Eurovision 2017 was remarkable for its lack of politics

This post originally appeared at the LSE European Politics and Policy blog on 15 May 2017.

Eurovision 2017 was a contest with politics much further in the background than many viewers would have expected at the end of last year’s show: the 2016 contest saw Jamala win Ukraine the right to host the following Eurovision with a song that commemorated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.

Russia’s last-minute selection of a contestant, Yuliya Samoilova, who had visited Crimea in 2015 without crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border and would therefore be ineligible for entry under Ukrainian law, generated almost a month-long stand-off before Russian television decided in mid-April not to accept any compromise solution or broadcast the show. This meant the greatest reverberations of the Russia–Ukraine conflict for Kyiv 2017 had subsided before they could preoccupy the bubble of journalists, bloggers and fans that generates many of the framing narratives for every Eurovision during a fortnight of rehearsals in the host city.

While visitors to Kyiv were surrounded by architectural and visual reminders of Ukraine’s increasing cultural separation from Russia and the memory of coexistence in the USSR, Ukrainian nationhood in the broadcasts themselves came across largely through citations of folk tradition. There was no equivalent of the moment in Eurovision 2005 where President Viktor Yushchenko, presenting the winner’s trophy, reminded viewers that the Orange Revolution had only ended four months before. Even the Ukrainian entry by rock band O.Torvald had abandoned the ticking countdowns, flame and rubble concept of its early performances – calling to mind iconic photographs of the Euromaidan – for an abstract, utilitarian design.

The European Broadcasting Union, for its part, contributed to the politics-free atmosphere by preventing Portugal’s Salvador Sobral, who had been urging European governments throughout the week to accept more refugees, from wearing an ‘SOS Refugees’ sweatshirt in his last press conferences on the grounds that it broke Eurovision rules against ‘political or commercial’ messages. This was despite the fact that last year’s Eurovision had contained a segment, the acclaimed ‘Grey People’, which was no more and no less political in its depiction of the dangers refugees subject themselves to in order to reach the very ‘Europe’ that Eurovision viewers are celebrating.

The nature of live television nevertheless creates occasional ruptures in this increasingly tightly regulated ideological space. Israel’s spokesperson Ofer Nachshon’s farewell to Eurovision from the soon-to-be-closed Israel Broadcasting Authority left many viewers wondering if he was also announcing the departure of Israel itself. Perhaps the most alarming moment I can remember on a Eurovision screen occurred during the interval, when a man wearing an Australian flag climbed on stage and dropped his trousers in front of Jamala as she performed her new single, ‘I Believe In U’.

While no-one was readier than the internet’s Australians to take self-deprecating credit for the display, the man was a Ukrainian ‘prankster’, Vitalii Sediuk, with a long track record of confronting and assaulting mostly female celebrities in public. With Ukraine in direct conflict with another country where opposition politicians and journalists are liable to become targets of attacks in the street – and with tennis fans in the Yugoslav region especially likely to remember a spectator’s attack on Monica Seles in Hamburg 24 years ago – the fact that a member of the public could get this close to any performer on stage, let alone as politically symbolic a figure as Jamala, overshadowed a contest where in many respects the politics remained off screen.

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Under the rainbow arch: hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision

In May 2007, just before Helsinki was about to host its first ever Eurovision Song Contest, a group of media and performance researchers gathered at the University of Helsinki for a symposium on ‘Queer Eurovision!’, later written up as a special issue of the Finnish queer studies journal SQS.

The aim of the symposium, wrote its co-organiser, Mikko Tuhkanen, was to take stock of the ten years since the ‘open secret’ of gay and queer presence at Eurovision had moved from a private subtext behind the show to an inescapable part of the text, starting with the first performance by an out gay man (Páll Óskar from Iceland) in 1997 and written into Eurovision history when Dana International won in 1998.

Many young, and some older, trans viewers of Eurovision were able to see in Dana International’s confidence and glamour the first aspirational representation of trans femininity that film and television had ever offered them. To Eurovision’s much larger number of cis viewers, meanwhile, her identity as a trans woman and her roots in the Tel Aviv’s gay nightlife – at a historical moment where LGBT activists were starting to win limited but important victories by lobbying European institutions – seemed to confirm: yes, Eurovision was gay.

Or as Tuhkanen wrote: ‘With Dana International, the disclosure was complete.’

A few days later, Marija Šerifović would win Eurovision 2007 for Serbia with a performance that the symposium’s other co-organiser, Annamari Vänskä, would persuasively read as an example of ‘lesbian camp‘. Šerifović’s victory took Eurovision 2008 to a country where the government’s failure to provide sufficient security for Belgrade Pride marches to take place had become a symbol, both at home and in European politics, of how far ‘European values’ were or were not embedded in Serbia.

Eurovision 2008 would open up a new chapter of the international politics of queerness and LGBT rights at Eurovision – one where queer people’s equality and security in host states would be heavily scrutinised when the contest took place in postsocialist, eastern European countries (but taken for granted during contests that were held in ‘the West’), and one where sexual orientation and gender identity were becoming matters of foreign policy for many countries in the global North and some (like Brazil and Argentina) in the South.

Šerifović’s victory, in other words, marked the start of another new phase in the queer politics and history of Eurovision – one where, increasingly outside Eurovision as well as inside, tolerance and respect for LGBT rights were about to become a new symbolic boundary in the imaginative geography of ‘East/West’ divisions of Europe that dated back even further than the Cold War.

Of all the contributions to ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the one most often cited in the subfield of ‘Eurovision research’ that itself started growing like a snowball after around 2007 and 2008 is Peter Rehberg’s article ‘Winning failure: queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest‘. Rehberg had noticed that the celebrations of queer (above all, gay) identities at Eurovision were an almost unparalleled occasion where fans and viewers did not have to choose between their queerness and their nationhood in order to experience belonging – a rare thing when nationalism, as an ideology, had historically been so hostile to homosexuality and transgressions of traditional gender roles.

(That past tense matters: by the mid-2000s, ‘LGBT-friendliness’ was itself becoming a symbolic value in some accounts of national identity, helping to define nations such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Britain in terms of cultural differences from supposedly ‘more homophobic’ parts of the world – a new way of expressing Europe’s imaginary east/west divide, and sometimes even of creating a troubling, simplistic hierarchy setting ‘the West’ above ‘Islam’ or ‘Africa’.)

Rather than fans celebrating their membership of a transnational gay or queer community instead of nationhood, Rehberg argued that Eurovision allowed them to celebrate as people with queer identities and as members of nations – ‘a rare occasion,’ in his most-quoted line, ‘for simultaneously celebrating both queerness and national identity’ (p. 60).

Ten years on from ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the song contest and queer geopolitics have become even more tied together.

As I’ve written here before, the years between 2008 and 2014 enmeshed Eurovision in the same political struggles over international events, LGBT rights and human rights that are most familiar from controversies over the Beijing and Sochi Olympics (which themselves book-end 2008 and 2014): Belgrade’s hosting of Eurovision in 2008 followed by Moscow in 2009, where the mayor of Moscow sent in police to break up a ‘Slavic Pride’ march on Eurovision final afternoon; the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, again accused of complicity with a repressive and homophobic regime when Baku hosted in 2012; London’s attempt to distance itself from Beijing through how it performed national identity at the 2012 Olympics echoed at Eurovision by Malmö 2013’s self-presentation as the antithesis of Baku 2012, with equal marriage among the many symbols of Swedishness celebrated in the interval; moments of celebrity activism like Krista Siegfrids’s on-stage kiss with another woman, beamed out across Europe while sending a more specific message to Finns before a parliamentary vote on an equal marriage referendum; and, after the Russian parliament criminalised the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s in June 2013, the cycle of Europe-versus-Russia representations around that symbolic boundary of LGBT rights that ran organically from the human rights campaigns before the Sochi Olympics into the meanings of ‘Europe’ and Eurovision when Conchita Wurst took part.

The hinge between queerness and nationhood that Rehberg found at Eurovision would widen in some countries, at least conditionally, with expansions of marriage and family rights and even – after much more struggle – tentative improvements in mechanisms for trans people’s gender recognition: provisions that add up to a greater sense of ‘citizenship’, or the ability to actually exercise the same rights as other citizens, for queer people, or at least those queer people whose race, ethnicity, nationality or religion don’t remove them from that sense of citizenship in other ways.

And yet frictions between the celebration of queerness and the sovereignty of nationhood would persist at Eurovision itself. In 2016, the EBU embroiled itself in unnecessarily awkward dialogues with LGBT fans over whether or not rainbow flags would be allowed in the Eurovision arena (if they were being used in a ‘political’ way, leaked instructions to security staff at the arena suggested, they shouldn’t be allowed – and yet the rainbow flag’s origins in political protest are still, for many but not all LGBT people, inseparable from its meanings in the present), and expected the more specific identities symbolised by the wider family of pride flags (like the bi and trans flags) to be accommodated in the all-encompassing rainbow.

Meanwhile, it had to be aware both that its Russian member broadcasters were under LGBT-phobic pressure to withdraw from Eurovision – so that Russian families wouldn’t have to watch examples of ‘Western decadence’ like Conchita Wurst – and that the very celebrations of queerness many viewers would expect from Eurovision, indeed be disappointed if the contest didn’t show, might now be ruled illegal to broadcast in Russia under the laws that a coalition of neo-traditional politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church had steered through parliament with Putin’s approval in 2013.

Since 2007, in other words, that hinge between queerness and national belonging that Rehberg had found one expression of at Eurovision had acquired three new dimensions: its vulnerability to being instrumentalised as a way of constructing tolerant and progressive Western and European national identities against backward cultural ‘others’; the hardening of a symbolic boundary between ‘Europe’ and ‘Russia’; and the realisation, as Russian queers saw in 2013 and Western queers themselves have had to come to terms with after seeing the Obama presidency’s steps towards LGBT equality reversed in a matter of weeks, that the greater sense of national citizenship and belonging that some LGBT people have been able to win can always be assaulted and lost again.

Come into me from within, we can be as one in the sin

The vagaries of Eurovision qualification – where almost 40 entries will take part in two semi-finals and only 20 go through to the grand final on Saturday – mean that this year’s most interesting example of how queerness and nationhood can combine at Eurovision, Slavko Kalezić’s ‘Space’, has already gone out of contention. Hidden away in the Tuesday semi-final, the 2017 entry most conscious of, and most adapted to, the homoerotic male gaze of gay spectatorship didn’t come from any self-imagined north-west European stronghold of gay rights, but from Montenegro – and depended on specifically post-Yugoslav ways of reinventing masculinity rather than any denationalised model of the ‘global gay’.

The presentation of Kalezić’s preview video for ‘Space’ in March left no doubt this was a song and performance aimed at the gay and bisexual male viewer in the sense that their likely pleasures are more embedded in the song than any other. Entering through a neon galaxy (with echoes perhaps of Lady Gaga’s ‘Mother Monster’ phase), the camera takes viewers to a dark disco and a dramatic rocky landscape where Kalezić is dancing shirtless, often singing directly to the viewer in extreme close up, as we hear lines like ‘Wet dreams, wild nightmares, I surrender / Come into me from within / We can be as one in the sin’.

The rest of the lyrics are filled with callouts to ejaculation and orgasm, mixed with a fluidity of gender roles (‘I’m Venus and Mars of the hour’), and fans were quick to interpret a line about ‘I’ve got my suit on, no need to worry’ – ostensibly, of course, about a space suit – as standing for using a condom during safe sex.

Even as Eurovision entries go, ‘Space’ is remarkable in its commitment to the codes of double entendre. Moreover, the lyrics put Kalezić in a receptive role, the riskier and queerer position for a man who has sex with men to take in many binaries of male sexuality that view receiving penetration, as opposed to giving penetration, as a much more threatening act for masculinity (thus feminising and stigmatising passive sexual role): it’s the thought that men can enjoy being penetrated that really unsettles many homophobes.

While Kalezić’s unabashed enthusiasm for male/male sexuality has rough Western equivalents – a Frankie Goes To Hollywood or, especially, a George Michael – ‘Space’ is far from an import of Western gay aesthetics – and that needs saying all the more loudly when so much public and state homophobia, the ideology behind the Russian ‘gay propaganda’ laws or the far-right and Church mobilisation against LGBT activism and Pride marches in Serbia, Ukraine, and many other countries, is grounded in imagining that the authentic masculinity of the nation can never accommodate being gay or taking pleasure in sexual acts performed by other men.

Throughout the introduction of LGBT-phobic legislation in Russia, the current persecution of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, or the ongoing harassment and violence of LGBT activist movements and Pride campaigns, discourses of nationalism and sexuality hold that – supposedly – it’s against the authentic morals of the nation for men to behave like this. Opposing moves to recognise LGBT rights as human rights as the United Nations, the Russian government has argued that the West has sought to impose LGBT equality on Russia in the face of Russia’s authority to determine its own moral code: in the Russian nation as Putin imagines it, ‘non-traditional’ sexual relations should stay out of sight.

The hostile comments Kalezić received from Montenegrin social media users after his video was published similarly included references to ‘Western decadence’ or the remark that ‘Njegoš would be ashamed.’ The epics of Njegoš, the 19th-century prince-bishop and national poet of Montenegro who wrote (with graphic violence) about the heroism of Montenegrin highland clans fighting the Ottoman Turks, are at the core of Montenegrin myths of national masculinity.

In response, Kalezić told the Montenegrin web portal CDM: ‘if Njegoš were alive, he’d actually support me. Those of you who are mentioning him, if you’ve read The Mountain Wreath or A Night Worth A Century [his two major works] should know that in fact he was an exceptional thinker and empath. Full of symbolic energy and the energy of life.’

Beyond queering Eurovision or queering the nation, Kalezić was doing something even more threatening to Montenegrin heteronormativity: queering Njegoš.

Moreover, the way Kalezić – in his video more than his Eurovision performance – embodies genderfluidity and male/male sexual desire reflects a tension for queer people across most of the globe: how to find modes of sexual difference and gender non-conformity that don’t require total separation from national tradition, that is, how to situate oneself in the linguistic and cultural material of a nation to which one should be able to belong.

The questions are the very stuff of global queer politics – including in Montenegro, where (as Danijel Kalezić writes in his contribution to Bojan Bilić’s recent volume on post-Yugoslav LGBT activism) non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people question whether their activism and organisation necessarily needs to follow the Western European and North American model of Pride, why anyone should expect queer identities to develop with the same categories or timescale they have in the West, and where there might be Montenegrin queer histories to reclaim.

‘Space’, on video, contains visual nods to Byzantine iconography and also, in the whirling of Kalezić’s robe and hair, something of Sufi tradition: a reference which, at least to me as a spectator, brings to mind another gender-non-conforming post-Yugoslav singer from Bosnia, Božo Vrećo.

Vrećo, seen here in his own enrobed whirling through a dramatic landscape, has succeeded in what Tea Hadžiristić described in an article for Balkanist as ‘queering sevdah’. In singing and writing this form of traditional Bosnian folk music, Vrećo speaks both as a woman and as a man. His gender expression, both in and out of performance, actively reuses Bosnian traditions across gender boundaries: among his tattoos, for instance, are symbols on his hands that Bosnian Catholic women used to tattoo as protective bridal charms. Vrećo neither uses nor needs Western or Anglophone categories of sexual and gender variance to present himself. As a result, Hadžiristić writes:

Vrećo eschews ascribing Western-style identity categories to himself that allows him to be celebrated by Bosnians as a star and emblem of Bosnian talent, while at the same time enacting his own brand of queer gender presentation. Outside of a context where LGBT rights are seen as part of a modernization package leading to EU accession, his queerness is accepted because it is seen as Bosnian rather than a threat coming from the ‘outside’. In itself, this has radical potential because it demonstrates that queerness is not a Western import and that it can and does exist naturally in Bosnia and jive with ‘Bosnianness’. A Bosnian queer is possible.

So, Kalezić shows, is a Montenegrin queer. So is a Serbian queer: Marija Šerifović, Serbia’s Eurovision winner in 2007, came out in 2013 (after years of public speculation about her sexuality during which she was only photographed with one boyfriend, Slavko Kalezić), and in gender expression is indistinguishable from male stars in the same field of Serbian pop – though doesn’t subvert dominant ideologies of Serbian nationhood in other ways (after all, Serbian women, or women anywhere else, are not necessarily left-wing committed anti-nationalists just because they’re queer).

The aesthetic codes that ‘Space’ as a video depend on are already well-established in Belgrade-based popular music production for the post-Yugoslav linguistic and cultural area: in fact, its director, Dejan Milićević, is none other than the foremost video director for Serbian pop-folk music or what’s still sometimes called ‘turbofolk’.

Milićević’s videos employ what Balkanist‘s pop blogger Eurovicious (in his ‘Queer as Turbofolk’ series) calls a ‘tricky balancing act’ in which ‘the queer subtext must be subtle enough to pass over the heads of the straight audience, but explicit enough to maintain the interest of the gay male audience’. This example, for a Danijel Djokić video in 2012, is as good as any:

Milićević’s signature devices of lingering on the exposed male body and visualising the male singer’s inviting gaze back at the viewer – all filtered through the conventions of fashion photography – are an established aesthetic in post-Yugoslav music. For Marko Dumančić and Krešimir Krolo, in fact, they help to suggest that the Belgrade school of pop-folk music has produced a – however commodified and objectified masculinity that differs importantly from how the same music used to celebrate the masculinities of paramilitarism and organised crime.

The Milićević aesthetic taken into Eurovision sees a localised homoerotics, in which queer men in and around Serbia and Montenegro are already taking pleasure, meshing with other queer, and straight, gazes situated elsewhere. Indeed, Macedonia’s preview video for Tijana Dapčević’s entry in 2014 relied on the same presentation of the male body and the same scopic pleasure of looking at the male body even though it was directed by a different director, Mert Arslani:

For better or worse, the Macedonian team didn’t bring the video’s homoerotics of the Macedonian Air Force into the live performance (or even get Tijana to wear the white glasses that she’d showed to every journalist who met her during Eurovision week) – and Eurovision viewers didn’t get to see half as Montenegrin a setting for ‘Space’ as Kalezić’s preview had been able to conjure.

The braid stays, but the robe is off within less than fifty seconds (Kalezić is wearing sparkly jeans underneath), and the high-resolution video backdrop is showing galactic patterns or blow-ups of Kalezić’s body rather than the mountain landscapes that Montenegro’s preview videos can be guaranteed to show off: I do wonder whether the more localised elements from the video (even if many viewers elsewhere in Europe would just view them as ‘more Balkan’) might have helped the song stand out better in a semi-final that contained at least one other south-east European pop song based on astrophysics and the return of Moldova’s Epic Sax Guy.

Once the EBU releases the semi-final results and the breakdown of how expert juries and the public voted in each country, it’ll be interesting to see whether Kalezić’s points were simply relatively low all round or whether he encountered the obstacle that made even Conchita Wurst’s scores not as high as they might have been: that five music professionals per country have more influence than a member of the public, by a magnitude of thousands, over whether a performance that plays on queerness as much as Kalezić or Conchita is going to get any points. Both homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on the part of a juror, or pressure from the broadcaster or elsewhere, can have a disproportionately high impact on the votes a jury gives.

Indeed, this isn’t just a problem of the 2010s: Páll Óskar’s ‘Minn hinsti dans’, in 1997, scored only 18 points and came 20th out of 25th – but 16 of the 18 points came from countries that were experimenting for the first time with a public televote, Austria, Sweden and the UK.

Conchita, in 2014, didn’t suffer a mass rejection among public voters even in Russia, but expert juries ranked her noticeably lower than the public, leading to eastern Europe countries appearing to have given her relatively fewer points than the West.

With Kalezić out of the running for the grand final, however, the most significant hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision 2017 are likely to be behind the scenes rather than on stage.

Repainting the rainbow arch

Ukraine’s public diplomacy, since 2014, has striven not only to inform the world that Ukraine still has sovereignty over Crimea and eastern Ukraine but also to show that Ukraine belongs to a different, European community of values than Putin’s Russia – a political and cultural separation not unlike the move with which Croatia in 1990-5, before and during its war of independence, sought to separate itself (sometimes coercively) from Yugoslavia.

One of several important differences between the Croatian case and Ukraine’s, however, is that there was no incentive for the 1990s Croatian regime not to double down on homophobia in its political compact with the Catholic Church. For Ukraine, on the other hand, being able to demonstrate progress on what diplomats take as the benchmarks of LGBT rights (such as whether Pride marches are being held safely) could – at least when LGBT rights were the foreign policy issue that they were under Obama and still are to some governments – help to create a clear moral boundary in Western eyes between Ukraine and Putin’s Russia.

If Russia had not withdrawn from Eurovision after Ukrainian security services banned the Russian contestant Yuliya Samoilova from entering the country (in 2015 she had visited Crimea without first legally entering Ukraine), public awareness of the organised disappearances, torture and killing of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya could well have elicited more hostile reactions from viewers than Russian competitors faced even in 2014, the first Eurovision since the ‘gay propaganda’ law went into force, or 2015 – perhaps not even a contestant able to win as much goodwill from fans as Sergey Lazarev would have been able to do much to hold it off.

The potential diplomatic value of publicly performing support for LGBT equality sits uneasily with the patriarchal homophobia of the Ukrainian far right and paramilitary movement – a potential insurgent force that continues to overshadow the Ukrainian government.

The impasse was symbolised by the outcome of an initiative to repaint the Arch of the Friendship of Peoples, a Soviet monument built in a large Kyiv park in 1982. The Arch is among the monuments that the Ukrainian government now plans to remove under a ‘decommunisation’ law introduced in May 2016 (bringing Ukraine, two and a half decades after the collapse of the USSR, closer to the memory politics of early post-Yugoslav Croatia).

First, however, Kyiv city council decided to repaint it in rainbow colours as a temporary Arch of Diversity in time for Eurovision and Kyiv Pride – as if taking up the street-art aesthetic that since 2011 has regularly been seeing Sofia’s Monument to the Soviet Army repainted so that the soldiers are wearing American superhero costumes, bright pink uniforms or even Ukrainian flags.

The rainbow symbol, and ‘diversity’ itself, contain a non-specificity and deniability which often frustrates queer and LGBT people who want their identities and experiences to be named as such; ‘Celebrate Diversity’, the slogan of Eurovision 2017, is so broad it could be celebrating nothing at all (while performing a celebration of diversity, as Sara Ahmed writes, is so often a substitute for institutions actually making the difficult structural changes necessary for their workforce to be meaningfully diverse). That very slipperiness, however, also creates the space of manoeuvre in which the painting of the Arch of Diversity could take place without the city council having to openly name the rainbow as queer.

archofdiversity
Painting the Arch of Diversity in Kyiv, April 2017

The arch was in a half-painted state last week when members of far-right groups including Right Sector and Svoboda threatened municipal workers and ordered the painting to stop – calling the rainbow ‘gay propaganda’, in the same terms as LGBT-phobia in Russia. On 4 May the mayor of Kyiv, Vitaliy Klitschko, announced, in what was widely seen as a symbolic concession, that the rest of the arch would be filled in with ‘a Ukrainian decorative pattern.’

The bands of orange, yellow, green, blue and purple that currently rise from the base of the arch, leaving blunt interruptions of grey metal near the top, could as an aesthetic choice have captured the viewer’s gaze and forced them to think about why the progress was incomplete, better than the full rainbow would have done: in that sense, designing such a rupture into the arch might have expressed the contingency of queer politics better.

Enforcing the rupture from outside, however, means that the unpainted metal of the present arch and the traditional national pattern of its future – likely based on the same handicrafts that have given Eurovision 2017 much of its visual identity – also represent the material power that the far right in Ukraine can exert over what degree of LGBT equality, visibility or public presence they are prepared to allow.

The half-rainbowed arch under which many Eurovision fans, of different genders and sexualities, are photographing themselves this weekend in Kyiv is not only, therefore, a symbol of transnational ‘rainbow’ politics or an instrument of national public diplomacy. It is a sign of the contingency and insecurity of queer existence: the knowledge, as immediate or distant as it seems, that even official commitments towards equality can still be met with violence and still bargained away.

The idea that time’s imaginary arrow can go backwards – that even if you can belong more to your nation than you used to do, the time may still come when the nation and its state turns on you again – is not just an experience of queerness in Russia or Ukraine: it is one that queer people in the West are also confronting, after only a few years where it started to feel possible to forget.

There’s a moment, or many moments, in Belgium’s performance at Eurovision this year where, even though the singer Blanche as far as anyone knows isn’t queer, the song captures a mood of insecurity and doubt that queer, and feminist, politics in 2017 knows very well.

In a voice so uncomfortable that a lot of viewers – including myself the first time – initially heard it as stage fright, yet selling the song to enough voters for it to qualify from the semi-final, Blanche keeps returning to the same refrain: ‘All alone in the danger zone / are you ready to take my hand? / All alone in a flame of doubt / are we going to lose it all?’

Rather than fulfilling the same storytelling momentum that recent Eurovision winners have increasingly been able to convey through digital staging that sometimes seems to tell an almost mythological story of command over nature or technology, ‘City Lights’ is caught in indecision. It doesn’t offer the climax of the young-adult dystopian narratives it seems to draw from, where we know that sooner or later the young heroes will make their break, escape the city and join hands; instead, it cycles back to hesitation.

Its last seconds, where Blanche repeats the same line three times before the lights and music suddenly drop out as she crosses her arms, would be an even bleaker winner’s reprise than the end of Jamala’s ‘1944’ – and yet, for some viewers, the words are already on their minds:

‘Are we going to lose it all?’

Yugoslavia’s last summer dance: did Serbia and Montenegro really break up over Eurovision?

This post originally appeared at Balkanist on 8 May 2017.

Two and a half months before Montenegrins were due to vote in a referendum on independence from Serbia that would bring the union of the last two Yugoslav republics to an end, Montenegrin and Serbian television viewers in March 2006 had a different kind of vote to cast: choosing what might be Serbia–Montenegro’s last entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.

The outcome of the national selection at the Sava Centar in Belgrade – with the Montenegrin delegation outraged that spectators had jeered and thrown bottles at the winning Montenegrin band, the Belgrade audience and the Serbian press accusing the Montenegrin jurors of ganging up to make sure a song from Montenegro won, and Serbia–Montenegro ultimately unable to send a song to Eurovision that year at all – seemed to symbolise a breakdown in relations that would have to make separation inevitable: if Serbia and Montenegro couldn’t co-operate on picking a song for Eurovision, how could they be expected to co-operate on anything else?

If Evropesma 2006 hadn’t happened, one or other of the smart young post-Yugoslav directors on the mid-2000s film-festival circuit would have had to make it up: a portmanteau of political contradictions and historical legacies crashing into each other in a setting tailor-made for pop-culture nostalgia, with cameos from a world-weary Sarajevan and a sex symbol from Split, all circling round a competition where the question of who got to take credit for the Eurovision entries of a disintegrating state had rumbled on ever since the Yugoslav federation fell apart.

Yugoslavia had been telling stories about its place in the world through Eurovision since 1961, when joining in the annual contest as the only state socialist country ever to take part helped to symbolise the proud geopolitical position ‘between east and west’ – unattached either to Soviet communism or American capitalism – that Tito’s Yugoslavia claimed as the host, later that year, of the First Non-Aligned Conference in Belgrade.

Out of the string of songs that TV Zagreb guided through Yugoslavia’s inter-republic Eurovision selection festival, Jugovizija, in an unbroken streak between 1986 and 1990, the most successful had been the jaunty slice of zabavna (light-entertainment) music called ‘Rock me baby,’ with which the Zadar band Riva narrowly won Eurovision in 1989 – entitling Yugoslavia to host Eurovision 1990.

 

By May 1990, the Berlin Wall had fallen, most of the 22 Eurovision contestants that year had come equipped with something about freedom, walls or Europe in their lyrics, and moving the symbolic centre of Europe for an evening to a state socialist country adapting to multi-party democracy told an even more powerful story about ‘Europe’ than viewers in 1989 would have anticipated there would be.

Within Yugoslavia, of course, 1989–90 had been a time of increasing political tensions between republics, spurred on by Slobodan Milošević’s populist agitation about the ‘minority’ position of Serbs in the federation, the anti-democratic steps he took to build his personal power on the federal presidency, his suppression of Albanians’ civil rights in Kosovo, and the reactions this climate provoked in Slovenia and Croatia.

Rivalries between TV Zagreb and the umbrella federal broadcaster Yugoslav Radio-Television (JRT) dogged the organisation of the contest, and the TV Zagreb that hosted Eurovision in May 1990 was very soon to become Croatian Television (HTV), a state broadcaster with a declared nation-building mission – to reshape Croatian public consciousness around the public’s sense of themselves as Croats, away from affinity with Yugoslavia or even memory that Croats and Serbs had once sought a political future together.

Indeed, Croatia’s first multi-party elections – which voted the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) into power on a ticket of freedom, independence and closeness to Europe but alarmed Serbs who saw in HDZ a disturbing ambivalence towards the legacy of the 1941–5 Independent State of Croatia and its genocidal persecution of Serbs – had their second and last round the day after Eurovision 1990.

‘Rock me baby’, as Croatian viewers are annually reminded, is the star turn in Croatia’s national history of Eurovision – a victory in the name of Yugoslavia but, along the contours of post-Yugoslav Croatian cultural identity, unambiguously made in Croatia.

It was also, of course, a Yugoslav victory – something which in the cultural politics of ‘brotherhood and unity’ belonged to the whole country, regardless of the republic that had produced it. Milošević, unlike the 1990s Croatian president Franjo Tuđman, did not sever Serbian cultural identity from ‘Yugoslav’ culture even as he gave orders in wars that would destroy the Yugoslav idea in practice. On Serbian television, Riva’s Eurovision win in 1989 is just as much ‘ours’ as it is in Croatia.

After Eurovision 1990, when Croatian teen idol Tajči performed another standard of late Yugoslav zabavna music, the fifties-retro ‘Hajde da ludujemo’ (‘Let’s go crazy’) – not at all to be confused with newly-composed folk music star Lepa Brena’s 1987–9 musical trilogy Hajde da se volimo (Let’s fall in love) – no Croatian participant would even come close to representing Yugoslavia.

 

The state of relations between Tuđman’s Croatia and the federal institutions Milošević successfully dominated was such, by March 1991, that none of the Croatian singers who travelled to Sarajevo for the last ‘Jugovizija’ to involve all six republics are likely to have believed they had a serious chance of winning – least of all Tedi Spalato, who chose to perform his song ‘Gospode moj’ (‘O, my lord’), one of many overtly Catholic songs now allowed to be shown on HTV, dressed as a friar.

TV Belgrade’s entry, to nobody’s surprise, won the next Jugovizija in 1991, with Milošević exerting enough control over institutions in Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro to pressure their JRT ‘studios’ to vote the same way as Belgrade. TV Belgrade and TV Priština gave no points to Spalato the leading Croatian contender, Danijel Popović – a Montenegrin born in Podgorica who would relaunch his pop career then in 2005 – whose song followed in Tajči’s retro footsteps with the Americanising title of ‘Daj, obuci levisice’ (‘Come on, put your Levis on’).

The winner, Bebi Dol with ‘Brazil’, reached 68 points on the basis of votes from the Belgrade, Priština, Novi Sad and Montenegro studios – and nowhere else.

 

One last Jugovizija, with entries from the Sarajevo, Novi Sad, Priština, Belgrade and Montenegro studios but no Slovenian, Croatian or Macedonian participation, took place on 28 March 1992 – the same day that the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegović, would withdraw his assent to the Lisbon Agreement and its suggested division of Bosnia-Herzegovina. TV Belgrade’s Extra Nena performed at Eurovision 1992 in Malmö a few weeks before United Nations sanctions against the Milošević regime came into force and prevented what had become the ‘Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’ (FRY) – that is, Serbia and Montenegro – from competing in Eurovision for the rest of the 1990s.

Taking part in Eurovision became a possibility again after Milošević fell from power in October 2000. A year after FRY converted into a looser State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, meeting the pro-independence ambitions of the Montenegrin prime minister Milo Đukanović halfway, the Association of Public Broadcasters of Serbia and Montenegro (UJRT) returned to Eurovision in 2004 in almost as dramatic a way as possible: by selecting an expertly assembled repackaging of musical and cultural traditions, Željko Joksimović’s ‘Lane moje’ (‘My faun’) that came second, behind Ukraine’s Ruslana, and set the format for many of the Yugoslav region’s most successful Eurovision songs over the next decade, often written by Joksimović himself.

 

Joksimović’s performance, as Serbian anthropologists including Vesna Mikić and Marijana Mitrović have written, aimed to communicate a gentle, non-threatening image of Serbian masculinity a world away from the pictures of gangsters, paramilitaries and war-criminal leaders that had dominated Western perceptions of Serbia since the Yugoslav wars. Hitting all the buttons of the mode of ‘consenting self-exoticisation’ that had spread from the ‘world music’ circuit to Eurovision by 2004, Joksimović performed a knowing familiarity with the exoticising gaze of Western viewers that aimed to reposition himself and the nation as paradoxically modern, able to step away from tradition at the same time as playing with it.

Joksimović had got to Eurovision through a sixteen-song final in Belgrade, Evropesma, with eight songs from Serbia and eight from Montenegro. Four of the Serbian songs had themselves come through the 28-song Beovizija festival, held the night before – perhaps as a way to include popular pop-folk acts in the spectacle with minimal risk of one actually going to Eurovision (even pop-folk superstar Jelena Karleuša, in her only attempt to take part in Eurovision so far, had only scraped an undistinguished 13 points).

Montenegrin viewers who complained that the Serbian jurors and audience hadn’t voted for any of the Montenegrin songs in Evropesma 2004 – quite likely because Montenegrin television hadn’t booked any singers with an established audience outside Montenegro – had much more to celebrate a year later, when ‘Zauvijek moja’ (‘Forever mine’) by the new Montenegrin boyband No Name won Evropesma 2005.

‘Zauvijek moja’ was the Joksimović formula applied to Montenegro’s striking landscapes and old coastal towns, with lyrics doing the typical geographical move of many post/Yugoslav patriotic songs by knitting a diverse landscape of shorelines, rivers and mountains into one national whole – representing both countries, but quite clearly coded with its use of the ijekavian language variant (rather then Serbia’s ekavian) and its emphasis on hills, not to mention its video, as Montenegro.

 

Serbia–Montenegro at Eurovision could have carried on, formally or informally, in this post-Yugoslav version of an ‘ethnic key’ for some time (responsibility for Belgium’s Eurovision entries, after all, rotates between the French- and Flemish-speaking broadcasters every year).

Instead, Evropesma 2006, at the Sava Centar in Belgrade, proved to be the last joint selection in which the two republics would ever take part – and one of the last media events to involve both republics before Montenegrins voted for independence in a referendum which, it was declared on 2 March 2006, was going to take place only a day after the 2006 Eurovision final.

Evropesma 2006, as in 2005, combined the top-scoring songs from separate festivals in Serbia and Montenegro (Beovizija and Montevizija) into one final contest in Belgrade. Montenegrin grievances before Evropesma in 2005, when Serbian television had apparently promoted its own songs (including a Joksimović-written entry for Jelena Tomašević) more heavily than Montenegro’s, had been somewhat alleviated by No Name’s result, though the surprisingly few points Serbian jurors gave No Name and the no points at all that Montenegrin jurors gave Tomašević suggested that their relations at Evropesma were beginning to echo the increasing political separation of the republics.

If you could have tracked Yugoslavia’s disintegration in 1989–92 through the process of its Eurovision song selection breaking down, was the same about to happen for Serbia and Montenegro?

Radio-Television Serbia (RTS) arrived at Evropesma with a slate of big names and productions including Ana Nikolić – whose pan-Balkan ‘Romale romali’, rumour held later, was supposedly going to be re-recorded in English by none other than Kylie Minogue – Ivana Jordan’s etno-trance ‘Lazarica’, and Tijana Dapčević’s tightly-choreographed ‘Greh’, which stopped short in its fifteen-second instrumental break for the Macedonian-born, Belgrade-based singer (whose married surname came from her Montenegrin husband) to mime playing the cello live on stage.

Beovizija runners-up Flamingosi, joined by the etno-jazz singer Ljubiša Stojanović Louis, had only been formed the previous year but gathered more and more momentum before Evropesma as TV and radio replayed their comic take on twenties dance crazes, ‘Ludi letnji ples’ (‘Crazy summer dance’). The duo of TV presenter Ognjen Amidžić, born in Šabac, and actor Marinko Madžgalj, who had been born in Belgrade but grew up in Kotor, Montenegro, crammed the names of seventeen European capital cities into what the beginning of the song already announced as ‘the winning song of the Eurovision Song Contest 2006’.

Ironically, in light of the result, ‘Ludi letnji ples’ would have been more representative of the Serbia–Montenegro state union than almost any other entry from Serbia – with Amidžić singing in the ekavian language variant and Madžgalj singing in his own ijekavian, a small linguistic detail with big symbolic weight. (Montenegrin, like Croatian, uses the ijekavian variant as standard – and the two versions of the vowel mark language as ‘in Serbian’ or ‘not in Serbian’ in much post-Yugoslav language politics today.)

 

Radio-Television Montenegro (RTCG), for its part, brought the winner of Montevizija, Stevan Faddy’s ‘Cipele’ – an uptempo ballad in the style of Danijel Popović, the Montenegrin singer who had performed another of TV Zagreb’s classic Eurovision entries in the eighties – and the top half of the Montevizija scoreboard. Serbian viewers would have recognised few of the acts except No Name, seeking a second consecutive Eurovision performance.

Their song ‘Moja ljubavi’, with traditional zurla pipes mixed into the soundtrack, involved essentially the same drums and harmonies as ‘Zauvijek moja’, set itself between the sea and mountains, and addressed a ‘you’ who might as well have been a woman or the nation.

 

The confrontation between Evropesma’s live audience and the Montenegrin jurors – who were uniformly choosing not to vote either for Flamingosi or Ana Nikolić – did not just bring back to mind the gradual collapse of Jugovizija and Yugoslavia because of how it juxtaposed Serbian perceptions of Montenegrin obstructionism with the determination of Montenegro’s political leadership to obtain independence: it also took place in the presence of two Croatian and Bosnian pop stars with widespread appeal across the post-Yugoslav region who had been invited to perform in the Evropesma interval, each of whom brought their own associations with the cultural politics of wider Yugoslavia.

Hari Mata Hari, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s contestant in 2006, was set to win Bosnia’s best ever Eurovision result – third place – with his song ‘Lejla’, co-written by Joksimović in what was now the recognisable Eurovision genre of the ‘Balkan ethnic ballad’.

 

Bosnian TV’s invitation to Joksimović had been controversial among Bosniak nationalists who believed that inviting a Serbian composer to write the Bosnian entry was unfair to Bosnian songwriters and an insult to the memory of victims of war crimes committed by Serbs.

The cooperation between Hari Mata Hari and Joksimović, however, was characteristic of the tentative re-establishment of connections between Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian music industries that had started to take place at the end of the 1990s and was becoming, if not yet routine, at least a regular practice by 2006.

While Bosnian–Croatian collaborations were the least politically sensitive and most common, the most sensitive material and symbolic boundary in post-Yugoslav cultural politics during the mid-2000s was between Croatia and Serbia – and this was the line that Evropesma’s other special guest, the Croatian star Severina, had crossed in choosing to collaborate for her Eurovision entry with the Sarajevo-born, Belgrade-based composer Goran Bregović.

 

The elements of folk song, dance and costume from the Dalmatian hinterland that Severina had incorporated into her own example of Eurovision ethnopop, ‘Moja štikla’ (‘My stiletto’) – written for her by Croatia’s Eurovision representative in 2005, Boris Novković – had been the subject of a moral panic in Croatia for weeks before it had even won Croatia’s own marathon Eurovision selection, ‘Dora’. When Croatian national identity was supposed to depend on the nation being European and not Balkan – therefore not Serbian, Yugoslav, or ‘eastern’-sounding either – the Dinaric chants and gusle lines of ‘Moja štikla’ sounded far too much like what many Croats thought of as Serbian ‘turbofolk’ to represent Croatia in a competition with a hundred million Europeans looking on.

Insisting that the song’s component parts were authentically Croatian, as Severina and her team went through all sorts of strategies to do, just reminded people of the uncomfortable truth that traditions understood as ‘Balkan’ were inseparably part of Croatia’s own cultural identity. Traditionalists objected to Severina’s racy past – in 2004 she had been one of the first celebrities from any country to have a sex tape leaked on to the internet – and the song’s interjections of ‘s-s-s-sex’.

In short, Severina had tapped into almost every cultural anxiety in mid-2000s Croatia even before it was confirmed that the song had been composed by Goran Bregović – the Sarajevo rocker turned world music entrepreneur who the Croatian press could easily describe as Serbian himself after his choice to live between Paris and Belgrade during the Yugoslav wars, and who was famous for incorporating Serbian folk music and – often uncredited – Romani music into his songs.

Bregović’s old band, Bijelo dugme, had reunited in 2005 for three large concerts in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb, the first time corporate sponsors – especially in Croatia – had stood behind the nostalgia for Yugoslav popular culture that had sustained some remnant of a pan-Yugoslav cultural space despite the violence with which inter-ethnic coexistence in the region had been torn apart.

Evropesma 2006, with Yugoslavia’s last two republics pulling away from each other and the memory of a larger Yugoslavia haunting the Sava Centar in the shape of two Croatian and Bosnian stars with their own complex relationships to whatever ‘Yugoslavia’ might mean fifteen years after the Yugoslav wars began, would have unfolded in the shadow of the ‘former state’ even without the news that began to filter through to the Serbian public that Saturday afternoon: that Slobodan Milošević had been found dead in The Hague.

Milošević’s death in custody at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), cutting short his trial and the longest case the ICTY’s prosecutors had ever worked, came only a week after the first president of the Republic of Serb Krajina (RSK), Milan Babić, had also been found dead in the ICTY detention unit. Babić had been convicted of crimes against humanity for his part in the RSK’s occupation of Croatian territory and displacement of Croats from the area that Milošević had planned to annex into Serbia; serving his sentence in an undisclosed location, he had returned briefly to the ICTY to testify against Milan Martić, the second president of the RSK.

Babić had committed suicide, while Milošević suffered from a chronic heart condition that had already delayed his trial on several occasions; Serbs who found conspiracy theories persuasive still suspected the deaths had not been accidents. Even if only unconsciously, the script of ‘conspiracies against Serbs’ would have been in at least some audience members’ minds as the Evropesma voting ritual broke down.

 

The Sava Centar audience began booing Montenegro’s first juror, music producer Predrag Kalezić, as soon as he awarded his top two sets of points, 10 and 12, to the top two Montenegrin favourites ‘Cipele’ and ‘Moja ljubavi’ – the same pattern as the Montenegrin votes in Evropesma 2005. The second Montenegrin juror, journalist Milica Belević, was booed as soon as she walked on stage. In contrast, the crowd cheered RTS music editor Zoran Tašić as he walked on stage, even before he said ‘We’re going to try and be a bit more correct about our voting’ – to more applause – and gave 12 points to ‘Ludi letnji ples’. Spectators were already booing even the small number of points that Tašić and other Serbian jurors gave Montenegrin songs.

As the pattern continued, more Serbian jurors began their votes with comments on the Montenegrins’ behaviour, and a few audience members began to walk out – from the same complex where members of the Slovenian and Croatian branches of the League of Communists had walked out of the last all­-Yugoslav Party congress in January 1990 in protest at Milošević, triggering the announcement of multi-party elections in their two republics and then in every other over the course of that year.

The Serbian tabloid Svet would indeed write, on 16 March:

In the same Sava Centar hall where, exactly 16 years ago, the fall of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began at the 14th Congress of the League of Communists, what little remained of that country finally fell apart too! The irony of history: on the day of Milošević’s death, Severina with her Likans and Dalmatians received ovations, and the Montenegrins were chased off stage with bottles and whistles!

When No Name were declared the winners over Flamingosi by 64 points to 60, more than half the remaining audience started putting on their coats – while the presenters carried on trying to award No Name their winners’ trophy.

Instead, another Serbian juror, Milan Đurđević from the rock band Neverne bebe, came on stage to tell the audience ‘in the name of the people who did their job honestly – those are the people from the Serbian jury […] that we came here honestly and honourably, and […] didn’t vote using any kind of “key”,’ calling on the producers to reopen the result.

With the audience milling around in the aisles, No Name finally came on stage – only for the camera to cut away and No Name to walk back off after, it would turn out, bottles had been thrown at the band.

‘This is Wonderland!’ (‘Ovo je zemlja čuda!’) said one of the presenters, shaking his head, as Flamingosi came out instead to perform what turned into – itself the kind of hedonism–resignation–confusion one often found in post-Yugoslav Serbian film – an impromptu conga around the Sava Centar as the credits rolled.

During the next week, Serbian media kept up pressure on RTS and UJRT to re-run the final, declare Flamingosi the winners, or do anything other than send No Name to Eurovision, while RTCG contacted the European Broadcasting Union (the organisers of Eurovision) directly to ask them to recognise No Name.

This international recognition crisis, unlike Slovenia’s and Croatia’s, only lasted a few days: when RTS and RTCG failed to come to an agreement as the EBU had insisted they do, Serbia–Montenegro withdrew from Eurovision 2006 on 20 March, freeing up the automatic spot in that year’s final that Serbia–Montenegro would have had on the basis of No Name’s top-ten finish at Eurovision 2005.

By one more of the many quirks in the Evropesma story, the 11th place that Boris Novković had won for Croatia when he took part in 2005 meant that Serbia–Montenegro’s irreconcilable entry put Severina and ‘Moja štikla’ – the most controversially ‘Balkan’ song in Croatia’s Eurovision history – straight into the 2006 final.

Or as another Serbian tabloid, Blic, wrote on 20 March: ‘Only Severina is representing us in Athens.’

Hari Mata Hari, rather than Severina, would turn out the more successful bearer of the shifting Serbian/Yugoslav domestic ‘we’: ‘Lejla’ came third and cemented Joksimović’s reputation as a Eurovision entrepreneur, while ‘Moja štikla’ came a relatively disappointing twelfth, its weeks of controversy ensuring that no Croatian entry since has ever taken a similar cultural risk. (The Croatian entrant in 2017, Jacques Houdek, may risk ridicule for a song that requires him to sing in both pop and opera voices – but at least the cultural origins of the music he is mocked for will be unambiguously seen as bourgeois and European.)

Flamingosi recorded a second version of ‘Ludi letnji ples’ for domestic – as in Serbian and Montenegrin – consumption, with the names of Serbian and Montenegrin towns replacing European capitals, and the introduction changed to ‘Good evening, everybody, you’re listening to almost the winning song of the Eurovision Song Contest 2006.’

 

Serbia itself would return to Eurovision in the most successful way possible in 2007, when Marija Šerifović’s ‘Molitva’ won the contest, enabled Belgrade to host Eurovision the following year, and put a symbolic value of the so-called ‘second Serbia’ – tolerance for LGBT rights – in front of more than a hundred million Eurovision viewers.

Montenegro would fail to qualify through the Eurovision semi-finals in 2007–9, skip 2010–11, return with a pair of what most Eurovision viewers thought of as novelty songs in 2012–13 (2012’s being a satire of the Eurozone financial crisis by none other than the perpetually choleric Rambo Amadeus) and hit top-ten form in 2014–15 with songs by the calibre of Montenegrin star that Evropesma viewers in 2004–6 might have expected to see in the first place, Sergej Ćetković and Knez. Montenegro’s representative in 2017, Slavko Kalezić, offers one of the most unambiguous depictions of male/male sexual desire even for Eurovision, with an aesthetic straight from the pop-folk videos of Dejan Milićević.

 

What had happened, behind the scenes, to bring the fiasco of Evropesma 2006 about? The politics of nation-building through state media in Đukanović’s Montenegro strongly suggest that RTCG intended to ensure a Montenegrin entry would win Evropesma. No Name’s participation was widely rumoured to have been supported by Milo Đukanović’s brother Aco, while the Montenegrin jury president at Evropesma in 2006, Bojan Bajramović, would later tell Monitor’s Željko Milović that:

All the Yugoslav republics have used Eurovision to promote the new states, and that’s completely legitimate. Of course it’s legitimate to call your country ‘my love’, by association. And it was all according to the rules, so whoever thought those rules up – that’s their business. We had the right to give all the Montenegrins high points, and the favourites from Serbia nothing. That was, therefore a legitimate politicisation of Eurovision, because we didn’t break even a single rule. Let’s not hide it, that night in the Sava Centar we started the referendum campaign, and many of us weren’t even conscious of that.

Indeed, Bajramović even suggested that the RTCG delegation would have displayed a Montenegrin flag during the live broadcast of the Eurovision final if No Name had won – an unproblematic gesture today, with Montenegro and RTCG fully recognised by the UN and EBU, but at the time could well have been viewed by the EBU as an unacceptably political display.

Ironically, the collapse of Evropesma prevented the entry from Serbia that had done most to accommodate Montenegro from going to Eurovision – but that too might not have been a bad thing for an independence campaign.

Did the breakdown of Evropesma 2006 and the resultant anti-Montenegrin invective in Serbia’s press really make Montenegrins more likely to conclude that Montenegro could not function in the same state as Serbia and vote for independence? It’s unlikely – even though the referendum took place the day after the Eurovision final.

Montenegro’s political and institutional drive towards independence was already well advanced by the time RTCG began selecting Montenegrin finalists for the national selection, let alone Evropesma itself. Moreover, only 55.5% of voters opted for independence, not very much higher than the 55% threshold on which the European Union had insisted before it would recognise the results: Evropesma did not harden the public mood in Montenegro in the way that acts of violence such as the Plitvice Lakes confrontation at Easter 1991 and, above all, the Borovo Selo massacre in May hardened the mood among wavering Croatians that independence was the only option for preserving Croatian liberties.

What the Evropesma events expose instead is something much more technical, but still significant for the cultural politics of inter-regional and international events: the capacity for a small number of jurors in a Eurovision-like competition to magnify a politicised stance into an international incident. Despite what moves towards jury transparency the EBU has tried to make, half the points available to any competitor at Eurovision – in a competition where the privilege of hosting an event worth millions to national and international subcontractors is at stake – depend on the choices of five jurors per country in a room, who can reach or be persuaded to reach a politicised consensus much more easily than hundreds of thousands of people in the viewing public.

The outcome of an independence referendum might not be on the line – and wasn’t at Evropesma 2006 – but the saga still shows on how few people these symbolic competitions can depend.

Diversity, family, and LGBT rights: watching Eurovision across borders

This post originally appeared at ESC Insight on 3 May.

The working seminary building, with bishops’ portraits hanging in the corridors and a six-foot crucifix nailed to the back wall of the conference room, that I visited in April to take part in Maynooth University’s conference on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest in a Changing World: Culture, Geography and Politics’ is one of the less likely venues for giving a talk on the Song Contest – especially one about how the Contest got tied into the international politics of LGBT rights – and yet somehow felt very much in the Eurovision spirit.

To understand what might be so ‘Eurovision’ about using a room surrounded by the iconography of a traditionally homophobic, biphobic and transphobic institution to talk about European LGBT activism, Dana International’s impact on trans history, and the symbolic role Conchita Wurst took on in 2014 for people who foresaw a renewed cultural ‘Cold War’ between Europe and Russia involves understanding that Eurovision has always meant, for many of its LGBT fans, a way to rewrite heterosexual community and ritual into something special to them.

To many of the LGBT fans, especially gay men, who have historically been so heavily involved in Eurovision fandom, straight society’s annual rituals of celebration and family reunion have at best assimilated them and at worst been actively oppressive.

The World Cup and the Olympics both assemble fans celebrating national success and (above all at the World Cup) national masculinity; Christmas, the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote, is when all the social institutions where homophobia resides ‘are speaking with one voice’ to remind queer people that the idealised family excludes them. Even before Eurovision became an LGBT celebration on stage, with historic performances in 1997–8 by Páll Oskar and Dana International, Eurovision was already giving thousands of queer people an annual focal point for getting together with community and family.

 

Or as one ‘out-of-office’ graphic that’s gone around Facebook in Eurovision week over the last few years, asking forgiveness if fans are taking a long time to keep up with email, frames itself in the language of a religious festival: ‘This is because we are celebrating Eurovision.’

For someone who researches popular culture, nationalism and conflict since the end of the Cold War, the Eurovision Song Contest represents the one moment in the year when the general public in the UK or Ireland is likely to be interested in something as obscure as controversies over what narrative of national cultural identity should be the basis for Croatian popular music – the subject, more or less, of my first book, which I wouldn’t have written if wanting to find out more about Croatia’s 1990s Eurovision entries hadn’t been the very first step towards what became a PhD project on the politics of popular music in Croatia after its separation from Yugoslavia.

(The controversies over Severina’s Eurovision entry in 2006 – in many ways the ‘We Are Slavic’ of its decade – ended up giving me a case study I hadn’t even expected when I’d started the PhD in 2005. A spin-off paper I wrote on the Ruslana/Željko Joksimović mode of ethnopop at Eurovision, which I’d initially just planned as background for explaining Severina’s ‘Moja štikla’, has consistently been my most cited article since it came out in 2008, just as networks were starting to form around what’s now become an academic subfield of Eurovision research.)

 

In fact, talking about the politics of Eurovision from a perspective that starts with the cultural politics of the individual countries that participate is an opportunity to show there are more interesting cultural dynamics than just ‘political voting’ behind why East European countries seem to vote for each other at Eurovision all the time – and maybe to get people to rethink how they mentally divide the continent into ‘east’ and ‘west’.

Today, one of the big ‘symbolic boundaries’ in that imaginary east/west division involves LGBT rights and state homophobia/biphobia/transphobia. This was already emerging in the late 1990s, but really entered public ‘common sense’ in the twenty-first century as LGBT movements won important legislative struggles for LGB and sometimes even trans equality – leading to widespread stereotypes in western European countries that ‘Eastern Europe’ is somewhere ‘more homophobic’ than the West. (The same stereotypes are often, just as simplistically, applied to ‘Africa’ or ‘Islam’.)

Traffic-light maps of LGB rights in different European countries, like the ILGA Rainbow Europe Map, tend to come out looking green in the west and red in the east, giving an instant visual impression of which countries are supposedly further ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’. (The Trans Rights Europe Map, interestingly, is rather less spatially coherent.)

These indexes simplify a lot of legal and social complexities into a yes-or-no checklist of rights, and create an illusion of western European progressiveness and eastern European backwardness that east European queer scholars have taken the lead in pushing back against. Contemporary homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is not just international but transnational, with US pastors inspiring persecution of LGBT people in the Caribbean and Uganda, and French and Polish groups campaigning against LGBT equality exchanging slogans and symbols with each other. Nevertheless, opponents of LGBT equality have been more successful in some countries than others in persuading governments to follow their ideas and rhetoric – notably in Russia, where the federal parliament passed the so-called ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in June 2013.

Eurovision is cherished by many fans as a site of gay, trans and queer celebration and even citizenship – a rare occasion, Peter Rehberg wrote in 2007 shortly before Marija Šerifović’s heavily queer-coded ‘Molitva’ won that year’s contest, for queer people to be able to feel that the nation being celebrated includes them. At the same time, it’s broadcast across (and beyond) a continent where public broadcasters in different countries will have very different ideological positions, and even be in very different legal positions, towards representing sexual diversity and gender non-conformity on screen.

Vitaly Milonov, prime mover of the ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in Russia, has also argued for several years that Russian television should not broadcast Eurovision – precisely so that Russian families would not have to watch the ‘Europe-wide gay parade’ and ‘Sodom show’.

What I wanted to talk about at Maynooth was the problem of ‘transnational spectatorship’, or, taken out of academic language, the fact that audiences – and broadcasters – in different countries watch Eurovision from the perspective of some very distinct national cultural politics, and yet the same contest has to satisfy them all.

Something which is the stuff of everyday Saturday-night entertainment in one country, like the kiss between two men when the Swedish comedian Petra Mede officiated a same-gender ‘wedding’ during her interval act in 2013 (marking gay-friendliness as a Swedish national value), or a direct expression of activism in another, like the kiss between two women with which Krista Siegfrids attached her performance of ‘Marry Me’ that same year to the campaign for an equal marriage referendum in Finland, could now be legally questionable under laws like those currently in place in Russia.

 

Much as Eurovision organisers like to insist that the contest is a non-political event, the social and political struggles in every European country over giving LGB and trans people access to the same rights that their straight and cisgender citizens take for granted show that an event that has become so symbolically associated with LGBT belonging in Europe is not actually outside politics at all.

The language of ‘diversity’ and ‘family’ with which the European Broadcasting Union describes Eurovision is unthreatening and non-specific. During 2016’s ‘flags controversy’, where Eurovision producers’ instructions to security staff at the venue initially stated rainbow (and EU) flags would only be allowed ‘providing they will […] not be used as a tool to intentionally make a political statement during the show’, the EBU eventually said that the rainbow flag ‘technically represents diversity which is a core symbol of the EBU’ (and didn’t give other flags in the Pride family, like the trans flag, the same recognition as the rainbow flag).

This is far from the understanding of the Pride flag as a symbol of political struggle that many activists today would still insist on – but perhaps a necessary fiction, from an organisers’ point of view, to avoid a larger confrontation with broadcasters who might object more strongly to rainbow flags on screen if the EBU itself politicised them.

The language of a ‘family’ show, meanwhile, has resonances to many queer viewers that straight people may not even appreciate – because we know how often describing television as ‘family viewing’ has led to queer lives being erased from what children are able to see. ‘Family’ as a broadcasting standard can alarm queer viewers even while it sounds completely innocuous to most straight and cisgender people – who could disagree with something as everyday and happy as the family is supposed to be?

 

And yet the ideology of family, in homophobic hands or even hands that are just trying to balance homophobia and demands for LGBT rights in a false equivalence, seeps easily into withholding queer representation from children on the grounds that they should be allowed to grow up ‘naturally’ and that LGBT experiences are in and of themselves an ‘adult’ theme. The false assumption that young people are only led towards ‘alternative’ sexualities because media have exposed them to same-gender affection and transgressions of gender norms is ultimately what lies behind legislation that criminalises promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s, the phrasing of the legislation in Russia.

Yet this is not to suggest that conceiving of Eurovision as ‘family entertainment’ necessarily closes down space for it to be a queer celebration, even though the language of family does contain within itself a hinge where that could occur. Eurovision is, and has always been, a show watched by families: so many viewers’ first memories of Eurovision come from watching it as children, on such an out-of-the-ordinary night you were allowed to stay up past your bedtime, hearing languages you’d never heard before.

Most people who remember how better queer representation in media when they were young could have made it more pleasant to grow up in their own families want there to be ‘family entertainment’ – but family entertainment that affirms all kinds of queer identities and experiences, the ones that could have shown us what we were earlier and the ones that could have shown us what a diversity of possibilities for experiencing sexuality and gender – for forming family – was actually around us.

If Eurovision, with its long LGBT history, has the potential to bridge queerness and national belonging, can Eurovision also bridge queerness and family?