Monday, May 5, 2014

Eurovision's Conchita: The Face that Launched a Thousand Russian Rants

  by Nomad

Austria's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest has created quite a controversy. In fact one Russian politician has called for a boycott and for the singer to be banned from this year's program. What does this really say about Russia today?

Eurovision Song Contest
Most Americans have probably never heard of the Eurovision song contest. It's kind of a shame. Then again, most Americans probably wouldn't appreciate the fun of it. 
That aspect of the long running song contest is a little hard to describe. Not a lot of people take it very seriously- as a contest of real talent. Practically every year, the best performer is passed over for something a little more trite, or silly or bland. It can be so cheesy that it borders - and often goes beyond the borders- on farce. 

Nevertheless, Eurovision pretends to take itself very seriously. And it is certainly entertaining. Since it began in 1956, the basic formula has been the same. Each member country (including for some peculiar reason, Israel and Turkey.) submits a song to be performed on live television and radio and then casts votes for the other countries' songs to determine the most popular song in the competition.
The elaborate voting process nearly always falls along predictable political lines, with nations throwing their votes to their national pals, instead of the best performance.
Cyprus votes for Greece but Greece never votes for Turkey. Germany- with it large Turkish population- generally votes for Turkey. Macedonia never votes for Greece and so on and so on.
Talent isn't really much of a factor in the voting process. 
For that reason, the results provide a good argument about what's wrong with the idea of European Union

In spite of that, it's fun to watch.. in a weird sort of way.

Even before the contest kicks off this month, one candidate has already caused a stir. You only have to look at the photo above to understand why.

Gender-bending singer from Austria, Tom Neuwirth, (stage name: Conchita Wurst) could never be accused of taking himself too seriously. In one interview, he revealed that his look was only a way of getting attention. (Implying perhaps- in a rather covert way - that talent alone won't do it at the Eurovision contest.) 

His over-the-top get-up is what Kim Kardashian would look like after two weeks on a testosterone skin patch.

"Sodom Show"
That's why one Russian politician's reaction to the performer is both amusing and preposterous. It's also sadly revealing.

An Orthodox fundamentalist Milonov, member of Putin’s party and Municipal council of Petersburg, Vitaly Milonov recently protested Eurovision's  flamboyant performers  He claims is a "Europe-wide gay parade" and has fired off a letter to Russia's Eurovision selection committee - a kind of angry "Dear Sirs!" letter. In that letter, he, asked the committee not to send Russian musicians to the 2014 competition in Copenhagen.
Furthermore, he has demanded that Conchita be banned from the contest altogether. Milonov apparently believes that in a world in which gay Europeans should be neither seen nor heard.
Milonov argued that Russian performers' participation would "contradict the path of cultural and moral renewal that Russia stands on today". In a tweet, the lawmaker called for a full boycott of the "Sodom show".
Milonov added that just showing the program in Russia is an insult to millions of Russians.  
With his previous anti-gay crusading, Comrade Milonov is also the politician behind the controversial anti-gay laws inn 2011 which outlawed homosexual "propaganda." Those local laws paved the way for the federal laws enacted last year.

Eurovision has been a long time target for Milonov. In the past he has suggested creating its own "Russiavision" which would be excised all of the corrupting influences of Europe.

A show that would support Putin's idea of traditional values.

In fact, Russia's 2012 Eurovision entry was a group of eight traditional singers. Although the average age of the women was 68 years old, they ended up finishing in second place.
Nobody talked about banning them because of the way they looked. Or because they were too traditional or too old.

Clearly, Milonov has missed the point that there is room for everybody in European's rich culture, young and old, babushkas and drag queens.

Closing Doors
What Milonov really wants to do, of course, is not to open doors but to close them.
Nobody is stopping them, of course, but it would be yet another sign that Russia is not interested in diversity or joining the rest of the world. (But, if Milonov is anything to go by, there are people in Russia who are quite eager to impose their notions on the West.)
Perhaps the values of Russia and Europe are incompatible and can never be. That's quite an admission to make just for the sake of one girlie-man performer in Eurovision.

Another country which. like Russia, has long fancied itself as part of Europe, also protested Eurovision. Last year, Turkey similarly pulled the plug on its annual Eurovision broadcast  in reaction to Finland's lesbian kiss scene in one of the performances.
This, despite decades of promoting the idea that Turkey was ready to join the European Union and that culturally speaking, it was fine match. Apparently, the Islamic ruling party decided giving too much airtime to lesbian kissing Eurovision singers was a little too much for the sensibilities of the Turkish audiences. Dedicated Eurovision followers switched on their TVs and watched it on  the Internet.
(Authorities routinely blur such things as lighted cigarettes, glasses of alcohol, product logos. They also censor all references to homosexuality from American TV shows and many American films. However, they still don't blur or censor women getting slapped or slugged.)

The common denominator is that both Russia and Turkey do not give very much credit to their own people to be able to turn off televisions to things they don't approve of.
These governments, led, in Russia's case by Milonov, have decided to make that decision for their own people.
The Fabulous Pink Scare
That attitude goes beyond Eurovision.
If America of the 1950s once had its "Red Scare" led by  self-promoting Joseph McCarthy, Milonov seems determined to launch his own "Pink" Scare in Russia.  
Milonov criticised Russia's state-owned Channel One last May for broadcasting the 2013 Eurovision contest, which he called "degradation in the style of Hollande", in reference to the French president, François Hollande, who had just signed a law legalising gay marriage.
By employing a heterosexual test on pop culture, the Russian MP has fired salvos at big name performers like Lady Gaga and Madonna.
In 2012 he filed a complaint against Lady Gaga, charging that she had violated  St Petersburg law against promoting homosexuality among minors when she called for respect for gay rights during her concert in the city.
Singer Madonna raised his hackles when she called for gay people to be treated with dignity at a St Petersburg concert.  He alleged that she had broken the terms of her visa and would be fined $10 million dollars. 
Nine anti-gay activists from the Trade Union of Russian Citizens claimed the Material Girl 'brutally violated' a city law that imposes fines for spreading homosexual 'propaganda'
That phrase "brutal violations" is just an example of the Russian talent for word games. Smelled like a shake-down to me since every person in the world knows that when you invite Madonna, you invite her opinions on gay equality. In any event, despite a lot of courtroom hysteria, the judge dismissed the case.

There's also a political dimension to Milonov's rants. European style pop culture spreads anti-Russian propaganda, he claims.
The MP has also frequently attacked international performers, most recently seeking to ban Ukraine's most popular band, Okean Elzy, from Russia for supporting the Euromaidan protests that ousted its president, Viktor Yanukovych.
And, to be fair, there were plenty of Americans who called for the flogging of the Dixie Chicks when they publicly opposed President Bush's invasion of Iraq. In spite of a backlash and boycott, in the end, The Dixie Chicks expressed their views. Were they wrong? A lot of people thought they should just sing and otherwise keep their thoughts to themselves. However, ultimately, more than 4,000 American troops and more than a 125,000 Iraqis died in a war based on lies.

Target: Conchita
While the 25-year-old Neuwirth has been singing professionally since 2006, he created his bearded diva look, Conchita Wurst, in 2011. As a former shop window decorator, he clearly knows the importance of catching eyeballs. "Shock and awe" can have a non-military application. 

Milonov's ignorance, puritanism and naiveity were all on full display when he proclaimed:
"The participation of the obvious transvestite and hermaphrodite Conchita Wurst on the same stage as Russian singers on live television is blatant propaganda of homosexuality and spiritual decay."
First of all, a transvestite and a hermaphrodite are very different things. If Milonov had consulted a high school sex education textbook, he might have learned that a hermaphrodite is a person was born with both male and female sex organs. Transvestites are men or women who enjoy dressing as the opposite gender.  
Besides it is quite likely that Neuwirth is neither of those, but merely a stage performer with a phenomenal sense of marketing. 
That possibility has never occurred to humorless Milonov, it seems. 

According to Milonov, Wurst's very presence on the same stage will soil the completely-heterosexual Russia singers by some kind of witchery. But does this mean that the politician has personally conducted tests to determine the orientation of the Russian Eurovision delegation? Show me the evidence.
Milonov later tweeted that "completely boycotting" the show was not necessary, but said the "pervert from Austria" should be excluded.
Just listen to him.
When it comes to spiritual decay and decadent influence, homegrown varieties appear to be exempt from Milonov's ire. The whole idea that homosexuality is some sort of Western import requires overlooking a lot of facts.   
For example, Milonov was noticeably silent when the gay icons Yulia Volkova and Lena Katina of the band, t.A.T.u, performed at the pre-opening ceremony of  the Sochi Olympics.  The pair performed in the 2003 Eurovision contest,singing "All the Things She Said" and concluded the act with a heavy-duty lesbian lip-lock. 
Most people thought it was a more gimmick than gay.

In yet another example, Russian Eurovision song contest winner of 2008 Viktor "Dima." Dima's Eurovision performance was fairly campy with a blond ice skater guy pirouetting on a postage stamp sized rink next to the singer. (Ten minutes after the contest, there was not one person in Europe who could have hummed the winning song.)
Most Russians would have sarcastically dismissed Belan as a zvezdá. But there was more to the story.
After his victory, Viktor Belan came out of his own closet as a bisexual (or something) when he was reportedly asked by Serbian journalist which he preferred men or women, replied, "Both at the same time!"
If this photo is anything to go by, Belan doesn't give a hoot what Milonov thinks. 

Talent and the Trap
Above everything else there is a question of talent. Conchita's music is really not my cup of tea but, at least at the pop culture level, he/she is better than average. So it is hard to argue that Neuwirth doesn't have any talent and many Eurovision winners have had far less.

Judge for yourself.

Herein lies the real cleverness.
Neuwirth, with his outrageous alter-ego, is asking us, defying people like Milonov, to judge him solely on the way he looks. After all, if you could never actually see him, there would be no controversy at all.
As Neuwirth told one interviewer:
I created this bearded lady because I wanted to show everybody that you can achieve anything you want. It’s not depending on your looks, where you come from, the type of skin colour you have. It’s about you and your beliefs. If you want to do something, you are allowed to do anything, as long as you’re not hurting any one. Everybody deserves to live the most fabulous life! My beliefs, and my music were the best way to showcase this. I know this bearded lady would be very different. And that’s always been the intention.
Unquestionably his appearance is jarring and disturbing to some.
However, a Siberian grandmother sitting beside her Soviet-era wireless, peeling beets, would not have her traditional values "brutally violated: if she only heard Conchita sing. She might even clap her hands together and cry "легендарный!"

And Milonov is blissfully unaware that he is stepping into this sly trap, unaware that he is being pranked by a drag queen.
But there is a more serious side. Comrade Milonov is proving, to the whole world, loudly and defiantly that Russian politicians (and perhaps many Russians themselves) have a lot of growing up to do.