Evening everyone, and welcome to the third of our 2014 “What If” articles! Following Rory’s investigation into what may have happened had Sweden sent Ace Wilder, tonight I’m going to look at what is possibly one of the biggest question marks hanging over the 2014 contest: simply, what would have happened if our Austrian winner Conchita Wurst didn’t have a beard?
The results of the Eurovision Song Contest are almost always newsworthy. For a few days after the contest, the world is bombarded with opinionated reports on who won, who lost, who accused who of rigging the voting etc. etc. However, headlines across the world on May 11th this year resonated with just one thing: that a ‘bearded drag queen’ had walked away victorious, seemingly giving the winner’s appearance more significance than the performance or indeed the song.
It shouldn’t be like that at all, when you consider that Eurovision is a musical competition. Focusing on the categorisation of Conchita as a ‘bearded drag queen’ both removes her individual character and seemingly detracts attention from what should be the natural focal point: the music. However, the more I think about it, this exemplifies the issue we have here.
Austria won the Copenhagen contest because of the whole package delivered by the artist, rather than on musical merit alone. And the defining aspect of that artistic package is, whether we like it or not, the beard. It’s a gimmick – yes, a stamp of originality that sets Conchita apart from otherwise similar drag artists, but a gimmick nonetheless. It was added to the character in order to attract more attention. I don’t dispute that the reasoning behind this was honourable, and the amount of admirable work Conchita has been able to do for the LGBT community as a result of her increased fame is absolutely fantastic. But it cannot be denied that the initial motivation behind the beard was to be noticeably different, to create discussion (and in some places controversy), and to increase memorability.
This may all sound a little cynical, but Eurovision is after all a competition, and every artist needs to make themselves memorable in some way. Conchita’s beard most certainly achieved this aim. Some may argue that the simple fact of being a drag artist would have been enough to fulfil such a criteria, however if we look back at the ESC precedent for drag artists, it becomes clear that it’s very hit and miss. Yes, Verka Serduchka soared to second place in 2007, but I’d attribute that more to the dance routine and the actual chorus riff which stuck in people’s heads, rather than the character’s appearance. We’ve also seen acts like Sestre in 2002 stir up their fair share of pre-contest controversy, but be met with a lacklustre response on the actual night. Drag won’t guarantee a good result, but also perhaps it has become too mainstream in the Eurovision environment to merit discussion anymore?
I remember talking to my grandmother in the wake of the 2014 result, and she had just one question in relation to Conchita: “why?”. She loved the song, she really enjoyed the performance, and as a person she is incredibly open-minded when it comes to the issue of sexuality and gender identity. She simply wondered why Tom thought the beard was necessary, when everything else in the performance was so classy. The obvious response to that is of course “why not?”, and that’s the kind of attitude Conchita tries to promote: that no matter who you are or what you look like, you should feel free to be yourself. But at the end of the day, I am in complete agreement with my grandmother’s hesitation, because the same message could have been portrayed as a proud gay man singing as himself on stage, or even by a proud gay man dressed as a fabulous woman without a beard. Yes, it’s all part of the character, but it’s not integral, and Conchita’s aims could still have been fulfilled without it. To a lot of the audience, the beard did’t represent universal acceptance; it was a joke. It wasn’t something to be taken seriously.
So: we come to the question of the results. Would Austria still have been victorious if Conchita Wurst did not have a beard?
I’d personally say it’s extremely difficult to call. The song, whilst being one of my least favourites, definitely made a connection with juries and televoters alike; as did the impressive vocal performance. Thus, it’s hard to envisage Austria finishing much lower sans barbe – however, I’m sticking my neck on the line and saying that they wouldn’t still have won. The beard just about won it for them. The publicity and originality it gave them meant that viewers at home were all unanimous in looking forward to the Austrian performance more than any other. Conchita Wurst, with her beard, became something that the majority of the viewers had never seen before. I’m pretty sure that no matter what she’d sung, her appearance alone would have been enough to challenge for the title. It just so happened that on top of this, she had a very classy – if unexpected and slightly incongruous – stripped-back performance, and truly incredible vocals. If that had all come from, say, Vilija Mataciunaite or Tijana Dapcevic or even Sanna Nielsen, I don’t think it would have been enough. Twas the beard that did it.
Those who read my review of the contest will know I wasn’t exactly over the moon when Conchita won, mainly because I’m not really a fan of “Rise Like A Phoenix” as a song. I do apologise for how venomous parts of that review came across, but now, weeks later, I still stand by the skeleton of that opinion. The 2014 result is disappointing, if you look at it from a purely musical perspective, because a number of very deserving songs were overlooked in favour of what is essentially an elaborate gimmick. However, in many other respects, as I have come to understand, the result is also an incredibly positive one. Conchita’s fame has led to multiple opportunities for her to spread her message to more people, and the better songs *ahem CALM AFTER THE STORM* have gone on to outperform the Austrian winner in terms of worldwide sales, so in reality, it’s a win-win situation for all.
Robbert Landegent from the Netherlands: I think juries still would go for Austria, while it would be a difference for the televoters, who probably would consider RLAPH as a standard ballad.
Jonas Dagobert Ohlenforst from Germany: She would have done very well because she had one of the best performances and voices, but she wouldn’t have been the winner I think…the Netherlands would have been the positive surprising winner.
Julia Walin from Sweden: I don’t think she would have won,but I think top 5. The beard stole the victory from the Netherlands 😉
Daniel Cobbett from the United Kingdom: Possibly not a winner as Julia said – it was the “ensemble” of Conchita’s performance that won it for Austria, the song, the voice, and the look 🙂
This really is a tough question isn’t it! There are a plethora of reasons for Conchita’s victory, which many people here have pointed out – and in the opinion of the fans above, the removal of the beard from the overall package of Conchita’s performance may have slightly lessened Austria’s chances, but not by a significant amount. We all appear to be in agreement that Austria would have still had a fantastic result in 2014, but as to winning? Jury’s still out!