Samuel Murray reviews 2014’s Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Copenhagen in B&W Hallerne.
Like wines, there are those years of the beloved Eurovision Song Contest which are exceptionally tasty, and this year’s contest was one of the best in living memory. Copenhagen had a huge challenge on its hands. Malmö’s skilful hosting of last year’s contest defied Eurovision conventions by having only one host, the endearing Petra Mede, and made the event somewhat more ceremonious, its procession of national flags akin to an Olympics opening ceremony. One could be drawn to equate this situation to the London Olympics following Beijing’s majesty: the event in Malmö was of such a grand scale that many feared Copenhagen, coincidently only twenty minutes across the Øresund Bridge from Malmö, could not rise to the task.
The first sign of difference was in the choice of venue: Danish television opted to host the contest inside the B&W Hallerne, a repurposed Shipbuilding shed that created an industrial aesthetic and the first real sense of the regenerative impact the contest can offer. It is hoped that holding Eurovision in the B&W on the industrial island of Refshaleøen can spark the use of the former industrial complexes by creative companies. The impact of Eurovision on local economies is of great interest and is the subject of ethnographic-based research by Morton Krogh Petersen and Carina Ren at Aalborg University to determine the success or failure of this regeneration intention. Along with this, there is also a realisation that the Eurovision Song Contest has grown in size to a point where Europe’s Favourite TV Show, and indeed the most-watched TV show in the world, has now become something people actually want to win.
The United Kingdom, however, has not seemed to cotton on to this yet and still treats the event as a festival of sequins, glam and campery. As a result, the UK has been left behind, this year in 17th place with Molly Smitten-Downes. Because Eurovision is such a grand platform, competing nations are arming well-known artists with songs written by songwriting ‘dream teams’, and the contest has now become big business. As much as ‘Children of the Universe’ was a good anthemic song, it lacked the strengths of the UK mainstream. The UK needs to send a song performed by one of our internationally renowned artists and written by one of our strong songwriting houses, such as Xenomania or the team who work with Adele – heck, why not just send Adele? Europe is somewhat tired of the United Kingdom’s arrogance in not sending our best performers to the contest and is duly punishing us through votes. The UK’s recent national Euro-scepticism has also not gone unnoticed by Europe, which senses our arrogance again and resents us for thinking we are greater than the European project. Perhaps it is Nigel Farage and UKIP who are to blame for our lack of Eurovision success, so just think about that when you go to the ballot boxes in months to come.
While the UK may enjoy the annual bemoaning of Eurovision politics, the contest has proved that the song is just as important. The top five songs of the contest were easily the best – the entries from Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Armenia and Hungary, with only two of these being former Soviet countries. The Netherlands are the consummate example of a good song being successful: country duo The Common Linnets combined Dutch country superstars Ilse DeLange and Waylon, and their country pop number ‘Calm After the Storm’ added the sparkle of Nashville songwriting talent alongside the inimitable JB Meijers, who was once named the second-best musician in The Netherlands. All of these factors put together were bound to grab both jury and telephone votes. The UK public, however, bucked this trend by voting, as usual, for novelty, this year in the form of the churning Polish milkmaids whose catchy turbo-folk-hop song was literally eclipsed by cleavage. I loved the song but the staging was questionable; I’ll let you debate its feminist values for yourselves.
When it came to the 2014 contest there could only be one winner: the gracious and inspirational Conchita Wurst, who is by now nothing short of a hero. Conchita is the drag persona of Austrian Tom Neuwirth, a character constructed to battle adversity, fight for equality and challenge Europe’s prevalent conservative notions of gender and identity. Although the correct way to address Conchita is by the female pronoun, as Conchita is a female character, the press has not been so kind, referring to Conchita callously as ‘The Bearded Lady’. But despite the attempts to turn her into a novelty or a freak show, Conchita carried herself incredibly well throughout interviews, seeing the opportunity to educate the intolerant, and allowing herself to be the target of hate so that she could stand on behalf of those without a voice. She was the centre of the pre-contest narrative after presumed favourite, Armenia’s Aram MP3, made comments suggesting that Conchita’s lifestyle was somehow unnatural, to which Conchita coolly replied ‘I guess that means he doesn’t want to marry me then’. Conchita then refused to attack back and reached out to Aram, asking him to meet her for a conversation about his homophobic remarks. The two then met at the pre-contest concert in Amsterdam, where Aram apologised and Conchita gave him a hug and agreed to move on. No doubt many of us would struggle to maintain such grace in the face of adversity.
Aside from the immense political and social importance of Conchita’s victory, it would be wrong not to see ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ for its own musical merits. There is no doubt that Conchita can sing, and her vocal performance articulated the emotional lyrics that only reinforced her personal message of tolerance and freedom. The song itself is akin to a Bond theme song, and indeed it has inspired social media campaigns to have Conchita perform the theme for the next Bond movie.
When it came to the results, as the 12 points rolled in on Eurovision night I witnessed a beautiful moment in history as Europe rallied behind Conchita and her positive message. As we watched outside Copenhagen Town Hall, my friends and I all hugged and cheered as we realised what had just happened: a Europe that has often been driven by spite and hate, united in the name of love to give Conchita a microphone to articulate her message – ‘This is for everyone who believes in a future of peace and unity… we are unstoppable!’ Even after her victory, Conchita is still facing a battle in the conservative east, with Russian politicians reportedly condemning the victory as nothing but western decadence. When asked if she had a message for Vladimir Putin, Conchita smiled and repeated that ‘We are unstoppable.’ Could Conchita be the new face for the European LGBT rights movements, and bring hope to the persecuted in Russia?
Austria won Eurovision this year for the first time since 1966. What are the lessons of Eurovision 2014 that it can take into 2015? A strong song with a positive message and a positive performer will win; the song will be well written with an established songwriting house behind it, and the event will be conscious of its legacy and ability to operate as a chance for regeneration. We will be seeing more good music as nations actually want to host the event. So I urge the United Kingdom to take it seriously and to help us regain our musical dignity by sending a strong, well-known performer with a great song to compete next year. On a side note, perhaps Conchita’s win for Austria is an omen for the world cup? Who knows…