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Black Sky Thinking

On Camp & Conchita: An Eurovision Victory For The LGBT Community
Richard Osborne , May 12th, 2014 07:00

Richard Osbourne looks at the camp history of the Eurovision Song Contest, and argues that Conchita's victory this year represents a newly serious side, and a symbolic victory for Europe's LGBT community

The Eurovision Song Contest usually expresses a particular gay sensibility. For the Radio Times it is a 'smorgasbord of camp', for The Guardian it is 'supercamp' and for Out magazine it is 'epically camp'. This year's winner was Conchita Wurst, a bearded transvestite from Austria. She performed her song 'Rise Like A Phoenix' in a mermaid-like sequined dress. Conchita would seem to fit Eurovision's sensibility perfectly. And yet she was the least camp thing about the show.

Although the term camp is loosely used, it does retain many of the characteristics outlined by Susan Sontag in her essay Notes On Camp, which was first published in 1964. Here Sontag described a point of view that saw "everything in quotation marks". For her, camp was the "good taste of bad taste"; its ultimate statement was "it's good because it's awful". Camp, at this point, wasn't about creating new works, but about a way of perceiving existing works. It was "alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken". Crucially, it wasn't a search to find meaning within these things, but was instead based on a desire to celebrate them as "pure artifice". Camp had a "spirit of extravagance". It represented "a victory of 'style' over 'content', 'aesthetics' over 'morality', of irony over tragedy".

In its gaudy exuberance, camp actually spoke of oppression. Sontag argued that the bearers of camp taste were "mainly homosexuals". At the time she was writing homosexuality was illegal in both America and the UK. Camp was, in part, a coded means by which gay people could speak to one another. Items from everyday life were elevated out of their normal use and given a special sheen of superficiality. This was a language that was both secret and shared. Even the word 'camp' was barely uttered. In writing her essay Sontag claimed that it had "never been discussed".

Things are different today. Campness is a quality that we can all identify. We are surrounded with it and it speaks its name out loud. And camp items aren't just found; they are consciously created. We have camp clothes; camp art; camp furniture; camp music; camp festivals; and camp television. We have lots of camp TV. Every Saturday night in Britain brings forth a schedule that is suffused with campness: Strictly Come Dancing, Splash, Hole In The Wall, topped off with chat shows that revel in emptiness. The Eurovision Song Contest takes these tendencies and it amplifies them.

This competition isn't for gay men only, though. Campness is now a means by which 'straight' people can hint at the complexity of their sexuality. It also provides a wider audience with both agency and fun. It gives people a degree of control over the crap that they are surrounded with, and it does so communally: it is a way for people to get together and ridicule the world. Who on earth would think of watching Eurovision alone?

This year's Eurovision Song Contest was primed for campness. Gay men dominated the audience in Copenhagen and were hyped up for a riotous night of music appreciation. In the UK we were promised television commentary from Graham Norton, whose waspish delivery hones in on bad taste. Norton is in fact indicative of the extent to which campness has come out of the closest. He is an openly gay presenter who has inherited programmes from straight men who like to smuggle camp into their acts. He stepped into Jonathan Ross's shoes as a chat show host and DJ for BBC Radio Two. While Ross's posing as a ladies' man has always been unconvincing, his knowing love of kitsch has kept on shining through. Norton's Eurovision job was inherited from Terry Wogan, who in over twenty years of commenting on the event successfully stopped the audience from taking it seriously. He reveled in its badness: Wogan made Britain's attitude to Eurovision camp.

This year's competition did have its camp moments. France's entry, Twin Twin, featured three men with outlandish hairstyles. Their song spoke of a man who has all his material wants but can't be happy because he doesn't have a moustache. Poland's act, My Sowianie, had a Carry On campness about them. A buxom milkmaid masturbated her equipment while female singers instructed us that "we are Slavic girls/we know how to use our classical beauty/now shake what your mama gave you".

Conchita was different. She wasn't revelling in bad taste; she was trying to expand our notions of good taste. She was daring the audience to realise that a man wearing full make-up and a beard need not be funny or awkward, but could look dignified and graceful. She wasn't trying to be bad; she was succeeding in being pretty good. And she wasn't being ironic, either. This gay performer was playing things straight. There was no sense of this being a joke and for people needing to be in on it. In fact, this was one of the least communal acts of the night. Conchita was one of the few performers to take to the stage alone. While other entrants used dancers, trampolines, ice skaters and running wheels, she relied upon a spotlight to sell us her song. It was a song of conversion, but not one of turning seriousness into triviality. The song asked for retribution rather than vengeance. It was about difference being assimilated, rather than about difference making us laugh.

Although this was very much solo performance, it did represent a triumph for the LGBT community. Within Austria there had been some discontent about Conchita representing the nation, while several eastern European countries had called for her to be banned from the competition. Russia's voice had been particularly loud. Vitaly Milonov, who has helped to create the country's anti-gay laws, branded Wurst a "pervert" and called the competition a "hotbed of sodomy".

And so, due to both her own personality and to the politics surrounding the event, a bearded transvestite managed to curtail Eurovision's campness this year. After Conchita performed her number, Graham Norton stepped out of the normal framework of his commentary and stated, "that ovation for that performance … maybe in that moment it seems like Eurovision has done something that matters just a little bit". He grew surprised and elated as the votes came in, as it wasn't just Western European countries that were giving the singer the highest marks, but also the likes of Ukraine and Georgia. In fact, this was a year in which some of the traditional political bias of Eurovision voting was abandoned. Instead, any prejudice that did exist was reserved for Russia, whose act was roundly booed. This wasn't because of their performance, but because they were the unwitting symbols of Putin's homophobic state.

Conchita's acceptance speech wasn't ironic. She dedicated her victory "to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom". She added that, "we are unity and we are unstoppable" and said that she wanted to continue fighting for equality: "This will remain an issue for a long time and I fear I won't see the end of it in my lifetime. It will be my life's worth and I gladly take it on "It was not just a victory for me but a victory for those people who believe in a future that can function without discrimination and is based on tolerance and respect". Asked if she was aiming her protest at the homophobic policies of Vladimir Putin, she replied he was a target "among others".

It was a hugely popular victory and one that brought a gravitas to Eurovision that had not been expected. And it wasn't just Russia who were the victims of this success. Camp also did badly - France's entry came last. And so, does this mark a new era - will Eurovision be the outlet for new forms of LGBT expression? I somehow doubt it, but this was seriousness while it lasted.