EMPIRE BURLESQUE

by Lone Funch Kofoed; photography by BTA

Judges tend to select Eurovision winners in terms of lesser evil. Bulgaria lost. So did the UK

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The end of the Cold War changed the face of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) as much as it did world geography. The days when Eurovision audiences warmed to clear-skinned girls with white acoustic guitars singing about peace and sunshine – such as German winner Nicole's song from 1982 “Ein Bisschen Frieden” – are gone forever. With the entry of former Eastern Bloc nations, the middleaged competition has entered a new era of uneven rhythms, ethnic instruments and unbridled on-stage sexuality.

From a mere seven competitors in the first ESC in 1956, today's competition has more than 40 entrants. This year Bulgaria competed in the final for the first time. Lead singer Elitsa Todorova and top drummer Stoyan Yankoulov performed a techno-dance rhythm percussion routine. The distinctive Bulgarian music earned them an impressive fifth place in the final.

Though heavy on the drumming, the Bulgarian offering was comparable to recent winning entries with its folk rhythm and ethnic singing style. The Turkish winning entry from 2003, Sertab Erener's “Every Way That I Can”, also displayed distinctive nationality traits with its drums and striking violin hook typical of Turkish pop. Both the Ukrainian winner from 2004, Ruslana's “Wild Dances”, as well as the Greek winner from 2005, Helena Paparizou's “My Number One”, could also be categorised as “Shakira inspiration” with a pounding rhythm accompanied by ecstatic dancing.

Eastern European nations have irrevocably transformed the musical genre of the old contest. From pure pop and happy-go-lucky schmaltzy slush they have turned it into a blend of folk, hard rock, opera and grandiose Balkan ballads.

Things have changed visually as well. The music, the choreography and the outfits are now equally important components of the show. As competition gets fiercer, the traditional “granny-friendly” entertainment has become a show that could unsettle children and those of a more conservative disposition. Emulating strip club cabaret with its sado-masochistic bondage, dancers don net stockings and singers wear patent leather outfits. A miniskirt would look prudish by comparison!

Admittedly, sexualisation of the public sphere is not exclusively an Eastern European phenomenon. It's on MTV and Fashion TV as well as every reality show and billboard commercial everywhere. But some former Eastern Bloc nations do it so blatantly that Westerners may have a hard time accepting it.

Using sexuality in the pursuit of personal or professional gain is where many women now draw the line. In the Western world the feminist movement – and forty years of struggle for gender equality - has set the limits of tolerance when it comes to introducing sex into every sphere. Within the ESC so far the limits were established in 2003 when two Russian singers from the band t.A.T.u. decided to spice up their performance with soft on-stage lesbian porn. Their plan generated considerable publicity. But it also triggered a warning from the European Broadcasting Union that they would interrupt the live broadcast with a prerecorded tape of a more sober performance unless the band had a change of heart.

This year's contest offered renewed focus on sexuality, introducing two male lead singers in drag: classic drag a la Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Danish Drama Queen; and the more burlesque Ukrainian Verka Serdutschka. The Swedish entry, glam-rock band The Art, starred acclaimed bisexual Ola Salo. Stripped to the waist, he was reminiscent of a young David Bowie.

Although winning nation Serbia's Marija Serifovic avoided overt sexuality to catch the attention of the audience, she introduced an androgynous feel by performing her song wearing white sneakers and a black suit surrounded by five beautiful women in men's clothes.

It's a sobering thought that broadcasting authorities may one day be forced to issue warnings about the content of the Eurovision Song Contest. The days of innocence are lost forever.

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