Young Hearts, Run Free: On Camp & Australia’s Eurovision Entry

For a country forever stuck in the shadow of Crocodile Dundee but with an abiding love of ABBA, Australia's entry into the Eurovision spectacle allows it to lay bare its camp beating heart, says Alan Weedon

Though the EU ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’ about the induction of the remaining Balkan states, Turkey and now potentially Ukraine, its more glamorous sibling took one look at Australia – and just like Kylie Minogue years before – Eurovision wants us atop its proverbial disco ball.

And so we’re here. It’s the moment Australia’s always wanted.

"The two events celebrating nationhood this year will be the Gallipoli anniversary and Eurovision 2015," says Ken Gelder, co-director of the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne.

"It’ll be quite interesting, because one will be about a military failure celebrating masculinity and male youth, while the other will be a decadent display of showbiz and camp."

Gallipoli of course, was a horrendously planned military campaign leading to a multitude of deaths within the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs). It’s often pointed to as being the defining moment that galvanised the identity of our modern nation-state, an identity forged distinct from the mother country (though one yet to properly acknowledge indigenous legacies as part of our national story).

Of course, in the context of Eurovision, national stories are a pastiche, and it’s not like Britain hasn’t deferred to its former colony in the past – Olivia Newton-John represented Britain in 1974.

So then, what are we to make of this entry into a European song contest that, for all intents and purposes, was designed to keep postwar Europe together?

"It just so happens that Australia has valorised the kind of campness that Eurovision likes," Gelder says.

"Nations are obliged to tell national stories about themselves but in the framework of what you could call the ‘genre of Eurovision’. It has its own internal logic. It’s quite camp, and very much about show business – songs must have very identifiable choruses, and guitar solos should be kept short – so you have to conform to these generic features."

‘Brand Eurovision’ is something that Australia’s always had down-packed. In the last decade, Holly Valance’s ‘Kiss Kiss’ quelled Eurovision’s penchant for electro-pop paired with Middle Eastern strings. In the decades prior, you only need to cite Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and our love affair with ABBA as moments of collective camp.

Don’t even think about Courtney Barnett or Sia – we’ve produced pop stars that get shot out of giant CD players and we’re keeping it that way.

"I’m not too sure you can tell a national story at Eurovision. What you do at Eurovision is channelled into what you’re about, and it allows you to be national only in a certain way. It isn’t a place to open up issues of national concern. It’s not really interested in nations as nations, but nations as show business," Gelder says.

Though Eurovision’s always made a point about gender and sexual politics, it’s one of the primary reasons why the contest finds itself in Vienna this year, thanks to Austrian drag performer, Conchita Wurst.

The contest is best when revealing a country’s cultural insecurities. In Eastern Europe for example, unease toward a perceived ‘queering’ of Eurovision’s norm speaks volumes about some countries’ strict adherence to discriminatory attitudes to gender and sexuality.

Russia and Belarus unsuccessfully tried to launch a petition to ban 2014’s broadcast, presumably, to stem the tide of sodomy that would launch from Wurst’s three-minute performance. Unfortunately for them, their fears weren’t justified funnily enough; Wurst came third in Russian tele-votes.

In Australia, we like to think that we’re not as overtly homophobic as Europe’s old guard. But in saying that, we’re not completely unblemished. Politicians have linked same-sex marriage to bestiality, while our current prime minister has gone on record outlining that homosexuality is a "threat", challenging "orthodox notions of the right order of things". Given this context, Australia’s inherent cultural masculinity is going to stick out like a sore-thumb.

Abroad, Australia’s perceptions have been bathed in machismo with the election of Abbott, a self-styled alpha male. Politically, this is more or less reflected: our treatment of refugees is more than heavy-handed, we’re a fan of rolling our eyes at the UN and our economic policies have been underwritten by a ‘father-knows-best’ tightening of the belt straps. The Sun‘s Katie Hopkins even suggested that Britain <A href="" target="Out”>”gets Australian" when it comes to implementing brutish immigration policies.

But this should come as no surprise: we’ve never really got away from the perception of Australia being the ‘tough guy’. In popular culture, the shadow of Crocodile Dundee and numerous other iterations of the Australian alpha male play out in everyday contexts. Commercial television has a history of outing married politicians while our prevailing sports codes have only had rare, if any, instances of ‘out’ players. One of our most prominent, Australian Rules technically has had no homosexual players in its 156-year history. Recent reports have stated that this is statistically impossible.

"There is a sense that 1950s Australia has never really gone away," says Gelder.

"Australia in the 1950s was very straight and very European. This is reflected in our contemporary political discourse, though political discourse isn’t very camp to begin with. It is very straight, when you think of prime minster Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten [leader of the opposition] and various other folks – maybe Christopher Pyne’s [education minister] an exception – but more or less they’re anti-camp."

Susan Sontag once said that the ‘camp’ aesthetic was about "converting the serious into the frivolous", and right now, that’s something contemporary Australia avoids like the plague.

We’re gravely serious about the worth of our cultural exports, as acts such as Courtney Barnett, Tame Impala and Chet Faker have demonstrated abroad. Our big cities Melbourne and Sydney won’t let you forget that they’re some of the world’s most liveable. A lot is invested, subconsciously and consciously, in telling others that we’re all grown up now.

But into what?

One place that could be able to give some clues is Eurovision’s broadcaster down under, SBS. Akin to Channel 4, its brief is similar to that of a paternalistic public broadcaster, though with an extra leash to pitch to a diverse audience without too much commercial pressure. This has resulted in programmes that are more often than not in direct opposition to a hetero norm (they were the broadcaster that drew ire when Queer As Folk was introduced to Australian screens).

Politically, this goes against the decidedly heteronormative positions some of our representatives are quick to jump to. Their beliefs are typically forthright and morally intransigent – a trait common within broader Australian narratives. We’re a country that prides itself on being forged through hard work, beating the land into submission. The fetish of the mysterious Australian ‘tough guy’ allows little room for camp in our culture. After all, we’ve still got states where you can use the defence of ‘gay panic’ in a murder trial.

If Susan Sontag asserts that camp is "its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration", then this year’s Eurovision entry might do some good. It’s almost an oxymoron, but Australia just needs to chill. We get it, we’re the romantic, rugged country with a masculine veneer, but please, just for three minutes, can we not be weirded out by the inherently excessive, camp spectacle that is Eurovision?

Judging from last year’s performance – which featured beach babes, footy players and a boy-girl duo donning cork hats – don’t hold out hope that this performance is going to be a cultural landmark. Our entrant, Guy Sebastian, is nothing less than vanilla, well versed in the language of reality TV, having won the debut Australian Idol series in 2003.

Even though this choice signals that Australia still feels the need to defer to a veiled cultural masculinity, we should think of the silver lining. Australia rarely gets the chance to throw its weight behind an image that veers away from the ‘tough guy’. For once, we’ll be provided with an alternative that is rarely seen in popular culture, one that’s a welcome queering of the status quo.

It’s time to take a leaf out of Kym Mazelle’s book: can we let our hearts run free?

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