For the past couple of days, I had the song “Rise like a Phoenix” stuck in my head so I thought that I should write about the event that has just passed at the risk of embarrassing myself but revealing to the world of my guilty pleasure, that I had been following Eurovision this year. Deciding whether or not I should add my take on the music competition that stops the entire continent of Europe gluing populations across countries to their TV screens, I am going to stand my ground and say what I’ve always said, that I am always supportive of any endeavour that brings more art to this world, because the world will be a much more boring place without it.
First of all I would like to say congratulations to Austrian performer, Conchita Wurst for winning Eurovision 2014 in Copenhagen. For those of who have not followed the contest, Conchita Wurst, otherwise known by the media as “the bearded lady”, is the drag persona of singer, Thomas Neuwirth.
The journey of 25 years old, Tom Neuwirth, has been a test of trials. He first appeared on Austrian television in a singing contest show in 2006, called Starmania coming second place to Nadine Beiler. A year later, he founded a boyband, Jetzt Anders (translated as “Different Now”), which disbanded later that same year. Neuwirth returned to TV as a female drag act with a beard, in 2011 on Die große Chance (translated as “The Great Opportunity”) where she came sixth, then coming second in the Austrian preselection rounds for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. Second place once again, Cochita Wurst has since participated in reality TV shows such as “The Hardest Jobs of Austria” working in a fish factory, “Wild Girls” where a group of candidates had to survive the Namibian dessert amongst indigenous tribes, as well as Dancing With The Stars. It had seemed that the story so far had been one of always being the bridesmaid but never the bride.
When Wurst was announced as the Austrian representative for the 2014 Eurovision competition, you’d think that finally the performer has her break and acknowledged as an artist, however this wasn’t the case as controversy broke out with signed petitions emerged were submitted to have Wurst’s performance edited out of the competition, not to mention numerous Facebook hate pages that surfaced.
In all the interviews conducted, Wurst appears to approach these waves of confrontation in a very composed and graceful manner, having once been quoted saying “I have very thick skin. It never ceases to amaze me just how much fuss is made over a little facial hair”. Her victory in Eurovision has been seen as a milestone in tolerance and the freedom of self-expression as Wurst said during her winner’s acceptance speech “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who are. We are unity and we are unstoppable.”
Perhaps now, Conchita Wurst can be seen as the artist and fashion icon that she is. I suppose I resonate with her story because, long ago, I too had been bullied because I perceived the world and choose to experience the world in a different way. I am a believer in the saying “If you don’t stand for something, you’d fall for anything”.
So why have I chosen to talk about Conchita Wurst on this blog. The answer is simple. She addresses the freedom of self-expression. When it comes down to the crunch, if you look at the situation, there has been uproar from disgruntled people across the globe because a guy decided to put on a dress and wear makeup, or a drag performer is wearing a beard and somehow that means the world has turned upside down? How is that different to artists like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry or Adam Lambert, who have also been shunned for their stylistic choices?
Lady Gaga wore a dress made of raw beef to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Designed by Argentine designer Franc Fernandez and styled by Nicola Formichetti, the “meat dress” was condemned by animal rights groups. Gaga explained afterward that she wore the dress as a statement about fighting for what you believe in, in response to the US military’s “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy.
In September 17, 2013, Katy Perry released her music video, “Dark Horse” that caused controversy across Muslim communities who condemned parts of the video, involving a man wearing pendent with Arabic wording that gets turned into sand by Perry’s character, as being sacrilegious and disrespectful. A petition containing 65,000 signatures was circulated demanding the removal of the video clip from YouTube
Adam Lambert In November, 2009, during a performance in the American Music Awards (AMA) the singer was seen gyrating his hips, walking his dancers by leash, kissing one of his band members on stage, and “flipping the bird” all while sporting his trademark guy makeup and heightened hairdo, as well as a silver spiked suit.
I have heard the opinion that perhaps these artists are just creating controversy for publicity and attention. I would ask a question though, what if they are not? What if they are just being themselves and the world is responding in a negative way because it goes against the grain of social conditioning.
I will not be going into all the politics around Wurst. I just wanted to say that it’s interesting when a male model with a full beard wears a pair of stilettos for a photo shoot or the runway is seen as edgy, whereas a man with a beard who sings on a stage in a dress and a wig is accused of tearing down the “fabric of society”. Are there people forgetting that performing on a stage in front of thousands and televised to millions around the world showing everyone who you are as an article can be a very daunting and exposing experience?
Conchita Wurst lifted herself above adversity of her critics and delivered an elegant and sultry performance of a power ballad, reminiscent of a musical score from a James Bond movie. She stood her ground, center stage, in a stunning dress and sung without the assistance of backup singers, dancers or music bands – Just her singing in front of the eyes of the world with a digital screen that’s so cool that I wished I had one behind me at all times projecting my mood.
The lyrics of “Rise Like A Phoenix”, the song she sang, contains deep a metaphorical message (open to interpretation of course) that can strike a chord with anyone facing challenges:
Rise like a phoenix
Out of the ashes
Seeking rather than vengeance
You were warned
Once I’m transformed
Once I’m reborn
I rise up to the sky
You threw me down but
I’m gonna fly
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Well, as artists we may be confronted with choices that can sometimes go against the grain of society’s opinion, it could be a photograph that may be seen as controversial, a design on the runway deemed as risqué or even the decision to blog about a topic that has met with major backlash. How we handle these hurdles determines the outcome. Do we remain in the ashes or never give up and rise like a phoenix?
I hope you all will be able to respect that this is just an opinion.
Photo Credits To AFP, Jonathan Nackstrand, Thomas Lerch, Manfred Baumann & OFP.