Catherine Baker

Archive for the ‘music’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by bakercatherine

10 March 2017 at 10:30 pm

When what we see isn’t what we’re meant to hear: you can lead an audience to Eurovision but can you make it think?

Early in the year for a Eurovision post, but February is when most participating broadcasters are busy choosing their entries (although the keenest, like Albania’s RTSH, wrap theirs up well before Christmas) and it’s when some of the most interesting examples of what an entry might do are going around.

The latest national selection to get underway is Slovenia’s EMA, halfway through cutting sixteen songs down to eight before a final next weekend and still nowhere near the size of a media-event behemoth like Sweden’s six-week Melodifestivalen.

This rather spectacular production by EMA standards stood out from the others in Friday’s semi-final:

Working around Eurovision’s performance rules (no pre-recorded vocals; no more than six people on stage), which were supposed to put poorer and richer broadcasters on level playing fields but haven’t kept up with the digital backdrop technology that has transformed Eurovision staging since the mid-2000s, the pop-opera group Tosca Beat put on a three-minute provocation about media manipulation which resembled a whole vein of utilitarian young-adult dystopias in recent Hollywood cinema, and definitely – we can tell from the group’s promotion before EMA – meant to reference George Orwell’s 1984.

toscabeatorwell

Serendipitously helped by the huge girders that EMA’s producers decided to decorate the stage with this year, it even used some of the same visual codes as a musical/artistic project which started out as shock-value provocateurs in late socialist Yugoslavia and became edgy cultural heritage for an independent Slovenia: Laibach, the industrial band named after the German translation of ‘Ljubljana’ that pushed past Kraftwerk to mobilise totalitarian and fascist aesthetics to such a degree since forming in a Slovenian mining town in 1980 that listening to or watching their music is a continual process of trying to work out whether they actually mean it after all, and whether what you’re enjoying is really the wit of the parody or maybe the pull of what they supposedly subvert.

(And yes, that’s what happens when you translate the ‘One Vision’ of ‘Radio Gaga’-era Queen into German – where the sound of lyrics like ‘one man, one goal, one vision’ evokes a very different kind of charismatic relationship between leader and crowd than the supposed inspiration for Queen’s original, Martin Luther King.)

Or that’s how it came across to Eurovision blogger and punk rock singer Roy Delaney, who hadn’t expected ‘a post-industrial Laibach tribute act’ in an EMA semi-final but found one anyway:

Surely this can’t be an accident? Militaristic outfits, megaphones, situationist statements, stompy marching music and a deeper-than-mines voice croaking out between the high pitched choruses. It’s Slovenia’s biggest ever international musical export, toned down and made (slightly more) palatable for the Friday evening TV crowd.

It’s the brown blouse and crossed-over belts of the middle soprano Urška Kastelic, in front of the stark video backdrop, that do most to evoke the ambiguity of Laibach (who added their own uniformed female vocalist, Mina Špiler, in 2004) and make the viewer wonder should they really be doing that?

What resolves it for Tosca Beat, or ought to, is the white-uniformed megaphonist and keyboard player pulling on a set of angel wings (in a move that takes about ten seconds – this all goes much more quickly in the Hunger Games) and intoning what seems to be a warning about the seductive power of totalitarianism:

The rush for victory will be present at all times… The race for defeating a helpless enemy will become our number one priority… Don’t let it happen. It depends on us.

If the first two and a half minutes are having the viewer join in the pleasure of an aesthetic – a way of sensing things and feeling emotions through them – that comes to them first through the horrors of 20th-century European history and then through the inherently ambiguous (many, like Susan Sontag in her essay on ‘Fascinating Fascism’, would say too ambiguous) conventions of late 20th century provocative art, the ‘Don’t let it happen’ potentially reaches out to show how easily it does happen, while the spectatorship is still going on.

The politics of irony, memory and nostalgia in post-Yugoslav Slovenia, from the ‘Neue Slowenische Kunst’ (‘New Slovenian Art’ in German) art collective that emerged from the same alternative milieu as Laibach in the 1980s to parody the kitsch iconography of authoritarianism and state power, to the ‘nostalgic culture‘ around Communist and Partisan symbols among young Slovenes who did not even grow up in Yugoslavia, make acts like this crop up in Slovenian pop music from time to time – one of the stalwarts of Slovenian military bricolage, Rock Partyzani, even took part in EMA in 2011.

‘Free World’ hasn’t even gone on to make next week’s national final, meaning the audience for this dystopian intervention – or whatever it was – will likely be no larger than the 200,000-300,000 Slovenian viewers who might watch an EMA heat and the several thousand Eurovision fans who keep up with EMA live or on YouTube.

One song that will be on stage in Kiev and faces a similar challenge, however, is the winner of Italy’s Sanremo festival – Francesco Gabbani’s ‘Occidentali’s Karma’.

Even as the poetic conventions of Italian pop music go, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ – which has been seen more than 18 million times on YouTube in ten days, plus another 1 million views for Gabbani’s performance in the Sanremo final – is an ambitious philosophy essay.

The title – ‘Westerners’ karma’, or il karma degli occidentali transposed into the possessive syntax of an English apostrophe-s – is already asking the listener to play a linguistic game which at the very least needs an anglophone to work out who are the occidentali anyway, then – if they’re going to understand what the lyricist wants them to – to work out what Gabbani might mean about their karma or the search for it or whether they can even access it or not.

The rest of the lyrics take a glossary to explain – something which the 40+ television commentators who have to introduce this song to Eurovision viewers in May won’t have the luxury of – and according to Gabbani’s fellow songwriter Fabio Ilacqua are supposed to critique the shallowness of modern life in the West and the way that Westerners have appropriated ‘Eastern’ spiritual practices to help them cope:

It describes the situation of Westerners, their models and their way of seeking refuge in the Oriental rituals for comfort. It’s a pretext to observe how are we as modern humans. Westerners are turning to oriental cultures like tourists who go into a holiday village. Oriental cultures are seen as an escape from the stress, but they were not born for this. It’s the trivialisation of something profound.

What the viewer first sees, unless the staging is very careful, is a white man dressing up in orange robes going namaste.

On stage at Sanremo, a line in the song’s lyrics citing the anthropologist Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape inspired its producer to bring a man in a gorilla suit on stage halfway:

‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is now, to the overlapping Italian and transnational communities of Eurovision fans, the early favourite to win the contest and/or that song that needs to come with an entire bibliography, and, to many more internet users, the viral video with the dancing man in the gorilla suit.

Within the lyrics, the line ‘the naked ape is dancing, occidentali’s karma’ (‘la scimmia nuda balla, occidentali’s karma’) is saying something about a search for meaning that Gabbani sings has weighed on human minds on levels from the high art of Hamlet to the Neolithic.

Outside the lyrics – to a viewer who doesn’t understand the language, or doesn’t grasp in the middle of a televised song festival what the hell is supposed to be going on – it’s a dancing gorilla, in a song about karma and nirvana.

Which when the gorilla was and is a symbol of African primitivity in so many European racisms (think how often the racist abuse hurled at black footballers involves gorilla chants), working so deep down in white imaginations as to be imperceptible to persuade white people to fear physically imposing black men, and when the superiority of Europe in biological and cultural racism is so much about civilisation and modernity – is not what Ilacqua says he means the song to be about.

The long history of stereotypes of Africa and primitivism in Western arts and culture (which have outlasted the overseas empires that European countries like Italy and Britain actually had, and permeated across Europe to countries that didn’t have them at all), and the colonial overtones to contemporary Western appropriations of ‘Oriental’ spirituality, are a huge structure of thought and feeling that could prevent some viewers grasping the song’s critical intent, leave others recognising the racialised meanings of the gorilla and interpreting the performance as one that just reproduces the same dynamics it set out to critique, because the immediate aesthetic impact of what the viewer sees comes more quickly and viscerally than the intellectual effect of what the viewer (if they can catch it) hears.

(I’d switch the gorilla out for a Flintstones caveman for the Eurovision final. Yes, it loses the ‘naked ape’ reference. ‘Neolithic man’ is in the lyrics as well. You get three minutes.)

Tosca Beat and Gabbani are at very different steps of the Eurovision pyramid, but both have tried to use the aesthetics of performance to ask the viewer to recognise something else underneath what looks like their visual presentation – and occupy an ambiguous relationship towards the visual culture of European fascism or colonialism as they do so.

Can a Eurovision performance engage an audience in the kind of spectatorial move that both these videos make? It can try – but the sources they reassemble still have such power in European and Western imaginations that there’s no guarantee it can succeed.

Written by bakercatherine

18 February 2017 at 4:03 pm

‘Love Love Peace Peace’: so how did a song about mass violence and national trauma win Eurovision 2016?

Eurovision host broadcasters know they’ve done a good job if, after a three-and-a-half hour final full of immersive digital projection, political controversies, elaborate cosplays of characters that don’t exist yet, and a band called Young Georgian Lolitaz (not like that), one of the most talked-about acts is from your own half-time show.

Sweden’s SVT last hosted Eurovision in 2013 and brought a tradition of Sweden’s own Eurovision preselections into the grand final with a self-deprecating musical cabaret number called ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’, performed by the host (comedian Petra Mede) and as many personifications of quirky elements of Swedish national identity (up to and including some dancing meatballs) as would fit in.

The act made Mede a fan-favourite to return as presenter (alongside last year’s winner Mans Zelmerlow) when SVT hosted again. Organisers this year, however – preparing Eurovision at a time of hardening material and symbolic borders within as well as around Europe – were keen to find ways not just to call Eurovision an event where audiences ‘come together’ but to build moments into the contest that viewers could enjoy regardless of their own (geo)political position.

Part of that solution, in the first semi-final, was to acknowledge the refugee crisis through an interpretive dance performance, ‘The Grey People‘, which placed the viewer’s sympathies firmly with the refugees fleeing to Europe rather than with European governments whose immigration policies have made those journeys so deadly. (The BBC chose to opt out from this part of the broadcast, instead showing a comedy sketch about – as it happened – Swedish meatballs.)

The solution was to tell narratives of cultural identity around Eurovision itself – both in the ‘What is Eurovision?‘ number that Mede and Zelmerlow performed at the beginning of the second semi-final and, turning the style of ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’ on to 21st-century Eurovision in particular, the stand-out number from the grand final interval, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’.

‘Love Love Peace Peace’, or Zelmerlow/Mede’s guide to how to win a contemporary Eurovision, picked up on as many famous costumes and visual gimmicks as it could from Eurovision’s recent history – and could live on illustrating an awful lot of Eurovision researchers’ conference talks, including the ones about national identity and folklore, which happens to be where I came in.

My first piece of academic writing on Eurovision was about the strategy of incorporating ‘simulations’ of national folklore (dance, costume, singing etc) into Eurovision entries in ways that positioned a country as primordial and contemporary at the same time – timeless enough to be able to have those symbols yet modern enough to be taking the role of packaging them up for the European gaze.

The classic example here (what would be the Trope Maker if the TV Tropes website had a Eurovision section) is what we can now describe as Ukraine’s first Eurovision winner, Ruslana’s ‘Wild Dances’ from 2004.

(On stage, Ruslana channelled Hutsul folklore and Xena Warrior Princess, which through its theme song had taken some of its aesthetic from Bulgarian world music marketing in the first place; off stage, her materials talked about her music conservatory training in Lviv and her love of Deep Purple, and that was before the Orange Revolution or the Maidan protests even came along.)

This was particularly characteristic of eastern European entries at what turned out to be a very specific historical moment – the exuberant eastward enlargement of the EU and Eurovision, before financial crisis started re-fragmenting both spaces. Countries frequently imagined to be on Europe’s southern and northern peripheries had comparable strategies that played on imaginations of ‘Latinness’ and the Mediterranean, or on a kind of ‘northern exoticism'[1], respectively.

‘Love Love Peace Peace’ is Eurovision telling its own contemporary history to itself – and quite a compendium it is, too:

  • ‘Step 1: Get everyone’s attention with a powerful, majestic start. Maybe a battle horn of some kind!’ Or the trembita from ‘Wild Dances’. That’ll do.
  • Drums played by shirtless men – as for Ireland 2013 and many more.
  • Various shouts of ‘Hey!’ across the backing track. ‘Wild Dances’ is the Trope Maker again here.
  • Or going ‘the exact opposite way – and use a grandmother’. Moldova’s Zdob si zdub, in 2005, both sang about and involved one who played the drums.
  • ‘Show the viewers your country’s ethnic background by using an old traditional folklore instrument that no-one’s heard of before.’
    lovelovepeacepeaceinstrument
    Diplomatically, they attributed theirs to Sweden and made it up.
  • Violinists, up to and including Norway’s 2009 winner Alexander Rybak. (That was really him.)
  • In case the above makes the entry feel old-fashioned, ‘this can easily be fixed by adding a DJ who pretends to scratch’. Or, as Bulgaria’s Deep Zone Project and Balthasar said in 2008: ‘DJ, take me away.‘ (What were we saying about using folklore in a way that shows you know how to repackage it for a contemporary gaze?)
  • On-stage costume changes. (Croatia, pace-setters for this one in the late 90s, added another but with 2016 production values this year.) Mans is dressed as Russia’s 2008 winner Dima Bilan; Petra as Sweden’s 1999 winner Charlotte Nilsson/Perrelli.
  • Songs about love, or peace. Though Mans observes: ‘Abba actually won the competition with a song about war, with “Waterloo”, but this is not something we recommend.’
  • Dancers running on stage with flags. (Serbia’s much-loved ‘Beauty Never Lies‘ from last year, among others.)
  • The legendary baking grandmothers of Russia 2012’s ‘Party For Everybody‘.
  • ‘A man in a hamster wheel.’ Ukraine 2014.
  • ‘A burning fake piano.’ Austria’s host entry last year.
  • ‘A Russian man on skates.’ Dima Bilan in 2008 again, who had Russian figure-skating champion Evgeni Plushenko and the Hungarian-Ukrainian violinist Edvin Marton with him on stage.
  • A suggestively miming milkmaid who, without needing any description, is going to recall Poland’s 2014 ‘We Are Slavic‘ and will do for years to come.
  • Lordi.
  • A blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Loreen.
  • A mixed-gender pair of country dancers wearing Swedish blue and yellow.

Much like ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’ turns a tried-and-tested aspect of localised musical comedy into a vehicle for entertaining a transnational audience and, this time, a container for transnational rather than national cultural identity.

(Swedish viewers will be used to this sort of thing – a spoof of Swedish schlager music by Melodifestivalen regulars Markoolio and Linda Bengtzing was one of the country’s biggest hits in 2007.)

Assembling any historical narrative means making choices about what to select in order to tell a particular story, of course: there’s nothing here from the small vein of songs about the European financial crisis, and (surprisingly perhaps) nothing except a lot of pyrotechnics to recall Conchita Wurst.

However, Zelmerlow’s tongue-in-cheek warning that songs about war, when it comes to winning Eurovision, aren’t ‘something we recommend’ went on to be disproved an hour later when Ukraine’s ‘1944’, powerfully performed by Jamala, won Eurovision 2016.

The historical reference its title leads listeners to expect is to Stalin’s deportation of Tatars from Crimea in 1944 – the experience of Jamala’s Tatar grandparents and 200,000 others, and the fate of many other ethnic minorities in sensitive regions of the USSR during the Second World War.

The song was one of several candidates in Ukraine’s Eurovision selection this year that could also be read as a commentary on present-day Russian territorial aspirations towards Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea and support for Russian-speaking separatist entity in Eastern Ukraine.

Whether this would break Eurovision’s rule against overtly political messages was a matter for the organisers’ reference group before the contest. (In 2005 they had asked Ukraine to remove lyrics about President Viktor Yushchenko from its host entry, which had originally become famous during the Orange Revolution; in 2009, after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Georgia was asked to withdraw a certain ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In‘).

Only last year, however, organisers had set a precedent for accommodating contentious commemoration when the Armenian entry, a collection of singers from across the Armenian diaspora called Genealogy, commemorated Armenians’ endurance in the face of trauma in the centenary year of the Armenian Genocide.

Armenia’s public diplomacy, campaigning for international recognition of the genocide throughout 2015, involved popular culture not only through Eurovision but also, tapping into another vein of the music/television/celebrity nexus, an official visit from the Kardashian Republic. (Among the delegation: Kim Kardashian’s husband Kanye West.)

The song’s title changed from its original ‘Don’t Deny’ (to ‘Face The Shadow’) but left those lines in its chorus, while staging and whatever commentators might have told viewers about the context behind the entry helped sharpen its connotations.

The difference between ‘Face The Shadow’ and ‘1944’ is less subject matter, more that the state most likely to have objected to ‘Don’t Deny’, Turkey, hasn’t participated in Eurovision since 2012 – whereas the state against which ‘1944’ would most look like it was directed, Russia, remains in Eurovision and invests heavily in its entries.

Several recent Russian entries had faced booing from fans angry at state- and Church-driven homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in Russia, during live feeds that Russia as well as other Eurovision broadcasters would have had to transmit.

(That said, Russia’s likeable 2016 entrant Sergey Lazarev gathered much more goodwill than Russia’s other recent representatives before the contest, including positive comments about gay life in Russia – and a 2014 interview where he said he viewed Crimea as part of Ukraine might have been a strike against him by a Russian newspaper but still helped distance him and the entry from Putin.)

Framing ‘1944’ as a tribute to Jamala’s personal history, as the Ukrainian delegation seemed to be doing before the contest, struck the same balance between narrating family history and national trauma that had been acceptable for Armenia in 2015.

Between the semi-final and the final, however, Jamala explicitly linked the song to Tatar’s situation since the annexation in 2014:

“[If I win] it will mean that modern European people are not indifferent, and are ready to hear about the pain of other people and are ready to sympathise,” Jamala told the Guardian by phone from the Swedish capital.

[…] “Of course it’s about 2014 as well,” she said. “These two years have added so much sadness to my life. Imagine, you’re a creative person, a singer, but you can’t go home for two years. You see your grandfather on Skype who is 90 years old and ill, but you can’t visit him. What am I supposed to do: just sing nice songs and forget about it? Of course I can’t do that.”

The already multifaceted and contested politics of Ukrainian participation in Eurovision – variously depicting the nation as euphoric returners to Europe, participants of a democratic revolution, and the hospitable and multicultural co-hosts of Euro 2012 – take another turn with ‘1944’, but both Ukraine’s Eurovision winners, 2004 and 2016, will show historians just as much about how Ukrainian broadcasters and their delegation chose to represent the nation to Europe at an extremely significant moment in the nation’s contemporary history.

It remains to be seen whether Jamala will take as much of an off-stage role in politics and activism as Ruslana, who enthusiastically supported the Orange and Maidan revolutions and took her public diplomacy international after the Russian invasion of Crimea by lobbying the US senator John McCain.

Ukraine’s winning the right to host Eurovision 2017 nevertheless ensures that Eurovision’s position as a platform for national political narratives and public diplomacy will continue to be in the spotlight just as much next year.

Remember participating broadcasters all show Eurovision live – giving a host broadcaster remarkable control over what images an audience across Europe in general or in certain countries in particular will have presented to them during the live feed.

(Though an enterprising delegation, like the Armenian team who displayed the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh flag during a semi-final also shown in Azerbaijan, can take advantage of liveness too – and organisers are still to sanction Armenian TV over the incident.)

‘1944’ isn’t the first Eurovision winner to be so closely linked to the politics of its present: Toto Cutugno, winning Eurovision 1990 for Italy during a contest (hosted by Yugoslavia) that unfolded in quite a different historical mood, anticipated the supposedly ever-closer union of the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, due to come into effect in two years’ time, when he sang ‘Insieme [Together] 1992‘.

Other entries, like ‘Face The Shadow’ but also Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 1993 ‘Sva bol svijeta’ (‘All the World’s Pain‘) have also commemorated a nation’s experience of mass violence.

‘1944”s closest precedent in fact dates back as far as 1976, two years after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, when Mariza Koch represented Greece with the song ‘Panagia mou, panagia mou’ (‘My Lady, My Lady’ – that is, the Virgin Mary).

Greece in 1975, like Ukraine in 2015, had skipped its first Eurovision since the beginning of the conflict. Koch’s lyrics were as unambiguous and, by Eurovision standards, graphic as  Jamala’s ‘When strangers are coming / they come to your house / they kill you all and say “We’re not guilty”‘:

Ki an thite eripia gremismena, oi-oi mana m’
The tha ‘ne ap’ ales, ap’ ales epohes
Apo napalm tha ‘ne kamena, oi-oi mana m’
Tha ‘ne ta miria halasmata tu htes
Ki an thite yi freskoskameni, oi-oi mana m’
The tha ‘ne kabos, ‘ne kabos karperos
Stavri tha ine fitemeni, oi-oi mana m’
Pu tus sapizi, sapizi o keros

And if you see shattered ruins, oh oh my Mother
It’s not from other, from other eras
It is burnt by napalm, oh oh my Mother
Since yesterday, there are countless crumbled rocks
And if you see newly dug land, oh oh my Mother
They’re not fertile fields, fields
There will be crosses planted on them, oh oh my Mother
Which will decompose, decompose through time

Combining the sharpness of ‘Panagia Mou’ and the symbolism of Eurovision victory that hindsight has only intensified around ‘Insieme 1992’ nevertheless makes ‘1944’ a historic, unprecedented moment for Eurovision.

I’d personally expected the simultaneous sympathy and unease around such an emotionally powerful and politically charged song might have cancelled each other out, and anticipated a reasonably high but not first-placed position on the scoreboard.

Is this the very kind of result that Eurovision organisers might have hoped to avoid by communicating such a strong theme of ‘Come Together’ and, for all its tongue-in-cheek-ness, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’?

It’s actually another move by the organisers, the ‘Grey People’ segment of this year’s semi-final, that might have created an environment in which ‘1944’ didn’t seem inappropriate for something as celebratory as the Eurovision Song Contest.

The reflective dance performance – closer to the feel of Akram Khan’s London 2012 performance honouring the victims of 7/7 than to that of most Eurovision intervals – injected a space of contemplation which is rare to find at Eurovision but which might just have set a tone in which ‘1944’ felt appropriate rather than incomprehensible.

Organisers, fans, participating broadcasters and the rest of us will be interested to find out how Ukraine balances national and transnational cultural narratives on its second opportunity as Eurovision hosts to depict Ukraine’s and Europe’s past, present and future.

[1] This phrase comes from an unpublished paper by the Finnish Eurovision researcher Mari Pajala – which I read during my PhD and which was one of the first things that challenged me to view transnational politics of representation in a context that would be wider than south-east Europe but still grounded in the specifics of particular places. And 10 or so years later here we are…

Written by bakercatherine

16 May 2016 at 6:38 pm

What does ‘political’ mean at Eurovision, and can the contest ever steer clear of it?

This post originally appeared at The Conversation on 11 May 2016.

The ticket agency for Eurovision 2016 caused alarm at the end of April when it published its first “flag policy”. It restricted regional flags, sounded ambivalent about EU and rainbow flags, and even compared eight very different territories to Islamic State – all to protect Eurovision’s “non-political nature”.

Organisers relaxed the flags policy a week later, but the question remains: can a contest where countries compete against each other ever be non-political?

Strictly speaking, broadcasters, not countries, compete in Eurovision. Its organiser is the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of public service broadcasters founded in 1950 to relay radio and television signals across Europe.

But more people imagine what “Europe” might mean through watching Eurovision than might ever take part in EU public outreach. (How Australia features in this imagination is debatable.) And Eurovision certainly produces the impression of a competition between countries. Joe Woolford and Jake Shakeshaft are billed on screen as representing “the United Kingdom”, not “the BBC” – and Eurovision voting is famously divided up by country too.

Eurovision shorthand always mentions “countries” doing things, even though these are actions by specific organisations and people, not whole nations. This makes Eurovision a platform where states can promote narratives about national identity to more than 100m viewers – whether it’s showing off a national language, displaying a distinctive national music style, or tying in with national tourism campaigns.

But what if participants comment on politics?

A political ban

Although Eurovision rules ban “lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature”, someone still has to determine what “political” means. At its strictest, there would be no songs about war or peace, history, the environment or nuclear disarmament – to say nothing of Eurovision 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where almost everything referenced freedom, eastern Europe, walls or peace. This obviously isn’t the case. But bans do occur.

In the 2000s the EBU twice objected to references to active political leaders. Ukraine’s host entry in 2005 had to remove lyrics naming the post-Orange Revolution president, and Georgia withdrew its 2009 entry (after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war) when organisers challenged the double meaning of “We Don’t Wanna Put In”.

Other cases were more ambiguous: was it accidental that Ukrainian Verka Serduchka’s “Dancing, Lasha Tumbai” sounded like “Russia, goodbye”? Was it non-political for a Portuguese group during the financial crisis to pastiche ideological music from Portugal’s revolutionary mid-1970s? Where does satire end and politics begin?

And at a time of European centenaries, there’s commemoration. All commemorations involve political choices. What gets remembered, and what if dominant interpretations of events clash between nations – or if commemorating the past also implies commentary on the present?

In 2015, Armenia’s centenary genocide recognition campaign, which extended to Eurovision, did not have to contend with Turkish state refusal to recognise the genocide (Turkey has not participated in Eurovision since 2012 over issues with the voting system). The song’s title did change from “Don’t Deny” – but the performance still communicated Armenian national resilience and continuity. (Meanwhile, the 2015 French entry used digital backdrops to depict the devastation of World War I.)

This year sees the first Ukrainian entry chosen since Russia annexed Crimea. The song, “1944”, commemorates Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia during World War II. Beyond individual songs, the whole Eurovision project involves representing the meanings and boundaries of “Europe”. These are political ideas.

Come together?

Choosing the 2016 slogan “Come Together”, producers acknowledged the sensitivities of “throw[ing] Europe’s biggest party, while the togetherness you celebrate is being put to the test”. Thousands of refugees have died en route to Europe as border controls intensify.

Producers acknowledged the refugee crisis in the first semi-final through a dance performance honouring the struggles of refugees’ journeys. Refugees face the risks they do because of migration policies that have political origins, but clearly the producers considered this performance a social or humanitarian gesture rather than a “political” one.

Meanwhile, Eurovision’s history of LGBT fandom and visibility makes it a focus of international LGBT politics – with western European media as well as homophobic Russian politicians framing a moral struggle between “Europe” and “Russia” over LGBT rights. This was only amplified by Conchita Wurst winning in 2014 so soon after Russia hosted the Winter Olympics.

In these wider contexts, it becomes clear that Eurovision can hardly steer clear of politics. Eurovision is in a similar position to cult TV shows with vibrant fandoms (such as The 100, which dismayed fans by dramatically ending a relationship between two queer women). Producers plan what to depict; fans create their own celebrations within the space the show or Eurovision arena gives them. But producers depend on fans’ enthusiasm and creative practices (online or live) to drive interest in the show.

The “flag policy” controversy showed this tension at work. The first “flag policy” had stated “rainbow flags and the European Union flag will be tolerated” as long as they were not going to be used as a “tool to make a political statement”. An updated policy published that weekend removed this ambivalent language, but still seemed to exclude regional flags or the wider range of pride flags. Organisers implied that national flags or the rainbow flags still covered these identities, but many fans do not want these identities subsumed into a larger category.

Welsh and Sami fans had active media outlets following up the flag story, and were pleased to see the EBU later relax its policy. It also proposed “a more tolerant approach to other flags as long as the audience respects the non-political nature” of the show. But without any well-equipped organisation pushing the EBU on pride flags, Eurovision organisers haven’t as yet offered trans or bisexual flags recognition.

Eurovision’s priorities, “non-political” or not, are evidently those of countries and governments, not social movements outside the state. But fans, media and viewers often understand “politics” more widely. Eurovision’s organisers would be wise to embrace this.

Written by bakercatherine

12 May 2016 at 1:46 pm

End of 2015 publications round-up

I’m supposed to write one of these a year and this time have actually done it – here are the various new things I published in 2015…

Next on their way in 2016 or soon after – print publication of an article on the reuse of ‘found footage’ and built environments from the Yugoslav wars in a Hollywood adaptation of Coriolanus which will be appearing in International Feminist Journal of Politics (which has already published it online) – something else I want to extend in future; hopefully the volume on Gender in 20th-Century Eastern Europe and the USSR (including my introduction, and a chapter of mine giving an overview of transnational LGBT politics in the region(s) after the Cold War), depending on how long it takes to go through review and typesetting; a short piece on writing about militarism and embodiment as a form of translation, developed out of part of a talk I gave at the International Studies Association conference this year; and maybe other work that’s still under review…

Written by bakercatherine

16 December 2015 at 10:14 am

Call for papers (panel proposal for BISA 2016 conference):

Call for papers (panel proposal for BISA 2016 conference): Popular Culture and International Politics: South-Eastern Europe and the Globe

This panel organised by the British International Studies Association’s South East Europe Working Group for the 2016 BISA Conference in Edinburgh (15-17 June 2016) asks how popular culture research about/from south-east Europe can contribute to a wider research agenda in International Studies. How far can popular culture be said to have shaped, as well as reflected, the politics of south-east Europe, and what insights might current research questions in south-east European cultural studies be able to offer the research agendas around Popular Culture and World Politics, Visual International Relations and related areas?

Contributions to the panel might focus on any of the following areas, or other relevant topics:

  • Construction and contestation of national identities and other layers of collective/geopolitical identity
  • The politics of war memory and collective victimhood
  • ‘Banal nationalism’ and ‘banal militarism’
  • Post-conflict/post-socialist political economies of cultural production
  • International politics of sexuality/gender and popular culture
  • Popular culture and the ‘affective atmospheres’ of politics
  • Celebrity activism and humanitarianism
  • Post-9/11 narratives of international security
  • Transnational processes of racialisation
  • Popular culture, digital media and diaspora as political actors
  • Virality and visuality on social media
  • The global movement of people, capital, technologies and texts
  • Popular culture and the emotions in IR
  • Producing popular-cultural artefacts as an innovative methodology in IR

Please send paper proposals (including a title, a 250-word abstract, a 100-word biography and a contact email to Catherine Baker (cbakertw1@googlemail.com), with ‘BISA SEE WG popular culture panel’ in the subject line, by Fri 20 November.

Written by bakercatherine

13 November 2015 at 7:21 pm

A second-screen experience: rounding up Eurovision 2015

The 60th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest has probably seen more academic involvement in real time around Eurovision than any other contest – including a live-streamed conference sponsored by the European Broadcasting Union last month which put researchers and broadcasters in dialogue with each other (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to go and listen to because of a full day of teaching here at Hull – but the recording of the event is still online, and I hope there’ll be publications based on some of the talks in future).

There’s been a Eurovision Research Network since 2009, and indeed academics with interests in cultural studies, European identities and the politics of representation were already networking around Eurovision before that – the first full conference on Eurovision I remember took place in Volos in 2008 (I was there talking about what participating in Eurovision had used to mean in Croatia), and before that in 2006 I’d contributed to a panel on Eurovision at an International Communications Association conference with what I thought was a sideline (on ‘ethno-pop’ and simulated folklore at Eurovision) from my PhD research but which would end up as my most-cited publication by some way.

More recently, universities in Eurovision host cities or countries have organised conferences during or very close to the contest itself (beginning with a conference in Oslo in 2010) – including the conference last year in Copenhagen which invited me as one of their keynote speakers and gave me an opportunity to reassess my own frameworks for thinking about the cultural politics of what turned out to be a very specific European historical moment in the mid-2000s before the global financial crisis of 2008.

I haven’t been involved in media commentary on the same scale as the people who have really developed Eurovision research as a visible field in the last 5-6 years (Paul Jordan, who’s researched nation-branding and Eurovision in Estonia and Ukraine, has even become part of BBC Eurovision semi-final coverage – as in this extract from a semi-final interval last year where he and Tijana Dapcevic are giving the BBC’s Scott Mills a crash course in Macedonian pronounciation), but this year I did find myself talking to journalists about Eurovision much more than usual – and if it’s the one time of year that you can get the British (or French or Australian) public interested in the politics of popular culture in former Yugoslavia or how that has fitted into wider processes of narrating collective identities in Europe since the end of the Cold War, why not?

This year I was also coordinating a special issue of an academic journal on Eurovision, so one way or another it’s been something I’ve been much more involved with as a researcher – and a good opportunity to try and become more confident as an interviewee than I have been.

For the sake of rounding everything up, this is what I’ve contributed to this year:

Eurovision focuses public attention on a lot of issues that are part of my wider research, so for some years I’ve also been using it as an opportunity to communicate that on social media at a time when people are maybe more likely than usual to be open to thinking about them. Since 2011, every year before Eurovision I try to write up a long blog post on the politics of Eurovision from one angle or another – in previous years these have covered discourses about ‘eastern European bloc voting’, the impossibility of keeping Eurovision non-political, national promotion and the European financial crisis, and this year looking at some narratives of multiculturalism. Last year, building on a talk I’d originally given for LGBT History Month at Hull) I blogged about Eurovision and narratives of LGBT equality a few weeks before Eurovision happened to be won by Conchita Wurst – in a year when the major geopolitical framework viewers and journalists were projecting on to Eurovision was the relationship between Europe and Russia and the place of LGBT rights within it. (Which meant quickly writing up a second, just as extensive blog post.)

The LGBT/Conchita posts have probably been one of the reasons there’s been wider interest in my Eurovision-related work than usual. They’ve been popping up in academic citations already as well, and they continue to bring new readers to this blog – even outside the peak period of interest in Eurovision, most weeks WordPress shows me a handful of search results like ‘eurovision gay audience’, ‘eurovision history queer’, or the current front-runner in the list of search terms this month, ‘why is eurovision so gay’. (There are also a few more left-field ones: ‘eurovision presenter with one breast lower than the other’ is currently the most baffling one this year; and I don’t know the background to why someone was searching for ‘syldavian language eurovision’, but don’t blame me if that’s the next Belgian entry – after all, Belgium has sung in an imaginary language before…)

The other thing I’ve been doing with social media and Eurovision is livetweeting during the broadcasts (which I’ve also done during some opening ceremonies for international sports competitions, including London 2012 and Sochi/Glasgow 2014). That makes me plus what can feel like almost everyone else on Twitter, then (and in fact it’s even been suggested that the ‘second-screen experience’ of being able to tweet along with Eurovision is one of the reasons Eurovision viewing figures have been so healthy in recent years); but enjoying the contest and thinking about how to understand it blurs together (as it so often does – if you research popular culture, in some ways you never really stop being at work). I collected up my Eurovision tweets this morning while I was writing this blog post up and am a little bit alarmed that Storify has chosen a header image of the rainbow flags seen in the audience during Russia’s semi-final performance all on its own.

The main Eurovision-related things I’ve been thinking about since the final – both of which have something to do with digital media themselves – are the narratives around a potential Russian win this year and the question of how or whether Eurovision might start admitting Kosovo – which will probably win the race to be the next Eurovision debutant within Europe, assuming Radio Television of Kosovo stays interested and (the bigger question) whether the European Broadcasting Union wants Kosovo to be represented as a participating state.

Structured reality?

First of all, the first half of the Eurovision voting – where Russia’s Polina Gagarina seemed to be building up a lead before points suddenly started flowing towards Sweden.

(Look out for the rainbow flags in these crowd shots from the semi-final – which in the final (with different people probably sitting in the seats) were various national flags instead)

The spectacle of participating countries reading out their votes is part of the ritual of Eurovision, and the source of most of Eurovision’s symbolic phrases, such as ‘douze points‘, which we hear every time the presenters read back votes in French; ‘nul points‘, which is equally part of viewers’ common knowledge about Eurovision although it’s never actually heard; not to mention ‘Hello, [City], can we have your votes please?‘, and the expectation that at least one satellite link will go completely wrong (this year, there were three). Voting is also where spontaneous moments are most likely to break into the ritual, and supposedly this part of the show can even have higher viewing figures than the songs.

Since 2011, the EBU has accelerated the tension of the voting by basing the voting order on an algorithm ‘to try and make the voting as exciting as possible’ – where feasible, arranging the order to delay the announcement of the winner until as close to the end as they can. (The juries who now award 50% of a country’s points total have already voted during a live dress rehearsal or ‘jury final’ the night before, meaning organisers can calculate the voting order for the televised final overnight.)

During the first third of the voting, the highest points tended to be going to Gagarina – a sign, pre-algorithm, that she’d have a good chance of hanging on to her lead throughout. One of the things the Eurovision structure of a competition between nations does is invites viewers to construct geopolitical narratives around what they see and hear, and indeed usually that’s one of the pleasures of watching it. Over this quarter of an hour, however, the prospect of Russia winning Eurovision 2015 and therefore hosting Eurovision 2016 was also provoking reactions ranging from apprehension to outrage on social media – and also in the live audience, where the crowd was booing loudly enough for the presenters to intervene but sound engineers replaced the sound with cheers.

The editing of the crowd reaction has been controversial enough, but another point worth making is that the emotional reactions produced by this concentration of Gagarina’s highest scores into a short space of time were a result of the organisers’ narrative intervention in the voting order – and wouldn’t necessarily have happened in a randomly allocated order where Gagarina, Sweden’s Mans Zelmerlow (the winner) and Italy’s Il Volo (who came third) might have been exchanging a lead more gradually or Zelmerlow leading throughout.

Of all the format changes that Eurovision organisers have made since 1998-2000, when the development of Eurovision into a contemporary arena spectacle began, this is the one that most deeply alters their role from the arbiters of a competition to the authorial position of guiding audience’s expectations in a particular direction. (Eurovision producers can now also exercise control over the running order of songs on stage, which has been more controversial among fans, but arguably doesn’t have the same concentrated impact as narrative intervention in the voting order.)

The algorithm has existed in previous years too, but never produced an outcome that’s played on audience emotions to the same extent, in the light of everything that’s currently at stake around perceptions of Russia and around the experience of those whom Putin’s policies have put at risk. This year, at least, felt as if the algorithm had placed Eurovision producers more in the role of a pro wrestling promoter than a sports referee – deliberately crafting a narrative that will mobilise the audience’s emotional investment in the fate of a hero or villain before turning the outcome around at a climactic point. Perhaps this was the inevitable result of the algorithm – we don’t know enough about it to say whether it could have arranged the points given in any other order, given what it’s been programmed to do – but the spectacle of Eurovision voting, as viewers in future years will need to remember, is something much more scripted than it used to be.

(And let’s not forget that the homophobic/biphobic/transphobic Russian right wing itself actually wants Russia to leave Eurovision – Vitaly Milonov, the architect of the Russian ‘anti-homopropaganda’ legislation, is also one of the loudest voices calling for Russia to withdraw.)

Hello, Priština, can we have your votes please?

The second thing to pick up is whether, or when, Kosovo is going to make its Eurovision debut – a question that was already being asked even before Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. This year, representatives of Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK) were apparently in Vienna during Eurovision week, and Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, Petrit Selimi, suggested while he was livetweeting the Eurovision final that Kosovo might participate next year:

The obstacle, so far, has been that Kosovo’s independence still isn’t recognised by the United Nations or a number of states inside and outside Europe (including Serbia and Russia, but also for instance Spain). It isn’t a member state of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and, as such, RTK doesn’t count as the public broadcaster of a country in the European Broadcasting Area – the criterion for Active Membership of the European Broadcasting Union, which until very recently used to be a prerequisite for participating in the Eurovision Song Contest.

This year, however, Eurovision saw its first entry by an ‘Associate Member’ broadcaster – Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service, ostensibly as a one-off to celebrate the 60th edition of Eurovision and the long-standing interest in Eurovision among Australian viewers. The Australian entry, Guy Sebastian’s ‘Tonight Again’, came fifth – an excellent result for a new participant, but not the victory Australia would have needed to return next year (when, even then, Australia wouldn’t have been allowed to host).

Relaxing the link between Eurovision participation and active membership of the EBU suggests that, even if RTK can’t become an EBU active member for some time, there could be a way for Eurovision to include an entry from Kosovo – in the event that its organisers wanted to include Kosovo as a participant, which politically is the most important question. Could RTK be admitted either as an associate member of the EBU (although this is a category for public broadcasters of ITU member states outside the European Broadcasting Area), or in the EBU’s third category of ‘approved participant’ (defined as containing ‘[o]rganisations from an ITU country with an activity in the field of broadcasting which for any reason do not qualify for active or associate membership but whose participation in certain EBU activities is considered useful for the Union’ – in practice it contains some broadcasters based in particular countries, some transnational television networks such as Arte and Euronews, and a telecoms infrastructure firm)?

In the meantime, Kosovo will already have participated at the Rio Olympics after being recognised by the International Olympic Committee in 2014 – itself potentially a triumph for Selimi’s strategy of ‘digital diplomacy‘. After starting to be admitted into the ‘world of nations’ that international sports events make up, could the objective of Eurovision recognition be next?

Written by bakercatherine

28 May 2015 at 1:23 pm