2019’s lineup has provided us with a diverse year of contestants – from French social media star and LGBT Muslim icon Bilal Hassani, to Russian pop giant Sergey Lazarev, to the intimate introverts from Slovenia, Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl. Yet there’s one act that has gained the most media attention, and that has continued to make headlines from their initial National Final participation announcement right through to the day of their semi-final: Hatari, from Iceland.
Yet Hatari have not just been making waves in traditional media. They have also stormed social media, gaining a large, active, devoted, and vibrant fanbase in a manner few other acts have achieved, including conventional favourites like Mahmood from Italy and John Lundvik from Sweden. Hatari’s popularity and fans have not gone unnoticed, leaving those who are not on Hatari’s wild train perplexed and dismissive, discounting their appeal of leather and latex as nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Why have Hatari gained such a large and vocal fanbase? Who are their fans? And crucially, why are they so divisive?
An Arena Divided
One sunny evening in early April this year, I found myself in an Amsterdam arena, standing towards the front of a crowd of thousands as the hosts of prestigious Eurovision pre-party Eurovision in Concert announced the next act to take the stage. We were well over halfway through the night and, while passion was still high, we were beginning to tire as entrant followed entrant to perform their songs to the international audience, many for the first time as confirmed Eurovision 2019 contestants.
To one side of me, a few older Dutch men were standing chatting among themselves, empty beer glasses in hand, while in front of me, a group of young women from across Europe excitedly shared comments on the night so far. The hosts on the stage announced that the next act would be Iceland, and as if in split screen, I saw the two groups near me react to the news: the men shook their head briefly and walked off to get more beer, while the young women screamed with excitement, and pushed forward to get closer to the stage as the leather-clad silhouette of singer, Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson, appeared out of the darkness.
Three intense minutes followed. Matthías and fellow vocalist Klemens Nikulásson Hannigan performed their song, ‘Hatrið mun sigra’, while engaging in a focused, sensual choreography that ended with Klemens draped over the front of the stage as Matthías loomed over him from behind. The audience around me – by this point, very much made up of Hatari’s faithful – almost melted into the sticky arena floor, and poor D-mol from Montenegro, who were next up, were semi-ignored as the conversation covered Hatari’s staging, their outfits, their vocals .. and especially their choreography. Behind us, the Dutch men reappeared, beer in hand, clearly glad to have missed the Icelandic pair.
Later that evening at the after-party, as Matthías and Klemens, still corset-clad and stony-faced, navigated a throng of fans wanting selfies, I reflected on why I’d seen such a divisive reaction in the hall. It had been unlike the reaction to any other artist, including Turkish entertainer Serhat with his cheap-but-fun song, or the bookies’ favourite, Duncan Laurence.
But only after getting my own selfie first. Because this was a band I wanted to remember.
Do Get Too Political
There are many ways to describe Hatari, and the band themselves gleefully engage in a kind of adjective lottery, where they never refer to themselves the same way twice. They are an anti-capitalist, BDSM, hipster art performance group combining their on-stage performances — industrial music utilising strong BDSM imagery that plays with concepts of sexuality and gender — with off-stage deadpan persona that interweave political commentary with media-savvy trolling.
Hatari are easily one of the year’s most memetic entries — not so much on stage, as with Moldova’s legendary meme performances — but in their personalities. Whenever the official Eurovision YouTube channel has featured Hatari in a video with other artists, Hatari earn the lions’ share of the attention, such as with the ’emoji challenge’ where the comments focus on Hatari opting for a unicorn (“The unicorn is a mysterious creature and our performance is mystical. Like the unicorn“).
They are a meme factory who double up as a band, and memes mean memorable. Their press conferences become as much performance art as anything they might do on the main Eurovision stage. At the red carpet event when fans were focusing more on the outfits than on the brief interviews, Klemens’s brief comment “we’re not used to this heat so I tore half of my jacket off” got a sudden wave of tweets. For those who consume memes like cake, Hatari are like a bakery. Yet the memes are not all there is.
Their associated video channel ‘Iceland Music News’ (which only ever reports on Hatari) oscillates wildly between obvious skits, from ‘The Office’ style mockumentary comedy, to interviews with Palestinian activists discussing Hatari’s actions in Israel. One video treats Estonian representative Victor Crone as an eager Hatari fan; another airs people’s criticisms of Hatari – be it that they’re being too political, or just that Matthías growls too much. More than any other act at this year’s Eurovision, Hatari are a multimedia package, providing content off stage as much as they do with their music.
All this has made them many fans, beyond the initial and often shocking videos of their stage performances.
When Hatari took to that stage in Amsterdam, the anticipation was as much for the band members as it was for ‘Hatrið mun sigra‘ itself. While their show may be compared to earlier Icelandic entrant Paul Oscar’s ‘Minn hinsti dans‘, their all-encompassing onslaught is more easily likened to Sylvia Night, only far more palatable. The shock of their show almost acts like bait: come for the grinding industrial bassline, stay for their 21st century take on being a court jester, wrapping political observations and statements in tomfoolery and post-modern deconstruction until it’s hard to tell which is which.
Dedicated Hatari fan Yvie (@penguinornery) writes: “Coming across Hatari definitely was a little confusing at first, their sound and aesthetic is unlike anything anyone has seen before, they mix genres and use an image that is almost a taboo to convey a message that most people don’t want to hear, even if it’s a real message. The message in every single one of their songs is relatable to everyone that lives in society and it is also poetic enough that it can have different interpretations by each listener. Overall Hatari have a very clever way to make songs with messages that, if they were in a different genre, would go unnoticed using a fierce sound and look to give them the power they really have.”
It’s clear that one major ingredient in Hatari’s appeal is their engagement — the very thing that has likewise turned so many against them. Politics is divisive and Hatari are political.
Fátima (@hatarimunsigra) agrees: “Besides their originality, Hatari members are raising awareness of topics that really matter. Even if there are people who may think it’s just another joke act, Hatari [are] bringing up politics to a contest which is supposed to be apolitical – but, sometimes, you just have to be political, specially when the politics we’re talking about are more a humanitarian cause. Just like Salvador did in 2017 with the refugee issue, Hatari [are] now using their time on the spotlight to talk about important things, and that should be praised, at least.”
Although it may seem puzzling that the Eurovision Song Contest — an event so renowned for optimism that it spawned its own affectionate tribute, ‘Love Love Peace Peace‘ — has accidentally created a strong and passionate fanbase for something so explicitly political and angry, this contradiction is also a reason for the appeal — especially among younger people who are more politically-engaged.
In the piece ‘Why Hatrið mun sigra is the song we need, not just the song we deserve‘ @dudepoints wrote “it’s the 3 minute equivalent of the stored up howl of rage that I’ve had in my heart for the past few years (..) how can we celebrate the collective vision that Eurovision was supposed to support if we have an entire system that’s slowly tearing it apart? (..) Hatari makes me feel seen. They don’t force me to have a solution to things that I can’t fix. They just make me feel like someone gets what we’re all going through. And for that, I will love them forever.”
Despite this, many fans of Eurovision still prefer to agree with Denmark’s Lenora when she sings “don’t get too political”. The divisiveness of Hatari’s political stance is itself treated as something that creates conflict where there should be harmony — or at least escapism. “Eurovision is an escape from the real world,” a Eurofan who didn’t want to be named told me, “I don’t want to hear about Europe falling to hatred. I already know that.”
The Eurovision Song Contest has a mixed history with politics. On paper, Eurovision is apolitical but the decision to be apolitical is a political one. And the whole Eurovision project’s goal of getting Europe to compete on a stage instead of a battlefield is obviously a political one. Overtly political entries have met with mixed fates too. Georgia’s 2009 ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’ got a “really?! really?!” response from the EBU and a disqualification while Jamala’s eulogy to ethnic cleansing in Crimea — sung shortly after Russian engagements in Crimea in 2016 — won the entire contest. ‘Hatrið mun sigra‘ is not as strictly political as either of these entries (the scenario it describes is non-specific), but Hatari’s political engagement has allegedly been tapped by the EBU as pushing their level of tolerance for politics at the contest — and it has become a key factor in their appeal. Or their lack of it.
Queer Or There
Once the scale of Hatari’s popularity became apparent, they faced some online backlash. Common complaints were that they were too aggressive, too political, or just that their style of music was not suited for Eurovision. However, there were also accusations of appropriation. Hatari’s act, both on- and off-stage, is one that uses BDSM imagery of bondage, domination and submission, leather, and latex, while their behaviour, aesthetic, and choreography all play with conceptions of sexuality and gender. Yet away from the band, the various members wear regular clothes, have families (Einar and Klemens are both fathers, the former with fellow band member Sólbjört), and lead regular lives. Does it really count if you only perform kink, queerness, and gender-play to cameras?
A friend of mine from outside the Eurovision bubble, G, is a queer trans woman who is involved in the BDSM scene and also happens to be a big fan of Hatari. I asked G if it bothered her if Hatari’s queerness and bondage aesthetics were all just an act.
“Surely all performance is an act?” was her response. “It doesn’t bother me. Nobody is performing all the time.” She commented further that Hatari’s aesthetic was one that resonated with her. “A lot of LGBT BDSM stuff has been hard gay machismo. But things are changing with my generation, and Hatari remind me of that. There’s something very feminine about Hatari. I wasn’t sure of Klemens’s gender at first.”
“They are very pretty”, she added, commenting further on a video of their Amsterdam performance that “it felt very intimate”. She knows that Matthías and Klemens are cousins and that they’re therefore putting on a show. “They’re free to do that. It’s what they like, it’s what we like.”
There is definitely an element of artificiality to Hatari’s whole project. However, unlike fellow Eurovision participants T.A.T.U in 2003 who posed as lesbians, the artificial construction is readily apparent, arguably even highlighted.
It is a post-modern twisting of art-as-statement, statement-as-art, and art for art’s sake. They are wearing The Emperor’s New Clothes, if those clothes were mesh, latex, and tight corsets. To me, this is different to queerness being adopted as a disguise or a distraction — like Hollywood does with blockbuster films to encourage engagement without actually committing. This is queer aesthetic being used as a whole outfit. This is a conscious performance that never hides that it is a performance, but still follows through. This is not faux homoeroticism. Hatari don’t start kissing each other for the cameras — instead they’ll comment on how their bondage gear is ‘comfortable, practical, everyday wear’. All this is more readily apparent when the whole band are together (Matthías and Klemens were alone in Amsterdam) as it changes the focus from their interpersonal dynamic to a wider performance across genders and flavours of BDSM aesthetic.
Eurovision is certainly no stranger to LGBT performances and participants, and this extends to queerness as well. Conan Osiris of Portugal serves a good example this year, blending influences and experiences to his haunting take on fado, ‘Telemóveis’, in which he relates to past loves as a gay man. It’s a genuine, personal and internal performance as opposed to Hatari’s more self-aware, external performance. However, this doesn’t mean that Hatari’s art is not queer; it is just queerness of a different kind. This different kind of queerness is likely one of the big reasons why Hatari appeal to women, and it is something that separates them from the other Eurovision acts exploring queerness on stage. These have been more male-focused. There are countless female acts who are lauded as gay icons within Eurovision fandom, and yet you tend not to see dismissal of Bojana’s 2015 song ‘Beauty Never Lies‘, lauded at the time as an LGBT anthem, even if Bojana may not be LGBT herself. It’s worth noting here the traditional stereotype of Eurovision’s appeal to gay and bi men has not been extended towards gay or bi women.
Ultimately this is a complicated question that depends on definitions of queerness that can often be intensely personal, but Hatari have definitely struck a chord with LGBT fans who may not necessarily be the target audience for the more familiar LGBT material at Eurovision, whether Hatari themselves are LGBT or not.
When G noted “they are very pretty”, she wasn’t alone. One reaction I heard shouted back in Amsterdam was “that was so hot!”. Hatari have a definite sexuality to them – although not one that makes them necessarily family-unfriendly, as their huge popularity with children in Iceland shows. For those in the know, the heavy kink elements of the performance and the charged interplay between the entire band is very sexually charged. This plays a big part in their appeal (in every sense of that word), as well as being potentially hugely offputting.
Eurovision contestants being attractive and gaining fans through their looks and personality is a long-established part of the Contest. Azerbaijan’s entry this year, Chingiz Mustafeyev, has had fans eagerly sharing images of him even before his song (and subsequently, his staging) was known. ‘Thirst’ is a strong part of Eurovision fandom – but it manifests differently with different fans and different artists. Traditionally, Eurovision’s appeal to gay men has been reflected in the artists it elevates in this way — even if the homoeroticism is not reflected directly in the performances themselves.
A cursory glance at Hatari discussion on Twitter will show that their fans (or, certainly their most passionate fans!) tend to be women while men tend to be overall more lukewarm about the group. I suspect this is in no small part because Hatari – especially Matthías and Klemens – are specifically appealing to women in a way that many other artists are not, but also that this appeal does not carry over as strongly towards the gay and bi men in the fandom. Different strokes for different folks. As a colleague described it, Hatari “have got people thirsting openly who I’ve never seen thirst before” — they are attractive to a demographic that may often be overlooked in fandom and which has felt overlooked in turn.
If you’re not into their appeal, their sexualised stage performance might come across as shocking and unwelcome, or attention-seeking and hollow. If you are into their appeal, then it might get you hot under the collar in a way that no amounts of pyro can.
A Changing Fandom
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two groups in Amsterdam who reacted so differently were made up of older men and younger women: Hatari’s strongest fan appeal has tended towards the latter and away from the former. Hatari are a group for the Twitter generation (even though they don’t have an account themselves) and their sexualised, politicised, memetic, ironic-but-sincere show with fluid concepts of sexuality and gender as much as filling the stage with fire and latex, is tailor-made for this section of the fandom — a section who is becomingly increasingly vocal as the diversity of the fanbase widens in recent years. It may be that as unique a group (or a multimedia experience) Hatari are, they are a signal of things yet to come.
For the time being, Hatari stand out in a way few other entries this year – or any year – have done, and in doing so, they’ve polarised the fandom to an extent few other acts have. Their appeal runs counter to — yet also complementary to — standard Eurovision acts and artists, and in doing so, they’ve won a passionate, engaged, creative, and vocal fanbase, gaining support from those who feel Hatari are their band. Their detractors deem them controversial, artificial, divisive, political – but these are all qualities that have resonated for large parts of the fandom, and led many fans to support them in and beyond this year’s contest.
Now let’s find out if Europe does the same.