“You couldn’t have predicted that a power ballad sung by a bearded Austrian drag queen was going to win Eurovision,” says Karen Fricker.
Perhaps that’s exactly what attracts 200 million viewers each year to this kitschy but much-loved European song contest of nations. The muscial extravaganza is celebrating its 60th year and has grown to become the world’s most popular television event.
It’s certainly part of what attracted Ms. Fricker, an American professor of theater at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, who saw the contest for the first time when studying in Ireland in 1997. She has since led two research projects on Eurovision and what it says about Europe.
Last year’s Eurovision Song Contest winner, Conchita Wurst, is a drag queen by profession who remains Thomas Fichtner, a man, in her private life. The victory catapulted Ms. Wurst to stardom, following in the footsteps of previous contest winners that have included the Swedish group Abba and singer Celine Dion.
A darling of the many gay fans, who have made Eurovision one of their biggest parties of the year, Ms. Wurst has since used her platform to broadcast a message of tolerance around the continent.
Her victory also won Austria the right to host the contest this year, on May 23, for only the second time in its history. Its first contest winner, back in 1966, was the recently deceased Udo Jürgens, who went on to have a hugely successful career in the German-speaking world.
The big event may still be two weeks away, but the host city Vienna is buzzing. The first thing visitors to the Austrian capital’s airport see when they enter baggage claim is a massive video montage of the Eurovision song contest. Ms. Wurst's picture has been plastered on billboards and buses by Bank Austria, one of her chief sponsors.
The television show represents a massive marketing opportunity for the city and a chance to polish up its image – not unlike hosting the Olympics or the soccer World Cup. For Austria's public television station, ORF, the contest is worth an estimated advertising value of around €100 million.
The notion of feeling ‘European’ has always been something that Eurovision allows spectators to do. Karen Fricker, Professor of Theater, Brock University
The theme of this year’s contest is “Building Bridges.” It’s an apt message for a European continent still in the throes of an economic crisis that has revived nationalist sentiment. It also comes on the heels of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is being commemorated Friday.
Ms. Fricker said Eurovision has “absolutely” played a role over the past 60 years in helping to bring Europe together culturally, in the same way that the European Union played a critical role in bringing much of post-war Europe together politically.
“The notion of feeling ‘European’ has always been something that Eurovision allows spectators to do,” Ms. Fricker told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “For many Europeans, that’s not something that they think about all the time. Watching Eurovision, cheering for your country, is a moment where it becomes very present. I think that’s very powerful.”
A total of 40 countries will compete to win the contest, including a one-time entry from Australia. Hardly European, the country was included as a nod to Eurovision's global reach. Perhaps in part due to its historic connection with Britain, Australia has long been one of the biggest fans outside of Europe.
Eurovision has never really been just about the music. It’s about the pageantry, the staging, and the politics (a public vote to decide the winner can often descend into national farce as many countries give high points to their neighbors). Fans love to poke fun at the more ridiculous acts and costumes that take to the stage every year.
Video: Conchita Wurst won last year's Eurovision contest for Austria with her song 'Rise Like a Phoenix'.
The theme “Building Bridges” is also a message that fits the tiny host country of 8 million people – the one-time European imperial power has something of an inferiority complex when it comes to what the world thinks of it these days.
Austria is a country of contradictions: A conservative German-speaking population but also a gateway to eastern Europe, with one of the highest rates of immigration in Europe. It's a country where the largest political party in some polls currently is the far-right Freedom Party, but where its capital has been cultivating an image as a melting pot and young city with many gay-friendly establishments. It is the land of Amadeus Mozart, the waltz and Johann Strauss, but also home to an alternative music scene that has included Falco and now, Conchita Wurst.
With the world watching, all these contradictions have been put aside. Since last year, Vienna has embraced the Eurovision fever and its heroine, Conchita Wurst.
The reception wasn’t always this rosy, noted Klaus Totzler, who coordinates music events for the Austrian public television station ORF and has curated an exhibition on Austria’s history in the song contest at Vienna’s “House of Music” museum.
Skepticism of the event, of its significance, and of Ms. Wurst herself was not unheard of before Austria’s surprise victory last year.
“If someone like Conchita Wurst doesn’t know whether they are a man or a woman, they should probably see a psychotherapist rather than perform at a song contest,” Heinz Christian Strache, the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, said last year.
Mr. Strache’s Freedom Party is, according to some opinion polls, the largest political party in Austria, ahead of the Social Democrats and conservative People’s Party that are in a governing coalition with each other.
The Freedom Party’s latent homophobic and xenophobic tendencies stand in sharp contrast to the tolerant, open image that the city’s more left-leaning politicians have worked hard to cultivate over the last few years.
One year since Mr. Strache’s comments, the critical voices from the right have been largely silenced – the Freedom Party’s nationalism seems to have taken precedence over its darker side. Ms. Wurst has been given a key to the city by its mayor, the Social Democrat Michael Häupl.
“Suddenly there was a belief that ‘we’ had won the contest,” said Mr. Totzler, describing the sudden shift in sentiment as a "not-unproblematic nationalism” that permeates the country.
Video: Abba's rise to global stardom began with this quirky contest.
But Austria is not dwelling on what was said in the past. Vienna will be pulling out all the stops, turning the ground in front of its Rathaus (townhall) into a Eurovision village and sponsoring a series of open-air public viewing spots across the city. Even the Vienna Philharmonic is getting involved and will open the pop music contest with a performance in front of the castle Schönbrunn.
Ms. Wurst, now a national icon, will be heavily involved in the staging of this year’s contest, including a performance with the famous tenor Placido Domingo in the city's iconic opera house.
The city hopes Ms. Wurst will act as a sort of ambassador representing a “different Austria" – one that is free of homophobia and xenophobia and open to new ideas and people.
“With the Eurovision Song Contest, the international attention has been drawn to Austria,” the country’s home affairs minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said recently. We hope we can use this to show the world that Vienna hasn’t for nothing been declared the city with the highest quality of life: Tolerant, open to the world and safe.”
Christopher Cermak is an Austrian-American national who has grown up watching Eurovision over the years and is now an editor with the Handelsblatt Global Edition. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna, where he covers politics, economics and the media. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]