Call for papers: Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Politics of the Balkans
Edited by Catherine Baker
This companion or handbook seeks to provide a comprehensive introduction to the vibrant and interdisciplinary field of research into popular music and politics in the Balkans, explaining the state of key questions and debates which have shaped the field so far while also signalling the many new developments and directions that have emerged in response to recent political, socio-economic and cultural dislocations.
Recognising that both ‘popular music’ and ‘the Balkans’ represent categories with extremely fluid and contested boundaries – and that struggles over them have been a central concern for many scholars of the topic – the volume understands both concepts very broadly: ‘popular music’ can encompass any music which interacts with mass media and entertainment in some way, and the volume will not impose a prescriptive geographical definition of ‘the Balkans’ – all contributors who perceive their topic as relevant to debates about popular music and the Balkans are welcome to express interest, even if its geographical area would not fit neatly within all concepts of ‘the Balkans’ as a space. Equally, some chapters might not necessarily centre on activities which their practitioners would define as ‘popular music’ if they help to illuminate the contexts in which popular music and the politics surrounding it are and have been experienced in the Balkans and its diasporas.
Chapters in the volume will be up to 8,000 words long (including references) and must not have been previously published. Reflecting the many scholarly lenses that have contributed to the study of popular music and politics in the Balkans, the disciplinary range of the volume is likely to span, but not be limited to, history; sociology; anthropology; ethnomusicology; media and cultural studies; popular music studies; performance studies; visual and audiovisual studies; cultural heritage; politics and international relations; languages and literatures; and perspectives from music practitioners. The volume is in development and is subject to submission of a successful proposal to Routledge at the beginning of 2022.
Within this general call for contributions, some topics where proposals would be particularly welcome at this stage of developing the volume include:
Historical examples from periods earlier than 1945
Popular musical connections with the Global South during state socialism
Fresh approaches to well-known developments of the 1990s (e.g. ‘world music’ and postsocialism; music and the Milošević regime in Serbia)
Neotraditional musicians as populist political actors
Music and left-wing/anti-fascist activism (e.g. ‘new left’ social movements; anti-fascist rap and Pavlos Fyssas)
‘Global Blackness’, and/or articulations of Blackness in Balkan contexts, through popular music
Impact of mobile and digital technologies, including Spotify and other streaming platforms
The political economy of touring, recording, television and/or airplay
New perspectives on Romani expression and activism through popular music
Jewish participation and presence in popular music
Popular music and COVID-19
To express interest in contributing, please ideally send a working title, a 250-word abstract and a 100-word biographical note to Catherine Baker (email@example.com) before 30 November 2021. If you are seriously interested in contributing but would not have time to submit a full abstract due to heavy institutional workload or care pressures during the pandemic, please send a working title and an informal note of what you would propose to contribute, plus a link to a relevant previous publication of yours if applicable.
Abstracts due 30 November 2021
Authors notified 17 December 2021
Final proposal submitted to Routledge 31 January 2022
Eurovision 2021 saw a record number of Black performers, from backgrounds that represented a wider range of Afro-European histories than ever, and offered a home entry that made a more direct reckoning with the legacies of racism and colonialism in the host country than the contest has ever witnessed before – and yet the voting results brought the uncomfortable evidence that every single Black entrant appeared to have underperformed on pre-contest predictions, especially on the public televote.
Benny Cristo didn’t qualify from his semi-final (and neither did Australia’s Montaigne or Austria’s Vincent Bueno, this year’s two entrants of Filipino descent), and apart from Tusse, who got a relatively mid-table 63 points from the public, every Black contestant would have finished near the bottom of the Eurovision scoreboard if results had been televote-only as per most of the 2000s: Senhit and Flo Rida only scored 13, Eden Alene 20, Destiny 47 (despite ranking third in the jury votes), and for all the creative power and virtuosity Jeangu Macrooy brought to ‘Birth of a New Age’, the public vote awarded him no points at all.
No Black entrants placed on the left-hand side of the final scoreboard except for Destiny, who finished 7th, but the announcement of such a low televote total for what had been one of the pre-contest favourites was a crushing moment in what should have been the high-energy lead-up to Måneskin’s thrilling win.
We could point to reasons why each individual act underperformed: Cristo has given better vocal performances of his song than he did in the semi-final; the government of Alene’s country had just been at the centre of international condemnation; expensive American guest acts have flopped at Eurovision before (ladies and gentlemen, Miss Dita von Teese?); Tusse suffered from arguably the worst spot in the whole grand final running order by having to follow Måneskin; Destiny’s kiss-off hook might have relied too much on French slang (‘je me casse’ – ‘I’m out of here’) and a humorous English idiom (‘excuse my French!’) to connect with voters who are mostly second- or third-language speakers of both; the concept of Jeangu’s staging, breaking through a backdrop of oppressive concrete to reveal the joyous colour of his Sranan Tongo words, was slow to build and left him surrounded by a cold, bare background for those all-important first thirty seconds and more. (Imagine the same performance surrounded by a digital version of his video’s backdrops in the Rijksmuseum?)
Yet if every single Black artist in 2021 struggled in the public vote, including the one who jurors voted third best overall, is that evidence of something more unsettling in how voting audiences react to Black singers representing countries at Eurovision?
The 2021 scoreboard makes it most glaring because the final contained so many Black performers in the first place, but in fact since the current voting system was introduced in 2016, Black finalists have received an average of 123.4 points from juries but only 46.6 points from the public vote – and the contest has still never had a solo Black winner.
Accordingly, the contest’s communities do need to confront the likelihood that racism is having an effect on how audiences react to Black performers at Eurovision, and even in more subtle ways than viewers deciding not to vote for a Black singer because they are overtly prejudiced – modern Eurovision’s cardinal sin.
As well as conscious prejudice, which the majority of viewers interested enough in Eurovision to vote would probably distance themselves from, racism also manifests in less conscious forms of assumptions and bias.
Along with the beliefs about their backgrounds, attitude and appearance that Black creators and professionals have to fight against in essentially every sphere of public life, the context of Eurovision brings with it the idea that the show is celebrating European cultural traditions – and this is a ‘Europe’ commonly, though wrongly, thought of as a historically white place, where people of African descent have only recently started living and so are not part of its cultural traditions. Their own cultural traditions, in the same way, seem less ‘European’.
Applied to voters’ tastes at Eurovision, where viewers are being asked to make emotional connections with 26 different songs one after the other, this might invisibly contribute to viewers sensing that Black musicians’ entries are less what they enjoy in a Eurovision context even if they’d never come close to putting that thinking into words, or finding Black sound or dance too confrontational to connect to.
It likely has an impact, too, on how people react to particular Black performers – especially Destiny, who’s been being criticised since the final as overconfident even though her whole delegation was promoting her so heavily before the contest that they bought ads on social media campaigning for her to win. As a Black woman with a larger body shape, Destiny has borne the brunt of diverging from European beauty standards, and celebrates her ability to enjoy her body in her own song – yet a groundswell of remarks about the very same thing was going on behind her back at the very contest where she was supposed to be getting her message across.
Moreover, the conventions of beauty that Destiny stands out from are products of both racism and sexism at once – since the standard of preferring women to be thin dates right back to the era when being thin demonstrated white women’s ‘European’ level of self-control and distinguished them from curvier Black women, a trope we still see in hostile reactions to fat Black women performers like Lizzo today.
This would make Eurovision yet another context where Black people have to work ‘twice as hard’ as their white counterparts to achieve the same success, and where straying away from a white norm to pursue Black traditions of cultural expression is an extra creative risk.
(Without taking away from the example of representation that Tusse wanted to set on stage as a Black soloist with all-Black dancers, which he’s spoken about never having had when he was growing up in Sweden as a child refugee from the DRC, what he’s achieved in breaking through in Swedish pop, or how more accessible his message of liberation seemed to be on grand final night, it’s notable when we’re talking about how Black entrants’ songs resonated with the voting public that, musically and lyrically, ‘Voices’ hits all the beats of typical Swedish Eurovision production, to the point that it shares its hook line with Russia’s partly-Swedish-written runner-up from 2015.)
Another, even more subtle, way that racism in its structural sense influences how viewers connect with Black music and musicians at Eurovision is through something that philosophers of racism call ‘epistemic ignorance’ – or, very simply, what we’ve been trained not to know about our own society and our own history when it has to do with racism, slavery and empire.
Until Black historians and campaigners, and their counterparts from other racial minorities, started challenging it, the status quo in predominantly white societies was for schools, museums, media and other institutions that deal with the past not even to mention the violence that European colonisers inflicted on people of African descent and the inhabitants of other territories they colonised – and certainly not to deal with the material and psychological consequences for their descendants in society today.
How far that is being challenged in each country, and from what starting point, is a complex matter – and it’s far less on the agenda in countries that didn’t have their own overseas colonial projects, or where national history between the 16th century and the First World War was mostly a matter of being ruled by other empires themselves.
In countries which did have their own systems of colonial exploitation, but perhaps also when it comes to thinking about ‘Europe’ as a whole, we have to set that past and its consequences aside to be able to feel proud of our shared history – but the privilege of not having to know about racism or the history behind it doesn’t extend to Black Europeans or members of other racial minorities, who experience the disadvantage from it every day.
In my last post on Eurovision and the struggle for racial justice this year, I talked about how ‘Birth of a New Age’ could be compared to Jamala’s ‘1944’ in the way they both express their singers’ emotions about violence against their ancestors and what that means in the present. But compared to how ‘1944’ played out in 2016, where Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was common knowledge, many viewers had strong feelings of injustice about it, and most viewers would have heard Eurovision commentators explaining that her grandparents were Crimean Tatars, colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade don’t figure as a living history to most white Europeans – nor, therefore, does the full resonance of how ‘Birth of a New Age’ calls into being its resistance to injustice.
Jamala enjoyed a wall of press coverage before her Eurovision in which she could explain Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944, describe how her own grandparents were suffering in occupied Crimea, and invite viewers to make the historical connections for themselves (all to the benefit of Ukraine’s public diplomacy, even before she’d won).
Although pre-contest media coverage was more limited this year due to Covid restrictions, the pandemic can take only some of the blame for how few viewers would have approached the grand final knowing and feeling as much about the history behind Jeangu’s song as they would have known about Jamala’s – and, with the Netherlands going through its own reckoning with the legacies of its colonial past (including what may at last be the phasing out of blackface Zwarte Piet, and the Rijksmuseum acknowledging the significance of the Atlantic slave trade to Dutch history in an exhibition that opened in the very same week as Eurovision), it’s not as if there wasn’t an epic scale of story to tell.
(Many more viewers will now know at least a small amount about Dutch colonial oppression against enslaved Africans and their descendants in Suriname thanks to Jeangu’s performance in the final, which shouldn’t be underestimated – but even in countries where commentators were linking the song to Black Lives Matter, how many viewers even now know the basic lowdown of what happened when?)
With more racial diversity behind the scenes in how Eurovision is covered – including, as Alesia Michelle has been pointing out, in fan media accreditation and the online press room – we might have seen more journalists asking the questions that would have let Jeangu and his delegation draw the nuances of his story out… and fewer of the unpleasant, disproportionately critical comments about Destiny’s rehearsals that reportedly marred the atmosphere of the online chat there.
What would it take, then, to improve awareness of the historical, institutional and structural dimensions of racism – or increase what’s sometimes called ‘racial literacy’) – across the Eurovision world in general? A priority would surely be strengthening racial literacy, and indeed sheer racial diversity, in Eurovision’s reference group itself, where incorporating more invited members with relevant lived and professional experience could compensate for the other pools of potential members still being wholly or predominantly white.
Besides a stronger ability to spot potentially problematic song concepts before they reached the televised stage, we could expect stronger support for other initiatives as well:
What more could Eurovision as an organisation do to spotlight the histories of racial and ethnic minorities in host cities, working against the misperception that Europe and its constituent nations have only ever been historically white?
How can it ensure that Black contestants and Black music are fairly served in the narratives that build up around the contest and help viewers connect with entries every year?
What can Eurovision do to see that cleaning, hospitality and security staff at its venues, who in many countries are more likely to belong to racial minorities, are being fairly treated?
What leverage could Eurovision use to support other struggles for racial justice in European television, such as the tide of resistance to blackface performance in many countries that may finally be turning?
And how can Eurovision ensure that its physical and digital spaces are as welcoming to fans, workers and participants of African and Asian descent as they are to anyone else?
It’s when organisations don’t get it that those most affected, and their allies, end up saying: je me casse.
Alongside the grief and isolation of 2020, which hit the communities that gather around Eurovision in its own way when the contest was cancelled, and the solidarity and creativity of inventing new forms of digital togetherness – which Eurovision knows something about as well – 2020 was also a year of protest.
Historians of that first pandemic year will surely ask why George Floyd’s murder on 25 May, out of all the police killings of Black people there have been, sparked such a global mobilisation for racial justice, just as the first wave of Covid-19 was subsiding in many places, and why these protests were the ones to make many institutions around the world take sudden action towards the cause of racial equality. As the first Eurovision since the beginning of the pandemic opens in Rotterdam, we might ask: would this legacy of 2020 change Eurovision in any way?
In a contest which has still never had a solo Black winner, Eurovision 2020 would have involved a record number of contestants of African descent, and the contest’s most diverse set of Afro-European histories as well. Benny Cristo from the Czech Republic was the son of an Angolan who moved to what was then Czechoslovakia; Destiny Chukunyere was the daughter of a Nigerian footballer who moved to play in Malta; Eden Alene belonged to the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel; Senhit, making her second appearance for San Marino, came from an Eritrean family in Italy; The Mamas, from African-American and Afro-Swedish backgrounds, had won Sweden’s Melodifestivalen after supporting John Lundvik on backing vocals in 2019; and the singer-songwriter Jeangu Macrooy, hotly tipped for his introspective song ‘Grow’, was born in Paramaribo, embodying the history of colonial oppression linking West Africa, Suriname and the Netherlands.
Almost all these contestants have returned for 2021 (and, as of the semi-finals, Senhit has even been joined by Flo Rida): while The Mamas didn’t repeat their Melodifestivalen victory, this year’s Swedish entrant, Tusse, came to Sweden as an unaccompanied child refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of a very recent and still continuing episode in Europe’s Black history. (For the first time ever, Eurovision 2021 also has two contestants of Filipino heritage, Australia’s Montaigne and Austria’s Vincent Bueno; unfortunately for the Filipino diaspora as well as all their fans around the world, neither made it past the semi-finals this week.)
Performance scholars looking at Eurovision critically, like Katrin Sieg, have sometimes questioned wondered whether even its famed moments of multi-racial inclusion actually offer audiences an illusory, comforting moment of thinking about Europe as post-racial – somewhere that has overcome racism, or that has never known racism in the same way as the US. When we watch Dave Benton singing with Tanel Padar in Estonia’s winning song from 2001, or Madcon leading their flashmob in the interval of Oslo 2010, are we actually being offered a fantasy of inclusion that distracts us from seeing ongoing racial injustice in Europe – and is there space within the traditions, rules and constraints of Eurovision for Black music to represent at least some of the critique, anticolonial resistance, and radical thought that thinkers like Paul Gilroy see in the Black diaspora’s musical creativity?
While the format of a commercialised and televised international song contest will always constrain the radical and political potential of performance to some extent (if only through the threat of financial sanction for breaking the rules, as Iceland’s Hatari found out in 2019), Jeangu’s return entry, ‘Birth of a New Age’, might have come closer than ever before to using Eurovision to advance the cause of racial justice in a material way.
As singer, lyricist and main composer of ‘Birth of a New Age’, Jeangu both celebrates the struggle of the Surinamese people and their Sranan Tongo language, and appeals to a collective Black history, remembering the violence that European enslavers wrought against the bodies, languages, cultures and religions of the ancestors of millions of Black Europeans – with a video asserting that Black style, dance, hair, customs and worship, and Surinamese traditions of them more specifically, all belong inside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Jeangu’s very first line, ‘Skin as rich as a starlit night’, speaks a promise to recover Blackness as the centre of beauty, and his chorus in Sranan Tongo – ‘Yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko mi, yu no man broko, broko mi (mi na afu sensi)’, carries into Eurovision a traditional Surinamese odo, or saying of wisdom, translated as ‘You can’t break me, I’m half a cent’ – the smallest Surinamese coin, but the hardest to break.
As a creole language, with elements of English, Dutch, Portuguese and West African languages, Sranan Tongo has its origins in how enslaved Africans in Suriname, torn from many parts of West Africa and banned from learning Dutch, learned to communicate with each other and hide thoughts from their enslavers; when the Dutch authorities abolished slavery in Suriname in 1863, they forced children in compulsory education to learn only Dutch, hoping to stamp Sranan Tongo out. Even in contemporary Suriname the creole has a stigmatised history, and the official language is still the colonisers’ Dutch.
For those who want to see it, this year’s Dutch entry and the amount of creative input Jeangu has been able to exercise over its presentation do stand as an assertion of Black aesthetics in a mass entertainment context, albeit with all the tensions and limitations that implies. In the context of Eurovision, it might play the same creative role Black Panther does within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; its video’s high-fashion dialogue of resistance with how Black people were represented in Dutch and European art at the time the Rijksmuseum was built and filled simultaneously, also seems in conversation with how Beyoncé and Jay-Z staged their ‘Apeshit’ video in the Louvre in 2018 – following on from Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’, a project that inspired an entire Black feminist syllabus. (The choreographer for ‘Apeshit’, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is Flemish-Moroccan and directed the interval act of Thursday’s Eurovision semi-final featuring ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh and BMX rider Dez Maarsen, ‘Close Encounters of a Special Kind’.)
In Eurovision press conferences, Jeangu has also spoken of how important it is to be on the Eurovision stage as a queer black man (and one with Billy Porter levels of red-carpet style):
The song itself started out as a poem Jeangu wrote in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which he has said he couldn’t have written if he hadn’t lived through 2020; even on a technical note, it couldn’t have sounded the same in any other Eurovision year to date, since the rule against more than six people performing (relaxed this year for Covid reasons so that delegations could send pre-recorded vocals and limit the number of people they’d needed to bring to Rotterdam) has always prevented soul, gospel and other collective Black musical traditions from being fully heard on the Eurovision stage. This year, Jeangu can be backed by the sound of a full choir (in fact laid down by Jeangu and his backing performers singing the vocals many times – among them Jeangu’s brother and ex-bandmate Xillan).
have shown an appetite for reviving the empowering stories of their ancestors. They are actively seeking these pockets of knowledge by engaging with virtual learning, online debates, social media […] They are also generating new narratives of resilience and diving into activism, from pushing for action on climate change, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights, to dismantling racism, islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination.
Jeangu’s poetry communicates – to listeners who have felt the pressure of colonial legacies on their own bodies and to listeners who might have thought empire was just in the past – the violence that colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade inflicted on the minds and cultures of future generations, as well as on the bodies of those enslaved:
They buried your gods, they imprisoned your thoughts Your rhythm is rebellion, your rhythm is rebellion They tried to drain you of your faith, but you’re the rage that melts the chains This ain’t the end, no, it’s the birth of a new age
Where narrating histories of violence and their legacies in the present at Eurovision are concerned, ‘Birth of a New Age’ deserves comparison to Jamala’s ‘1944’, which – two years after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars.
Both are narratives of historic oppression against their performers’ ancestors, the legacies of that violence for their communities, and how those communities have fought for their identities to survive – both, indeed, reassert that survival by switching into the oppressed language in their chorus. A response to Black Lives Matter at Eurovision could just have remediated images of Black American protest; here, instead, is a distinctly African European narrative, representing a nation which is undertaking its own reckoning with its colonial past and its legacies of racism today.
Even before 2020, the struggle for public reckoning with racism and the colonial past in the Netherlands had been putting more and more pressure on Dutch institutions: organisations including city councils and the broadcaster NTR have finally stepped away from the traditional Advent blackface character Zwarte Piet, and even the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said two weeks after Floyd’s murder that he had been persuaded Zwarte Piet was not just an innocent tradition.
In the very same week as Rotterdam hosted Eurovision, the Rijksmuseum opened its new ‘Slavery’ exhibition, in development since 2017, which affirms that ‘the history of slavery and the history of the Netherlands are bound together’ – chipping away at the myth of ‘white innocence’ that, Gloria Wekker writes, has characterised the prevailing responses of the white Dutch public when challenged to consider Dutch colonial history and racism in the Netherlands today.
Much more still needs to change (not least at the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, which mocked Jeangu’s chorus and deflected its message by running an online advertisement for broccoli) – yet this degree of critical reflection on Europe’s colonial past and its links to racism today has never been as present at Eurovision as Jeangu has made it in 2021.
Shortly after lockdown in Italy began, Italian apartment-dwellers started joining in co-ordinated singing from their balconies, including the song that had just won the Sanremo Music Festival and was still officially Italy’s entry for the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. When it became clear that that too would have to be cancelled, Eurovision fans rallied together on social media to bind their sense of community back together by watching past contents online.
Both these ‘affects’ of lockdown presumed opposite relationships to space and gathering together than those on which Eurovision and other live televised events have relied for their emotional power. To illustrate that, consider how each contrasts with the seemingly unlikely note of sombreness and sincerity that Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro brought into the Eurovision grand final in 2018 when they performed that year’s Italian entry ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’ (‘You haven’t done anything to me’) –a song commemorating the hundreds of victims of the urban terrorism which had added undercurrents of fear to the everyday experience of city life for millions of people in the mid-2010s.
Alone on stage against a background of deep red spotlights and digital projections of their lyrics translated into fifteen languages, Meta and Moro named the sites of recent attacks in Cairo, Barcelona, Paris, London and Nice, with imagery more graphic than casual viewers would likely expect from a contest with so kitsch a reputation, and appeals to tolerance and religious reconciliation that tested the boundaries of Eurovision’s rule against political messages.
Moro’s intense gaze at the crowd, and the tightness of his fist clenched around his microphone stand, even seemed to make visible the unspoken knowledge that audiences, performers and fans had had to suppress since the Bataclan attacks and the Manchester Arena bombing in order to enjoy any live spectacle at all: it could have been any working musician, and any crowd.
Two years later, the song that would have been Italy’s Eurovision entry, Diodato’s ‘Fai rumore’, was instead being sung in unison by Italian city-dwellers from their balconies, joining in one of the only physical forms of community with a group larger than their own household that was open to them now that the severity of coronavirus in Italy had forced the country into Europe’s earliest and arguably strictest lockdown.
In Meta’s and Moro’s song, as in the discourses of the many European leaders who had had to react to mass-casualty attacks in their countries and cities over the previous few years, terrorism appeared to be motivated by religious intolerance and a blow struck against what their words implied was a shared way of life (in a transnational community extending through Europe to Cairo, though marked specifically as victims of Islamist terrorism compared to the effect it might have had to name Oslo or Utøya as well): its targets were members of the public taking part in the city’s everyday rituals of sociality and joy, in bars and shopping streets and concert crowds.
Against the geographic enormity of the globe, with ‘galaxies of people dispersed in space’, Meta and Moro sang, ‘the most important thing is the space of an embrace’. This intimate, commonplace comfort is now, for up to half the world’s population, against the law to share with anyone outside their household, and denied to those living alone at all – while the terrorist has all but vanished as a source of outdoor dread.
The everyday emotional and affective experiences of living through coronavirus lockdown are unprecedented for those who have been fortunate never to have lived under extended state curfew or a wartime siege, or to have had disabilities restricting them from taking part in public life outside the home; the context of a global, seemingly uncontrollable airborne pandemic is new even then. Together with the anxiety and, for growing numbers of us, the grief that the virus itself has brought, and with what it has meant for any of our working lives, our everyday affects and moods are governed by the politics and economics of our intimate space – the size and quality of our homes, who we live with and how, the gendered dynamics of power and even violence within households, and the structural factors that stratify access to private gardens and other amenities by race and class.
Even more so than in other emergencies, there can be no such thing as a collective experience of coronavirus when some have lived through it with those emotionally closest to them and others will have spent months without face-to-face conversation or touch.
National and transnational media, nevertheless, continue to be driven by a guiding logic of addressing – or inventing – a collective community, which (as Benedict Anderson first noted about the readership of national newspapers) was always too large by orders of magnitude for its members to have ever personally met. Even as multi-channel broadcasting, social media and streaming television have fragmented the mass audiences that television used to count on, media scholars have looked to live events and festivals as the sites where what Angharad Closs Stephens calls the ‘affective atmospheres of nationalism’ (and transnationalism) are most likely to be charged, in person, through the screen and on the keyboard or the phone.
But what happens to the ability of live music and sporting events to bring collective communities temporarily together and invite them to share the sentiments brought out by particular representations of national and transnational identity – the very thing that Eurovision researchers have long argued the contest is famous for – when they have depended on gathering crowds, presenters, participants and technical crew together in sizes that could be banned for months or even longer?
As sports teams and national governing bodies began to pull out of international fixtures even before governmental travel restrictions started making them impossible (one of the last fixtures involving an Italian team, Atalanta’s Champions League match against Valencia in Milan on 19 February, has been blamed for coronavirus outbreaks in both Valencia and Atalanta’s home city of Bergamo), Eurovision fans grew increasingly aware that the live contest in Rotterdam’s 15,000-capacity Ahoy Arena would not be able to take place as scheduled in the middle of May.
During the early stages of lockdown, as celebrities posted stay-at-home appeals from inside their own houses and bands found ways to play together while physically separated (Dubioza Kolektiv, the Bosnian band ‘sick of being European just on Eurosong’, have been streaming their weekly ‘Quarantine Show’ from their homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia), fans speculated whether Eurovision could still go ahead with remote presenters and the pre-contest videos for what was already a complete slate of songs. The European Broadcasting Union, in charge of Eurovision, announced the inevitable on 18 March, recognising that the size of the event made it too complex to postpone for later in the year.
While the annual Eurovision broadcast brings a temporary affective community into being through television and social media for the length of the contest, fandom (or the many fandoms that now criss-cross various online and offline spaces) sustains an affective community year-round – where keeping up with and sometimes travelling to national selections and pre-Eurovision events as well as the contest itself is an annual ritual, and fans forge friendships, relationships, work and study plans (my own PhD on Croatian popular music and national identity wouldn’t have looked the same if the scandal of Severina’s 2006 Croatian Eurovision entry hadn’t happened in the middle of my research). Fandom’s annual anchor being cancelled for the first time in its history, without even a scoreboard to argue about in years to come, was one more blow in a collapsing social reality.
That weekend, journalist and Eurovision fan Rob Holley organised the first of what’s become a weekly synchronised watchalong of a past contest, #EurovisionAgain, to help fill Saturday nights – because, ‘why not come together every Saturday night and share the moment anyway’? First up was the Malmö contest in 2013, where most fans outside Sweden had first encountered now-legendary presenter Petra Mede; Athens 2006, Moscow 2009, Vienna 2015, Dublin 1997 and Helsinki 2007 have followed, with their own online voting countdown devised by Ellie Chalkley from fan site ESC Insight (for which I’ve written a few times), and the EBU even co-operating to stream new high-definition versions of the 2000s contests and help make older finals temporarily available online.
(Eurovision’s social media channel has also been sharing #EurovisionHomeConcerts where recent contestants share versions of their own and each other’s songs, and a special show on the original date of the grand final will celebrate this year’s entries and ‘link Europe through other familiar songs from the past, performed in iconic European locations’ – to end with a joint performance of the UK’s last Eurovision winner ‘Love Shine A Light’, to be seen on most participating broadcasters except the BBC, which will produce its own Eurovision celebration instead.)
After trying to detach from social media for the few Saturday nights of the lockdown, I joined in #EurovisionAgain for the Helsinki rewatch, livetweeting and making a short video explaining some of the background behind Marija Šerifović’s historic win.
Even watching a contest for the first time brings complex layers of memory and imagination together into the meanings viewers make out of what’s on stage – from memories of other contests and social experiences around those ritual times, to impressions of past or future travel to countries and cities involved, and narratives about international politics that we or the media project on to performances to affectively connect them with identities of ours (the way that Conchita Wurst’s victory in 2014 immediately became bound up with narratives of ‘Europe’ as a tolerant, LGBTQ-friendly space contrasted against ‘Russia’, after the Russian Duma had passed the so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law in 2013).
Rewatching a contest adds temporal distance to those layers of emotional meaning, on both personal and collective levels. In 2007, I was entering the last year of my PhD, and starting to draft the articles on Eurovision and pop-folk music I published in 2008 without knowing what a snapshot of that particular moment in the cultural politics of European integration they’d become, or that I’d still be actively researching Eurovision as an academic thirteen years later as a result of them; Šerifović’s win, for viewers with feminist or queer awareness and some knowledge of Serbian politics since then, may well call to mind the ‘tactical Europeanisation’ of the Serbian state’s shift towards securing Pride marches in the 2010s and the appointment of Ana Brnabić as the region’s first openly gay prime minister in 2017.
In the middle of a pandemic, the emotional experience of watching a past Eurovision might also contrast what each of us and our communities took for granted then with what it has become impossible to do now, with no certainty about when or how gathering in public will be safe again or crossing international borders will be allowed. Like the spectres that Meta’s pleading hands and Moro’s clenched fist brought into the undercurrent of his performance, these are affects that have to stay beneath our consciousness in order to feel the joy we probably turn to Eurovision for.
But it is the ways viewers have created affective experiences and rituals with each other around the annual rhythm of the contest, through digitally mediated communities, which have let those communities invent new rituals even when no live contest can take place at all.
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.)
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.
Things people on the internet have not said to me for explaining why the staging of the Dutch Eurovision entry look racist:
Go back to your own country.
[Another racial slur.]
Any words the BBC wouldn’t be allowed to broadcast before 9 pm.
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.
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.
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.
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) , 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 feministandqueer 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 beingcontested 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.
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 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.
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 writtenherebefore, 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.
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: