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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Where did it all go wrong? The Windrush myth after London 2012

This post originally appeared at Imperial and Global Forum on 25 April 2018.

Six years ago, in 2012, the dramatised arrival of the ‘Windrush Generation’ provided many British viewers with one of the most moving moments in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. The dozens of black Londoners and the giant model of the Empire Windrush, which had docked at Tilbury in June 1948, entering the stadium during the ceremony’s historical pageant stood for the hundreds of thousands of black Britons who had migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, which was then still their imperial metropole, between 1948 and 1962.

The moment when the ‘Windrush Generation’ joined the pageant’s chaotic whirl of characters drawn from modern British social and cultural history symbolised, for millions of its viewers (if not those people of colour with more reason to be suspicious of British promises), a Britain finally inclusive enough to have made the post-Windrush black presence as integral a part of its national story as Remembrance or Brunel. Today, however, members of this same symbolic generation have been threatened with deportation – and some have already been deported – because they have been unable to prove their immigration status despite living in Britain for more than fifty years. The Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade was far from alone in wondering where it had all gone wrong since 2012.

What kind of British government would deport the children of the Empire Windrush? Not the openly fascist regime that the National Front took to the streets for in the 1970s, or that Alan Moore imagined taking control of a near-future Britain in his 1988 comic V for Vendetta (written at the height of the Thatcher years). Rather, as most of the British public only realised after the revelations of the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman connecting dozens of individual stories into a chilling pattern, the answer lies with the Conservative government of Theresa May.

Suddenly, in mid-April, public sympathy mobilised in support of the ‘Windrush Generation’ alongside an eviscerating parliamentary intervention from David Lammy MP, who has taken up the cases of dozens of black Britons who have lost jobs, been refused medical treatment or even been deported. Lammy’s challenge in parliament (and ongoing pressure through Twitter) would force the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to admit that the government’s actions have been ‘appalling’ in forcing potentially thousands of Windrush-era citizens to prove their right to reside in Britain all over again by requiring evidence none ever anticipated they would have to provide.

On 23 April, Rudd promised to help the Windrush generation ‘acquire’ citizenship by waiving application fees and test requirements, though Lammy continued to emphasise that their citizenship had been ‘taken away by your [Rudd’s] government, not something that your government is now choosing to grant them.’

Much of the white British public had not appreciated the harsh realities that black families had seen hitting their elder relatives for months until the plight of the ‘Windrush Generation’ became national news. The policy of extending border immigration controls into everyday life, which government officials themselves termed the ‘Hostile Environment‘, has caused dire consequences for this historic and symbolic group of citizens. Members of the Windrush Generation have lost their jobs because they could not show a UK passport; they have been charged thousands of pounds for NHS care under rules targeting ‘health tourism’; and some have even been detained awaiting deportation to countries they have not visited for fifty years. An unknown number of people, the immigration minister Caroline Nokes suggested last week, have even been ‘deported in error’.

The crisis has even been linked to at least one death. The mother of Dexter Bristol, a Londoner born in Grenada who died suddenly last month aged 57, blamed government racism and the ‘hostile environment’ policy for the stress her son suffered after losing his job and access to benefits: ‘My son is British. We didn’t come here illegally… No one expected this country to turn into what it is now.’

Why has public sympathy mobilised so quickly around this group when thousands of others, including younger migrants from the Caribbean, have been caught up by these regulations ever since Britain’s ‘everyday borders‘ started to tighten? Largely because the Windrush Generation is already a national myth that the British public had been invited to rejoice in celebrating – never more spectacularly than at London 2012.

Yet if the Home Office’s attack on the Windrush Generation feels like a shocking and disorienting reversal, this is because the ceremony’s triumphant story about Windrush was not even what the whole country believed in 2012 – rather, the difference between 2012 and 2018 is a matter of which narrative has had more power to be heard.

By 2012, Windrush had already been worked into many versions of Britain’s national myth – part of a liberal, ‘post-racial’ UK public commemorative culture, a mythic voyage at the beginning of a story about tolerance and progress where Britain’s colonisation of the Caribbean and its enslavement of the Windrush Generation’s ancestors could be absolved.

This progress, one must remember, had been hard-won. Black activists had had to campaign for years for Windrush to be taught in schools and marked by local councils, before public institutions began to take it up. Arguably, Windrush commemoration gained momentum after the 1999 Macpherson Report, which had popularised the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe police inaction after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993; museum and heritage professionals’ own anti-racist engagement combined with the impact of Labour equalities legislation to make institutions keen to show they were serving a diverse community by marking Windrush as the turning point (or, more problematically, the beginning) of black history in Britain. Even though in 2012 commemorating Windrush might have seemed like consensus, when black history campaigns first gained pace in the 1980s it had been a radical demand.

Commemorating Windrush as part of Britain’s national narrative meant telling a story about Britain where black Britons belonged on the same terms as white Britons – a story about a Britain which was comfortable with having a Commonwealth not an Empire, and had moved on from the racism the Windrush Generation had endured when they were young.

Remembering how Britishness had supposedly become multicultural and racism had supposedly been defeated, by celebrating Windrush, participants were invited to join in the happy feeling of how far ‘we’ had come.

The London 2012 opening ceremony was a pageant of history-from-below that imagined a nation made up of its oppressed groups as well as its elites: groups like the workers of the Industrial Revolution, like the suffragettes, and like the Windrush Generation. The ‘mosaic history’ Danny Boyle, with scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, depicted through the ceremony, alongside celebrations of children’s literature, the NHS and a modern-minded Queen, readily lent itself to liberal readings. The arts critic Charlotte Higgins, for instance, wrote of Boyle’s ceremony the next day that it was an ‘impassioned poem of praise to the country he [and ‘we’] would most like to believe in.’

The heritage of this mode of representation was demonstrably left-wing, dating back to leftist traditions of ‘radical patriotism’ (including pageants) from between the World Wars, and to the socialist principles that inspired historians like Raphael Samuel to suggest the heritage of ‘ordinary people’ could be a leftist way of linking the public with the national past.

Indeed, one thread even links Samuel’s vision of the nation directly to Boyce: Samuel edited a three-volume collection on Patriotism: the Making and Unmaking of British National Identity in 1989, assembling suppressed and everyday heritage into a national past, and a young Boyce contributed a chapter on the I-Spy books while researching his English PhD.

In 2012, the BBC’s broadcast of a ceremony tugging quirky cultural heartstrings to a cheering stadium made it feel as if the whole country was celebrating the spectacle of a creative, confident and multicultural nation too. And yet, it wasn’t; the story of London 2012 was already being contested on the night itself, when Conservative MP Aidan Burley tweeted that it had been ‘leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones.’

Where public narratives are concerned, the contrast between 2012 and 2018 is not so much ‘Where did it go so wrong?’ as ‘Which narratives had the strongest platform then and now?’

And narratives about Windrush do relate directly to the fact that the Home Office has deported black Britons who came to the UK with British passports before their islands became independent, because national identity itself is a story about who belongs. Or rather, national identity is a story about who belongs unconditionally on the land inside the nation’s borders, and whom the hosts might graciously extend the right to stay.

The Windrush Generation who came to Britain, and the children they have had there, spent decades hearing racists like Enoch Powell and the National Front openly call for them to be repatriated. The slogan of sending black and Asian Britons ‘back home’, to the Caribbean or South Asia, implied that they had no right to belong safely ‘at home’ in Britain at all.

The very members of this symbolic generation who listened with dread as young people to the possible consequences of Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, had to relive the experience a few weeks ago when BBC Radio 4 had Powell’s words read in their entirety by a star actor: a broadcast that the journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and many other British people of colour argued only normalised Powell’s rhetoric, empowered the far right, and represented a ‘particularly jarring… resurrection’ just as the Home Office was ‘unceremoniously booting out’ some of the very people who had arrived on the Windrush or the ships that followed.

Today, when many of the Windrush Generation have retired – and some might have looked back and thought they were living in a better country than the Britain they had known in their youth – tens of thousands of them now find they cannot prove their citizenship to the degree that ‘hostile environment’ policies require. After all, why would they have needed to before, outside dystopian nightmares? Not only has that nightmare become a reality; it might also grow more chilling yet with the news that, as long ago as 2010, the Border Force destroyed thousands of the very landing cards that could have proved when they arrived in the UK.

Their situation has moved the British public so much more than other inhumane deportations because of the power of the Windrush myth itself.

Aidan Burley, tweeting in 2012, had wanted to turn the clock back on multiculturalism. So did the UK Independence Party, on the ever larger platform the BBC gave it after the 2014 European Parliament elections; so did many of the voices backing Brexit. In 2012, the idea that that progress could be thrown into reverse, and Britain in a few years’ time could become ‘more racist’ not less, was very far from most people’s minds apart from those who longed to make it happen.

Yet visa rules for non-EU citizens became even tighter than New Labour had made them; Brexit stripped 3 million EU citizens of freedom of movement rights they had never had to think that they would lose; and Caribbean-born elders are facing now what Powell and the National Front threatened them with in their youth. The threat to deport the Windrush Generation does not just disturb the myth of multicultural Britain that grew between the 1990s and 2012 – it has torn it up, and some have watched the reversal of the myth with glee.

‘A technocracy of sensuousness’: music video in international politics

A citeable version of this article including an academic bibliography originally appeared at e-International Relations on 20 April 2018.

Music video reveals how people imagine world politics. This claim is hard to contest given the documented geopolitical influence of other popular cultural artefacts including superhero films and comics, counter-terrorism procedural dramas, military shooter video games, or satirical cartoons. On one level there is a politics of what examples of these popular cultural forms these media depict, as well as the geopolitical imaginations or militarised attachments that the pleasures of engaging with them might help to produce. On another level, such media forms have all allowed researchers of world politics and international security to derive new theoretical and interpretive insights from the kinds of artefacts they are and how their viewers, readers or players interact with them.

While music video has been a major popular cultural force since the (global) rise of MTV in the 1980s, it has been subject to little study within the popular culture-world politics (PCWP) continuum even when compared to popular music in general. Perhaps the art form (a combination of a recorded song with dance performances and/or short narrative or non-narrative film, which may or may not directly reflect any of the song’s lyrical content) seems bereft of enough meaning to be worth analysing, particularly in contrast to a big-budget Hollywood movie about US soldiers in World War II or a videogame that places virtual weapons into a player’s hands. That being stated, we should not ignore music video as a medium for providing narratives of military masculinity, American exceptionalism and the ‘Good War’ – or other significant narratives in world politics.

Perhaps part of the problem is that music video needs not depend on narrative for making sense. Moreover, its aesthetics have often been seen as a collapse of meaning, with its textual content being fairly simple and rendered in the form of lyrics that the images may dramatise. Even when popular culture and world politics research manages to account for images as well as plot and dialogue, many music videos might seem too trivial even for empirical analysis. Often, in commercial music video, all performers seem to do is dance or mime the words as if they were actual singing. And yet from feminist and postcolonial perspectives, the spectacle of bodies moving to music in a transnational economy of desire cannot but be political: the fashions and fantasies of music video exemplify societies’ gendered and racialised ‘cultural archive’.

Historically, conceptually, and methodologically, therefore, studying music video makes new contributions to the wider and wider literature on how popular culture and world politics are intertwined. It shows how the emergence of music video as a promotional and communicative technology was constructed by cultural critics as the manifestation of ‘postmodernism’ in practice, and how this imagination became a way of making sense of the confusing apparently new dynamics of conflict after the Cold War. It focuses our attention towards performance and stardom, and spectators’ affective relationships with the performing body, as often neglected aspects of audio-visual meaning. And, when we go on to consider how music video mediates spectators’ affective relationships to performing bodies, it reveals that geopolitical imaginations take their emotional charge from the intimate politics of identification and desire that popular music taps into even more effectively in audio-visual form.

Music Video, MTV and the Cultural Politics of the Late Cold War

The history of music video, for most scholars who deal with it, conventionally divides itself into pre- and post-1981, before and after the launch of MTV. Technologies for screening ‘illustrated songs’ had existed since sound began to be synchronisable with film, including the almost-forgotten Panoram visual jukebox of the 1940s. In fact, pop and rock bands in the 1960s and 1970s had increasingly filmed promotional clips  to reach international audiences that they could never have performed for in person. MTV represented a platform that affirmed music video as a specific type of cultural artefact, and an early global application of the medium of satellite TV, which possessed the potential to disrupt terrestrial broadcasting’s dependence on the nation-state as its main level of organisation (scholars of media and transnationalism would debate throughout the 1990s and 2000s how far it succeeded in doing so). It also represented, and did not even try to conceal, a mission of consumerist enlightenment and an expression of US soft power. From the start, its branding and visual identity connoted an ‘American’ militarised imagination of technological modernity and the supposedly inevitable spread of US cultural influence, famously announcing itself to viewers with the image of an Apollo 11 astronaut planting an animated MTV flag on the Moon.

During the 1980s, music video worked in tandem with film to communicate the aesthetics of the post-Vietnam ‘remasculinization of America’, broadcasting war and action movies to audiences outside as well as inside the USA. Amanda Howell has written that the heavy presence of electric guitar on the Top Gun soundtrack associated its imaginary of jets, flight and US technological dominance of the air with the ‘rock masculinity’ of Tom Cruise’s motorbike-riding pilot: the circuit of associations flowed back to let the legitimacy of US air defence spending benefit from the cool factor of the leather flight jackets and Ray-Bans whose sales were poised to soar. Clearly, the duo of music video and film was responsible for popularising Top Gun’s style. Top Gun pioneered the use of music video as an additional form of film advertising (using film footage in three smash-hit videos for Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’, Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ and the ‘Top Gun Anthem’ itself), meaning many viewers encountered these invitations to gaze on the eroticised masculine cool of US airpower through music videos before they even saw the film (as the videos were meant to entice them to do).

In many instances, music video was interwoven with cinema to inject this stylised militarism into the popular geopolitics of the late Cold War. However, the cultural imaginaries that music video could document and help to generate were not confined to America: the sexual revolution of the movida madrileña in post-Franco Spain, and the last burst of Yugoslav socialist consumerism amid the economic and constitutional crisis after Tito, were mediated through the medium as well. Via  similar cultural translations associated with television formats, transnational media history demonstrates how national pop industries filtered the aesthetics of MTV through local cultural meanings of style and consumption to signify aspiration and modernity however those were locally understood.

The aesthetics of Anglo-American music video in the late 20th century readily equipped it to symbolise postmodernism as a practical aesthetic. Its heavy use of montage and jump-cut techniques, its often-dizzying sense of context collapse, its frequent intertextuality and its attitude of pastiche were an everyday manifestation of what theorists such as Frederic Jameson seemed to be talking about. Critics such as E Ann Kaplan bound MTV in particular to the idea of ‘postmodernism’ so successfully that by 1993 postmodernism had become what Andrew Goodwin called the ‘academic orthodoxy’ for scholars of music television. As Goodwin and his fellow editors of the Sound and Vision music video reader argued, this was often at the cost of engaging with music video’s place in the wider music industry’s political economy. At the same time, war itself was starting to appear postmodern, by differing from Cold War expectations of ‘modern’ and ‘conventional’ war.

Music Video and ‘Postmodern’ Conflict: New Aesthetics for ‘New Wars’?

Notions such as Mary Kaldor’s ‘new wars’ drew from conflicts at the dawn of the 1990s, when both the first Gulf War and the apparently multiplying number of ‘civil wars’ and ethnopolitical conflicts seemed to epitomise as postmodern warfare. The Gulf War, relayed as spectacular entertainment by the international news network CNN, famously made the arch-postmodernist Jean Baudrillard argue that the war had been constituted by its televisual representation to such an extent that it effectively had not taken place. The ethnopolitical violence and urban warfare of conflicts such as the Yugoslav wars also seemed to fit their own postmodern script: such wars and their causes appeared jumbled and surreal both to Western eyes accustomed to perceiving those regions as unknowable, and to citizens of the countries where everyday life seemed to have turned into a baffling new reality almost overnight. Boundaries between civilian space and the front line had been blurred, laws of war were being violated by design and the strategies belligerents used to forcibly change the ethnic map looked very different to the large-scale clashes of regular state armed forces under nuclear shadow that Cold War strategists had anticipated. The surreal mixture of globalised youth culture – symbolised by MTV – and ethnic hatred that confronted war correspondents interacting with many of these wars’ rebels and paramilitaries seemed just one more layer of this conceptual frame for explaining what seemed to be changing about global security and war.

Music video, in tandem with advertising and fashion photography, had meanwhile circulated styles and masculinities transnationally to which participants in post-Cold-War conflicts could turn in defining cultural identities of ‘self’ and ‘other’. In fact, the media on different sides of these conflicts that represented combatants and other participants in conflict, aggregating individual experiences into collective narratives in the process, perhaps used these transnational frameworks of style as a basis for contrasting ‘self’ and ‘other’ more often. The young volunteers who Croatian media turned into patriotic symbols of a nation with a modern, Western cultural identity rising in self-defence supposedly went to the front with Guns ‘n’ Roses songs on their lips and Walkman headphones in their ears as readily as British Tommies in the First World War had (just as mythically) marched towards the front line singing ‘Tipperary’.

The image of Sarajevo’s underequipped defenders as a highly-motivated, ragtag band of peace-loving rockers forced into war was not untruthful – rock music was already a symbol of the city’s cultural identity, and the Sarajevo rock scene in the 1980s had given rise to nostalgically remembered last-ditch attempts to reinvent multi-ethnic Yugoslavia – but quickly became myth, first through the work of local and foreign war photographers, then via Danis Tanović and Zvonka Makuc, the director and costume designer of Ničija zemlja (No Man’s Land) [2001], who dressed Branko Đurić’s reluctant Bosniak soldier in a mismatched uniform and tattered t-shirt bearing the logo of the Rolling Stones.

Today’s configurations of what James Der Derian has called the ‘Military–Industrial–Media–Entertainment Network’, meanwhile, do not even require music video to be transmitted through broadcast television. Online video platforms, with YouTube chief among them, have decoupled music video from TV and catapulted it into the realm of digital media. Just as popular culture and world politics research has inseparably become research into digital communications and new media, music video scholarship has also taken a new digital turn.

Music Video and Digital Media Today

The frequency with which journalists compare the editing, pace and soundtrack of ISIS recruitment videos to MTV as well as Hollywood starts to reveal that, without realising how music video’s aesthetic practices engage the viewer (via an affective, embodied politics of spectatorship that feminist film scholars already understand), it is hard to grasp how these audiovisual artefacts which so perplex security services create the bonds of identification that persuade sympathisers towards militancy. This goes equally for Islamist networks and the far-right and white supremacist groups that synchronise videos of their mobilisation and training with tracks from the libraries of epic ‘trailer music’ that give video game and film trailers their characteristic soundscapes.

Yet digital media’s effect on how music video operates in world politics reaches further than networks of extremism and militancy. YouTube has supplanted MP3 blogs as the chief site of music micro-archiving – an important practice of digital memory and postmemory for many diasporas, including post-Yugoslav ones – offering users new audiovisual possibilities for creative remembering by synchronising audio with their own montages of still or moving images depicting their community or nation. Digital video cameras and editing software render it much simpler and cheaper to make, let alone disseminate videos, democratising music video production: hip-hop musicians, above all, have been able to use digital platforms to record and spread their simultaneously globalised and intensely localised affirmations of identity and expression and social critique.

Music video’s increasing convergence with other forms of audiovisual media (including YouTube and digitally generated cinema) is even being said to have produced a distinctively new audiovisual and digital aesthetics. The music video scholar Carol Vernallis calls it the ‘audiovisual swirl’, while Steven Shaviro has theorised as ‘post-cinematic affect’, a new structure of feeling emerging from how digital as opposed to analogue technologies depict and stimulate experience. The digital music video, Shaviro argues, blurs the traditional boundary between filmed action and post-production, ontologically altering what it means to construct and (re)produce audiovisual meaning (even if audiovisual meaning in analogue music video was already more obviously artificial and less mimetic than in other media). This will have its own implications for spectatorship and its embodied experiences, which – games researchers such as Matthew Thomas Payne have led the way in showing – are part of the political.

Throughout these decades of change in technology platforms, the economies of media and international politics, music video exhibits all aspects of what researchers argue makes popular culture political. It plays a role in popular geopolitics, offering frequently fantasised depictions of space and place, though (Vernallis notes in Experiencing Music Video) differently to many spatial settings in film and television: while narrative audiovisual fictions usually aim to represent an identifiable existing or imaginary geographical location, even if it has to be filmed elsewhere, music video very often conjures a type of place, as cultural imaginary or ‘place-myth’. A video set on a beach has (normally) been filmed on one particular beach with its own spatial location and history, but represents its action taking place at the beach, a spatial trope on to which viewers project their cultural imagination. The beach, the luxury hotel and the club are all characteristic settings in music video; at certain moments and in certain genres, so to have been the military base or the spaceship. To break the norm, spaces have to be directly marked as extant material locations, such as sites well-known to ‘tourist gazes’ or places extra-textually known to be the performer’s home town. Music video is therefore one more form of media through which viewers produce popular geopolitics and the politics of desire that, as Cynthia Enloe and Debbie Lisle both argue, create the fascinations around militarised and fantasised tourist sites that they do. But all popular cultural forms can do this – is any world-political work particularly characteristic of music video?

Embodied performance, Stardom and Celebrity in World Politics

One element of meaning particularly prominent in, though not exclusive to, meaning-making in music video is stardom and celebrity. International Relations scholarship seems more able to talk about celebrities as political operators off screen (especially as humanitarians), than either the labour they do as performance or the influence that narrative understandings of stars and their personas have on how viewers make sense of the characters and performances that stars embody. Music video need not of course feature the music’s performers at all, especially for musicians and genres claiming an alternative ‘cool’ which generates subcultural capital from rejecting commercial ‘celebrity’: MIA’s controversial video ‘Born Free’, directed in 2010 by Romain Gavras, was a short film depicting the rounding-up and execution of white ginger-haired men by US paramilitary police where the singer did not appear on screen at all, though it conformed to other music video genre conventions by cueing the editing of its action to the song. When performers appear, as in commercial pop, R&B and hip-hop they are most likely to do, videos produce their imaginative space by combining costume and place, mediating setting through the embodied performances of actors and dancers but even more so through those of their star(s).

Andrew Goodwin, whose early 1990s writing on music video may have outlasted some other studies from the MTV era more concerned with the aesthetics of the postmodern, drew on Richard Dyer’s work on film stardom to argue in his 1992 book Dancing in the Distraction Factory that one of the most important ways viewers interpret music video is through the ‘metanarratives’ of stardom and identity that stars’ images and bodies bring. Star personas are built up over time as the sum of their most iconic performances plus the most recirculated representations of their image off screen: many musicians’ persona-making images will be the styles of their most famous music videos, in tandem with or separate from the look of their most famous albums, tours, or publicity campaigns. Music video has contributed more and more to the on-screen dimension of star image as the physical album’s importance in music sales has declined. Goodwin argues that ‘the storyteller, rather than the story’ is what constitutes the ‘central fiction’ of popular music, a form of entertainment that leverages the authenticity of feeling listeners are supposed to perceive in vocal expression. Viewers thus make sense of music video both by using their knowledge of a star’s persona to make narrative connections between videos’ interleaved sequences of many videos, and also by wondering what contribution the image of this video is meant to make in the ongoing story of the star.

Using popular culture in a ‘narrative’ or an ‘aesthetic’ approach to security studies – especially if that narrative or aesthetic approach already, like Annick Wibben’s or Laura Shepherd’s, constitutes itself as feminist – means therefore that part of the narratives and aesthetics in front of us is this metanarrative of star persona, in any popular cultural form where an economy of stardom is at work. Neither meaning, nor the affective pleasures of spectatorship, come solely from what is happening and being said on screen, or how it looks and sounds; they also come from who is performing it and who is watching. They ask us therefore to take account of the politics and emotions of identification and desire (indeed of the desires that identification invites) that feminist and queer gaze theorists already seek to explain. Combining music, audiovisual fiction, performance and fashion photography, not to mention less or more concealed forms of advertising, spectatorship in music video involves the affective relationships sustained by all these cultural forms.

Making stardom and the politics of spectatorship more central to how we think about music video (and other popular culture) thus helps ask deeper questions about common ‘popular culture and world politics’ themes seen in music video, such as its mediation of war memory and its often contradictory position in and/or against dynamics of militarisation.

Music Video and Militarisation

Music videos may depict war as adventure or duty, war as trauma, or even create an imaginary space that invite the viewer to feel powerful affects towards war but in contradictory directions, what Cynthia Weber might term perversely ‘and/or’. Cinematic conventions of war narrative reverberate through music video, from the small-town-to-boot-camp-to-Iraq narrative of Green Day’s ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ (and most US Iraq War cinema), to the cinematic–literary interplay of Metallica’s ‘One’, released in 1989, which remediated the pacifist tragedy of the 1971 film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun but as a song in live performance introduces itself to the audience with recorded machine-gun fire, explosions and other ‘belliphonic’ sounds of war (and according to Jonathan Pieslak was a favourite of US troops in Iraq reading themselves for danger during vehicle patrols). The ambiguity of how distanced or immersed the listener is ‘supposed’ to be from imaginaries, ideologies and masculinities of war is arguably metal’s stock-in-trade, from the heavy metal era to millennial folk and power metal or the relativistic military-history-making of Sabaton, affectively manifesting the and/or.

Amid the ‘increasingly explicit visualisation’ of warfare that Lilie Chouliaraki and others detect, and the ‘qualitatively new’ expression of older ‘feedback loop[s]’ between military and civilian technology that Der Derian argues digital media provides, music video and its strategies for representing spaces and bodies are not quite like any other cultural artefact within what Rachel Woodward and Karl Jenkings call ‘popular geopolitical imaginaries of war’. There are the videos we would expect to be embedded in these imaginaries because their songs’ themes are already nationalistic or patriotic, like the just warrior/beautiful soul storyline that accompanied Jura Stublić’s video ‘Bili cvitak’ (‘White flower’) during the Croatian war of independence (the soldier’s bereaved girlfriend ends up joining a fictional, victorious Croatian peace monitoring force), and those we might not: nothing in the assemblage of music and lyrics that formed Cher’s song ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ in 1989 would have determined that its video needed to be filmed as a staged concert to hundreds of cheering US sailors on board the USS Missouri, or that Cher needed to pose straddling one of the ship’s guns, yet there in her fishnets she unquestionably is.

Video also permits musicians to mediate gendered histories of nationhood and war by taking the roles of soldiers or other archetypal participants in significant national wars from the past, again whether or not the song itself has a patriotic theme. The Armenian singer Sirusho inserts herself into a continuum of ancient, late-19th-century and post-Soviet heroism by leading a band of armed men in (neo-)traditional feasts and dances in the mountains in her 2015 video ‘Zartonk’ (‘Awakening’); while the Czech model-turned singer Mikolas Josef plays a fallen Czech soldier (from WWI, being buried under the Czechoslovakian flag and/or today’s identical Czech one) and a contemporary young man in a 2016 song ‘Free’ that imagines a dream of world tolerance (including Putin waving ‘the flag of the gay’ to reconcile with a Pride parade) but has nothing ostensibly to do with Czech nationhood or Czechoslovak liberation during the First World War. Their ideologies of gender, war and nation could and do appear in any popular cultural form: yet how they depict them, via the singing, costumed body of a performer who invites the viewer to make sense of this persona as an image within the star’s metanarrative, is distinct to music video.

At more apparent distance from actual conflict, but not from militarisation in Enloe’s broader societal sense, are videos that become vehicles for the affirmation of camouflage and uniform as fashion (where Enloe encourages us to start unpicking what has made people think that camouflage prints and military references are attractive things to wear). The fashion industry and the construction of popular music stardom are interdependent, as much in the remediation of historic and contemporary military uniform into fashion as in anything else (take Jimi Hendrix, Sgt. Pepper, The Clash and above all Michael Jackson; the vehicle for women’s tops with padded shoulders and militaristic epaulettes to transfer from the Balmain catwalk into high-street fashion in 2009–10 was above all the star image of Rihanna). To queerly ‘trouble the soldier as an object of desire’, as Jesse Crane-Seeber does in rethinking the relationship between actual soldiers’ bodies and the state, involves understanding the militarisation of desire, identification and self-fashioning outside as well as inside the military – and music video, as what Goodwin called a ‘technocracy of sensuousness’, helps form this framework, albeit in complex configurations of irony and resistance. If Jane Tynan suggests that fashion photography referencing military uniform and activity invites its viewers to identify with imaginaries of war by recreating ‘images of social and sexual power’ through the ‘seductive qualities’ of elements of military uniform, the more multisensory involvement of audiovisual spectatorship makes the invitation to identify more intense.

The glamorous female combatant indeed became a stock character for music video treatments in the 2000s and 2010s, just as ideas about women’s capacity for violence were being contested across political and cultural spheres. Katy Perry’s ‘Part Of Me’, Rihanna’s ‘Hard’ and Beyoncé’s ‘Run The World’ each position themselves differently towards the embodiment of US militarism (Perry’s character is a jilted lover who finds empowerment in joining the Marines, in a video made with Marine Corps cooperation; Rihanna’s self-proclaimed ‘couture military’ video is set in a hyperreal, desert battlefield and advanced the narrative reconstruction of Rihanna’s persona around fantasies of female excess, revenge and violence after she had survived intimate abuse; Beyoncé’s places in her in a post-apocalyptic setting, commanding a defiant, high-fashion, black-led women’s rebellion against heavily armoured male police) yet produce stills and animated gifs which, abstracted from the narrative, move even more flexibly along the and/or. Their configurations of race, gender, nation and mimesis/fantasy belong just as much as the television dramas Laura Shepherd discusses in Gender, Violence and Popular Culture within an aesthetic approach to gender and security.

As well as being representations with transnational origins, they also have a transnational and potentially global reach. The singer Helly Luv, part of the Kurdish diaspora in Finland, filmed two videos in 2014–15 in Kurdistan using a similar bank of sonic and visual imagery to the aesthetics of ‘Run The World’ or MIA’s ‘Bad Girls’ but incorporating real peshmerga fighters and equipment and dramatizing a fight against terrorism and repressive fundamentalism, celebrating peshmerga women at a time when their image was already the subject of problematic fascination in the West. Western journalists covering the Liberian civil war, Katrin Lock writes, often compared the style of the Liberian female militia leader Black Diamond to stars of hip-hop, soul and Blaxploitation cinema, and indeed the girls in the militia ‘adopted the symbols of this global and universal visual language, which is so familiar from music videos and Hollywood films’, in fashioning themselves for war.

As popular geopolitics, as war memory, as vehicle for the political economy of fashion or desire itself, music video is already world-political. At the same time, as digital communications have become part of statecraft, state and non-state actors (from ISIS to the manufacturers of fighter jets) have become increasingly skilled at using techniques that mark audiovisual artefacts as music video to enhance the appeal and impact of their own political and strategic messages. Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein describe the Israeli military’s production of content tailored to the visual aesthetics of digital media platforms, intended to be shared organically and virally through social networking, as ‘digital militarism’. The Chinese military recruitment video released with a nu-metal style soundtrack in 2016 uses music video conventions such as the slow-motion introduction of a hero dressing themselves in uniform, and the synchronisation of a missile hitting its target with a musical break, which even to a non-Chinese-speaker show the video aiming to attach its intended audience’s identificatory pleasures of spectatorship on to the Chinese military.

Music video, therefore, is not just useful for understanding popular culture and world politics because it increases the number of interesting popular cultural texts to analyse, because it offers historical insights into how people were imagining the apparently changing nature of conflict and security at the turn of the 1980s/1990s, or because ‘MTV-style’ is still a buzzword for the translation of aesthetics from entertainment media into propaganda and diplomacy even though MTV’s major contributions to audiovisual culture since the millennium have been reality TV: it also shows how deeply connected aesthetics, visuality and emotion in international politics are. Popular music is and has long been a nexus of visuality, identification and intimate affect, as well as a cultural form so intimately connected to the politics of sexuality and race that a ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ ought to recognise it as even more important to IR than it has already been said to be.

Music Video and Studying World Politics

The relatively small international politics literature on music, as Matt Davies and Marianna Franklin noted in 2015, has been slow to take up any objects of study beyond song lyrics with overtly political messages or state treatment of politicised musical movements, let alone the ‘embodied affects and experiences of sonic, audible worlds’ that distinguish music from other cultural forms. Even Davies and Franklin, however, do not theorise the nexus between sound and audiovisual aesthetics of music video. And yet it is clearly embedded in the pop-cultural ‘archive’ where gendered understandings of war, violence and security are produced and contested; in the networks of capital, ideology, technology, representation and power in which the defence and entertainment industries are mutually implicated; in the ‘everyday geopolitics’ of militarism and anti-militarism that Critical Military Studies research brings to light. Music video, arguably more than any other popular cultural form, puts the political economy and aesthetics of fashion, style and desire, and the narrative dimensions of celebrity and stardom, into the fore. Recognising what is political about them requires more than transferring typical questions about film and television to music video: it also proceeds from largely feminist and queer inquiry into the relationship between spectator, audiovisual image and performer that could usefully be brought into studying more conventionally ‘narrative’ audiovisual forms as well. Music video is a technology of fascination, fantasy and desire which, if we are seeking to explain the ‘fascination with militarized products’ that so troubles Enloe, condenses the militarising potential of audiovisual narrative texts on to an aesthetic and stylistic fulcrum; it animates the seductions of empire that so alarm Anna Agathangelou and L H M Ling.

Music video thus not just encourages but forces us to follow Roland Bleiker’s encouragement for scholars of music in world politics to go beyond the places ‘where references to the political are easy to find’, that is beyond the layer of text and language which conventional ways of knowing about global politics find most accessible. Bleiker resolved this for himself by studying instrumental music, asking explicitly ‘What can we hear that we cannot see? And what is the political content of this difference?’ Music video is conversely about what we can hear and what we can see at the same time, and the political content of these senses’ convergence rather than their separation: it is the synchronisation of editing with sound, Matthew Sumera suggests while discussing soldiers’ own amateur digital montages of war footage set to metal soundtracks, that creates music video’s unique aesthetics and affects. While music’s ‘embodied affects and […] sonic, audible worlds’ certainly offer more scope for incorporating music into IR’s ‘aesthetic turn’ than if musical lyrics simply counted as another written text, it is not even just the sonic and audible dimensions of musical worlds which matter: music video’s symbiosis of moving image and sound, and its intimate political economy of stardom, identification and desire, create modes of imagining international politics which are not quite matched by any other cultural form.

 

 

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.

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

This post originally appeared at ESC Insight on 3 May.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

‘I think you should change it!’: the Spice Girls guide to calling out racism

One of the essay questions that students on my music and politics module have been able to make their own, several times over, is one that columnists and gender studies academics were already debating in the late 1990s, when most current undergraduates were born: were the Spice Girls feminists?

I owe this one to a young woman called Emma who proposed it the first year I taught this module at Hull, who wasn’t sure something so recent and everyday and feminine and from her own experience was suitable for a history essay, even one where you have to choose your own topic like this; and of course it was, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that thinking like a historian can illuminate, so I added it to the list of ‘Past essay titles on this module have included’ in our handbook the next year, to give a signal that yes, the 1990s and childhood and girlhood and pop music are all part of History.

Other students since then have framed the Spice Girls idea their own way and, more than once, turned it into first-class work. I like to think getting the chance to find out how formative moments from your childhood were actually part of gender history is one of those transformative experiences that university teaching can create when teachers trust students to be independent and support them to do more with their knowledge than worry if they’ve got the answer ‘right’.

I won’t pre-empt future students working out how their childhood fits into the history of feminism, consumerism and any other context we might fit the Spice Girls into, but I will mention something I’d started to forget about them since they became, like the other nineties girlbands, commercial reunion fodder: the authenticity of their friendship and solidarity in the early years that still shone through the multinational industry they quickly became, the emotion behind what so many fans wanted to watch, be and buy.

This clip from a Dutch children’s TV show in 1998, which coincidentally resurfaced just as the Internet was getting ready to commemorate 20 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another artefact of 1990s popular culture in which so many women were able to recognise themselves, then talk about it through the nascent mass internet – shows the group of friends you wanted them to be, standing up for their best mate when the presenter confronts them with the blackface carnival character Zwarte Piet, but also shows how in their early twenties they’d already grasped something it takes a lot of white women, including me, much longer to learn – what you can do in the heat of the moment when someone does something racist.

Before we go any further, Zwarte Piet is a character from Dutch Christmas tradition, a sprite or demon who accompanies Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) to bring presents to children. He’s dressed as a servant from the Golden Age Netherlands, when Amsterdam was at its height as a colonial metropole, and traditionally is always played by a white person in blackface. Which is where the problem lies.

People of colour and their white allies have been protesting against the racism of Zwarte Piet for years, and some Dutch public institutions have very recently started to compromise by dressing their Zwarte Piets in a light dusting of soot (though that doesn’t change the character’s origins in the caricature of a black slave).

Many white Dutch people contend that since the Netherlands was a more benign imperial ruler than those slave-trading Brits, Dutch people can’t be racist and neither can Zwarte Piet; read Flavia Dzodan on how present-day Dutch racism makes that so unconvincing, or see Gloria Wekker’s excellent White Innocence for a book-length explanation of how Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ hides how long and how intimately race and whiteness have formed part of Dutch national identity.

In mainstream Dutch public opinion, all the more so in the late nineties, bringing out Zwarte Piet a few weeks before Christmas is no more controversial than – is the equivalent of – a British kids’ TV show bringing out Santa, so that’s exactly what the Paul De Leeuw show did in the middle of an interview with its star guests, the Spice Girls, late in 1998.

This fifty-second clip, unearthed by a Spice Girls fan site, says as much as many feminist blog posts about calling out racism and how you often get treated when you do.

Mel B, the only woman of colour in the Spice Girls, is the first to realise that De Leeuw and his producers are about to put her in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to perform the emotional labour of appearing as a star and role-model for children while surrounded by five gurning, waving characters in infantile blackface, knowing that hardly anyone is even going to realise why that might make her upset.

Calling out – which isn’t not in character – ‘I don’t like them! They’re not very good!’, she’s backed up at once by (it sounds like) Geri and Mel C, shouting ‘No!’ and not letting the interview stay business as usual. As white women and allies, they can use their whiteness as well as their membership of the same world-famous band to say: this isn’t how just one person feels because she’s black, this is something none of us find acceptable. ‘We don’t like them!’, as it becomes, is an even stronger, unified message.

Rather than making themselves the centre of attention as the woke white girls (in the nineties, we’d have said ‘right-on’) who know Zwarte Piet isn’t OK, however, they give Mel B the space and the reassurance to say what she wants to say: ‘I think they shouldn’t paint their faces! You should get proper black people to do it. You shouldn’t paint their faces. I don’t think that’s very good.’

De Leeuw’s reaction is also a classic example of derailing a conversation about racism – along the same lines as hundreds of Zwarte Piet conversations, and their equivalents in other countries, online and offline.

First he falls back on the argument that Zwarte Piet is part of Dutch ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’; then he turns the exchange into a joke that only reveals how far Zwarte Piet does depend on aggregated racist stereotypes as Africa by calling one of the Piets ‘Winnie Mandela’.

‘I think you should change it!’ says Mel B. ‘You shouldn’t have their faces painted… this is the nineties!’

Late nineties Britain, even as society liked to tell itself it had overcome the open racism of the 1960s and 1970s, was characterised by many forms of systemic racism, including an alarmingly high number of black people dying in police custody; the specific expression of racism the Spice Girls were encountering here, blackface on television, had gone off air in 1978 with the end of The Black and White Minstrel Show.

‘Yeah, but that’s culture!’ says De Leeuw.

‘Update your culture!’ says Geri – sadly not in tight enough focus for a gif – and Mel B is able to restate her point about blackface: ‘You should get proper ones! Proper black people!’

Another version of the clip, with a few extra seconds, shows De Leeuw doing something that anyone who’s called attention to racism, sexism or harassment will recognise: turning the person who pointed out the problem into the problem and making them feel responsible for spoiling the atmosphere.

(No-one in contemporary feminism writes about this more vividly or poetically than Sara Ahmed, who’s given a generation of feminists – many of whom grew up with the Spice Girls as icons – the words to understand that it really isn’t just them.)

When De Leeuw says, ‘I warn you, you mustn’t spoil a children’s party… don’t spoil a children’s party,’ he both reiterates the narrative that Zwarte Piet is an innocent children’s tradition, nothing to do with racism, and throws the responsibility back on Mel B for ruining the children’s Christmas treat.

The Spice Girls don’t march off altogether, as their ‘Wannabe’ personas might have suggested and as some stars would; other clips show them carrying on the interview. It’s still clear that the white women in the band are letting Mel B take the lead and using their own stardom and whiteness to have her back as best they can.

I wonder what impression this show might have had on a young Dutch fan of the Spice Girls, who might have been seeing for the very first time that idols she looked up to had a dramatically different view of a tradition that her parents, her school and wider Dutch society had always treated as normal and everyday.

Whether or not you think that the Spice Girls, as a phenomenon, were feminists, in the middle of a Dutch TV show at the end of 1998 they still managed to do something it’s taken many white feminists much longer to learn.