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How drag and trans acts became the Eurovision constant

2 Nov

59th Eurovision Song Contest

Picture: Georg Hochmuth/EPA

Decades ago Eurovision was consisting of ballad queens, crooners and acts doing the fun, upbeat, sometimes “cheesy” songs and performances. Traditional gender roles were the only way to go, with a clear distinction between what was a “masculine” and what was a “feminine” performance. However in 1986, something else made a debut – the drag acts. Wikipedia defines the word “drag queen” as:

“The term drag queen occurred in Polari, a subset of English slang that was popular in some gay communities in the early part of the 20th century. Its first recorded use to refer to actors dressed in women’s clothing is from 1870.

A folk etymology, whose acronym basis reveals the late 20th-century bias, would make “drag” an abbreviation of “Dressed as A Girl” in description of male theatrical transvestism. However, there is no trace of this supposed stage direction in Dessen and Thomson’sDictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642.”

Based on this article, drag culture has been involved long time before its use in today’s Western society – as a part of the LGBTQ community. Back in the 80s Eurovision and LGBTQ weren’t so closely connected, particularly due to LGBTQ still being marginalised and later on also stigmatised (due to the hysteria caused by the AIDS epidemic). The debut of Great Garlic Girls as part of the performance of the host entry, “Romeo” by Kjetil Stokkan didn’t go down very well with the juries, making him finish 12th with 44 points. The drag group however earned nation-wide fame and is still performing even today, albeit in a different line-up.

Fast forward to 1998. The LGBTQ community’s position in (Western) Europe was improving and the wave of positivity and tolerance due to successful economy was widely present. During that time, Isreal (for many known as the country of three most important monoteistic religions) sent a trans act to the contest in Birmingham. The trans act was Dana International, a man (Yaron Cohen) who changed sex and gender and became a woman (Sharon Cohen). Despite the tolerance towards LGBTQ being bigger, Dana’s selection was welcomed with a massive outrage and protests from the Orthodox Jews in her native country. Those groups even tried to prevent her from going to ESC altogether. However as the popular saying goes “all publicity is good publicity” Dana became one of the odds’ favourites to win the contest and as at the end of the very tense voting she indeed emerged as the contest’s winner, being the first ever openly LGBTQ act to do so. It’s interesting to point out that a year earlier, Iceland’s Paul Oscar (being openly gay) had only finished on 20th place, with the majority of points coming from televoting. In 1998 televoting was used in the majority of the countries taking part, which was a great help for Dana and her modern Eurodance anthem “Diva”, which also became a big summer hit and a minor commercial hit – something which wasn’t entirely common as only few years back, Eurovision had been struggling with making a commercial impact on the charts. Dana and “Diva” gave the contest some well-needed publicity and that publicity contributed to what would be the major change of image, in the years to come.

Moving on 4 years later, to winter 2002. To my country (Slovenia), to be precise. The national final, EMA, that year ended up in a complete chaos in which the winners were the three drag queens known as Sestre (or as their older name Štrumpantl Sisterz). It was shown however, that Sestre had won due to the massive jury support, rather than the televoting love. Karmen Stavec, the runner-up of the selection was seen having a massive meltdown because of the defeat and during that time the general director of RTVSLO, Aleks Štakul, made a statement about the re-vote likely to be held. His statement split the Slovenian public into two camps – the conservative LGBTQ-skeptics and the liberal LGBTQ-supporters. While the former were supporting the idea of a re-vote (as they wanted for our country to be represented by “someone proper” rather than “three freaks putting our country to shame”), the latter caused a major counter-reaction, supporting the shift in mentality in our country, rooting for our society to become progressive and liberal, rather than homophobic and conservative. The whole debate even got its place in our parliament and government, both siding with the LGBTQ skeptcis instead. The reaction of our political elite even made the news in the major worldwide press and caused the establishment within the European Union to question our ability to really join the union (we eventually joined 2 years later). Eventually the whole controversy faded, the re-vote didn’t happen and finally Sestre started receiving praise from the public. Their song “Samo ljubezen” is now considered Eurovision-classic, still used in student and bachelor parties all over the country. Sestre released the album the same year and were considered among the most important people of the year. LGBTQ support won.

After drag/trans acts failed to make to Eurovision the following years (the most noted examples being After Dark from Sweden and Queentastic from Norway) or did not make any big impact, (the Bulgarian drag queen Azis as the backing vocalist for Mariana Popova in 2006) in 2007 drag came back with a venegance, multiplied by 2 even. Denmark sent DQ (his real name is Peter Andersen) and Ukraine sent Verka Serduchka (his real name is Andrey Danylko). While the former didn’t really create any big sensation with his schlager-pop song “Drama Queen” and was eliminated in the semi final already, the latter took Europe by storm. First there was a controversy because of the song (“Dancing Lasha Tumbai”)’s lyrics as people, especially from Russia, thought the part of the lyrics went “I want to see – Russia goodbye”. The members of the parliament in Ukraine protested loudly against Serduchka’s participation, refering to LGBTQ culture as “pseudoculture”. Verka’s song became a viral hit, her performance is still shown in all sorts of pre-Eurovision shows as one of the most memorable acts of the contest and her song was a bigger chart hit than the winning entry from Marija Šerifović (also a part of LGBTQ community).

In 2008 the backings of French entrant Sebastien Telier were drag, but didn’t leave a lasting impression and when in 2011 Dana International made a comeback in the contest, which “made” her, her story ended with a disappointing non qualification, In 2012 one of the acts in Austrian national selection was a bearded drag act Conchita Wurst, singing an empowering schlager pop song, but was eventually voted off by a very “masculine” act. So it seemed as if the era of drag and trans acts doing well was “passe”. Until September 2013. At the beginning of the month Copenhagen was announced as a host city of 2014 contest, there was a big buzz and a sigh of relief spread across the Eurofan community as the majority had supported the choice of Denmark’s capital all along. However, about a week later Austria dropped a bomb – Conchita would represent the nation in B&W Hallerne! The reaction among the ESC fanworld was very negative, with many people disgusted and appalled by the choice. There is a page on Facebook named “NO to Conchita Wurst in Eurovision!”, which at the time had more likes than the official Conchita’s page. People disgusted by her automatically wrote her off in terms of result in the contest. People said she wouldn’t qualify. People said Austria were heading for a major embarrassment. Conchita however kept her profile low and when other national selections kicked off, she was put on a sideway a tad. In March 2014 the song, “Rise Like A Phoenix” was released. People started paying attention to her, but she still wasn’t one of the main favourites for the victory. In April, on Swedish preview show, the former Eurovision winner Charlotte Perrelli tipped Conchita to win the whole show. Conchita started gaining attention from the mainstream press, but wasn’t really taken seriously. On May 8th, she performed as 6th in the second semi final and from being one of the underdogs she shooked the whole social media-o-sphere and suddenly became the act to beat. By the time of the final Conchita was the centre of attention of both the press and the public and was destined to do very well. It was that Saturday when people who had been her fans since day 1 started believing in her victory. In the final it was all about Conchita, from the moment she stepped on stage until the end of the show. And indeed – she won! An underdog from a small Austrian village conquered the whole continent and became the overnight sensation. Cher, Elton John and Kylie Minogue were just three of celebrities mentioning Conchita in the social media after her win. However, as there was love, there was outrage as well. Several politicians shaved their beard as a protest, called Conchita a sign of “Europe’s downfall”, some ESC fans started making assumptions that EBU rigged the contest in Conchita’s favour, in order to gain publicity. Conchita’s win showed to be one of the most divisive things to happen in ESC and many people within the Eurovision fanworld now question the contest’s credibility and future. Former BBC’s commentator Terry Wogan even insulted Conchita, implying he was right all the time, in thinking Eurovision was nothing, but a camp freakshow

In my opinion some kind of agreement needs to be reached, at least among the Euro-fans. Drag/trans fans should be more tolerant also to the people with a different opinion and develop understanding that perhaps people just preferred other songs instead. It doesn’t make one living in the middle ages, if one preferred other songs. Drag/trans skeptics on the other hand should realise that any critisism they give to those acts doesn’t really contribute to anything, but more publicity to them and to what they stand for. So – you dislike people like Conchita, boycott and ignore them. Simple as that. And to answer to the question who’s to “blame” for drag/trans acts having such impact in ESC – I would say Dana International back in 1998. I do think had she not won in Birmingham that drag/trans acts’ impact in the contest would have been much smaller.

The Cult of Bert Karlsson or why is for many Swedes “schlager” a synonym for Melodifestivalen?

20 Oct


I often read comments within the ESC fanworld about the styles of music in Melodifestivalen. People are expressing their concerns saying how MF is too narrow music-wise and that other genres apart from traditional schlagers should get recognised as MF’s genres. Moreover, people think that because of MF favouring schlager, that many top artists refuse to compromise their musical integrity to take part in MF, despite the possible promotion and boost in sales. Now, over the past 5-6 years MF has been drifting away from schlager, particularly embracing clubby pop and teen pop instead. However, people are still not happy. They think MF should be even more diverse and therefore attract even bigger names into taking part.

The opinion of these people is of course totally fair. Swedish music industry is facing a tough competition from UK and USA and adapting to trends set by the worldwide stars and producers is nowadays a norm to survive. Physical (and digital) albums don’t sell as much as they used to, artists don’t get a decent compensation from streaming services like Spotify, music industry is focusing on social media marketing rather than “traditional” PR in order to get revenue, taking part in reality shows like Så mycket bättre and doing massive summer tours is what is artists’ main source of income nowadays. Pop has taken over from schlager, export is crucial.

But for general Swedish audience, despite the state of the music business, “schlager” is still the synonym for MF. Now why is that? To get the answer to my question, we have to go way back in time, to 70’s and 80’s, when one man was “in charge” as the super manager, the record company super boss, the marketing super machine – BERT KARLSSON.

Bert Karlsson, after working as a chief of a grocery store in his hometown, Skara(in western Sweden, near Gothenburg) and of several bingo arenas, Bert then started a record company, Mariann Gramofon. That was in 1972. Some years passed and he had what he thought was a perfect song for Melodifestivalen in 1977 – “Guenerina” by Paul Paljett. The selection jury however disagreed and rejected the song. Bert, totally furious released this song and 15 other rejects on a compilation LP, on which, according to MF experts most of the songs were better than the songs on the actual MF, where its winning song, “Beatles” by Forbes finished on last place in Eurovision. “Guenerina” sold very well, made #1 on the prestigious radio chart Svensktoppen and Paul Paljett won many awards. Bert – SVT – 1 – 0. In his first year already. So in 1978 some of “his” songs made it to the line-up, the most famous one being “Miss Decibel” by the dance band (dansband) Wizex (including Kikki Danielsson as the lead singer). Wizex and Björn Skifs ended on a tie and the latter eventually won the tie-break vote and went to Eurovision where he – legendarily – forgot the lyrics at the beginning.

A year passed and in 1980 his record company was behind 4 out of 10 songs in the line-up. In 1981 2 out of 5 songs were from “his” artists (now being Sweet’n’Chips and Janne Lucas) and a year later his very first win happened. Song was “Dag efter dag”, written by Lasse Holm and Monica Forsberg, Kikki Danielsson and Elisabeth Andreasson were the singers and the duet’s name was Chips. Having a “pimp” slot and winning convincingly in Sweden, new stars were born. Finishing on a respectable 8th place in Harrogate this set foundations for what was to come a year later. The venue was Palladium, Malmö, the date was set on February 26th, 1983, the host was Bibi Johns. The line-up in general that year was quite mediocre – Kikki Danielsson (who had gone solo from Chips)’s song was ok, but the other 8 were nothing to write home about. And then came the final entry of the night, “melodi nummer 10″. The final entry was “Främling”, the artist a completely unknown schoolgirl at the tender age of 16 by the name Carola Häggkvist. Bert had signed Carola 2 years earlier and was setting up for her breakthrough for quite some time and that night it finally happened. The voting that nght was the most boring voting ever in the history of MF, with Carola getting the maximum points from all the regional juries, so the host actually said “This is not exciting whatsoever!”. That night a breakthrough of epic proportions was made, not only in MF, but in Swedish music in general. Carola was heavily featured in all the newspapers after her MF win, Eurovision that year was watched by 6.8 million people in Sweden alone, that is 84% of the entire population at the time – the record still to be broken ever since. Carola’s debut album is the most sold album by a Swedish artist ever, her summer tour broke all the records and her squeaky clean image gained her loads of fans as well. Carola’s follow up albums also sold very well, but as soon as she wanted to ditch the bubblegum schlager-pop image, the record sales weren’t as good as previously. Over the years loads of female artists have tried to have an epic breakthrough like Carola had – none of them have even come close. Carola’s just hit a new #1 on iTunes chart with her Ola Salo cover from Så mycket bättre – 31 years after her breakthrough. Impressive.

Back to the story, after Carola’s epic breakthrough Bert was laughing all the way to the bank. Many people (both fans and general audience) still believe Carola was the moral winner of Eurovision that year, but the actual win in ESC happened just a year later, with Bert’s new act, 3 Mormon boys by the name Per, Louis and Richard Herrey. They managed to win both MF and the contest in Luxembourg and created a boyband hysteria which hadn’t been experienced before. The boys needed a police escort when arriving to their concerts, they had to move to Copenhagen to be able to live as normal life as possible and they also won the Eastern European version of Eurovision a year later – the Sopot Festival and therefore also gained a loyal Eastern bloc following. In MF one of the contestants sang worse than rehearsed, it was Elisabeth Andreasson, one of the former members of Chips and Bert had his plans for her launch.

He took her over to Norway and introduced her to Hanne Krogh and the new duo was born – Bobbysocks. As Kikki Danielsson won MF and Bobbysocks MGP Bert had now double chance of winning Eurovision – and it happened again. Now for Norway. “Seier’n er vår – endelig!” – FINALLY the Norway which had been ridiculed with bad results before, could taste their first ever Eurovision win. Kikki finished 3rd. So two songs by Mariann in Eurovision top 3. Not bad, not bad at all.

1986 came, MF was held in a slightly revamped format, with music videos being shown in the first round. And Bert had 4 songs (out of 10) in the line-up, among which we can find the top 2 of the night – “E de det här du kallar kärlek” by Lasse Holm and Monica Thörnell and “Kärleken är evig” by Lena Philipsson. Lasse Holm, previously the songwriter of 3 winning entries now won as a singer and Lena Philipsson had a breakthrough as an artist back then. In 1987 again the top 2 were Bert’s artists (Lotta Engberg and Arja Saijonmaa) and also “Dansa i neon” by Lena Philipsson made the super-final. However, then the team at his record company broke apart. Lasse Holm and Torgny Söderberg went on to form their own companies and suddenly Bert’s influence in MF was reduced rapidly the following year as he had lost the majority of the artists he had previously worked with. The results got worse and new people were set to take over. In 1991 as Carola (then no longer at Mariann) won both MF and ESC, he started his career as a politician, running the populist party Ny Demokrati (New Democracy), which policies were critical to immigrants and it looked as if his career as a record company boss couldn’t be more far away. It’s also because of his political career, that many Swedes hold a grudge against Bert nowadays. “Seeing Bert in the cooking show, the old racist looking like a friendly uncle. What is with this world?!” is just one of the angry comments in the social media. Also his influence was non-existent in MF the following years as well. In 1992 he had to be credited as a lyricist of a song “Venus Butterfly” by a girl group Angel (as the original lyricist, Nick Borgen couldn’t be credited due to not having a Swedish citizenship.). The song flopped and Angel’s career was over. In 1993 Nick Borgen could take part and finished second (due to televoting being introduced, which was won by Arvingarna) and the rest of the 90s were more or less silent years for Bert and his record company in MF. But in 1999, after making a dance band revival for a while, a comeback in MF happened with a bang.

In 1999 a dance band singer Charlotte Nilsson won MF with her song “Tusen och en natt”. The song got translated into English and won the whole Eurovision in Jerusalem as well. Bert was “the king of the game” again. Same year a dance/schlager band Friends were formed in a reality show on TV4 and another group, Barbados won their first Grammy for the best dance band. And they were Bert’s best bet in MF the following year, along with the Gothenburg’s Latin diva Javiera – neither of them won, but both got a wide recognition by the general audience and schlager was slowly making a revival again. 2001 was the year when again the top 2 of MF was by Bert’s artists – Friends and Barbados, with another dance band, Date also taking part. In 2001 the idea was developed at the SVT’s headquarters, to revamp the MF format and bring it closer to the people, with 4 semi-finals and a final in Globen. Bert’s chances increased even more with this change and the amount of artists that were signed to his label was much bigger the following year. One act that he’d written off previously, the female trio Afro-Dite got signed with his label as soon as they qualified to the final, the super trio Kikki, Bettan & Lotta (his previous protegees) made big comeback and Barbados, Friends and Javiera made it to the final again.

In autumn 2002 Bert launched a new reality talent show – Fame Factory, taking inspiration from Spanish Operacion Triunfo. And already in the first season, several hopefuls were ready to taste some MF glory – Mathias Holmgren, Andres Esteche, Markus Landgren and a new duet, Fame, consisting of Jessica Andersson and Magnus Bäcklund (who had won the show). After making it to the final, Fame were immediately tipped to be the front-runners for the victory in the final in 2003 – and indeed, 20 years after Carola’s overnight success, two fresh faced artists had their big breakthrough again. Fame won with a considerable margin and Fame Factory was more popular than ever. Jessica and Magnus also finished on a great 5th place in Eurovision and after a summer tour and a new participation the following year the duo took a break at the beginning of 2006. Magnus released a solo album, which sold well and Jessica is now one of the household names in Sweden. I already wrote about the impact their song, “Give Me Your Love” had on me and I stand by every word I wrote back then.

In 2004 Fame Factory contestants failed to win MF, but his former artist won it all – Lena Philipsson had a big comeback with her Orup-penned song “Det gör ont” and both the song and her album were big success, sales-wise. However, in the year that followed – 2005 – Bert’s influence was starting to be lesser again. His label was facing challenges, so the contestants in the final season of Fame Factory (among which we can also find Linda Bengtzing) weren’t properly launched at the music market. It was apparently also a time when Bert was facing a severe illness. In 2006, the final year of his record company many songs of “his” artists did well in MF and his biggest discovery, his own Diana Ross, his own Kylie, his own Britney – Carola – made a huge comeback and was considered a favourite to win all along. She won, with a song co-written by one of Bert’s songwriters who brought the schlager revival to Sweden back – Thomas G:son. The last Fame Factory winner, Sandra Oxenryd won the Estonian final in the same year. And it was in 2006 when Bert sold his record company to Warner and the Mariann era was over. His last big discovery were the sisters Sandén (Molly, Frida and Mimmi, who represented Sweden in Junior Eurovision in their respective years – 2006, 2007 and 2009).

Taking this story into account one starts to realise why Swedes associate MF with schlager. Bert did not create just hits-for-the-moment with his artists and his songs – he created legends and the schlager songs (especially from the 80s) are evergreens still deeply enrooted in people’s minds. After selling Mariann to Warner, Bert has been making different statements in media about his views on development in MF. Prior to Eurovision in 2010, he openly criticised Anna Bergendahl’s song, backing the Danish entry – “In A Moment Like This”, written by 3 former Mariann’s songwriters instead. And indeed – Anna failed to qualify, while Denmark finished 4th in the final. This winter (in 2014) he criticised MF’s development, saying that with drifting away from schlager the contest is losing its soul and that songs nowadays are too mediocre and that nobody remembers them a year later. Within the fanworld, many people initially disagreed, but the majority of predictions he had made to the media some weeks prior to 2014 contest actually came true – he tipped about Ace Wilder before anyone had a clue who she was – she eventually had the biggest hit of the contest.

Bert is not really a fan of Jante’s law (the law of average), he’s not late to point out his influence in MF, how “he’s the best” and how “he built the whole shebang to what it is nowadays”, a statement that gains him both fans and haters as many people believe he had exploited some of the artists to gain a quick money. For me – while I disagree with his political views (as I do believe in cultures being able to mix) I have to give him the credit for the music “his” artists and songwriters made – he definitely could recognise a good melody, a catchy chorus and a fabulous keychange. He had a gift to spot timeless songs, that are now classics. His legacy in MF and ESC will live forever, even after he’s no longer on this world. And because of his legacy I don’t think schlager will ever leave MF no matter how much some people want. He had a chance, he took it and changed the for ever.