The Eurovision 2014 song contest wrapped up this weekend with Austrian drag performer Conchita Wurst the unlikely winner. It was pretty exciting. I confess to never having had any interest in Eurovision until this year, indeed not until last Wednesday, when I unexpectedly found myself watching the semifinal. From then on I couldn’t turn away. People say Eurovision is like American Idol for Europe, but it isn’t. It’s far deeper and more revealing.
The basics of Eurovision are that each country runs an individual contest to send one musical act to a continent-wide contest, where all the nations of Europe compete. “Europe” here is loosely construed. Israel, Armenia and Russia are all part of the action. The contest therefore should speak to broad regional unity: the continent that in the last 100 years was twice riven by wars big enough to merit the descriptor “world” now celebrates its cultural differences in an annual sing-off.
Each nation gives points to the acts its people and appointed judges like best, but they can’t vote for their own country’s act. And to judge by the voting, you’d have thought we were all watching different performances. What else could explain the fact that Poland got 62 points for its weirdly sexist contribution? (Seriously, watch this. If you lack patience, start at 2:10 and/or 2:50):
The butter churning is a little over the top, no? Apparently the full video for the song says that it is intended as satire, but it’s not clear any viewers got that.
Quality is not the major determining factor in Eurovision voting. And this year we pretty clearly were watching a fault line develop between western Europe and Russia. This is not surprising, given the situation in Ukraine. But what was interesting was Wurst’s role in this, because it seemed that she allowed that fault line to be, on the part of the western European nations, constructed around the broadly popular notion of tolerance. That Wurst should win Eurovision seemed to be giving the Russians the finger in a way that simply not voting for their bizarre identical blond twins never could. (Though that happened too.)
Example: The spokesperson for Netherlands, as he offered that nation’s 12 points for Austria and for Conchita Wurst, pointedly described the Dutch as having invented tolerance. (Though the Netherlands’ derivative country-western song, which came in second, was anything but inventive.) On the other side of the balance, Belarus gave its points to Russia, Armenia and Ukraine, a bit like an anxious younger sibling hoping to smooth over family conflicts past and present.
It’s typical for Eurovision to reveal regional and political fault-lines within Europe; the former Soviet client states vote together, the western democracies stick together as well. The only nation to be honest about this was Slovenia, whose spokesperson cheerfully offered her nation’s points up to “our neighbor” Austria. But Wurst seemed to represent something new — a rallying figure to express a vision of Europe sharply contrasting that of Russian intolerance, dissimulation, and violence.
Let’s not overstate this, though. Eurovision has the nations split their points among several countries; the spokesperson for each nation announces the 8, 10 and 12 point choices on the pan-European television broadcast. This split-point voting means countries didn’t have to throw away their entire voice on Wurst; it means that Italy, for example, could both express its desire for European tolerance (12 points to Wurst) and Ukrainian independence (10 points to Ukraine) while remaining the Italy we all know and love and wish would stop groping us (8 points to Poland for farmer’s daughter porn).
All of western Europe celebrated Austria on Saturday night — little Austria, bastion of democratic tolerance. Spokespersons announcing votes for Conchita Wurst seemed to feel they were participating in something important, historic. All the more reason, therefore, to be pissed off at Germany.
Germany gave 8 points to Denmark for an adorable boy band that was my second choice. 10 German points went to Poland (my theory is that the Polish outfits looked a bit like dirndls, triggering some deep resonance in the collective German unconscious). And 12 went to the Netherlands for that horrible country song. Fair enough, we all know there’s no accounting for taste, let alone German taste. But in Austria the German vote tapped into a deep well of resentment. And it makes it far worse that the Germans are likely unaware of this.
You are, too. But you wouldn’t be if you lived here. If you lived here, you would be schooled in the ways that Austrian pride is deeply intertwined with Germany’s disdain. Here, look at this:
That is an article on the website of the Kurier, an Austrian newspaper. “Cordobart” is an ingenious mashup of Conchita’s beard (bart in German) with Cordoba. Never heard of Cordoba? Neither had I til I came here. Cordoba is the Miracle of Cordoba — the one occasion, in 1978, when Austria beat Germany in the World Cup. It was the first time in 47 years the Austrian national soccer team had beaten the Germans; it was to be the last, at least thus far. That every single person in Austria knows of it, and likely feels passionately about it, tells you a lot about the relationship between these neighboring lands. Germans are the largest population of immigrants in this country. They come here for holidays, for university, and for employment. But they pretty consistently forget the place exists.
When Germany gave Conchita Wurst no votes on Saturday, they seemed to signal they were above both the larger politics of the contest and the kind of mutual regard that generally leads neighboring states to vote for each other. Moreover, they signaled to Austria, once again, that they considered their littler neighbor with whom they share a common language to be beneath their notice. (Switzerland got no substantial German points either).
This is particularly insulting because Conchita Wurst is intensely Austrian. In her full garb she makes an exotic impression, looking perhaps Armenian or Azarbaijani. But Conchita Wurst is the stage name of Tom Neuwirth, a name as Austrian as a Schnitzel, who grew up in a tiny town near Gmunden, Austria. In a profile show leading up to Saturday’s finale, the ORF followed Conchita home to visit her family and film a joyful reunion with her parents, both of whom were dressed from head to toe in Tracht (dirndl for mom, lederhosen for dad). The Neuwirth parents run a Gasthaus, and hosted the entire town, most of whom were also dressed in Tracht, for a party to celebrate Tom/Conchita’s success. Everyone was delighted. The sight of Conchita’s father, in lederhosen, beaming with pride and standing with an arm wrapped unabashedly around his son (dressed in a pencil skirt and midriff-baring top), was unbelievably cute.
Austria has come a long way. Against such an auspicious backdrop, it hardly matters whether one even likes the song: