As I was packing for my recent trip to Europe, I felt something I’d never felt before -- fear. The news earlier this year had been absolutely bleak. Following the heartbreaking terrorist attacks in Paris, a second wave of attacks had hit Belgium, including a bomb at a Brussels’ metro station. The photos from that haunted me: Dazed commuters in business casual clothes were covered in soot and bleeding from gashes. What if someone tries something on my trip?
No, I told myself firmly. First of all, I can't let fear stop me from traveling. If I let fear rule my life, I would never get in a car, see a slasher movie, or go on a silent retreat. Plus, nothing that ugly would happen. Not where I was going -- the international capital of glitter and good times -- the Eurovision Song Contest.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the Eurovision Song Contest is an over-the-top "American Idol”-esque competition, a frothy cocktail with heavy splashes of Las Vegas floorshow and Gay Pride parade. I was introduced on my honeymoon, a whirlwind tour through Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. At some point in Amsterdam, I got a case of food poisoning, which stopped my manic sightseeing. Miserable, I settled in for an evening of badly dubbed TV from my hotel bed. But a small miracle happened. Something called Eurovision was on, and my husband and I watched baffled as songs were performed by rapping astronauts or pianists playing Lucite pianos -- on fire. At one point, a woman mounted a drum kit and went into a crashing drum solo as it was pulled across the stage like a chariot by hulking men. Did I mentioned these men were wearing only leather Speedos and gladiator helmets? The show was like facing a confetti cannon at point-blank range and getting a thunderous hit of color and sparkle.
I rose the next
morning with a fever for all things Eurovision. We had just caught the first
night of the competition, so we proceeded to watch the second semi-final and
then the finale. By the end, we were plotting future trips to attend the
concert. The winner each year hosts the next concert, and we were delighted
that Eurovision essentially makes vacation destinations into a game of roulette. Who knows
if you’ll be going to Croatia or Latvia next?
Our first concert we attended in-person was in Malmo, Sweden, and as I took my seat in the stadium, I knew: These were
my people. Behind me was a group of Welsh men dressed in giant tomato-colored
dragon costumes; they had been attending the show since the ‘60s. In front of me was a
German granny in a wheelchair outfitted in a marabou-feather stole, a cowboy
hat, and a light-up rainbow sword. And to my left was an eight-year-old girl
and her parents. For every song, she stood up out of her chair and did
“Vanna White” arms around the stage while her dad snapped her picture. All
around was a full spectrum of every age, gender, sexuality, and nationality.
But we were all equally dorked out on Eurovision.
At this point I should admit to you, Eurovision is deeply uncool. Like, pants-hiked-up-to-your-armpits uncool. My European friends, who could teach a masterclass in the art of coolness, had reactions that ranged from “Wait. WHAT??” to “Hahahaha! Unbelievable!” when I confessed my love for this show. They found the music artificial and cloying, and argued that the song lyrics were butchered English at best. All true. But when pressed, they also admitted they’d grown up watching the show and had a deep nostalgia for acts that included former winners ABBA and Celine Dion.
Part of the reason Eurovision is so low on coolness is simply its inclusive nature: No one can be hip when everyone is included. And I do mean everyone. The show began as a boost for a post-World War II Europe with 14 Western Europe countries participating. That continued to spread across the Continent into Russia, and even down past Turkey into the Middle Eastern turf of Georgia, Israel, and Azerbaijan, which factually is farther east than Iraq and nowhere near Europe. But who needs facts? This is a party, and Eurovision doesn’t want to get hung up on pesky geography. When Azerbaijan hosted, they simply dubbed it, “Europe’s easternmost country.” The last two years, Australia has joined in the fun. What creative renaming of Australia could possibly make it a part of Europe? “Europe’s stepladder to Asia”? No one cared or bothered to justify it. The message is clear: This doorman isn’t checking IDs, so everyone can come into the club.
That’s not a
sentiment we’re hearing much in Europe today. The political climate is
fraught as heads of state wrestle with the recent terrorist attacks and a
colossal number of refuges seeking asylum. It seems everywhere countries are
closing their doors, withdrawing from their neighbors, and demanding to see
paperwork before entry is granted. Eurovision is the opposite of all this. This
year, the theme was “Come Together,” and the semifinal showcased a dance number
about the refuges in crisis. The striking image of locked hands being wrenched
apart would’ve caused the hardest politician to tear up. Inside this program’s
marshmallow heart is an activist’s agenda for unity and peace.
This isn’t a new stance for the song contest, either. The very nature of the program is that countries with long, hateful histories perform side-by-side next to each other. The hosts this year performed what they called the ultimate Eurovision song, titled “Peace, Peace, Love, Love,” and while the entire song was a wink to the contest’s ridiculously unsubtle showmanship, it points to its very real mission.
That said, this
show isn’t a pure utopia divorced from the real world. Politics, allegiances,
and controversies do spring up — this year Ukraine squeaked out a victory past Russia,
reigniting tension between the two countries. The media was quick to amplify that tension, as one New York Times headline shouted, “Ukraine’s Eurovision Win
Rouses a Chorus of Anger and Suspicion in Russia.” But to focus on that is to
ignore all the other performances and the sheer spirit of the program.
This year in
Stockholm, I made my way to the Globe Arena to attend the concert. I crossed a
bridge flapping with flags that read “Come Together” under the blaring sound of
past songs. A drag duo in bright orange wigs and blue-checkered pinafores raced
up the gangway toward a man holding a “Free Hugs” sign. After I settled into my seat,
the show runner took the mic to give us the Eurovision rules of order, “You know Eurovision is all about love. We want you to applaud every artist. There is no booing — just pure love.” I gave my husband’s
hand a squeeze as the lights flashed up and a group of children
took to the stage belting out last year’s winning song, “Heroes.”
A pop song might
not bring world peace, but it’s harder to fight when you share the stage with
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