By Dan Allen
With stateside pop culture gluttons all aflutter in recent weeks over who might be crowned the next American Idol, much of the rest of the west-leaning world had its eyes and ears keenly trained on an entirely different crooning competition, one pitting nation against nation, one with historic international import on a level Idol can only dream of, and one trumping it by a landslide for sheer gay spectacle.
If you've never heard of the Eurovision Song Contest, you've certainly heard its byproducts. In its wild and wacky 51-year history since being conceived as a one-off by the European Broadcasting Union, Eurovision has given the world the superstar likes of ABBA (who made their debut on the world stage representing Sweden in 1974 with 'Waterloo,' besting Olivia Newton-John, the United Kingdom's entry that year) and Celine Dion (who won in 1988 as Switzerland's candidate). Along the way, Lulu, Cliff Richard, Julio Iglesias, and even Katrina & the Waves have competed, and a host of Eurocentric gay icons have been created'all to the shocking ignorance of poofsters (much less anyone else) this side of the pond.
'Eurovision is like the Oscars for gay Europeans,' says Peter Andersen, a.k.a. DQ, Denmark's entry this year. Andersen performed a song called 'Drama Queen' and was one of a record two competitors in drag. 'It's the glamour, it's the excitement. There's nothing like it. We've all been watching it and loving it since we were young, so now when the night comes, everyone gets together with their friends and their popcorn and groups around the TV to see what will happen.'
What happened this year was especially queerific, even for a competition with longstanding gay undertones: Serbia's Marija Serifovic became the first lesbian to win Eurovision with her impassioned and soaring Sapphic ballad 'Molitva' ('Prayer'), the first non-English-language champ since 1998. First runner-up was Ukraine's Verka Serduchka, a sort of electro drag act, rapping and singing the infectious 'Dancing (Lasha Tumbai).' Other rainbow-friendly acts for 2007 included Swedish modsters the Ark, whose flamboyant bisexual lead singer, Ola Salo, belted 'The Worrying Kind'; Austria's Eric Papilaya, who emerged from a massive ostrich-feathered AIDS ribbon sporting crystal-encrusted Vivienne Westwood to perform his song 'Get a Life, Get Alive'; and the United Kingdom's camp band Scooch, who despite digging out a host of previous Eurovision tricks (airline host/ess uniforms, sexual innuendo, and melodic allusions to a delightedly united Europe) barely escaped last place with 'Flying the Flag,' a gay debacle so over the top that the Finnish TV commentator (apparently on purpose) introduced it as 'Flying the Fag' before correcting herself.
As neatly as something so nutty can be nutshelled, the Eurovision game goes like this: Early every year, each of the 42 competing countries elects a representative, usually through a series of countrywide semifinals and finals. In May, under the watchful eyes of over 100 million viewers, the national reps come together in the country that took the previous year's Eurovision crown to battle it out with one three-minute song each. If a country was in last year's top 10, its contestant goes directly to the finals. Likewise (through a longstanding but increasingly grumble-inducing rule) contestants from England, France, Germany, and Spain are automatically finalists. Everyone else dukes it out in a semifinal for the 10 remaining slots in the all-important final competition. Voting is done via phone by the European public in a brief 15-minute window immediately following the competition, wherein viewers can vote for anyone outside their own country. (They tend to vote for the contestant from the neighboring country that has historically invaded them the least.)
Along the way, several scandals are sure to surface, which may partly explain Eurovision's gay draw. Last year proved especially scandalous, beginning with the implosion of an early favorite, Iceland's tongue-in-cheek pop princess Silvia Night, at the hands of the Greek press ('Ungrateful bastards!' a tearful Night deliciously lamented to reporters after the outcome. 'You don't vote for me because I'm not a slut from Holland, and I'm not an ugly fucking old bitch from Sweden!'), and culminating in the shocking win of Finnish monster rockers Lordi, who, upon winning the Finn final, appalled some of their own countrymen so much that calls went out for president Tarja Halonen to disqualify them outright.
Sure, Paula Abdul can break her nose tripping over her Chihuahua on the eve of the American Idol finals, but that's kid stuff. Imagine a world in which Melinda Doolittle calls Jordin Sparks a slut from Arizona (on camera no less), or one where a disgruntled American public demands that Bush ban Sanjaya. This is Eurovision, where pop and politics can and do sometimes mix'and despite a high camp factor, it speaks to how seriously Europeans take the competition.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the still-emerging east, where Eurovision's focus has shifted in recent years. 2004 winner Ruslana became a poster child for that year's Orange Revolution in her native Ukraine, while the same country's aforementioned number two, Serduchka, sparked controversy this year with the repeated lyrics 'I want to see'lasha tumbai.' The singer claimed the last two words were Mongolian for 'churned butter'; however, outraged citizens of the big bear to Ukraine's east remained unconvinced, believing the lyrics were 'I want to see'Russia goodbye.' Likewise, Israel's controversial war drum'beating entry, 'Push the Button,' from the group Teapacks, ruffled Iranian feathers this year. (The group's failure to make any churned butter clarifications may explain the boos and lack of points it received in the semifinals.)
Even unwitting 22-year-old winner Serifovic became a topic of parliamentary debate in her native Serbia almost as soon as she returned home, with various political factions vigorously claiming her support. No shrinking violet, Serifovic shot them all down. 'I am politically neutral, and I intend to stay that way,' she told legislators. 'I keep my hands off politics, and I expect the politicians to keep theirs off my music.' You go, girl.
As for her sexuality, Serifovic has reportedly been out since 2004. In previous public appearances she usually let stylists femme her up, but the Eurovision final in Helsinki'where she sported a tousled dyke do and dapper Dolce & Gabbana duds'marked her unabashedly butch stage debut. For now she's refusing to comment on her personal life, but with a winning performance (called a 'slow motion lesbian porn flick' by a BBC personality), during which she ambled among five beautiful backup singers (each with half-hearts drawn on their hands meant to become full when brought together with another's), the message was clear.
Gay rumors are nothing new to Eurovision and have actually plagued its only two-time winner, Ireland's Johnny Logan, for years. While the contest has seen several openly gay competitors (especially in the years since 1998, when Israel's Dana International exploded the pink ceiling by not only becoming Eurovision's first transsexual entrant, but by actually taking top honors with 'Viva La Diva'), homo-hesitancy is understandable for contestants from countries where being gay is still tantamount to criminality. 'Don't ask, don't tell' has become the unspoken rule among the media, for it's understood that even a tight-lipped queer contestant could, if successful, actually further the cause of gay rights under an oppressive regime. By bringing the Eurovision final to Belgrade next year, Serifovic's win will shed much-needed positive light not only on Serbia, but also its nascent gay community.
In the lead-up week to every Eurovision final, gays from across Europe descend upon the host city, turning the hometown homo scene into an instant international free-for-all. This year in Helsinki was no exception, as the city's two largest queer clubs, DTM and Hercules, overflowed into the streets with Euro-wide delegation members and fans, while DJs furiously spun'what else?'Eurovision glory, past and present. An even more formidable Finn queue formed before Con Hombres, which has coined itself 'The Eurovisionbar,' playing nonstop Eurovision hits. To be obliviously American in a club where the queens of many nations go crazy every three minutes at the first notes of random Eurovision gems is an indescribably surreal experience.
With tickets to the actual final this year available only as part of an exorbitantly priced package (390 Euros, or well over $500), some of Helsinki's homo elite opted to shell out a far more reasonable 40 Euros (about 55 bucks) apiece to watch the festivities live from the trendy 'Gayrovision' party, held in a sleek rented theater-cum-bar-cum-sauna-space downtown. The natives naturally crooned along and cheered wildly for local gal Hanna (Finland's entry this year with 'Leave Me Alone') and danced about to Serduchka, but were clearly riveted by Serifovic's moving vocals. 'For most Europeans to even think of voting for a Serb at this point, she'd have to be pretty amazing,' said one partygoer as the vote tally rolled in. 'And she was pretty amazing.'
Eurovision fever will break for a few months now until the ramp-up to Belgrade begins around the first of next year, but the fervor never fully fades. Meanwhile, plans to produce an American version of Eurovision, an annual sing-off of reps from each of the 50 states announced by NBC in early 2006, seem to have stalled. 'No, no, no, no,' reacted one U.K. blogger to the concept at the time. 'This just won't work. A Song for the States will simply not be able to capture the magic of Eurovision. The thing that makes Eurovision work is the car crash of European cultures, musical styles, bizarre lyrics, languages, costumes, foreign locales, political voting, and downright weird performances'all wrapped up in a pan-European bitchy huddle.'