Well the bookies were right. Austria took the coveted Eurovision crown last night in what can only be described as the biggest politically fuelled sympathy vote ever cast. As beautiful as Conchita Wurst undoubtedly is, she cannot sing, has minimal stage presence and frankly was out performed by almost every other act (which takes some doing) on the night. Her constant tears and apparent shock at doing so well (despite being the odds on favorite), also failed to display any particularly endearing personality traits and was topped off by some very cliché, cringe-inducing words about being unstoppable upon accepting her award. Despite these uncomfortable aspects of her victory, many are claiming that Conchita’s Eurovision crown is a win for the transgender community and a triumph for tolerance, diversity and equality.
Now there are several problems with this summation. Firstly, Conchita Wurst, whose real name is Tom Neuwirth, is not actually transgender – she is a drag queen and therefore her appearance is altered only by make-up. Even if this rumor was accurate she would not have been the first person of transgender status to either compete or be successful in the competition as the Israeli entrant, Dana International, won the song contest in 1998 after having gender reassignment surgery before taking part.
Secondly, while the sentiments and the intention behind such uniform voting – almost every country gave Austria some points – are admirable and show an unusual level of agreement among the participating countries, it is tempting to think that the only reason she did so well was because of her aversion to shaving. This is mainly because despite Conchita having all the right elements for a powerful and impressive performance – huge amounts of publicity (both good and bad because no-one likes to make anything too easy), meaningful lyrics, pretty dress and a unique selling point, the beard – it all fell a little flat on the night. The tune itself did not do justice to the message of the song and other than a few meaningful looks at the camera she did very little during her performance to hold the viewer’s attention. While all of this added up to huge success and won her the contest, it actually made for a pretty average and uninspiring few minutes on stage. Distinctly mediocre vocals are expected at Eurovision so the idea is that if you cannot sing well, you have to make up for it with other things, normally eye-popping garments or complex staging. If you are going to forgo these elements, then you should really have more than a beard to fall back on in order to keep the audience interested.
In terms of entertainment factor, Eurovision anticipates the sensational – it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of viewing. Despite a reputation for such cheese infused dramatics, this year the Danish hosts and multiple participants managed to out-do themselves. Hamster wheels, trampolines, people balancing on ladders during a song designed to give health and safety a coronary, soft-porn style milk maids, multiple confusing Chinese references, invasion of the commentator box (bless Graham Norton), and of course the bearded phoenix herself – Conchita Wurst. Yet in the midst of all of these often hilarious, sometimes unsettling but always entertaining feats, Conchita stands out only because she sported more facial hair than is normal for a woman. Had she performed clean-shaven and her transgender identity was not so obvious to the national audiences, would she have done so well? The question is open to debate, of course, but it does seem as if almost everything other than her actual talents as a musician and performer was more important to the voting public.
The fact that a vote for her was a metaphorical two fingers to Russia and their vitriolic anti-gay stance was almost certainly a factor in so many countries choosing to exhibit such open support of Conchita and what she stands for and is part of the reason why many are claiming that her Eurovision crown is a symbolic win for equality and tolerance. Indeed what she stands for is certainly something worth supporting and fighting for. However, for that to be realized fully and for people of minority groups to be treated fully as equals, then their performance and skills as an entertainer should be all that is considered when voting. If all of the participating countries truly voted for Conchita believing that she was the most deserving in terms of her musical talents, and not due to political or social motivations, then not only would it be the first time ever in the history of the competition but would also be an appalling display of musical judgment and taste.
Lovely as it is to see more diversity in the Eurovision contest, and even nicer to see the world supporting Conchita’s attempts in the spotlight and not ridiculing or discriminating her (although she did face quite a backlash from various conservative and mainly Russian politicians), it would have been even lovelier to see her compete on the basis of her talents and not on what she stood for – regardless of how worthy the stance. This argument applies to any members of society who are shunned or discriminated against on the basis of their gender, looks, etc. No one should want to be hired or voted for because they were the lucky one to make it through and carry the token for the rest of their ostracized peers. In a similar way, the girls from Russia, both only 17 years old, should not be booed because their country is currently conducting itself in a manner deemed unacceptable or distasteful to others in Europe. Just as, in theory, countries should not vote for acts just because they happen to share a geographical border or similar political views. It is all meant to be light, frothy fun and bubblegum pop style amusement and should be judged as such.
Unfortunately, Eurovision has always been extremely politicized and given the current tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the world, it seemed inevitable that certain feelings would come to the fore during the voting process. However, it seems to have come as a surprise to many at the extent to which political motivations took over this year’s contest. Even the British commentator, Graham Norton, was surprised that Conchita managed to overcome the label of novelty act. Eurovision has once again proved that instead of being about cheesy music and having a laugh, politics and political correctness are the more pervasive elements within the contest. While it is slightly refreshing to see that neighborly loyalty was overcome by a desire to promote an acceptance and understanding of a much marginalized community, it was still rampant with ulterior motives and lacking in any appreciation of real talent or entertainment value – if it had not been, France would have been the sure-fire winners (instead of coming last).
So was the giving of the Eurovision crown to Conchita Wurst a win for tolerance and equality? The answer is no, probably not. Instead, as usual, it was a victory for political motivations, terrible music taste and an over-zealous props and costume department. What a surprise.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion