Conchita Wurst Was Eurovision's Michael Sam

Conchita Wurst

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That dull roar of a mini avalanche you might have heard on Saturday? It was the sound of the rustled jimmies of a dwindling core of conservative suburban dads, as new NFL draftee Michael Sam kissed his (male!) partner on the lips on, yes, national TV! The watershed moment came, of course, because of the fact that the NFL—the last bastion of alpha-male culture—will have to deal with an OMGGAY man, but also because, for the most part, the collective reaction of the American public was a mix between “yay” and “so?”

In other words: Michael Sam’s totally natural reaction of spontaneous enthusiasm revealed that, yes, as a country, we’re continuing to move forward with acceptance and equality. And anyone who couldn’t deal with that in the face of Sam, or who still can’t deal, just looks super archaic.

This dramatic shift in popular culture didn’t just play out in the U.S., though. In fact, outside of this country’s bubble it played out on a much larger stage this weekend—the Eurovision Song Contest 2014!

Even though the U.S. ignores it—just like it ignores anything it’s not directly involved in—the Eurovision Song Contest is a Big. Freaking. Deal for a large chunk of the rest of the world. Each year, it pits basically every country in Europe (and some not even technically in Europe, like Iceland) against each other, all duking it out for cultural dominance through the violence-less power of song.

Actually, through cheesy, Euro-dance song for the most part. Drama, camp, and over-the-top production rules in Eurovision. And it usually comes hardest from countries and independent republics most Americans probably don’t even know exist, like San Marino, Moldova, Macedonia, and others that don’t begin with “M.”

So it’s not a total surprise that the winner of this year’s finals, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, looked and sounded like this. Behold “Rise Like a Phoenix” by Austria’s Conchita Wurst. It’s a bombastic, brassy torch song performed in English by an artist presenting as a woman, but with a full-on beard. Some media have referred to Conchita as a “drag queen” but that’s probably super-reductive; let’s just agree that this performance is unabashedly gender-queer.

What’s especially great is that Conchita had lots and lots of classic Eurovision cheese to battle in the finals.

I mean, who could frown at a Belarussian named Teo singing a ditty called “Cheesecake?” Sample refrain: “I told this story/But I’m so sorry/I lost my train of thought/When you called me, ‘My sweet Cheesecake.’” Who wouldn’t call him “Cheesecake” with that sweet goatee?

Then there’s this personal favorite, Freaky Fortune and RiskyKidd’s joint offering from Greece, “Rise Up,” which combines rap with the very traditional Eurodance-bounce and synth stabs and is definitely ready for the next dance video game:

…Then there’s Sebalter, from Switzerland, with “Hunter of Stars,” which is a little like if they gave Mumford & Sons a bunch of stimulants, a French accent, and much more of a penchant for building a chorus based on whistling:

So yeah, there was a ton of competition for the title of "the most Eurovision of all Eurovision songs"—but the reason that Conchita’s victory was such a thing is that Eurovision played out this year, as it often does, as a bit of serious geopolitical theater. As much as we, over here in the distant, disconnected U.S., dislike Russia’s persecution of its LGBT citizens and the current conflict in Crimea, it turns out the rest of Europe doesn’t like it much either.

Throughout the contest, most updates regarding Russia--which offered the Tolmachevy Sisters’ “Shine” as its entry--met loud boos from the audience. And throughout the rest of the week’s semi-finals and finals, the once-powerful former U.S.S.R. voting bloc seemed permanently shattered.

Residents of former U.S.S.R. states historically vote for whichever among them is left in the finals, creating a formidable chunk of votes for the rest of the countries to defeat. In fact, most smaller countries with shared culture—-say, Scandinavians or Slavs—-usually team up into groups, and make it virtually impossible for larger countries, like France, England, or Germany, to ever win.

Austria, usually, counts as one of these larger countries without much of a fighting chance in Eurovision; its only voting buddies are maybe the Germans. Conchita Wurst came with a kickass anthem-—“Rise Like a Phoenix” urges strength forged in flames--but also with an international message, daring everyone to accept her when there are still places where she would be persecuted.

Her win is musical and artistic, yes, but it’s also being hailed by fans and commentators as a political win, too. It’s like the flashy, super-international version of Michael Sam’s onscreen kiss—a sign that times and attitudes are changing for the better, and anyone who can’t accept that will swiftly find themselves on the wrong side of history.

In the musical world, we’ll take Conchita’s side-—the one with sparkly ballgowns and messages of self-empowerment and freedom.

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