For many, the Eurovision Song Contest is nothing more than a glitzy exercise in questionable taste. The kitsch factor is personified by the pylon hairstyles and red-sequined costumes of this year's Irish contestants, the irrepressibly energetic Jedward. Not to mention Russian contestant Alexej Vorobjov, who stooped to shedding his shirt and bearing his chiseled torso to attract attention this week. Then there is the Portuguese act Homens de Luta, who fell out of competition during the semi-finals with an act that came across like a grade-school impersonation of the Village People.
To others, though, the contest is the launching pad for the international careers of pop immortals like Abba, Sandie Shaw, Celine Dion and many more. They see Eurovision as a showcase of the continent's best pop music that brings Europeans together -- at least for one night each year.
A group of academics belonging to the latter camp are now giving the Eurovision Song Contest closer scrutiny. They are scratching beneath the surface to find deeper meaning in what is the world's largest live non-sporting television event.
One of those leading the effort is Karen Fricker, an American scholar from Los Angeles who first experienced the exuberant contest just short of a decade ago at a party held by two gay friends in Dublin, where she was completing her Ph.D. "They all talked back to each other and the screen, with each trying to outdo the other with wittier and bitchier comments," she recalls. "It was compelling in a lot of ways."
'A Treasure Trove of Different Meanings'
After working on a post-doctoral project on Eurovision and fandom, Fricker, now a lecturer in contemporary theater at Royal Holloway, University of London, teamed up in 2008 with Milija Gluhovic, an assistant professor of theater and performance at the University of Warwick. Together they launched a project titled "The Eurovision Song Contest and the 'New' Europe."
Armed with 35,000 pounds (€40,000 or $57,000) in British government funding, the project aims to provide the first major academic review of Eurovision. It has featured a series of workshops that will be completed this weekend in Düsseldorf, Germany, where the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest is being hosted, and culminate with the publication of a book of essays.
"I don't understand how it has taken academia so long to cop on to the fact that, with the Eurovision Song Contest, you have 56 years of European pop, gender and representational history," says Fricker. The project brings theater, music and performance studies scholars together with political and social scientists who are exploring Eurovision's role in post-Iron Curtain Europe. "It's a treasure trove of so many different meanings that it really takes international and multidisciplinary perspectives to even start to pick away at what it means."
By 'New' Europe, Gluhovic doesn't just mean Eastern Europe -- the project also explores the way all of Europe has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In addition to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, the academics are also exploring how an influx of migrants to Western Europe and other trends have reshaped the continent.
Kitsch, Lamé and European Unity
For the most dramatic change of all, one need look no further than Eurovision, which in the period since 1989 has grown faster than either NATO or the European Union: The number of participating nations has swelled from around 25 during the Cold War period to well over 43 today. It is an expansion that has led some of Europe's greatest contemporary thinkers -- including Timothy Garton Ash and Rem Koolhaas -- to question where the actual psychological borders of Europe lie in the 21st century.
"Eurovision is an arena for European identification in which both national identity and also participation in a European identity are confirmed," says Gluhovic. "At the same time, it is a site for struggle over meanings, frontiers and the limits of Europe."
Fricker agrees, arguing that Eurovision has always troubled definitions of Europe. "The first question everyone always asks me is, Why Israel? And is Russia really a part of Europe? Then you have Azerbaijan and Georgia, who are pouring enormous resources into Eurovision to win."
The reason for Eurovision's geographical diversity lies in the nature of its organizer, the European Broadcasting Union, which has no relationship to the European Union and allows any national broadcaster that is a member to participate in the song contest. In the past, countries as far flung as Morocco and Kazakhstan have taken part.
Fricker argues that Eurovision has the power to change perceptions, despite the kitsch, camp and façade of lamé, sequins and LED walls -- or perhaps because of them. When you hear a song from Azerbaijan, she argues, it may not tell you anything about the experience of being an Azeri, but at least it gets people thinking about a country which normally wouldn't cross their minds. "Maybe they'll look on a map to try to figure out where it is," she says. "There's a power in the map that Eurovision creates in terms of making people think about what they understand Europe to be and contain."
A Night When Europe Comes Together
The millions of faces glued to their TV screens are, it seems, doing their part for European unity. They offer a beacon of hope at a time when the euro common currency is in a state of crisis, EU countries are unilaterally reintroducing border controls, European leaders are divided and solutions to common problems are elusive. Eurovision, it seems, is one of the few engines of unity in Europe at the moment that is working as it should.
"Eurovision is a night when Europe comes together symbolically," Gluhovic says. "The performances have great symbolic value and they do perhaps contribute to changes in perceptions of understanding of certain countries." Fricker adds: "It is clearly a ritual that people from all across Europe come together to watch it, and I think that is a very positive unifying gesture."
At the same time, Eurovision can also stir up issues about national identity, Fricker says. "There will be competition and stereotypes whenever you put nations and competition into the same frame."
'The Division Between West and East Has Persisted with Tenacity'
Even 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and seven years after the accession of many Eastern European countries into the EU, not even semi-utopian Eurovision has succeeded in bridging every cultural divide. "The division between West and East has persisted with remarkable tenacity in the European cultural imagination," Gluhovic says. He points to the often disparaging remarks made about Eastern European acts by former BBC television Eurovision commentator Terry Wogan, who quit his hosting duties after 2008 in a huff.
Occasional derision of the East has come not only through the perpetuation of stereotypes but also because Eastern European countries have won six of the competitions during the past decade. Many in the West blamed Eurovision's system of televoting that allowed viewers to cast votes for their favorite acts across Europe.
Acts representing Western European countries have won for the past two years with a new system that splits the votes between the public and professional juries. Both Gluhovic and Fricker believe the four main funders of the Eurovision Song Contest -- public broadcasters in Britain, Germany, France and Spain -- may have pressured the organizer, the European Broadcasting Union, to restore, at least partially, a jury-based system.
Fricker says she was disappointed to see the old system go, in which winners were chosen exclusively through the popular vote and which she described as "a very democratic way of deciding." Of course, Eurovision isn't entirely democratic, given that the acts sent to the competition are, for the most part, selected by the participating national broadcasters.
Those Pesky Voting Blocs
The academic also disputes Western criticism of supposed "bloc voting" (or voting for your own country's neighbors and allies) in the East, arguing that the voting patterns existed even before 1989. "The language being used by the popular media to characterize the voting patterns in the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia as somehow tribal, unfair or cheating, was pernicious and replicated some stereotypes in the West about Eastern Europe," Fricker says. She points out that even if there were bloc voting, it would be permissible under the rules.
Ultimately, Fricker believes, voting may just boil down to cultural affinities. "When Bulgarians hear a song from Serbia, chances are it will sound familiar. They might even understand lots of words because both are Slavic languages," she says. Gluhovic notes that these cultural affinities may also mean intertwined histories and cultural and musical traditions in Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, Nordic countries or Southern Europe that just aren't shared in the rest of Europe.
Take the 2007 winner, Serbia's Marija Serifovic. Many interpreted her act to be that of a campy, butch lesbian, but Gluhovic argues that people in the East viewed it differently, noting that the song's title, "Molitva" ("prayer"), is almost the same word in many Slavic languages. Viewers in Prague, Zagreb or Moscow may have been more inclined to think of the song as a prayer for a Serbia where EU sanctions against the former Milosevic regime had only just been lifted.
One thing neither academic disputes is the fact that countries in Eastern Europe and far beyond are investing heavily in their Eurovision acts as a way of polishing their images abroad. From Kiev to Moscow to Baku, tens of millions of euros have been spent on campaigns to burnish their images at Eurovision. Two approaches have proven highly popular -- either attempts to "self-exoticize" a country's "Orientalness" or Eastern culture, or to bring in famous producers to emulate Western pop styles. Russia did just that in 2008 with singer Dima Bilan, who brought in American producers. Similarly, this year's Russian entry, Alexey Vorobyov, is performing a song written by RedOne, who penned Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" and "Poker Face."
An example both scholars like to cite for experiments with self-exoticization is 2004 winner Ruslana Lyzhychko of Ukraine, whose sexy and scantily-clad performance of "Wild Dances" played on perceptions of Eastern Europe as "wild, untamed and barbaric," Gluhovic says.
In preparing for Eurovision, Ruslana claimed to have conducted ethnographic research in the Carpathian Mountains and to have evoked the cultural heritage of the highland Hutsul ethnic group, whose sounds, instruments and costumes were apparently incorporated into her act. "Ruslana herself recognized that, for the majority of Western audiences, Ukraine has long been associated with the Chernobyl catastrophe," Gluhovic asserts. "She wanted to create a different image of Ukraine and different associations through her performance."
Despite all the exuberant performers, some new entrants take a conservative approach. Researchers working on the Eurovision 'New Europe' project have seen a trend in Poland in which the country eschews the more outlandish performances adopted by some of its neighbors in favor of more mainstream pop. "In terms of their look and the way they sound, they have a strategy of disidentification with the more exotic East, thereby claiming its position in the Central European cultural core and values." The strategy has been a loser in terms of votes, however.
Another subject you won't have to dig too deep into the academics' footnotes to find is the "queerness" of an annual event that has come to be known as "Gay Christmas." Eurovision has a massive gay and lesbian following around the world, a phenomenon that researchers are also looking into.
"Eurovision is glamorous, it is larger than life, and there is loads of history to engage with," Fricker says, seeking to explain the gay appeal. "Many of these acts are like swans emerging from the shadows -- they are underdog stories that gays can identify with." This idea of triumphing against the odds and coming out and being the most glamorous and popular person is "a narrative that seems very attractive."
At times, she continues, Eurovision can be outrageous, and at others downright silly, which all plays into its camp appeal. And in the past, Eurovision was a "secret code or club" for being gay in countries like Ireland, where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993. "You had a secret and your friends had a secret and you had those parties every year," Fricker says.
The scholars view the 1998 victory of transsexual Israeli pop star Dana International -- who is returning to the competition this year with the song "Ding Dong" -- as Eurovision's "coming-out moment." "She brought with her all kinds of messages about difference and acceptance that I think brought to the surface a lot of meanings of Eurovision that up until that point had been quite covert," says Fricker.
More recently, Eurovision has underscored differences in acceptance of homosexuality in different parts of Europe that give little reason to celebrate. When Belgrade hosted the contest in 2008, welcome packages for Eurovision attendees included warnings against displaying same-sex affection in a city that gets low marks for gay-friendliness. Moscow, which hosted in 2009, isn't exactly known as a bastion of tolerance either.
Gluhovic says he fears people may be imagining a new divide -- one of a West that is liberal towards homosexuality and an East that is oppressive. But he warns against such "black-and-white" portrayals. "There are particular alignments of nations and religion in the West that are openly homophobic and very problematic," he says. Although media attention in recent years has focused on crackdowns and oppressive statements in the East related to gay events in Poland, Russia, Serbia and the Balkan states, "homophobia hasn't perished in the West, either."
UK-based academic publisher Palgrave-MacMillan plans to publish in 2012 a book of essays based on the workshops hosted by Gluhovic and Fricker, titled: "Performing the 'New' Europe: Identities, Feelings and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest."