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Prim and taut, Isabelle Huppert stomps around Vienna joylessly in The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke’s 2001 film adaptation of the Austrian novel. We then see the spinster’s masochistic sexual tastes, played out in an affair with a pretty boy student. By the time she is cutting herself for thrills and pleading to be punched, we get the point: outward refinement — hers, Vienna’s — can be a mask for shocking debauchery.
The art historian Joseph Koerner said that Vienna “created the modern world by scandalising it”. Freud studied the psychosexual, Klimt drew outrageous nudes. So there is, whatever you may think, some compatibility between Vienna — fortress of civilisation and Catholic solemnity — and a bearded drag queen whose nom de guerre is euroslang for “Vagina Penis”.
Conchita Wurst is not a break from the city’s conservative past. She is, if anything, a slightly tame continuation of its other past. And having won last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, she was always going to be the presiding empress at the 2015 edition, hosted by Vienna itself. On my second morning here, the great dame visits my quirky hotel in the museum quarter (“We are all mad here,” according to the neon sign outside). She looks exactly like Prince in his Graffiti Bridge phase. The British stereotype of a drag queen is dated and derisive: the strapping train driver caked in glitter and cheap foundation, squeezing his gammon hooves into high heels for a weekend of low-rent pub vaudeville. But Conchita is state-of-the-art in a khaki-green outfit: magnetic, angular, with camera poses seemingly encoded into her body’s muscle memory.
She is one of the unconventional young Mitteleuropeans who have made Vienna their home after growing up in stifling surroundings (in her case, rural Styria). In the streets around the utilitarian Wiener Stadthalle, where Eurovision is held, it is hard to distinguish fans who have come for the show from locals milling about genially. This was probably not true when Harrogate served as the host town in 1982.
Inside the venue, observing the crowd is an exercise in discrimination: who is taking it seriously and who is here to savour the turbo-camp of it all? It requires a fine eye as there is no neat division: it is not as if the western Europeans wear the knowing smirks while the easterners, shut out of the continent’s mainstream culture during the cold war, try too hard. No, there are layers and gradients. The British fans treat the whole thing as a jolly-up but their act — Electro Velvet — are an earnest, gormless pair. The Swedish crowd, from whom one expects a captivating indifference, are mustard-keen, if only because they wear the tag of favourites. The Spanish entry, which comes with a video featuring a tiger and a falcon in a computer-generated field, is clearly the work of some giggling ironist in Madrid, even if the hapless performers do not seem to know it.
As for the Austrians themselves, they are smooth and discreetly subversive hosts. On the eve of the final, I visit the Leopold Museum, whose basement gallery is filled with crude drawings of all the acts to have scored nul points in the contest’s 60-year history. There are more than 30 in total, including a scrawled rendering of Jemini, the boy-girl atrocity that Britain offered up in 2003. I shudder.
“It really is cheese on a stick, isn’t it?” Up in the gods of the Stadthalle, my British neighbour takes the British line on the festivities. The preposterousness of Eurovision cannot be denied, but neither can its internal logic. Winning the contest is ultimately a matter of strategy, not luck or even political favouritism. The task is to cobble together a plurality of support from an audience that spans dozens of countries and languages. So, the song must be simple in form and universal in lyrical content. The singer should be bland, so as to make no enemies, or memorable, so as to leave a lasting impression after only a few minutes on stage. Irony will be lost on most viewers so everything should be done with a glee that — to British eyes — looks next-of-kin to madness. This is not a contest designed for Radiohead.
The rules of victory are hardly edifying but they are the rules of victory. Play by them and you stand a chance. Seen from this angle, Eurovision is more like a diplomatic summit than a music show. It is the Congress of Vienna.
Only two types of song prosper at Eurovision: the power ballad and the club anthem. The Irish submit something more novel, involving a piano and a double bass, and are duly culled in the semi-finals. The Danes and the Dutch go too. As for lyrics, generic positivity is the way ahead. “We are the world’s people,” announces the Russian hopeful, an ice maiden with the politics of a Benetton commercial, “different yet we’re the same”. The Swede, Måns Zelmerlöw, whose good looks cannily unify the gay vote with the crucial housewife demographic, lets us know that “We are the heroes of our time.” He cannot say why. At Eurovision, there is no Why.
Visuals matter too. The stage at the Stadthalle is a vast plain framed by a coiled lighting structure of monstrous dimensions: it can make the performer look like a flea on an iceberg if there are no props or pyrotechnics. A solitary young crooner from Cyprus gets it wrong. The Belgians are among those who get it right. Their singer has five sidekicks dressed all in white, like Clockwork Orange droogs with nicer skin. The Slovenians are even better. Their husband-and-wife team Maraaya make a good song (“Here for You”) more impressive by wearing headphones on stage and recruiting a woman in a catsuit to play aggressive air violin beside them. I am not supposed to be parti pris but I whoop when they make it to the final, and stream their ditty on my phone for the tram ride back to the hotel.
If there are two types of song at Eurovision, there is only one type of performer: technically attractive but somehow desexualised. The smiles are too radiant, the finery too elaborate. The eyes convey nothing provocative — just volcanic enthusiasm for the moment. With the exception of the hefty Serb warbler, the women are excessively sleek and linear, as if protesting the Kardashianisation of the west. The men seem to have been made in a high-tech production plant earlier in the week. Everyone and everything has a kind of gossamer sheen.
You find yourself scanning the exposed “green room” for a stray forelock, some curves, a louche smirk, any clue that humans are animals. At the Olympic Games, you suspect the athletes are sleeping with each other. At Eurovision, you doubt whether the performers have ever slept with anyone. Outside, Vienna has texture and character. Offbeat graffiti. Shops selling Bauhaus furniture on the cheap. Chic middle-aged women who really could be extravagantly kinky piano teachers. But none of this makes it inside the hygienic seal of the Stadthalle. For all the revelry, Eurovision is, in a sense, where a fascinating continent comes to be boring.
Except it is not just a continent. There are Canadians here, and Brazilians too. Australia is taking part despite being located at what might imaginatively be called the southeastern edge of Europe. “People host Eurovision parties back home,” testifies one Australian, slightly frazzled after traversing the globe to witness this riot of kitsch. “Sometimes we know who has won by the time we get around to watching it but we watch anyway.” Eurovision is said to attract the largest worldwide television audience of any event outside sport.
And even that is less impressive than the technical execution of this hideously complex show, with its multiple simultaneous broadcasts and rapid vote-counting, its linguistic feats and precise stage timings. The number of things that can go wrong is impossible to count. And yet, with the exception of an interrupted points verdict from the Caucasus, nothing does.
Like the EU, Eurovision was invented in the 1950s as a means of gluing a shattered continent together. (People often say “back” together, as though Europe had only ever known cloudless stability before the world wars came along.) Through all the contest’s mutations — from seven countries to the current 40, from jury verdicts to mass voting — unity as an end in itself has remained the idée fixe of Eurovision. Songs nod to it, singers channel the spirit during interviews. When the Russian surge in the early rounds of voting elicits some boos from the crowd, there is an immediate intervention from one of the willowy compères, who says something about the power of music to overcome difference. It is pat. It is mawkish. It is electrifying. The audience (or nine-tenths of it) roars itself into a stupor of communal ecstasy.
There is much to admire in this ideology of togetherness, and much to worry about too. At times, Eurovision seems to be in the grip of the curiously modern assumption that conflict is not just unfortunate, but irrational. If there is enmity between countries or communities, it must be because of a misunderstanding somewhere along the line. Goodwill can straighten the whole thing out. It is a view of human affairs that, in a more sophisticated guise, informs the foreign policy of some European countries and the EU’s general disposition to the world. “Look at our zone of tranquility,” Europe says to the barbarian corners of the globe, “and follow our example.”
It is a beautiful idea and Category-A nonsense. Conflict can be tragic but perfectly explicable. Two parties can sincerely and violently disagree without confusion addling their minds. The classic example is contested territory: both sides share an understanding of what and where it is, they just do not share an understanding of who should possess it. They can arrive at a compromise but they cannot pretend there is no divergence of interests in the first place. Ukraine, which did not participate in this year’s contest, knows the reality of conflict too well. Most of the continent used to know it too. At its best, Eurovision is an exercise in escapism. At its worst, it is an exercise in forgetting.
This aversion to discord, to tension of any kind, might explain the absence of rock. Eurovision is a world without guitars, or loud ones at any rate, even if the Austrian act are dead ringers for Kasabian. For rock is the music of aggression: generation versus generation, rebels versus squares. Soul and R&B have no presence here either. For that is the music of authentic sexual intent, and Eurovision is sexless. So everything comes back to those ballads and those pounding beats, like the Spotify playlist of a 15-year-old girl. It is vanilla, but vanilla sells. The audience at home craves uncomplicated emotions that can be shared with tens of millions of strangers.
And so to the winner. Some conservatives never reconciled themselves to Conchita but everyone will get behind Zelmerlöw. He is Europa in excelsis. If the continent could conceive a son in its image, he would resemble the gleaming Swede, whose looks and bearing suggest an H&M model or a superstar forex trader on a night out. He has a grasp of English that is fluent to every last colloquialism — “I had a blast!” — and his countrymen’s mysterious knack of acquiring a tasteful tan without access to the sun. If he told you he was a professional clubber, his life an itinerant blur of Stockholm and Berlin, Amsterdam and London, you would not suspect him of exaggerating. Cynics will call him Eurotrash but he is a higher class of Eurotrash.
With his surgeon father and professor mother, his boyhood in a town as pretty and civilised as Lund, his revised views on homosexuality (formerly retrograde, now modern), he is everything that Europe stands for now that it no longer stands for power. Prosperity, tolerance, good living: the 21st century’s liberté, égalité, fraternité. It is a smug vision, and a hopelessly partial account of reality. But migrants and tourists come to Europe hoping for a slice of it. People impoverished by the euro crisis — the Portuguese, the Greeks — keep faith with the idea. Scholars of international relations call it “soft power”, the ability to influence others through the pull of your cultural example.
There was a time when the heavyweight champion of the world was the face of black America. On a good year, the winner of Eurovision serves the same ambassadorial role for Europe. When people vote in this annual extravaganza, they are buying into a person, not just a song. They are hiring a global emissary.
Conchita has borne the burden ably but her time in the spotlight is running out. She opens the evening by floating over the crowd on a wire — half-diva, half-deity. She ends the night as a strangely muted figure, already last year’s news. She is brilliantly dry and self-mocking but I detect a heavy heart as she passes the torch to Zelmerlöw, who dabs his weeping eyes with the sleeves of his expensive casual wear.
She must know that the sun will set on her celebrity before long, just as it will on his. Most Eurovision winners do not have lasting careers because most Eurovision winners do not have much talent. Who remembers the Olsen Brothers? Who mourns the career of Dana? Can you name the champion from 2013? For such a durable event — at 60, the same age as Angela Merkel — nothing defines Eurovision so much as the transience of those who pass through it. Abba and Celine Dion are freaks in the litany of has-beens and never-weres. Europe, a civilisation built by geniuses, is oddly relaxed about beaming this festival of nonsense to the world, year after year. The bleak interpretation is that Europeans are cut off from their own history. The sunnier view is that they have nothing left to prove.
On my last morning in Vienna, I walk the circumference of St Stephen’s Cathedral, the majestic centrepiece of the Old Town. On the way back I see tourists gesticulating towards a handsome grey building with an arched doorway. Mozart lived there.
Janan Ganesh is an FT political columnist
Photographs: Getty Images