The Case for a Queer and Radical Eurovision

With 2019's Eurovision Song Contest within touching distance, we make a case for a queer and radical Eurovision

Feature by Dafydd Jenkins | 13 May 2019
  • Eurovision

In spite of its ‘apolitical’ stance, the Eurovision Song Contest has always been the stage for geopolitical struggle and ideological warfare. It can also be purveyor of progressive queer politics in the 21st century.

When questioned by the Metro newspaper earlier this year about the controversy surrounding Eurovision Song Contest 2019’s grand final being held in Israel, amid widespread boycott appeals to broadcasters and competing nations, contest host Assi Azar gave the PR-polished response expected of a man in his position: “Leave the politics to the politicians.” It’s a politically neutral response mirrored in Eurovision’s set of guidelines: 'the ESC [Eurovision Song Contest] is a non-political event […] the ESC shall in no case be politicised and/or instrumentalised.' But Azar’s response may as well have been given at any time during the 63 year history of Europe’s biggest music competition, after which political controversy follows like thunder follows lightning. 

Eurovision's Political Past

Their self-imposed rules apparently don’t outlaw public alignment with political figures or ideologies. Eurovision 2018’s Israeli artist and contest winner Netta Barzilai (whose performance of her song Toy was full of questionable Orientalist imagery, but that’s another story) was later filmed in a congratulatory press conference alongside Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (topped off with his stunning reproduction of her 'trademark' chicken dance, broadcast for the entire bemused planet to see). 

The contest overwhelmingly relies on their LGBTQ+ viewership, yet still included Russian entries in recent years despite widespread condemnation of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s aggressively heterosexist government policy; the UK's 2018 entry SuRie’s performance was disrupted by a serial anarchist stage invader; and it was alleged that Spanish military dictator Francisco Franco rigged London’s 1968 Eurovision, in which Spanish entry La, la, la by Massiel won out against UK entrant Cliff Richard’s Congratulations by a single point.

Specific cases aside, geographical voting and international collusion have additionally dogged the competition for decades, an oft-referenced joke among commentators Graham Norton and the late Terry Wogan (it was cited as the latter’s reason for quitting the show altogether in 2008). Unsurprisingly, the aforementioned SuRie’s entry, Storm, placed 24th in 2018’s competition, gaining barely any traction with voters and the jury, with the exception of Ireland in the former category. Back then, it was felt that the UK received this flogging from the rest of Europe for its decision to leave the EU.

Now, as Theresa May’s ‘nil points’ Brexit plan will surely disqualify her from returning to any future rounds, the long and arduous process of leaving the EU has since escalated into real fears of a hard border in Ireland, among other things. All that said, it looks to be yet another unpopular year for the UK (this is to say nothing of its entry, Michael Rice’s gassy bloater Bigger Than Us). Perhaps we’re destined to linger in the contest as a ghost haunts its former home, mournfully weeping Bucks Fizz’s Making Your Mind Up in the hopes that someone might notice and recall that glorious past.

Watching Eurovision today is an equally uncanny experience: a picture perfect postcard of European landmarks, with the ugly reality of emergent far-right extremism and political turmoil just out of frame. You may ask yourself, is this what complicity looks like?

Eurovision is prohibited from political involvement within the neat confines of its broadcast – 'it's all about the music', is always the line – but it’s clearly had an uncomfortable relationship with politics throughout its history, often becoming a stage on which geopolitical struggles and ideological warfare play out. What’s more, fair criticisms of the contest’s half-hearted, self-ordained neutrality are usually dismissed as the whining of bleeding hearts, rather than being welcomed as preliminary comments to a wider discussion about the social responsibility of broadcasting alliances.

Now, at its heart, the singing competition is the ultimate example of a capitalist product, ostensibly conceived to fuel the twin European industries of music and tourism. The contest's final often seems vaster and more brightly-lit than any Premier League football game, with a similar continental-scale hunger for competition intertwined with patriotism. But, in our current media landscape, where anyone from musicians to sports personalities are held to account for their personal politics and behaviour, is it unfeasible to scrutinise the values and behaviour of a major commercial event that apparently stands for 'human rights, freedom of expression, democracy, cultural diversity, tolerance and solidarity'?

Eurovision: "Life-affirming in its daft grandiosity"

All this said, despite the foul stench of aggressive centrism that surrounds everything it does, I love Eurovision. Admittedly, some of that love is ironic. Magisterially large corporate affairs are constantly misjudging what the people really want, often playing down to their audience. They fail to see that much of Eurovision’s viewership is hoping for some monumental live television slip-up, something to loop over and over again on their Twitter feeds. On this level, it’s very rarely 'all about the music'.

The rest of my love for Eurovision is genuine admiration of its enduring uniqueness. Aside from the fact that it’s among the few remaining shared viewing experiences we have – true to the European Broadcasting Union’s founding principle of broadening the limits of television broadcasting technology – Eurovision is a sign of life in the dearth of live television events due to its spectacular campiness and unabashed queerness.

While these moments can be few and far between from year to year, when they do show, they elevate the contest to something more ostentatious than the Oscars, more quixotic than the BRIT Awards, and more cringe-inducing than Britain’s Got Talent; it’s positively life-affirming in its daft grandiosity. Eurovision is a contest in which glamorously-bearded Austrian drag artist Conchita Wurst and grotesquely-dressed Finnish hard rock act Lordi have earned winning entries. This year, Iceland’s self-identified anti-capitalist, leather-clad, BDSM-enthusiast techno punks Hatari will represent their country with their song Hatrið mun sigra (Hate Will Prevail), a genuinely frightening rallying call of those tired and defeated by the wave of far-right sentiment sweeping across Europe.

On numerous occasions, Hatari have stated that their mission is to, simply, “destroy capitalism”, as if capitalism was a literal Godzilla-sized creature wreaking havoc upon cities rather than a harmful and deeply ingrained economic system. It’s utopian and rebellious, just as many socially conservative publications have pointed out. But, as theorist Jack (also known as Judith) Halberstam insightfully put it in The Queer Art of Failure, there may be something to learn from the likes of Hatari: "The politics of rebellion can be cast as immature, pre-Oedipal, childish, foolish, fantastical, and rooted in a commitment to failure. [But] they also offer us the real and compelling possibilities of animating revolt."

"Animating revolt" is an admittedly unlikely hope for Eurovision. Covert rebellion exists throughout the contest in slight jabs at the status quo, reminders that we ourselves are not static but pliable, liable to change at will, if only we could imagine it. It’s only a small step further to imagine alternative nationhoods, maybe even people and nations without borders altogether. It presents alternative forms of knowledge, with all the accessibility of a light entertainment show on Saturday night television.

Despite its corporate interests and aggressive centrism, we must continually hope that Eurovision works against its own knowledge. At its very best, it presents an unwitting audience with societal alternatives and other forms of knowing and being. True, these weird and wonderful acts may be played for laughs or dismissed as ludicrous, but their overwhelming success at Eurovision may hold that something else is at hand. Perhaps these outsider figures speak to us on a deeper level, to a political situation we truly desire.

The Eurovision Song Contest 2019 takes place on 18 May in Tel Aviv, Israel and will air in the UK on BBC One