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Breaking Through At Eurovision: The East And Conchita Wurst Written by on May 3, 2014 | 4 Comments

In the pre-Eurovision burst of media activity, one artist gets the biggest attention in the Press Conference and gets the attention of those involved in the international newspapers as well.  Her name is Conchita Wurst, and the character played by Tom Neuwirth is the act everybody is writing about.  Ben Robertson investigates what is being said, and what the impact is likely to be in the contest for Conchita next week.

Picking up a newspaper in Stockholm on my Monday morning commute, the Eurovision news was not about Sanna, or about Copenhagen, but a story instead about Austrian representative Conchita Wurst.  It follows a pattern that we have witnessed in the Eurovision bubble for many weeks.

Whether I take Romania, Spain or Ireland, the stories follow a similar pattern.  A common focus on the comments made by  Armenian singer Aram MP3 about Conchita’s appearance. In the fan media, we are aware of Aram MP3’s apology and cordial meeting with Conchita in Amsterdam, but the international media are still picking up on the original incident.

Another slant brings in the issue that has ran for most of the winter concerning Russia’s attitude towards the rights of the gay community.  As the Conchita story has been picking up pace in the Western media, news of petitions in Belarus, Armenia and Russia against the inclusion of Conchita Wurst in the song contest has been covered to further attempt to show the lack of tolerance from Eastern Europe.

The implication suggested by the media is that Conchita is going to struggle for points from countries in the East.  Looking back over previous winners, regardless of their geopolitical location, they usually achieve points from almost all the voting countries.  Is the outward appearance of such a gay stereotype as a drag artist a hindrance to the success of the entry?

Being A Drama Queen In Eurovision

We can make some suggestions to how Conchita may fare in the contest by looking at previous drag acts in the contest.

In 2007 Denmark had the lovely DQ on stage, who is now hosting the EuroClub each and every night in her own fabulous way.  In the huge 28 song semi final of 2007, DQ achieved 45 points.  These 45 points come from 9 different countries, which were Israel, The Netherlands, UK, Sweden, Serbia, Norway, Malta, Andorra and Ireland.

We can go back to Sestre in 2002 as well from Slovenia for another comparison.  Like above, there isn’t much support from Eastern Europe.  33 points were scored in total from 8 countries.  These in this case were the UK, Austria, Spain, Croatia, Macedonia, Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and France.  Support from the Balkans for a Slovenia act with local interest can be expected, but otherwise the results show that it was only Western Europe that gave such an act support.

I consider a comparison with Verda Serduchka is not fair because of the comic portrayal of the drag act offered, and Seduchka was established for this in Russian lanugage media way before the Song Contest.

However the New Statesman make the suggestion that Conchita may follow more in the footsteps of Dana International in the setting of a role model for alternative lifestyles across Europe.  Looking back to 1998 for a voting comparison for this acceptance is difficult because of the lack of former Soviet Union states in the contest, but countries neighbouring geographically like Poland (10 points) and Romania (7 points), show that support for such an divisive act may not be too far to reach to spread across all of Europe.

Will A Jury Dare To Back Up Conchita?

As we have covered on ESC Insight previously, modern day Eurovision requires jury members to attach their name to their votes.  After the Grand Final each jury member will reveal how they have voted for each song from first place to last.  If there is political pressure in some countries about Conchita’s performance, does that result in jury members needing to show less support for the act?  Because Conchita has an image that can alienate some groups of society because of the persona that is presented, will that result in negative votes being cast?

When we assessed the jury members in each country, one name we previously highlighted was that of Arman Davytan from Armenia.  Further to what we have discussed, we have also found news to suggest strong religious views from the Chairperson of Armenia’s jury.

Of course, Arman may love the song that Tom Neuwirth sings on stage and give it high marks, but should this happen would Arman feel the pinch and lose respect from the religious community in Armenia.  Analysis of the votes will be interesting.

Equally interesting for Conchita would be what happens in the German jury.  Rapper Sido is one of the members of that jury and has a history with Conchita.  That relationship has been particularly sour.  When Conchita appeared on Die Grosse Chance Sido was one of the jury members.  In an article from that time, Sido is quoted comparing Conchita to a circus act in a cage that you could pay five gold pieces to see them.

We asked the question to the Head of the Austrian Delegation during their press conference about if they were aware and happy with Sido sitting on the German jury.  The response showed that the delegation did not know about this, but in any case they ‘don’t really care if Sido is saying such bad words’.  

Conchita’s manager Rene Berto was equally as dismissive of any conflict of interest.

“It is what it is, I can not change the German jury now.  I know he is not a big fan of Conchita, but if they take it seriously how the performance is, what the song is like, the arrangement of the song and the production, then there must be 12 points from Sido.”

Whatever the opinions these people and others have of ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, the results of jury members in where they decide to play Conchita may well be treated by the wider media as a proxy of the acceptance of Conchita’s image and beliefs.  How this plays out in the context of the Song Contest is something we will have to simply wait and see

The Myth Of The Eastern European Hate

Perhaps now is the time where we can actually witness an acceptance of Conchita and the breakthrough that New Statesman suggested was possible in Eurovision.  I spoke further to Rene to ask about the impact Conchita is having in the media with Eastern Europe.

“There are lots of interviews from Eastern Europe, Russian TV will come for a show, we have met Teo and have covered them meeting Conchita together.  We could do Skype interviews with Russia ten hours a day.

“Most of the autograph requests we get come from Eastern Europe, even if there are petitions saying they don’t support us, Conchita will perform the contest like it or not.  Even in Austria there was this petition but we came through and we are positive about the impact in the contest.”

Now could be the time when Conchita is able to make a huge breakthrough for many, and if in the week of intense media interest in the contest her image is normalised by Eastern media and fans, could that result in voting support from those that would otherwise dismiss.  Drag acts do have a history in Soviet states, although perhaps more underground than across the rest of the continent, and perhaps Conchita could act as an acceptable icon for society to accept further.

That movement can be seen in many small ways if you look carefully. Over the last few days Farid Mammadov, who sang ‘Hold Me‘ for Azerbaijan in Malmö, took to his Instagram account with a clip of him singing Rise Like a Phoenix.  Role models such as Farid may take the image of Conchita across the border from a foreign and offensive creature to one that might be endorsed by the general community across Europe.

Rise Like A Song Contest

There are moments in the lifetime of the Eurovision Song Contest where this annual festival of humanity goes beyond three short minutes and challenges barriers and common thinking, pushes back against hate and violence, and reminds the world one of the reasons Marcel Bezencon set up the Contest in the cities… to promote harmony across Europe, between countries, and between people and cultures. Think of the standing ovation received by Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1993 at Millstreet, or the eight points award to Turkey by Cyprus in 2003.

Conchita Wurst’s qualification through to the Grand Final on Saturday night (and a potentially strong result during the main show) would be another of those moments. It would show the progressive side of Europe, it would show a continent happy to let people be who they want to be; and it would show that the Contest remains a vital part of the European cultural landscape, holding up a mirror to society and allowing us to see the best of ourselves.

Most of all it would show that the Eurovision Song Contest is more than a variety show… it is part of who we all are, who we all can be, and gives us all something to strive for.

About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson has attended over twenty Eurovision's, Junior Eurovision's and National Finals for ESC Insight. He uses statistics to explain the Song Contest aims to educate readers about what the Song Contest means to do many different people.

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4 responses to “Breaking Through At Eurovision: The East And Conchita Wurst”

  1. Zolan says:

    People on all sides have been choosing narratives to suit themselves. Conchita challenges Western liberals and activists as well as the usual suspects.

    I think the beard may take away any unconscious fear of being seen as a fool for accepting the act. By being very explicitly male Conchita frees people to move on and judge the act on its merits … or by how hard they laughed.

    What I know about the staging only convinces me more that there are many and varied angles for pulling in votes from the public. I also feel that — assuming the performance goes well — very low jury scores will be few and conspicuous.

    On the other side, we might also wonder how much pressure Western juries feel to elevate this act. Do they feel free to rank it negatively if they really don’t like it?

    It seems we are quite fortunate in that activists at neither extreme have sufficient traction to reduce “Phoenix” to a political pawn.

  2. Daniel says:

    Turns out the article was wrong: Eastern Europe did give considerably less points to Austria’s Conchita. Yes, Eastern Europe is not as tolerant as Western Europe (=EU, including Poland!) yet.

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