”The Eurovision Song Contest is torture to my ears”, was one of my recent Facebook status messages. But as I learnt, the mega event is not primarily about music, it’s a ritual, a transnational social event that connects people and that - according to a recent paper “produces a new form of unity among people in Europe".
In the most recent issue of the European Review of History, anthropologist Marijana Mitrovic analyses some of the recent Serbian contributions (2004-2008) to the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC).
In her view, the ESC is a good place to discuss potentials for creating a critical, post-national and cosmopolitan European public sphere that challenges the governing paradigms of identity and belonging.
My thesis is that both the ESC and the strategies of Serbia’s participation in this event present attempts to move on from bipolarisation (East/West on the geopolitical map of Europe and First Serbia/Second Serbia in Serbia), respectively, to turn bipolarisation to multiplicity – and through that, paradoxically or not, to produce a new form of unity.
The Western, more ironic stance towards the competition can be seen as opposed to a more strategic attitude of the Eastern European participants, she writes. Similar observations were made by Onnik Krikorian at Global Voices. “While some media reported lagging interest in the 54-year-old competition", he writes, “countries such as those in the former Eastern bloc continue to take it seriously.”
Popular culture events such as the ESC have according to Marijana Mitrovic “the power and ability to reshape the geopolitical map of Europe and are also used in this way by the new and aspiring member states of the European Union":
Those are mostly countries that are undergoing a post-socialist transition. Participation in the ESC and a potential victory are a chance for them to invert the social and economic order, on a symbolic level. But paradoxically or not, with that inversion, they also integrate into Europe and inscribe themselves into its symbolic map. Thus rite de passage becomes a transition ritual indeed.
The contributers used the ESC to transform the image of the Balkan/Serbian from a militant and non-cultivated savage, into someone civil, emotional, yet archaic - while at the same time promoting a ”certain level of (Balkan?) universality”. The “new face of Serbia” is “pacified and friendly” and “meets both European and local values". This new Serbia “is a ‘country in the Balkans, a country of peasants’, but peasants who recognise European values.”
An example is the performance of Zeljko Joksimovic (2004)
The anthropologist comments:
Visual identity, crucial for the whole construction, is almost entirely recycled form the ‘memories’ of medieval Serbia. The members of his ad hoc orchestra are dressed in quasi medieval garments, while Joksimovic’s suit is modern, white and minimalist, but with an impressive ‘ethno’ accessory – modification of the belt typical of Serbian costume with an attached golden needle. He has a perfect haircut, his beard is tidy, he is sophisticated, reserved, unobtrusive and somewhat apart from the scene.
By means of a minimalist and modernised wardrobe, accessories and make-up which strongly referred to the medieval tradition of Serbia, the Balkans, but also the Byzantine Empire (not the Ottoman, although the Balkans are often associated with the Ottoman legacy), the Serbian team tried to transform the image of the Balkan/Serbian male, and people for that matter, from a militant and non-cultivated savage, or brute, always ready to fight, into someone civil, emotional, yet archaic
The recipe, she writes, was followed by the Croatians in 2005 and 2006, the Bosnians in 2006 and 2007, and peaked in the winning solution in Serbia’s 2007 winning song Molitva.
Many different groups, including socially marginalized groups, ethnic and sexual minorities invest their expectations and cultural preferences in this spectacle. Gay organisations are among the greatest fans of the event. They see this event as a symbolic representation of differences that guarantees the possibility of their social visibility according to Marijana Mitrovic:
Although some have derogatively proclaimed Marija Serifovic’s performance as an overtly lesbian one, that did not prevent their countrymen from awarding her a maximum 12 points. (…)
Preparing her ESC performance, her creative team reached the solution intentionally offered to be read as gay (with five female backing vocalists dressed in male suits the same as that of the lead singer, one of them locking hands with Marija to connect two halves of the heart tattooed on their hands). The symbolic value of her victory gained special weight through the association of her performance with lesbians and her origin with Roma communities in Serbia. It was argued that this was a victory for Serbian minorities as well.
But the problem with the new politics of Serbian identity is according to the researcher that the last revision of the past has erased all recent past, more than half a century of the region’s history:
Instead of continuity, ‘a time hole’ is opened up. This was reflected in the performances chosen to represent the state. For the turbulent sociocultural Serbian history, identity constructions based on the recycling of different memories turn out to be some of the main mechanisms for the construction of potential ‘new’ identities. Music themes and the way they are performed, as part of the representational and signifying system, manage to evoke and embody the nostalgia for the memory of the past in rational and affective ways; nonetheless, they also shape and direct the process of building and performing the national identity in the present and for the future.
I just picked some parts of her paper that is only available for subscribers.
On her webpage you can read a related paper about music and the “new face of Serbia": Serbia – from Miki and Kupinovo to Europe: Public Performance and the Social Role of Celebrity (pdf).
Marijana Mitrovic is by the way member of the Eurovision Research Network.
Check also the overview over the ESC 2010 by anthropologist Erkan Saka
Links updated 23.5.2014
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