Things people on the internet have said to me for explaining why the staging of the Dutch Eurovision song looked racist

Before anything else to do with the international politics of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest was overtaken by the likelihood that Eurovision 2019 will be held in Israel (with reverberations that will link the call for a cultural boycott of Israeli state-funded arts to the spectacle of Eurovision for the first time), the most unexpected – and unnecessary – collision between Eurovision and the history of colonialism came when some fans noticed during the first live rehearsals that the staging of the Dutch entry looked… at best, uncomfortable. And, at worst, downright racist.

Some of my most recent research is about stereotypes and fantasies of race, blackness and Africa in European popular music – the first chapter of my new book Race and the Yugoslav Region traces them through examples from Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav pop, and refers to the work of Gloria Wekker, a black feminist in the Netherlands who uses evidence from historical media alongside her own observations of racism in Dutch society to debunk myths of white Dutch ‘innocence’ about race.

When the Dutch song, Waylon’s ‘Outlaw in ‘Em’, unexpectedly qualified from the second semi-final on the Thursday night, I spent two hours writing a Twitter thread on why viewers had been finding the performance racist, to help explain why some of them had felt discomfort without necessarily knowing why, and so that users who wanted to call attention to how it looked on their own feeds didn’t have to make the argument from scratch.

(Parts, at least, of Eurovision’s many overlapping digital fandoms are no stranger to conversations about cultural appropriation on the Eurovision stage – including the Native American war bonnet worn by the Dutch representative Joan Franka in 2012, the East Asian visuals problematically surrounding this year’s winning song, and the dancing gorilla that joined Italian favourite Francesco Gabbani on stage in 2017, apparently as an allusion to ‘the naked ape’. Early reactions in the same circles to how the four black men around Waylon, a white Dutch country singer, had been asked to dance were suggesting its impression was a different order of unacceptable altogether.)

Dozens of people since then have tweeted me to explain why I was wrong.

  • It isn’t automatically racist to have one white guy and four black guys on stage. (It isn’t, which is why, say, Swedish boy-band Panetoz, who have one white band-member and four black, haven’t made fans who notice racial representation on stage feel uncomfortable like this. But then their four black guys aren’t always arranged around their one white guy.)
  • It’s demeaning to the dancers, who are showing off their talent. (Has anybody asked them? How freely do they feel they can speak about racism on Dutch TV, if they want producers to book them again?)
  • Waylon thinks it suits the song, and the dancers think so too.
  • The producers chose the most talented dancers. They didn’t think about race.
  • I’m insulting Waylon.
  • I don’t know what the intentions behind the act were, so I can’t comment. (I don’t know. I do know how it was looking to viewers who remarked on it, which kind of matters in a competition where 50% of the points come from an international public vote.)
  • I don’t even know Waylon. (This is true.)
  • Waylon is a very kind man to his fans. (That doesn’t prevent someone staging a racist show.)
  • They don’t get angry easily, but it makes them angry when they read this nonsense. (It made me angry to be staying up two extra hours before I ought to catch an early morning train because nobody on the Dutch production team realised this looked racist. It would have made me angrier if I’d been a black viewer getting the message that Eurovision didn’t care whether the party includes me or not.)
  • I’m the one who’s creating the problem, by talking about it. (I feel like I know that one.)
  • Waylon is half-Indonesian, so this isn’t a white guy with black dancers like I said. (I didn’t know anything about his family background when I wrote the thread, describing the impression Waylon’s placement on stage makes as a white man. But in a contest where family heritage is often part of the narratives that contestants give to try and connect with the public, that part of Waylon’s background hadn’t reached me (we heard much more about his love of country music and the US country singers like Johnny Cash who had inspired him). Most viewers who didn’t already know him well as a singer would also be perceiving him as a white man. And we can still say, via the history of images of race, that a performance where he seems to be in control over four black men identifies him with images of whiteness. Also, anti-black racism expressed by other people of colour is a thing.)
  • Waylon is half-Indonesian, therefore he can’t be racist. (The same; also, anti-black racism expressed by other people of colour is a thing.)
  • I’m taking the song out of context: it’s about standing up for yourself (‘When they knock you to the ground, you ain’t gonna let nobody keep you down’). (The viewer hasn’t heard that when they see a bare-chested black man seem to lash out at the camera, the very moment they hear ‘knock you to the ground’.)
  • I obviously didn’t listen to the lyrics. (Obviously.)
  • The dancers are krumping because young people on the krumping scene use those moves to transform violence into dance.
  • If you don’t like it, don’t vote for it. (I didn’t.)
  • It’s four handsome black guys, spicing up a dull performance. (Do you really want to bring up the racial politics of spice now? Because we can if you want.)
  • It’s a shame I’m bringing up their skin colour, not how well they can dance.
  • Americans and Europeans aren’t the ones enslaving male African refugees in Libya. (Somehow, this is meant to have something to do with Europeans designing a dance routine that calls to mind racist stereotypes of black men.)
  • Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet don’t come at Christmas like I said, they come on the 5th of December. (OK, I had said ‘every Christmas’ there are protests in the Netherlands over the blackface of Zwarte Piet. The date is the least important thing in that sentence, I’d suggest.)
  • Zwarte Piet gets his black face from coming down the chimney to deliver presents, not because he’s meant to represent black people. (Here we go.)
  • The people calling Waylon a racist are the ones seeing colour.
  • I’m seeing racist things where there aren’t any.
  • Waylon wanted the best krump dancers, and they happened to be black.
  • If Waylon was black and the dancers were white, would I still be saying he was a racist?
  • Waylon wanted to be multicultural.
  • I shouldn’t be commenting because the UK has only ever sent white acts. (Not true, though the last UK featured act at Eurovision with a black band-member was in 2011 and its last non-white soloist was 2009.)
  • Finding racism in every little thing is more racist than that.
  • It’s a shame that I’m a lecturer.
  • I ought to get therapy.
  • It’s a shame that I’m a lecturer and not responding to the people who have calmly taken their time to inform me of all of the above.
  • A lot of quote-tweets in Dutch, which might have made their authors feel better, but didn’t make whatever they wanted to call me have much effect on me because I can’t read them. (That doesn’t mean I ought to get a free pass to make comments about the cultures of countries where I don’t speak the languages. Far from it – I need to be even more sure that I’m right before I speak, not less. But I was rather grateful that I couldn’t read them.)

I was cheered by this picture of a talking gammon.

 

I was also cheered by the number of tweets I got from people who did find the performance uncomfortable and hadn’t been sure why, or who had enjoyed the song but changed their mind after reading more about the context.

Especially those second people, who were open to seeing something they liked from a more critical perspective even in something they love as much as Eurovision, where fans identify so much with their favourite songs! YOU ROCK. Loreen, or your Eurovision patron of choice, would be proud.

loreengetting12points.gif

Things people on the internet have not said to me for explaining why the staging of the Dutch Eurovision entry look racist:

  • [Racial slur.]
  • Go back to your own country.
  • [Another racial slur.]
  • Any words the BBC wouldn’t be allowed to broadcast before 9 pm.
  • [Racial slur.]
  • [The same racial slur again.]
  • [Racial slur mixed with homophobic remark.]
  • Any of the bile that historians like Priyamvada Gopal get through the post.
  • Any of the death threats that black academics who speak out about race have been getting.

This is because I am not a woman of colour speaking up about the racism that blights her life.

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Don’t forget, and face the shadow: what has Eurovision got to do with remembering the dead?

Late last year, some colleagues who were organising an international conference on memorialising the dead at my university asked me if I could contribute a talk about some of my research. Being in between two projects, I didn’t know what to offer them, until: Eurovision, I thought. I can talk about Eurovision.

Pointing the telescopes of queer politics, international relations or the history of nationalism at Eurovision has helped me explain things like why people get so bothered about ‘bloc voting’, what makes Eurovision political even though the rules say it isn’t, how Eurovision’s idea of ‘Europe’ tried to accommodate the financial crisis, how Eurovision and LGBTQ rights got entwined with each other, how they got even more linked together after Conchita Wurst won, how countries have used Eurovision to portray themselves as multicultural nations, how queerness and nationhood can work together at Eurovision in ways it might be harder for them to do elsewhere, and, most recently, the shadows of European colonialism that hang over celebrating ‘Europe’ in an annual song contest. Surely there must be something to say about remembering the dead?

The past couple of Eurovisions had included a French song commemorating the dead of the World Wars, Armenia’s entry marking the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, and the winning Ukrainian song in 2016 which narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 with a heavily implied message about Russia’s invasion of Crimea. That would be more than enough. I wrote them up an abstract of the talk.

Then a song remembering the victims of urban terrorism won the Italian final, and France chose an entry retelling the rescue of a newborn refugee girl from the Mediterranean, where thousands of other refugees from Africa and the Middle East have met their preventable deaths.

What does Eurovision have to do with remembering the dead? In 2018, possibly, more than ever.

‘Performing’ national and European identity

Eurovision is a tradition, celebration, and a party; it’s also an occasion with a particular structure, which influences what viewers expect to see and how they make sense of the performances they watch. Each three-minute song, chosen by a national broadcaster and created by a team of musicians, songwriters and designers who might or might not come from the country they’re representing (that’s up to each broadcaster to decide), symbolically represents the whole of its nation when it’s offered up for a Eurovision audience, or put in front of what we could call a ‘Eurovision gaze’.

Each country’s votes, too, come through on screen as one national opinion: in fact, Eurovision compresses institutions and people into the image of ‘the nation’ voting, and ‘the nation’ taking action. Eurovision entries aren’t just competing on behalf of the nation, like in an Olympics or a World Cup, they’re literally ‘performing’ national identity (a phrase that Judith Butler first used almost thirty years ago to describe the everyday signals everybody in society sends about their gender).

(In fact, we could say athletes in an Olympics or players in a World Cup are performing national identity as well, forming or playing against spectators’ expectations of what a Russian or Jamaican runner will be like, or how ‘the Germans’ and ‘the Brazilians’ each play football…)

Eurovision entries perform national identity in terms of showing what national musical cultures are like, choosing how much national musical tradition or how much accomplishment in globally popular styles of music to display, choosing how to show off a national language or a singer’s fluency in global English, and even selecting what to represent as national tradition (more than one national Eurovision selection has ended up as a proxy face-off between two hotly-contested interpretations of what national cultural identity should be).

Eurovision entries quite literally ‘perform’ the nation – and that’s part of the spectacle viewers expect.

In the same way, producers, journalists and viewers all project transnational political narratives on to Eurovision too. In the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, Eurovision seemed to symbolise the course of post-Cold-War European enlargement: broadcasters from the first ex-Warsaw-Pact countries started competing for the first time in 1993, as did three successor states of Yugoslavia, the only state socialist country that had taken part in Eurovision (in fact, keen to show how Soviet it wasn’t, Yugoslavia had been competing ever since 1961).

In 2004, the year of the EU’s first and largest expansion into ‘eastern Europe’ (plus Cyprus and Malta), Eurovision went through its own enlargement by adding a semi-final, meaning every broadcaster (symbolically, every country) that wanted to participate could send a song to Eurovision every year. Wins for Estonia, Latvia and Turkey in 2001-3 had added Tallinn, Riga and Istanbul to Eurovision’s map of host cities: Ruslana’s victory for Ukraine in 2004 kept up the cycle, with the small unanticipated matter of an Orange Revolution before Kyiv hosted in 2005.

Even though Eurovision isn’t organised by the EU or any other European political institution (the EBU is independent), viewers make sense of it through the lens of political developments – the reason ‘Europe-Russia’ relations get an added bite at Eurovision, where the contest’s strong LGBTQ connections run up against the ideology of state homophobia, biphobia and transphobia that Putin has chosen to stand for (and whose fiercest advocates in Russia don’t even want Eurovision broadcast there).

Eurovision organisers still insist – it’s written into the rules – that Eurovision is not a political event, and entries with political messages are not allowed. But what counts as ‘political’ at Eurovision?

It’s simple to say entries can’t promote political leaders or parties, though one or two have tried (including the disqualified Georgian entry from 2009 after the Russian-Georgian war, ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’). Beyond that, we hit one of the biggest questions in cultural politics: what is political and what isn’t, and who has or claims the power to decide?

Is it political, for instance, to sing about protecting the environment or stopping nuclear war, which have both been uncontroversial themes for Eurovision songs, yet are also subjects of political protest? Is it political to bring a rainbow flag? Is it political to sing about a particular war in a nation’s history, on a broadcast that will also go out to nations it fought against? And we can even ask, if we’re thinking about commemoration: is it political to remember the dead?

Thinking that through starts to reveal what kinds of memorialisation get framed as political in European memory cultures and what don’t, and what kinds of memorialisation potentially can’t be memorialised in a space like Eurovision at all.

Coming home: personal tributes at Eurovision

A lot more remembering the dead goes on at Eurovision than people who don’t watch Eurovision would probably think. Indeed, as the contest’s own history has lengthened, one form of memorialisation has been paying tribute to famous Eurovision performers who have died: it’ll be surprising if the hosts of the grand final don’t commemorate the Swiss singer Lys Assia, who won the first Eurovision in 1956 and died this year aged 94. (At one point this winter, fans were fearing the contest could even be overshadowed by the loss of last year’s seriously ill winner, Salvador Sobral, who’s now recovering from a successful heart transplant.)

Another form is when contestants use Eurovision for their own personal commemorations, remembering a family member or loved one who has died in a way that a hundred million viewers will see. (Germany’s entry this year, Michael Schulte’s ‘You Let Me Walk Alone’, is inspired by Schulte’s complex feelings about his father’s death.) of his father.

Intimate backstories like these (if viewers know them) give a performance authenticity, arguably popular music stardom’s most valuable currency, and all the more so in a setting as competitive as Eurovision – even though, since the early 2000s, talent-show producers have turned personal grief into emotive plotlines for contestants so often that the dead or dying family member has also become a reality TV cliché.

In 2011, even the story of how Iceland’s song got to Eurovision was an act of memorialisation: the singer Sjonni Brink, about to compete in the national final Söngvakeppnin with his song ‘Coming Home’, died of a stroke in January, when the Söngvakeppnin heats were already under way. Six of his musician friends undertook to perform for him instead, and won.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apc_qJf3nws

Even as Brink had written it, ‘Coming Home’ was about a man who couldn’t wait to get home and see his lover to tell them all the things he wants to say, because no-one knows when their time’s going to run out; after his death, they became even more poignant, crying out to be interpreted as a tribute to the band’s close friend who had passed away.

But Eurovision has also been a space for collective memorialisation – and that’s where the politics really come in.

Don’t deny: facing the shadow of genocide and the World Wars

Commemorating the dead in a way that’s significant to a collective community is often about national commemorations, but could also be the imagined European and transnational public – or even the international queer public, remembering those they’ve collectively lost to HIV and AIDS. (Austria’s entry in 2007 obliquely commemorated the AIDS crisis by looking to the future as the official song of that year’s Vienna Life Ball.)

Collective remembering, linked to political communities, is where we’d expect more controversy over the politics of commemoration, and even whether a theme is appropriate for Eurovision at all – as two contrasting examples from 2015 show.

2015, when Eurovision was held in Vienna, marked the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and was continuing to witness the string of First World War centenary commemorations that would stretch all the way from 2014 to 2018 – or longer in nations where conflict didn’t come to a clean end with the Armistice.

An extensive Armenian public diplomacy initiative during 2015, involving celebrities of Armenian descent like Kim Kardashian, was campaigning for international public awareness of the genocide and for foreign governments to pass declarations recognising it as genocide, in a context where the Turkish state still operates a policy of denial. Armenia’s Eurovision entry commemorated it as well.

Genealogy, the group chosen to sing the song, united five singers from the Armenian diaspora in different continents with a sixth (Inga Arshakyan, one-half of the Armenian entry in 2010) who still lived in Armenia – even the group’s composition was a message of persistence and survival, drawing attention to why the Armenian people had been scattered around the world.

Originally, Genealogy’s song was called ‘Don’t Deny’. Their video, released in March, evoked the beginning of the 20th century and the theme of family in the performers’ outfits, its aesthetics of antique photography, and the pins with pictures of their grandparents that the singers wore. The song’s title, the group’s name, the lyrics’ themes, the video’s image, and the history behind them all combined to frame the song as commemorating the Armenian Genocide: would this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision? even though there’s no political content in the song’s words themselves. The ethnonational reading is almost unavoidable and has been very knowingly created. Did this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision?

Four days after the video appeared online, the songwriters announced a title change to ‘Face The Shadow’ (another image from the lyrics), though the chorus continued to begin ‘Don’t deny.’

This was Eurovision’s most controversial collective commemoration in the ‘modern’ era, at least at the time – but, deep into what the historian Catriona Pennell has called the ‘centenary moment’, it was far from the only one.

Hundreds if not thousands of local, national and international public memory projects in 2014-18 have aimed at commemorating and reinterpreting what the public remember about that conflict and its unprecedented scale of battlefield death, which made wartime bereavement a mass, shared, national experience: WW1 commemoration has found its way to Eurovision too.

In 2014, for instance, Malta’s Firelight had used the video for their song (also called ‘Coming Home’), to remind viewers across Europe that Maltese soldiers and prisoners of war had been involved in WW1, and their Eurovision performance had projected a floor of red poppies across the digital stage.

France’s entry in 2015 was Lisa Angell’s ‘N’oubliez pas’ – or ‘Don’t forget’, alongside Genealogy’s ‘Don’t deny’. ‘N’oubliez pas’ commemorated war and its effects on the human landscape, of France and/or Europe. Angell sings in the voice of a woman remembering her village that has been left in ashes, ‘swept away by history … erased from maps and memories, when they arrived, hidden behind their weapons’ (‘balayé par l’histoire … effacée des cartes et des mémoires, quand ils sont arrives, cachés derrière leurs armes’).

This is a village wiped off the map by mass warfare, in a year when centenary commemorations would have made the Great War come to mind for many viewers as the answer to what happened there and when. In fact, the song’s video had drawn its commemoration towards the Second World War with flashes of the American Cemetery in Normandy, blending the World Wars into one historical experience; the stage performance let it be read much more straightforwardly as WW1.

The song’s producers used the vast LED screen behind Angell to project the backdrop of an entire burned-out village behind her, then to show the village’s houses rebuilding themselves, and finally to surround her with an entire digital regiment of ghostly military drummers – circumventing Eurovision’s rule against having no more than six performers on stage.

Why was this highly symbolic, highly emotive, highly historicised presentation, with essentially the same narrative trajectory as ‘Face The Shadow’, not swept up in the same arguments about whether it was too political? Not because of its own content, I’d suggest, but because of the wider contexts around them: the memory of the Armenian Genocide is contested in international relations, but the process of Western European integration after WW2 – where nations seemed to publicly put WW1 behind them as a war that had been equally devastating on both sides – has produced an international political consensus about the meanings of the Western Front.

But what would happen if the themes and images of ‘N’oubliez pas’ were applied to a contemporary conflict, as they could equally have been? Eurovision would find out a year later, when Ukraine (which hadn’t participated in 2015, and picked its 2014 song before the Russian invasion of Crimea) made its first song selection since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began.

‘1944’ by Jamala, whose own heritage is Crimean Tatar, went on to win Eurovision 2016. The very title would have suggested, to listeners with even the slightest knowledge of  WW2 on the Eastern Front, that it would draw parallels between Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 and Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine in 2014. Its first lines described strangers who ‘come to your house, they kill you all and say “We’re not guilty”’, in a context where it was important for Ukrainian public diplomacy to persuade foreign publics and governments that Russia was the aggressor in Crimea.

The first verse could just as easily have been about – and therefore was effectively about – Russian relativism and obfuscation over the violence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and the lengths the Russian state had gone to not to seem responsible.

Making it known in interviews that her own grandparents had been among Stalin’s Tatar deportees until Gorbachev allowed the Tatars back to Crimea, and that they had only been able to speak on Skype sinxe 2014, Jamala brought her own embodied authenticity to the performance – not just as a speaker of Tatar (the language of the chorus) but a descendant of victims of forced deportation, which Tatars have campaigned to have recognised as genocide themselves.

Just as Genealogy had appealed for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, ‘1944’ allusively appealed to the audience to share its emotional narrative about Tatars’ and Ukrainians’ suffering in the past and present; it didn’t describe anything Lisa Angell hadn’t, except the killers who then say ‘We’re not guilty’. Musically, its wailing breaks gave its singer much more opportunity to express what viewers would hear as raw emotion – but the EBU would have been in a very difficult position if it had banned ‘1944’, given the precedents from the previous year.

Collective memorialisations like Genealogy’s, Angell’s or Jamala’s were particularly visible in 2014-16, but aren’t a new phenomenon at Eurovision: in 1976, Greece famously dedicated its entry ‘Panagia mou, Panagia mou‘ (‘Virgin Mary, Virgin Mary’) to commemorating Greek victims of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and Croatian and Bosnian TV both used their country’s first Eurovision entries as sovereign states in 1993 to draw viewers’ attention to the ongoing war in Croatia and the siege of Sarajevo.

The interactive experience of watching today’s Eurovisions and commenting on them on social media at the same time might make it easier for this form of Eurovision diplomacy to spread its messages – but Eurovision as a contest was giving collective memorialisation a platform well before 2014. Nevertheless, this is a moment where many Eurovision delegations have been realising that Eurovision can be a platform for public diplomacy through memorialisation of the dead – or at least some dead.

Mercy, mercy: whose lives and deaths can Eurovision remember?

Whose deaths are chosen to be memorialised – and by whom – are themselves political questions, which come down ultimately to whose lives society considers worth grieving or not… and these go on in the shadow of histories of racism, which are ultimately about who is and isn’t going to be considered human. Isn’t this kind of political theory a long way from anything to do with Eurovision?

Especially when two of this year’s finalist songs are acts of memorialisation concerning current political issues in Europe which are entangled with struggles over multiculturalism, it might be closer than it looks.

The French song ‘Mercy’, by Madame Monsieur, is named after the refugee girl born on a Medecins Sans Frontieres boat in the Mediterranean. If we’re talking about Eurovision songs not being allowed to be political, MSF is one of the most politically outspoken humanitarian organisations in Europe by design, including on the question of rescuing refugees at sea. MSF’s name and logo are nowhere near the song’s presentation, and wouldn’t be allowed to be, but the whole entry is framed by its organisational values and its work.

Like one of Stockholm’s semi-final interval acts, ‘The Grey People‘, it starts to confront the reality that Eurovision is celebrating ‘Europe’ at the same time thousands of refugees are risking death to cross the borders that the European Union has fortified against them. It ends, like ‘The Grey People’, with an uplifting image of new life (reinforced when French journalists found Mercy in a refugee camp in Sicily earlier this year).

Meanwhile, the Italian song ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’ (‘You haven’t done anything to me’) by Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro offers a narrative of resilience against urban terrorism. The many sites of terrorist attacks they name in the verses include Cairo, Barcelona, a concert in France we probably understand to be the Bataclan, London, and Nice: placing one site in the Middle East might partly acknowledge (without completely subverting) the narrow boundaries of the ‘#PrayForParis’ style of hashtag memorialisation which often elicits sympathy for attacks in Western Europe, North America and Israel but not for the much more frequent attacks in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan than European cities even now. Presenting a list of sites without Oslo or Utøya, meanwhile, restricts the list to sites of Islamist not white nationalist terrorism even if the lyricist had only thought they were choosing cities that had suffered attacks in the same couple of years.

The video depicts sites of grassroots and official commemoration including street shrines and war cemeteries, opening out into a utopian hope that humans will stop hating and killing each other, with subtitles in fifteen languages (including Chinese, Turkish and Arabic) adding to the cosmopolitan effect.

In fact, both videos make their appeals to a cosmopolitan and racially diverse public, with their multiracial crowds assembling at iconic places which add up into a map of an imagined transnational community, just like the opening videos of Eurovision finals themselves often do. The songs contrast each other, maybe, when it comes to the question of who speaks for the dead. The French song is written in the first person, as Mercy, who is ‘all the children the sea has taken’ (‘tous les enfants que la mer a pris’) -significantly, its agent of death is the sea, while the visa regimes and border security practices which meant the children had to cross the sea that way, and the policies that made governments insist on them, are so immutable they’re outside the story altogether. Its first-person voice does leave a white woman in the position of singing in the voice of a young black girl, and some viewers will question whether she ends up speaking over the girl she is professing to speak for.

Meta and Moro may be closer to their subject matter, as inhabitants of cities like the ones that have witnessed recent attacks, and more to the point as working musicians, aware that concert halls and stadiums have been favoured targets for ISIS-inspired and white nationalist terrorism. The last thing a musician might want to call to mind on an arena stage, you’d think, might be the Bataclan; even as a spectator, dwell on the concert attacks for more than a split second and the fantasy of Eurovision falls apart.

The presence of one vast group of dead, however, goes unmentioned amid the celebration of Portuguese navigation, maritime heritage and crossing cultures across the sea that has given Eurovision 2018 its slogan ‘All Aboard!’: the millions of enslaved Africans forced on to European ships between the 15th and the 19th century, in a trade that Portuguese navigators expanded at a very early stage. No Eurovision has ever been held in a site more closely connected to the history of the Atlantic slave trade (London probably comes nearest), and Lisbon has been confronting its own history of complicity in enslavement this year after residents voted to build the city’s first public monument acknowledging the slave trade at the end of 2017.

Indeed, the biggest silence of all might not even be around the memory of the slave trade but the memory of the connection between enslaved Africans and the refugees who have died reaching Europe today. The history of racism, which dates back to the discourses with which white Europeans legitimised the capture and enslavement of other human beings, lies underneath the racism and xenophobia that encourages EU governments to tighten the external border yet further and minimise the numbers of refugees who can settle in the EU.

Perhaps the dead who cannot be remembered at Eurovision are those whose histories would make the logic of its shared fantasy collapse: that Europe isn’t the place where politics can be set aside like the celebration invites us to temporarily imagine it can be.

Navigating the silence of enslavement: Does the Eurovision Song Contest community need to know Lisbon’s history of slavery?

This post originally appeared at the German Historical Institute’s History of Knowledge blog on 15 January and has also been republished at ESC Insight.

It has taken sixty-one editions of the Eurovision Song Contest, and fifty-three years of Portuguese participation, for any Portuguese city to have the chance to host the annual song competition and show the contest’s reputed 200 million viewers its own interpretation of Europe’s cultural identity.

Portugal’s reputation as one of the longest-running Eurovision entrants never to win meant that the victor’s privilege of hosting the next Contest has never until now fallen on Portugal and its national broadcaster Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (RTP), even as early twenty-first-century Eurovision became famous for more and more first-time winners emerging across a seemingly ever-enlarging Europe.

Indeed, Portugal had spent years not even qualifying for the Eurovision grand final before Salvador Sobral, whose song ‘Amar pelos dois‘ (Love enough for two) harked back to the orchestral European popular music culture of Eurovision’s earliest days, won a surprise victory at the contest in Kiev in 2017.

The wave of new winners in the early 2000s saw Eurovision hosted for much of the decade in cities like Tallinn, Riga, and Kiev—capitals of countries that had not even participated in Eurovision before the end of the Cold War, indeed had only recently become independent. Other host cities, such as Istanbul, Athens, and Helsinki, represented countries often perceived as peripheries of Europe and which had competed for years without a win. The metaphors, symbols, and historical narratives with which these contests’ local producers emphasized how deeply their countries and cities belonged to Europe turned places often imagined to be on Europe’s margins into the continent’s “symbolic centre” for a night.[1]

Eurovision researchers are accustomed now to interpreting entries as literal performances of national identity and European belonging, embodying how a nation appears to have mastered transnational popular culture, national cultural tradition, or contemporary modes of combining the two.[2] Hosting Eurovision, however, takes these identity performances up an extra structural level. Like the Olympic Games, Eurovision allows a broadcaster and city to make a certain narrative of their nation and its relationship to Europe into the frame through which millions of viewers see the whole event, making every contest a fresh exercise in nation (and city) branding.[3]

The historical themes that Lisbon and Portugal might communicate to a transnational audience in 2018 were perceptible as early as last July, when RTP confirmed Lisbon as the host city with a promotional video that proclaimed, “Portugal: 500 years connected to the oceans; Lisbon: city of convergence; Lisbon: a bridge between Europe and the world.” The contest’s slogan, fans found out in November, would be “All Aboard!”

The same myth of maritime heritage and global connectivity underlies the stage design concept revealed by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in December. The narrative behind Lisbon’s first Eurovision, reflecting how important maritime heritage has been in Portugal’s and Lisbon’s myths of identity, will perhaps unsurprisingly be “inspired by navigation, the sea, ships and maps.”

These four themes, the designer Florian Wieder explained, combined like the four points of a compass to symbolize the history of discovery and exploration that had shaped Portuguese culture and made Lisbon the maritime metropolis it became.

Yet to historians of slavery, sociologists of “race” and postcolonialism, and many people among the world’s African diaspora today, to talk of discovery and exploration—or even to celebrate Europe’s relationship to the sea—is to evoke memories of the mass enslavement of Africans that Portuguese traders and sea-captains began, knowledge of the violence of colonial dispossession that Portugal was among the first European powers to perpetrate, and the legacies of racism and oppression that still permeate European and global societies today.

Reading the planned Eurovision stage’s “four points of inspiration” with a postcolonial eye reveals silence after silence within the historic symbols that have inspired its design.

The voyages of exploration sponsored by Portuguese rulers, including by the country’s most famous prince, Infante Dom Henrique (known in English as Henry the Navigator), were driven not by high-minded curiosity but by the search for new imperial territories and new sources of goods to trade. Portuguese merchants quickly discovered these “goods” could include human beings: it was under Henrique’s direction in the 1440s and 1450s that Portuguese captains first brought back enslaved Africans from raids in Mauritania, then struck deals with local rulers to institutionalize a trade in slaves, while the government regulated this expanded economy of slavery in Portuguese trading-posts and ports. By 1486, the slave trade had grown so large that King John II made the House of Slaves a department of the royal trading house. (The place was destroyed with almost all its records in the earthquake of 1755.)

At first, slave traders’ primary market was Portugal itself, which was already part of the Mediterranean system of slavery (where most of the enslaved were North African Muslims who had been captured at sea). Pope Nicholas V, as the moral ruler of Christendom, sanctioned Portugal’s monopoly of the West African trade and Catholics’ right to enslave non-Christians—including North African Muslims, black Africans, and indigenous people in the Americas—with a papal bull in 1454. As Portuguese merchants began to sell Africans on across the Atlantic, to Portuguese colonies and sugar plantations in Brazil, they created the first routes of the transatlantic slave trade.

Other European imperial powers, plus thousands of Europeans whose nations did not have their own empires, would join Portugal in sustaining a system of domination and brutality without parallel in world history, where the ideologies necessary to justify Europeans’ enslavement and repression of enslaved Africans and their descendants would become the hierarchical modes of classifying human beings by presumed biological descent from “more civilized” or “less civilized” areas of the world that we know today as classifications of “race.” From a postcolonial perspective, the very concept of “Europe” as a symbol of modernity—an idea which celebrations of belonging to or becoming part of Europe almost always take for granted—is inextricable from the history of how modernity (in the shape of “civilization”) and “race” were imagined together during the age of empire and slavery.

If Portuguese navigation and discovery are inseparable from this history, how does such knowledge affect what the symbols inspiring the next Eurovision Song Contest appear to mean? The armillary sphere that distinguishes Portugal’s national flag and will give Lisbon 2018 the “visual key element” of its design is unambiguously, according to its designer, “associated with the Portuguese discoveries during the Age of Exploration.”

“The Portuguese have been masters in crafting ships since the ancient times,” the narrative continues, and “were able to explore the world because of this outstanding skill.” But where did these ships go, and what did their Portuguese crews do in the places they explored? Portugal, after all, was the first European power to conquer territory in India and the first to ship enslaved Africans across the Atlantic.

The sea, whose waves have inspired the sweeping form of the Eurovision stage, supposedly “gives us a sense of freedom and clarity, making it one of the most peaceful places on earth.” Yet how peaceful is the sea to the migrants and refugees who risk capture in North Africa and shipwreck on unsafe rafts to wash up on Mediterranean coastlines because the European Union affords them no legal means to travel?

Even the map, Lisbon 2018’s fourth point of inspiration, is in its modern form an instrument that postcolonial scholars know as a colonial technology. European mapmakers recorded the geographical features that their empires’ traders, soldiers, missionaries, and officials needed to know, and abstracted or erased those they did not. The ethnic or tribal divisions between peoples and territories that European maps of Africa and Asia recorded at the height of the colonial period created lines of demarcation that would later become social and political realities because of how colonial power had translated a more complex demographic reality into metropolitan knowledge.

Narrating Portugal’s history of maritime discovery and exploration without the history of slavery and colonialism leaves—to those who know and do not choose to unknow that silenced history—a yawning gap. The silence resounds throughout Wieder’s explanation of why Portugal’s maritime history is so well suited as the narrative of a Eurovision Song Contest held in Lisbon:

The rich history of the Portuguese as a maritime nation reflects, without any boundaries, all of the values that make the Eurovision Song Contest unique today. Portugal and especially Lisbon are historic melting pots enriched by the impressions of newly discovered cultures that were brought back to the home port. This is mainly due to the Portuguese sailor men, who traveled the seas with courage and outstanding skills of navigation.

We do not hear of how cultures were newly discovered and then subjugated, nor how the people who lived some of those cultures were brought back in chains.

***

European cities have only recently begun publicly acknowledging their complicity in slavery, and it has taken sustained pressure from their black residents plus committed historians and heritage professionals for them to do so. What historical narratives are privileged or marginalized in the commemorated, what forms of recognition campaigners seek, and how slavery reverberates through a society’s racialized categories of identity all vary from country to country, and even city to city. Nantes became the first European port to officially commemorate its role in the transatlantic slave trade in 1989, and it opened a permanent exhibition on the slave trade there in 1992, whereas Bordeaux, with a similar history, took a decade and a half longer to do so. Among British cities, Liverpool led with an official public apology for the slave trade in 1999, and the city’s International Slavery Museum, which opened in 2007, incorporates Africans’ resistance and agency as well as the legacies of slavery behind contemporary racism into its narrative more integrally than many other such museums.[4]

Projects to make visible the public memory of slavery are intensely local—often, as in Bristol, turning on the microhistory of sites built to honor slave-owners or used in the slave trade—but also transnational.[5] UNESCO launched its own Slave Route project, which aimed to “break the silence” about the heritage of slavery around the world, in 1994. Campaigners and curators often translate parallels from comparable cities abroad into their own local contexts in identifying contentious sites and imagining how slavery could be better remembered there. Since the 1990s, Ana Lucia Araujo has written, a “resurgence of the public memory of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade” has connected sites in Europe, Africa, and Latin America as well as the USA.[6]

Europe’s Atlantic ports would not have become so prosperous without the wealth the slave trade brought them. To make and keep the slave trade and its legacies a part of public memory means making knowledge of these things undeniable, even to white majority publics who would prefer not to know.

To remember and acknowledge that a city’s and nation’s grandeur came from the horrific kidnapping and deportation of millions of people, and the systematic dehumanization of their descendants, does not inspire the pride on which relations of belonging between individuals and nations are supposed to depend. More openly activist forms of commemorating the slave trade, as opposed to the more celebratory, less destabilizing commemorations of its abolition, seek to make remembering necessary. They seek to make it impossible for white inhabitants and visitors, above all, to still be able to contend they did not know.

Lisbon, the historian Yessenia Barragan observed last year, “remains largely silent on its legacy of white terror and black captivity.”[7] No museum or memorial there acknowledges that the transatlantic slave trade and the imperial expansion that accompanied it were constitutive parts of the city’s history. Lisbon has no analog to the Liverpool or Nantes slavery museums, nor to the museums of African diasporic history in São Paulo or Washington, DC. Elsewhere in Portugal, the old customs house once used for slave auctions in Lagos on the Algarve, thought to be the first town where enslaved Africans were brought to Europe, reopened as a slavery museum in 2016. Otherwise, to see Portugal’s role in the transatlantic slave trade commemorated, one must go to Brazil, the place where so many captives enslaved by the Portuguese were sold. As Araujo reminds us, Brazil imported many more enslaved Africans than the United States and now contains a larger population of people of African descent than any other country in the world except Nigeria. The presence of this diaspora and the racial politics of contemporary Brazil are both consequences of the trade established by the Portuguese.[8]

Lisbon, too, has a globally significant black history. A census of Lisbon in 1552 revealed that 10 percent of its population was enslaved, and the historian A. C. Saunders estimated in 1982 (in a book on black slaves and freedmen in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portugal, republished in 2010) that 15,000 mostly black slaves were likely to have lived in the rapidly growing city by 1633.[9] Saunders not only notes that this black population represented “one of the greatest concentrations of black people in any European society before our own time” but points to the Portuguese enslavement of Africans as a key moment in the transition between slavery customs around the Mediterranean and the racialized system of transatlantic deportation and enslavement that Europeans went on to establish.

[T]he form taken by relations between black Africans and white Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was, with some modifications and exceptions, that which was to prevail throughout the Atlantic world until the nineteenth century, and we still suffer from its consequences today. The salient feature of this system of relations were the Atlantic slave-trade and the relegation of black people to servitude or positions of inferior status in countries ruled by whites. The triangular slave-trade was organized by the Portuguese and it was in Portugal that considerable numbers of blacks first came to experience white domination and whites first decided what place blacks should hold in society.[10]

The sixteenth-century Portuguese argument that “enslavement was an effective method of bringing blacks to a knowledge of Christianity” (even though, as the friar Fernão de Oliveira wrote in 1555, few Portuguese slave owners even allowed their slaves to go to church) prefigured the “civilizing mission” with which European powers in the nineteenth century would justify their conquests of most of Africa.[11]

To historians of early modern Iberia and researchers like the historical tour guide Naky Gaglo, whom Barragan credits for many of her insights into Lisbon’s past and present black history, these legacies of enslavement in Lisbon and their connections to racism and inequality in the present are already established knowledge. For outside communities with no professional or personal reasons to know about how enslavement in Lisbon and present-day racism are connected, they are not.

Whether this knowledge is pushed aside or not even consciously considered, they remain absent when navigation and connectivity across the sea are turned into myths detached from Portugal’s and Europe’s implication in colonialism and slavery.

Does any of this matter for making sense of the pan-European party that the Eurovision Song Contest is supposed to be?

***

The “Europe” that Eurovision maps and celebrates today is geographically larger than the “Europe” of colonial maps, extending as far east as the Caucasus or Russia’s Pacific coast (plus, since 2014, Australia). Its eastern “peripheries” have given twenty-first-century Eurovision much of its energy and symbolic meaning, with broadcasters and even governments investing in Eurovision as a site for realizing their “return to Europe.” On the other hand, their access to the apparent center of Eurovision’s imagined transnational community appears more conditional when commentators in the West begrudge the so-called bloc voting they attribute to the East.[12] Perhaps postsocialist enlargement is one way through which “Europe,” in Eurovision and even outside, might have been redefined.

Or perhaps not. Even before postsocialist assertions of identification with European “civilization” and, implicitly or explicitly, whiteness, the parallels between anti-colonial struggle and east European national liberations that state socialist regimes often drew could still go hand in hand with paternalistic attitudes towards development and with stereotypes of “Africa” and blackness that had originated in Europe’s colonial past.[13]

Even nations without any history of their own as imperial powers, nations that spent centuries ruled by other empires instead, produced individuals who participated in colonialism as a system. There was the Croatian explorer Dragutin Lerman, for instance, who shortly before joining the Stanley Expedition to Congo wrote to a friend, “I am especially happy to represent my dear homeland Croatia in this kind of international expedition.” Lerman mapped large parts of southwestern Congo for the Belgian colonial administration and acted for several years as commissaire-general of Kwango Oriental.[14] Imaginatively, even if not geopolitically, members of central and eastern European peoples—as my forthcoming book Race and the Yugoslav Region argues—have still been able to identify with the “Europe” colonialism made.

Since the collapse of state socialism, this has been ever more the case. The European Union that, during the 1990s, almost all postsocialist countries aspired to join as part of their symbolic “returns to Europe” (another such symbol was participating in Eurovision), was already implementing racialized migration policies that afforded the least legal mobility to migrants from the Global South. Yet many of the reasons the migrants’ countries of origin were so much more insecure and environmentally degraded than the European destinations where they sought to live were results of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

Today’s EU border security project, in which the EU has obliged Southeast European countries to play frontline roles and where the Central European Visegrád Group leads opposition to imposed refugee quotas, rests even more visibly on the logic that the public of member states will not accept Muslim and African migrants settling in their countries in large enough numbers to potentially change national culture. The ideologies on which present-day xenophobias and racisms in the EU depend—which are even sometimes turned, as in Britain, on East European migrants within the EU—stem ultimately from the ideologies of “race” that white Europeans had to internalize to justify their enslavement of Africans and their colonization of indigenous lands. Such continuities between past and present racisms are often not even drawn in the commemoration of slavery and abolition, but they are at the very foundations of what critical race theory “knows.”

The condition of not needing to know about racism or the histories and legacies of race is the privilege of whiteness—or of what the philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance,” the asymmetry of knowledge that enables white supremacy.[15] To live untroubled as a white inhabitant of a society that gained its wealth through colonial exploitation indeed requires displacing the knowledge that your predecessors, whose history supposedly gives you your cultural identity, obtained that wealth by impoverishing and enslaving other human beings. The dominant institutions of society, Mills argues, are structured so that whites do not, need not, and must not ever know.

The memory of slavery and the knowledge that present-day racism is a legacy of colonialism and enslavement are what Araujo describes as “wounded” memory.[16] They are also wounded knowledge—knowledge that is painful for a historically dominant group to absorb. And they are dangerous knowledge—knowledge that threatens to upend the meanings of cherished collective myths and symbols, and change the emotions they arouse.

Eurovision host cities, for a week or a night, are cast temporarily as the “symbolic center of Europe, tying a certain narrative of their own histories into what they imagine as the continent’s heritage. In all its sixty-two years, Eurovision has never come from a city as tied to the history of slavery as Lisbon. The four Contests held in London are probably as close as it has come.

The historical narrative of Portugal, Europe, and the sea that has been designed for the next Eurovision Song Contest is, like many European countries’ public celebrations of their imperial pasts, the product of an exceptionalism that does not want to know that the curves of a masterfully constructed carrack are also the curves of a slave ship.

End of 2017 publications round-up

I nearly always forget to write these, most years, but here are the academic publications I’ve had come out in 2017:

Two things I know will have 2018 publication dates: another piece for Critical Studies on Security about identification, stardom, embodiment and the military in Wonder Woman, and the book I’ve mentioned here before, Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial?, which shows how phenomena from the Rijeka carnival to the refugee crisis (and many things in between) prove how deeply and how long the Yugoslav region has been embedded in global politics of ‘race’ which have often been thought to pass it by. You can pre-order it already from Manchester University Press.

Also filtering through may be one or two pieces on reassessing the micropolitics of international intervention in the Yugoslav region in view of politics today, one or two articles that spun out of Race and the Yugoslav Region, and more of my work on queer identifications and the aesthetics of militarism, in the various forms that’s going to take…

Finding my place in queer cultural history through the ‘post-Cold-War’ period

This post originally appeared at History Matters on 14 August 2017.

I’ve been researching the 1990s since the beginning of my academic career, when I wrote my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia. (This was published in 2010 as my first book, Sounds of the Borderland.) As a queer writer and academic who was born in the early 1980s, I’m also someone whose consciousness and identity were shaped by the queer cultural politics of the 1990s – or by the lengths I went to in trying to distance myself from them.

Some queer historians become historians to investigate a personal past. My experience was the opposite, or so I thought: sometimes, while reading archived Croatian newspapers and magazines from 1990 to what was then the present during my PhD, I’d note abstractly that an issue’s cover date in 1996 or 1997 coincided with a personally significant day, or realise that, if I’d been the same age and Croatian, this or that pop video instead of this or that performance on Top of the Pops might have played a part in the protracted process of me trying to prove that, even though I kept noticing androgynous-looking women, I wasn’t queer.

At the same time, on a macro level, I’ve always believed that the histories of the Yugoslav region and the society where I live are much more connected than most British public discourse in the 1990s about the former Yugoslavia would suggest. During the Yugoslav wars, Cold War east–west geopolitics overhung older, semi-orientalised tropes about ‘the Balkans’ in the minds of many commentators who implied that Britain and the Balkans travelled at two separate historical speeds.

The more expansive and transnational view of the 1990s as cultural history that I take now has as much to do with Britain as the Balkans, and sometimes more. The period we can now name as ‘the post-Cold-War’ was defined by changing ideas about conflict and security, and how gender might determine who participates in conflict in what ways, who ought to protect whom, and who threatens whom. Also important were narratives of capitalism and progress that held out the hope of prosperity to many more young (and older) people than felt it in the 1980s or feel it today; rapid changes in the technologies through which people experienced popular culture and communicated with each other (it is already an imaginative leap for a student in their late teens to put themselves in the trainers of a young person the same age organising a night out in 1991); and also by the visibility and ambiguous position of queer identities in media and society. This, it turns out, is where I come in.

The project I conceived a year or two ago on how representations of the Yugoslav wars fed back into Western cultural imaginations of conflict, and how Western cultural imaginations of conflict also circulated through the Yugoslav region, needed me to start defining what did distinguish the 1990s or the ‘post-Cold-War’ as a period.

Meanwhile, the conceptual contribution I wanted it to make – what can cultural historians and scholars interested in the aesthetics of international politics learn from feminist and queer media studies? – sent me back to scholarship in feminist film theory and in cultural memory that was being written during the 1990s and was being produced within the very historical context I was trying to understand. Meanwhile, as a researcher embedded in 2016, I was becoming ever more conscious of how easily queer visibilities in the past and present can be erased, and starting to explore the 1990s’ and 2000s’ interlinked transformations of media technology, imaginations of conflict, and queer politics creatively in ways that even began pointing to new linkages in my academic work.)

Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing (on women’s identification with Forties and Fifties women film stars) or equally Graham Dawson’s Soldier Heroes (on boys’ identification with military and imperial heroes through adventure play) both came out in 1994. Both books have passages that read like darts of recognition; both books have passages that my own embodied knowledge leaves me annotating, ‘What about masculinities?’ or ‘Can’t this happen with women?’

Together, they help me pursue a hunch that the dynamics of identification that can make people so invested in the characters and narratives of popular culture and the dynamics of emotional attachment to the nation that states and militaries depend on, have a lot in common with each other.

A thread of articles and book chapters in feminist and lesbian ‘gaze’ theory (which inform how I understand identification with the nation and with militarism) came out between 1994 and 1997: work by scholars like Caroline Evans and Reina Lewis on identification, desire and spectatorship (theorising things like what the pleasures of looking at fashion spreads in the British lesbian magazine Diva might have been for lesbians in the mid-90s).

In other words, in the mid 1990s, people were already writing about and answering questions that had been confusing me for years at exactly the same time – when I still had no idea they could even be spoken, let alone asked with academic authority. (I still wouldn’t even have dared touch a copy of Diva at the newsagent, in 1997, in case it meant I was a lesbian…)

And yet the first encounter with Croatian popular music that I remember, through the Eurovision Song Contest, is already entangled with my own history of queer spectatorship and not-coming-out. I would have seen Croatian entries in the 1994 and 1995 Eurovisions, but the first one I remember seeing is Maja Blagdan’s performance of ‘Sveta ljubav’ in 1996, for reasons that would have been quite obvious to me at the time.

(Not having had the foresight to press ‘record’ at the start of the song on the video tape where I used to collect highlights of Top of the Pops, I expected with disappointment never to see again, until a viewer who had written to the BBC about Terry Wogan speaking over the singing meant they played thirty seconds of it a few weeks later on Points of View.)

Blagdan went on to be one of the first Croatian singers I wanted to find out more about, and so the trajectory towards me becoming able to write a book that a BASEES prize panel judged ‘exceptional in both its originality and its careful research’, a book which has helped to inspire younger researchers to develop their own projects on post-Yugoslav nationalism, music, media, or sport, doesn’t just involve me as a historical subject trying to understand how a new nation like Croatia could suddenly appear out of what had seemed to be an old one like Yugoslavia. It also involves me as a queer viewer and teenager at a very specific moment, when lesbian visibility coexisted with an intense cultural anxiety over women as agents of the gaze towards other women.

Historicising the theoretical work I wanted to use for one project, in other words, has already pointed me towards another: what was the relationship between queer women and popular culture in the 1990s? This feels all the more urgent, not just because it belongs to a Very Contemporary History that’s already different from the present, but also because it denotes a past I managed to simultaneously live through and push aside.

 

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.

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?’