Post-Cold War Days, meleg Nights: Eurovision, Idol Worship, and National Identity

I wonder whether I’ll come across any signs of support for Magdi Rúzsa next week when we wander around the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Though no politician, Ms. Rúzsa is something of an ambassador. A former Megasztar (or Hungarian Idol) contestant, she is going to Helsinki to represent Hungary in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, to be held on 12 May. The contest, which has been staged annually since 1956 in an effort to foster a united Europe, rarely brings out the best a culture has to offer; but it often brings out the worst in nationalistic pride. As such, this noble experiment of Cold War Eurovisionaries is an abject failure, both diplomatically and artistically. That it turned out to be a sensational success and is now more popular than ever has more to do with spectacle than respectability. Hoping for musical excellence or cultural relevance would be tantamount to expecting an Academy Award-worthy performance from Hungarian mantrap Zsa Zsa Gabor, recipient of the 1958 Golden Globe in the whatever-happened-to-that category of “Most Glamorous Actress.”

As a German expatriate, and a less than proud German at that, I am too wary of nationalism to be cheering its benefits. In order to counteract nationalism, Eurovision rules stipulate that television viewers cannot call in to cast their vote in favor of a contestant representing their own country; but that rule poses no hindrance to borders-hopping fanatics, of which there are, I am pleased to say, very few Germans, if the notoriously poor performance of my native country is any indication. And yet, even a nation as divided as Iraq can be united in Idol worship, as has been suggested in this report about the Iraqi winner of Star Academy, which is rather a sign of hope than an alarm signal.

Now, I’m not sure how Ms. Rúzsa will fare. Hungary, which joined the competition along with several other reformed Eastern Bloc nations in 1994 (after a failed attempt in 1993), has a patchy record at best; in fact, Rúzsa’s “Unsubstantial Blues” has to make it through the semi-finals (on 10 May) in order to qualify for the main event. I suspect that the number will be overshadowed by some of the more outrageous acts, among which Ukrainian drag queen Verka Serdyuchka is the one to top (although the Danes got a “Drama Queen” in the running). While popular enough to get the nation’s votes, Verka Serdyuchka has enraged Ukrainian nationalists who deem the act an embarrassment, as was the case back in 1998 when transgender diva Dana International represented Israel (and won the competition). Clearly, those sing-to-win performances of Celine Dion or Lulu (recently featured on American Idol) are fuzzy Eurovision history; but is Verka merely presenting a challenge to more traditional acts or challenging the very act of representing a nation? Once you cross the boundaries of gender, are national borders to be upheld? Or is subculture proposed as a transnational superculture?

Cold war days seem to have made way for balmy postmodern nights. The iron curtain has melted into uncurtailed irony; and what once looked like a breakdancing showdown among feuding neighbors is now a free-for-all breaking with traditions. To use a scrap of Hungarian I just picked up, things are certainly meleg these days (meaning “gay” or “not cold”). And as much as I regret the lack of good tunes or taste, I can’t help but warm to this queer new world of a continent I left so long ago.

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