-political landscape in not just Europe but the world, and as the Eurovision Song Contest heads towards its Diamond Jubilee edition in 2015, I wonder how many Americans will be watching next year?

ONLINE references

Spotify: https://play.spotify.com/album/4aPLSEfXmX1wx6gdWi282p

http://www.euintheus.org/event/.

http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2014/05/an-americans-guide-for-watching-the-2014-eurovision-finale/362016/

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