Verka Serduchka in 2007
You’ve got your Berghain sex demons hailing from Iceland, a Greek ethereal fantasy à la Alice in Wonderland, the Beyoncé-esque pop diva and her latex reveal from Cyprus, and a completely out-of-place enthusiastic band dressed in all white straight out of Montenegro. And that was just the first night of semi-finals of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. Coming on top of decades of fabulosity, is tomorrow’s finale going to be the campiest show yet?
Since its inception in 1956, Eurovision evolved from a music festival celebrating the unity of European culture into the most outrageous night of gay circus. With just a dash of (often faulty) tunes. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Actually, that’s why we love Eurovision, and continuously come back to watching the endless amounts of tack unravel in front of our eyes, in technicolour and with flashing strobe lights.
The first ever winner of Eurovision was the Swiss contestant Lys Assia. Her chanson Refrain was a reflection of the times while her New Look-esque dress stood out against the live orchestra and five back-up singers fighting over two mics. It was all very modern and chic, as Eurovision presented a continent-wide equivalent to the much-respected Italian Sanremo Music Festival. Somewhere between then and now, the timelines of pop music and Eurovision became nonlinear. It all turned into sort of a chasing game, one where contestants try to sum up all that was popular in music in the past 365 days into three minutes. Lest not forget – Eurovision had the likes of Celine Dion, Katrina and the Waves, Cliff Richards and ABBA on its stage, entertaining the world both with their bops and ridiculous costumes. There are also some historic TV moments in the show’s rich rolodex – the first ever openly trans contestant to win the competition was Israeli entry Dana International, who brought everything and more in 1998 with her showstopping anthem Diva. With the show broadcast all across the world, Dana was the first ever openly trans person some saw on TV. That’s me too, a little 5-year-old in Croatia. Dana tried her luck again in 2011 with Ding Dong, but she didn’t even make it to the finals. She was 15th out of 19 entries on the second night. The song was lukewarm, and so were the performance and the costuming (designed by Jean Paul Gaultier himself). It was all just a mere attempt at recreating the major 1998 moment. Needless to say, it (sadly) didn’t succeed.
Eurovision has been about shock for a while now, but it’s since the noughties that the most bizzare entries went on to win or be in the top. Does Hard Rock Hallelujah ring a bell? It was the Finnish hard rock band Lordi who won the title of the best Euro song in 2006, dressed as Halloween versions of characters from Dungeons & Dragons and shouting out their take on heavy metal. The show suddenly turned from the gayest Christmas ever into a search for oddities. The following year was arguably the biggest fest of absurdities yet – Verka Serduchka of Ukraine showed off her futuristic drag, Switzerland came with vampires, Denmark contributed an old-school drag queen in front of an oversized crown construction. And then there was the eternally unlucky UK, bringing to the Euro table what will forever be remembered as my personal favourite Eurovision performance. Inspired by Britney Spears’ Toxic and set in a glittery airplane, Scooch flew the flag with all the on-board puns you didn’t know you needed. “Flying high in Amsterdam,” will never not be hilarious. The winner though, was possibly the least campy song of them all, a dramatic ballad from Marija Serifovic of Serbia.
Scooch flying the flag(s) in 2007
With camp finally being recognised worldwide as a leading notion of creativity, the Eurovision phenomenon might be finally coming back into its own. Not for the fun factor which never really went away, but more for the idea of understanding what it really is. The false pretence of seriousness has evaporated and the focus is on outdoing with drama. While the politics behind the contest are a totally separate topic, the interaction of the silliness of content and the seriousness of its implications is what makes this year’s Eurovision the campiest one yet. “Considered a little less strictly, camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious,” Susan Sontag wrote in her Notes on Camp. With Israel hosting the show this year, the controversy around the country’s policies on Palestine became the talking point, as calls for boycott started coming up worldwide. The contrast between the consciousness and naivety is what makes the glitz and glam of wardrobe reveals and sensual dancing more ridiculous than ever before. Of all 41, the Icelandic techno entry is the only one blatantly discussing the topic of European unity. Even the official rules of the contest state “the ESC is a non-political event.” But how do you avoid politics where there is people voting and trying to win? You don’t. You put on some tearable black latex and wet your hair, hoping for the best.
The finale of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest will take place tomorrow, May 18th.