If you believe the hype, it was the fault of the BBC. Ever since the cameras turned to face the massed ranks of the Eurofans camped down the front of Birmingham’s glamorous National Indoor Arena, the world has been under the impression that serious Eurovision fandom, and by extension the Song Contest itself, is an almost exclusively gay male thing.
In the years since the 1998 Contest, it has seen an increasing emphasis on LGBT representation on stage in the Contest, providing powerful artistic statements, standing up for human rights and generally being wonderfully, fabulously visible. How important is it for LGBT people to see their stories reflected on the world’s biggest pop music stage? How can the famously non-political Contest display solidarity with its LGBT fans?
And also, where are all the women?
In 2016, NRK introduced the Norwegian public and the Song Contest crowd to Hungry Hearts, through their collaboration with Lisa Dillan on the song ‘Laika‘. As a performance art group formed to celebrate the power of female creativity and identity through the medium of slyly confrontational and highly entertaining electropop, they were a natural fit for the Eurovision fan community.
Winning Melodi Grand Prix Without Actually Winning
On a baking hot May afternoon in Stockholm, the Hungry Hearts, its supreme leader Tonje Gjevjon, and Lisa Dillan, visited the Eurovision Fan Cafe to talk with me about art, politics, unusual body language, and leather dykes from hell.
Though they didn’t actually win NRK’s Melodi Grand Prix, as 2016 was a year where the Contest looked very much like she might be headed to the streets of Moscow (and possibly having to be very circumspect about the nature of her relationship with her travelling companion), many in the community held onto the hope that Hungry Hearts would be back for NRK MGP 2017 and that there would be at least one very enjoyable artistic statement striking against the notoriously oppressive Russian anti-gay law.
One of the first things that Tonje confirmed was that the Hungry Hearts would be back and were relishing the prospect of representing Norway in Russia, “We have a Russian member, Olga. We can write lyrics in Russian. I can also speak a bit of Russian. Next year if Russia wins, which actually we hope, we would be with them in Moscow.”
They Brought Us The Wonder Of Laika
If you’re a regular ESC Insight reader, you’ll no doubt have heard ‘Laika‘, but if you haven’t we should give you three minutes to enter a new, sparkly reality.
Many people’s first questions upon completing their first ‘Laika’ experience are “What?” Then “Why?” This is an entirely intentional effect.
The stage show at Melodi Grand Prix, which included dozens of mirrorballs, lycra clad mirror ball dancers, outrageous sci-fi costuming, extraordinary choreography, and a specially liveried car doing a three-point turn on stage… where did that come from? Tonje cites “a lunatic in Norwegian broadcasting” for the appearance of the car, but says that the whole performance was “a collaboration all the time because we’re an art project.”
The outrageous costuming itself is an important part of the statement. As Tonje says, “We have different shapes so a very tiny see-through dress may not be for us, but some geometrical forms allow you to create this universe.”
The extravagant joy of the performance is in stark contrast to the poignancy of the story of lonely Laika . Why does such a sad story belong in a party song? “When I grew up I heard about Laika. She was a space dog in Sputnik 2. Some adults told me the story and I was quite shocked that some human being could just leave a dog out there. So it has been with me a long time and I thought that I should write a song because music is like an echo, a memory of something. Laika is an icon and she deserves a song.”
Asked if the happy/sad contrast was a Nordic songwriting trait, Tonje agreed. “Yes, it’s the darkness. No summer, just winter, autumn and darkness. But you have hope, you have dreams. And then we thought about Laika out there in the atmosphere. But she had a nice life, she was missing her girlfriend in Moscow. It is sad but there’s always hope.”
But Who Are They?
This is a good question, and because Hungry Hearts are a very efficient art pop unit, they’ve provided a series of cute informational graphics about themselves on their excellent website that tell you all you need to know. Need to know more? For a series of excellent anecdotes about how the gang got together, see here.
But seriously. The Hungry Hearts performance group is composed of Tonje Gjevjon, supreme leader and trained artist, Edith Roth Gjevjon, who Tonje describes as having ‘the beautiful voice and beautiful body’, Line Halvorsen with ‘very strange body language’, Mona Krager who is ‘a doctor and a former athlete’ and Olga Nikitina, the newest member who is Russian, and apparently a strategic recruitment. According to Tonje, “She is like, a kind of a dancer. Kind of.” Fortunately Olga doesn’t seem upset about her job description.
Talking about their Melodi Grand Prix experience, Tonje says that one of the highlights was “embracing the Eurovision Song Contest fans – who are totally crazy people, so full of passion.” Her point was highlighted by the reaction of the sizable contingent of very passionate Norwegian Hungry Hearts fans who say things like, “When I saw them on stage, they had everything that Eurovision is about. They are the full package.”
Why Are There Lesbians In My Eurovision?
There have always been lesbians at the Eurovision Song Contest, you maybe just didn’t notice at the time. In fact at time of writing, more women who’ve won Eurovision are now out, than men who have won (2 – 1, and only if you count Tom, Conchita’s alter ego). Even though the tired meme of ‘Eurovision = gay Christmas’ is about twenty years old, the gay identity of Eurovision is assumed to be entirely that of gay men. The SVT script for the 2016 show makes cheeky references to this, with Petra and Måns welcoming the ‘Gentlemen… and lady’ and a mini-sketch about their contrasting experiences of the attentions of a room of Eurofans.
But that’s not the whole story – when on the ground in Stockholm I certainly saw lots of men, but there was a sizable representation of women of all orientations present. I was even involved in a queue for the ladies bathroom at one point, which I understood to not be possible at Eurovision. In particular I noticed that there were plenty of women hanging around in the Fan Cafe on the day the Hungry Hearts were there.
Why Aren’t There More Lesbians In My Eurovision?
The most notable lesbian winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, Marija Serifovic, wasn’t even out at the time she sung ‘Molitva‘ in her full dapper butch glory, but nevertheless it was a powerful statement for queer women across Europe.
Tonje agrees, “Yes, it was fantastic. It was very strong and everybody knew she was a dyke. For every dyke in the world it made a big impact. It was important. And also she was so solid in her voice and in the way she performed. I was proud.”
For me, just the process of looking for demographic information about Eurovision Song Contest participants and turning up not very much information about the participation of women of any orientation behind the scenes was enough to explain why the Song Contest isn’t more lesbian. As part of the commercial music industry, it’s just not very female at any level beyond performance. Female songwriters are in the minority – SVT have even specifically tried to act to combat this at Melodifestivalen, with limited success.
What Can We Do About This?
I’ll just let Tonje tell you:
“There’s only one way and that is to participate. It’s Europe’s biggest song competition, so we need lesbian composers, lesbian songwriters and lesbian producers. They should try to get into the system and participate because it gives great visibility for lesbians, for queers, for dykes, for gays. It’s a way of lifting up the lesbians. If you get in here, then lots of people see you and it’s good to be visible.”
Tonje also has specific instructions for those wishing to follow in the footsteps of Hungry Hearts. We discussed what the platonic ideal of a lesbian-representing Eurovision act might be like.
“Be like superdyke, astrodyke, leather dyke from hell. Be like a female lesbian, not dressed in a tiny see through dress. There are a lot of costumes. You can be like a superwoman, you can be strong and powerful – something different. You should be crazy. Don’t go in a little tiny dress like everybody does, nothing special about that, be something special.”
Women of the Contest, I suggest you take these words as both a challenge and a manifesto.
A Manifesto?! That Sounds Political!
While the Hungry Hearts have remained delightfully ambiguous about the exact political statement they are making in ‘Laika’, lots of people have made up their own minds. I asked if Tonje had any advice for people using art to influence opinions and make political statements.
She said, “It has to be competent in what you make, of course, but art should embrace big events like MGP, ESC. Don’t be afraid of the masses.”
Elaborating on the ideas behind Laika, she continued “When we made this song and we made it to MGP, and now we’re here at Eurovision (but not in Eurovision) then it means something. And that can change people’s minds. People are quoting ‘the streets of Moscow, with my girlfriend’ and some think it’s political, some think it’s epic, some think it’s shit. But it’s discussed. It makes discussion.”
“For me, art is a very important thing to experience, because it has many layers. You have to use your brain, your mind to get closer to what male artists have meant but at times it can also embrace you. You get a lot of emotions and your mind is starting to think thoughts you hadn’t before. Also you change opinons on things, so art can change peoples minds.”
There’s also quite a stern note on the Hungry Hearts website, read by an abrasively voiced Cartoon Tonje. – “If you think art and music is for free, don’t bother to call me”
Real Tonje expands upon the manifesto. “If you go to the dentist, you pay him for his work. I’m an artist. I need money to make new art, to pay the rent, for everything. It’s a bad habit people have – they think art and culture should be for free. I don’t know they got this stupid idea from. Art is what makes Eurovision, music, dance, literature. Without them the world would be a totally boring and empty place.”
But What About Ukraine?
When the victory in the 2016 Contest went to Ukraine, I wondered what this would mean for the Hungry Hearts? We were all set for the narrative where our troop of lesbian superheroes set out to conquer oppressive Russian lawmakers with a cheery wink and a truckload of mirrorballs, but Jamala’s victory with ‘1944‘ rips up that script somewhat.
Tonje says of ‘1944′, “It’s fantastic. It’s definitely using art to change opinions. Reading between the lines and also in the performance, it’s very emotional. Strong feelings.”
But the politically aware Eurovision fan knows that the relationship Ukraine has with its LGBT population is not straightforward. While anti-discrimination laws were passed in Ukraine as a move towards entering the Schengen area, Ukraine still has high levels of societal homophobia and transphobia, no recognition of equal marriage, and attempts to hold Pride events have met with consistent, severe difficulties. The 2015 event ended in violence. The program for Pride 2016 is sparse, with the single programmed event being concerned with LGBT security. The Hungry Heart’s methods of non-explicit political messaging will be just as vital in Kyiv as they would have been in Moscow or Sochi.
When we talked about the rumours that Russia might withdraw in response to the perceived anti-Russian statements of 1944, Tonje was very straightforward. “Russia are always on top when they come to Eurovision, and if they withdraw from Eurovision 2017 it would definitely be a loss of Song Contest fans and the Contest. I always look forward to the Russian contribution. Russia, Israel and Sweden always deliver fantastic Eurovision music. Without Russia we lose a strong culture, not just a song.”
What Next For Hungry Hearts?
“After Eurovision we’ll go to Tel Aviv Pride and we will see some of the Eurovision audience there, I think. And then also for Köln Pride and then hopefully all the Prides in the world and maybe some more.”
Then after they’ve played all of the Prides in the world (their tour dates can be found here), it’s time for another crack at Eurovision via Melodi Grand Prix.
Tonje grins. “Of course. It’s when you first do it, you get addicted. You want more and more and more.”
With the Hungry Hearts firmly plotting a course for Eurovision domination and, all being well, leading a parade of lesbian singers, dancers and songwriters into the arena for the 2017 Contest, is it too early to declare the National Final Season open for business?
The Hungry Hearts music is available from their partners listed on their website.