by Ianthe Greenwood
Our Eurovision correspondent checks out the talent in Vienna.
Love it or loathe it, the Eurovision Song Contest has become a cultural institution over the decades since its first tentative broadcast back in 1956. Over the decades since, it has become synonymous with an annual outpouring of patriotism, extremes of tactical voting (even by British standards) and levels of cheese to which Wednesdays at Park End can only aspire.
Then last year something changed. Amongst the less than unexpected – national stereotypes taken to the extreme (thank you, Poland), household names, singing twins – an outside runner took Eurovision by storm. Conchita Wurst beat off strong competition from Dutch band, the Common Linnets, to take the prize for Austria with her song ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’. With her combination of facial hair and sequinned apparel, Conchita, the stage name of Tom Neuwirth, became the defining image of Eurovision 2014. It was a victory loaded with significance, given the context of the stance taken by the Russian government on gay rights in the previous months – the Russian act was met with booing by some audience members.
And so the stage was set for Eurovision 2015 in Vienna, as was the precedent of an ‘issues-based’ act striking a chord (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Over the course of my year abroad in Austria (a happy, but complete coincidence), the Conchita effect has been plain to see, and it has become clear that Wurst was never ‘simply’ a drag act fielded to win the novelty vote and elicit some cheap laughs. Conchita’s face has become a mainstay of advertising, for everything from Bank Austria, to the annual Life Ball (one of the biggest AIDS charity fundraisers worldwide), last weekend, which marked the start of the celebrations.
“It looks like this year’s contest could pack some political punch, and not just with the traditional diplomatic point-scoring game.”
As its motto ‘Building Bridges’ suggests, the 60th Eurovision will not be without its cheesiness. The semi-finals this week delivered many Eurovision elements we’ve grown to know and love: overactive smoke machines (Georgia), psychedelic backdrops (Lithuania), pyrotechnics (Czech Republic) and the inevitable questionable footwear (Israel).
But it looks like this year’s contest could pack some political punch, and not just with the traditional diplomatic point-scoring game (in both senses), or even the curveball that was Australia’s inclusion. Thanks to a friend, I found myself in the audience on Tuesday watching the first semi-final and was struck by the number of heavy-hitting acts. The performances touched on a range of topical issues, from Finland’s use of musicians with Down’s Syndrome, Hungary’s pacifist ‘Wars for Nothing’, Romania’s projection of images of neglected children, to Serbia’s rejection of conventional beauty norms and the kisses shared by Lithuania’s same-sex backing dancers.
Throw into the mix Italy’s ode to Ghost, Back to the Future and Spiderman, Sweden’s quirky use of graphics, and the Fish Finger controversy surrounding the UK’s entry, and you’ve got something for everyone. Oh, and Conchita will fly onto the stage in a pink jumpsuit.
The stage is set for an evening of celebrating the good, the bad and the frankly bizarre of European (and Australian) pop culture, but the spotlight will also be on political and social issues. As Eurovision enters its 60th year, it looks like it might finally be growing up.
Photos by Ianthe Greenwood from the Eurovision semi-final