The Campiness of Eurovision

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One of the year’s most highly anticipated televised events is also slated to feature one of the world’s biggest stars. On May 18th, Madonna will perform at the 64th annual Eurovision Song Contest, simply known as Eurovision, in Tel Aviv. A singing competition pitting different countries against one another, the contest has been likened to everything from X Factor and American Idol to RuPaul’s Drag Race. Launched in 1956, the original seven-nation competition sought to help unify a still rebuilding, post-war Europe. Today, Eurovision has grown to include 42 countries, including Australia, Russia, and Turkey.

Eurovision is known for its over-the-top aesthetic and exaggerated theatricality, drawing on everything from pyrotechnics, dry-ice fog, and CGI, to acrobatics, monster costumes, and once at least, a live turkey-cum-DJ-performer. It’s by turns saccharine, kitschy, hopeful, and head-scratching. As if to drive the point home, this year’s promoter, Live Nation Israel, promised in a Facebook post that Madonna’s performance would be both “historical and hysterical.”

Long, long before next month’s Met Gala announced its theme—but not predating Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay—Eurovision was all about making a spectacle. It is undeniably, unabashedly campy. “Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy,“ Sontag wrote.

It doesn’t take a cultural critic to deduce that Eurovision prizes artifice over art. Its best—and by “best,” we’re talking campiest—performances are eccentric, lacking self-awareness, and consistently funny upon repeat viewings. Genres are myriad and run the gamut from folk and ethno-disco to bubblegum and ballads. Take 2012’s “Party for Everybody,” which begins at a kiln with six women baking cookies. (By the end of the performance, the baked cookies are removed from the kiln and proudly shown to the audience). Known collectively as Buranovskiye Babushki and hailing from the rural Udmurt Republic of Russia, the women actually finished in second place. Dressed like come-to-life nesting dolls in embroidered pinafores, silver-coin necklaces, and headscarves, the Buranovo Grannies sing in both their native Udmurt language and English. In an ironic twist, the English-language portion of their song was written by Susan Applegate, who penned “The Power of Love,” former Eurovision stalwart Céline Dion’s #1 1994 single. Sidenote: The Grannies have also covered Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and The Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

While most contestants only draw a modicum of fame for a short period of time, the contest has produced a few bonafide stars well known even to U.S. audiences: Julio Iglesias, singing “Gwendolyne” in 1970; ABBA, performing “Waterloo” in 1974; and the aforementioned Dion, singing “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi” in 1988. Both participants Olivia Newton-John (“Long Live Love”) and t.A.T.u (“All the Things She Said”) had charted successfully by the time they appeared on Eurovision.

Contrast the Buranovo Grannies with Russia’s entrant this year, Sergey Lazarev. A handsome former boy bander and two-time Eurovision competitor, Lazarev epitomizes the archetypal “safe” contestant: an established, dual- or triple-threat singer and actor/dancer who’s good-looking and extremely popular within their own country. Whereas the Grannies’ “Party for Everybody” got points for sheer novelty, Lazarev’s “Scream” is simultaneously melodramatic and ho-hum.

While Eurovision is, strictly speaking, entertainment, it’s also inherently political. (Countries tend to vote for their neighbors in blocs.) This is also the opportunity to burnish their respective images on a world stage and project strength, even if it’s only fleeting. Indeed, intra-EU rivalries and geopolitical tensions often come to the fore at Eurovision. And politics is inextricably linked to culture.

In 2014, Austria’s Tom Neuwirth aka Conchita Wurst famously took home the evening’s top honors. The competition’s first gender-fluid winner, Neuwirth (as Wurst) won for her song “Rise Like a Phoenix,” performed against a backdrop of bouncing gold raindrops. Wurst’s cinched-waist beaded gown and Kardashian-esque mane did little to draw attention away from other hair: her signature beard. Prior to her appearance, conservative critics primarily in Eastern Europe decried Austria’s decision to send Wurst, likening the contest itself to having become a “hotbed of sodomy.” Western Europeans were predictably less irked by the matter, having proven to be more tolerant and inclusive over the course of countless competitions.

For what it’s worth, Wurst’s turn was elegant and nuanced, at least as far as Eurovision performances go. In her essay Sontag writes, “Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” Wurst’s performance fits this description rather well.

How might Madonna’s own two-song concert be received next month? Probably enthusiastically, given her stature, stamina, and fanbase. Still, the decision to perform in Israel at all has drawn scrutiny, with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters penning an op-ed asking her to boycott the country altogether.

But let’s put cynicism and Madonna’s reported million payday aside. Ultimately, Eurovision is less about fighting and more about fandom. All of the cheering, dancing, hooting, and flag waving is genuine, not an affectation. Even if Eurovision is synonymous with camp, its proponents enthuse effusively yet earnestly. They’re there to have fun.

“Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment,” Sontag writes. “Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy.”

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