This year’s Eurovision Song Contest not just offered a surprising number of decent songs and performances (they probably weeded most of the bad ones out during the semi-finals), but also struck a blow for tolerance, equality and non-binary gender, when the gender-neutral Austrian contestant Conchita Wurst won by a wide margin. Her winning performance can be seen here. This is Austria’s second ever win in 59 years of Eurovision history, 48 years after Austria’s first win for Udo Jürgens with “Merci Cherie” back in 1966. My impressions of previous Eurovision Song Contests may be found here BTW.
In the run-up to the contest, Conchita Wurst got a lot of attention as well as some transphobic blow-back particularly from Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe, where homophobia and transphobia are still a lot stronger. Which makes it even more amazing that Conchita Wurst not only won the contest, but that she also got many votes, including a few 10 and 12 point votes from Eastern Europe. Her acceptance speech, “This is for all those who believe in the future of peace and freedom – you know who you are. You are unity and your are unstoppable”, was also remarkable, especially considering that the Eurovision Song Contest is watched by approximately 125 million people worldwide on TV (and even more via livestream), many of whom live in places where being different is not nearly as accepted as in the more liberal parts of Western Europe.
This is not the first time a transperson has won the Eurovision Song Contest by the way. That honour goes to the 1998 winner Dana International from Israel. But Dana International looked traditionally feminine, whereas Conchita Wurst embraces her non-binary gender identity. And yes, there will inevitably be those who say that Conchita only won, because she is a woman with a beard. But that would be grossly unfair, because regardless the the performer’s appearance and gender identity, “Rise like a Phoenix” is a fantastic song. Lots of people have already noted how Bond-like it sounds and indeed “Rise like a Phoenix” is the perfect example of a Bond-theme in search of a movie. It’s also a much better song than Austria’s previous winner in 1966, but then I have never liked “Merci, Cherie”, though I like Udo Jürgens quite a bit.
When Conchita was performing and the fiery Phoenix silhouette appeared on the projection wall behind her, I said to the people I was watching with, “Look, the Phoenix force is finally decided to ditch Jean Grey and find a more worthy host.” And for the record, how sad is it that the Eurovision producers managed to create a more convincing Phoenix manifestation than Bryan Singer in X-Men: The Last Stand?
The Netherlands came in second with a country-inspired song performed by a cute couple. Sweden was third with a totally forgettable ballad sung by a Celine Dion wannabe – which is kind of redundant considering that the real Celine Dion already won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988 (check out that dress). Armenia finished in 4th place with a forgettable “meh” entry, though as I understand it the singer Aram MP3 (yes, he’s named after a file format) is very popular in Eastern and South Eastern Europe. Hungary came in 5th with the cute son of Lou Reed’s bassist and a good song. Ukraine was 6th, probably purely due to sympathy votes, since the song was totally forgettable. My other favourite, Iceland with a cheery punky song performed by blokes in colourful suits (one of them a member of the Icelandic parliament) only made it to 15th place.
In general, this was a year for depressing ballads, most of them instantly forgettable. Last year’s trend of putting sacrificial virgins in white dresses on stage continued this year, since there were several women in flowing white dresses on stage, including the female third of the hosting trio, Spain’s rain-drenched entry, San Marino’s Ralph Siegel penned entry and of course the Russian twins. At one point I said, “They still don’t get it. You’re supposed to sacrifice the virgins, not let them sing.” Though I suspect not even virgin sacrifices could save Ralph Siegel at this point – the man is hopelessly stuck in the 1970s/early 1980s.
The Russian Tolmachevy twins as well as the Russian presenter and any other presenter announcing votes for Russia got booed. Now I understand the political sentiment behind this, though I still felt sorry for the Russian twins, because those girls are 17 years old and really cannot be blamed for their country’s politics.
As usual, the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest also had its share of WTF? entries including shouty Polish milkmaids with their assets in full display, equally shouty Greeks backed by a guy jumping around on a trampolin, jumpy French boys singing about moustaches, an Italian woman with a decent song who looked as if she had escaped from the set of Dino de Laurentiis’ Flash Gordon adapation, a Slovenian woman with monstrous shoulder pads playing the flute, an Azerbaijani woman singing a ballad backed by a trapeze act, a Ukrainian woman singing another ballad backed by a guy in a hamster wheel and a Danish entry named “cliché love song”. I can imagine the meeting at the Danish broadcaster. “What are we sending to Eurovision this year?” – “Oh, just a cliché love song.” – “Wait a minute, that was never supposed to be the title…”
Germany’s entry Elaiza, a folksy newcomer trio consisting of a girl with an accordeon, a girl with a string bass and a singer, finished in 18th place. It was pretty clear to me that they wouldn’t win – and indeed they were ranked even lower for much of the voting, until they caught a few last minute points – but I expected them to do better, because their song wasn’t bad and actually a bit of a change from all those interchangable ballads. Of course, being up right after Conchita Wurst knocked it out of the park didn’t help either. Interestingly, most of the points for Elaiza came from Eastern Europe, probably because the singer is the daughter of a Ukrainian father and a Polish mother.
But what will stick in memory from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest is that 2014 was the year a woman with a beard won and proved that non-binary gender identities can go mainstream and that gender labels matter less than many people think.