As anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, I spent Saturday night curled up in front of Eurovision. Because, frankly, we finally have a proper television, and I am fully in favour of anything that lets me watch great big showcase cheesiness. Of course, the problem with watching anything this pop-culture-y is that there is a fair chance that something related to classical reception will turn up on the screen, and my wee analytical brain will jump into action.
This year, the most sustained offering came from Italy:
This is La Mia Città performed by Emma Marrone. If you look at a translation of the lyrics, you will see it is a paean to modern city living, presumably in Rome – commuting, finding a parking space, urban narcissism, getting high heels stuck in manhole covers, the lot. Fine. However, the costume stylists clearly decided that urban commuter was not a look they were going for this season, so they tapped into the ancestral heritage of the country instead. Emma is given a marvellous white tunic with gold spangling that looks, certainly from the waist up, very reminiscent of a Roman military breastplate; a big white cape with a rather nice jewelled neck clasp, just in case we weren’t getting the military allusion, particularly at the start of the sequence; and a golden laurel wreath in her hair, the symbol of the military victor and holder of imperium. In fact, the whole band get to have golden laurels, even the keytar player. (I couldn’t get a good enough look at Emma’s shoes in the footage to establish their design beyond the fact they have very high heels, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some element of sandal straps in there.)
However, as far as classical reception goes, that’s it. From what I could see in the footage of the big stage screens, no ancient imagery turns up, although there were one or two glyphs that you might have argued were vaguely ancient if you felt like pushing it, and a bit of circling Greek keys pattern. The lyrics had no particular classical interest; they don’t even specify that the city under discussion is Rome, clearly aiming to have general appeal for metropolitan voters. The staging was not particularly interesting and didn’t make any use of the classical possibilities – the band stood still whilst Emma strode around (a time-honoured Eurovision pattern). Which raises the question – why bother going classical in the first place?
It’s not as if you can’t use classical reception in a really interesting way in musical performances – Madonna’s Superbowl half-time show in 2012 showed us that it’s possible to take the theme and do conceptually clever and witty things with it. Unfortunately, Italy this year haven’t gone in that direction. Instead, they’ve chosen to essentially run with a stripped-down basic visual semantics that says ‘ancient Roman imperialism’ that we’re all just supposed to get. Apart from a few suggestions that Emma was channelling She-Ra, in the main all the responses on Twitter seem to have happily gone along with it. Nobody’s saying ‘what the hell? Why? What does this mean? What are we meant to make of this visual combination of white and gold? What’s with the head-pieces?’ – because everybody knows how to read this stuff.
Sadly, the Italian team didn’t decide to do anything beyond telling us they know their own heritage, and know we know it. The only possible interpretation I can come up with is that it was a subliminal attempt to influence the voters at home by suggesting that the group had authority over Eurovision and were the only possible victors – not an angle supported either by the song or the staging. A wasted opportunity, methinks.
Italy were not the only country with a spot of classical reception, although my other spots are more tangential. Each nation was asked to make a mini-video of the entry creating the flag of the country it was represented, leading to some silly things. The Greek entry decided to make theirs by taking a blue sheet and laying out seashells on top of it, which was really rather pretty – I was hoping this was a veiled Aphrodite reference, but the stage show went in completely the opposite direction (in their defence, they did have a trampoline). San Marino, unexpectedly, also had a nod to Aphrodite, albeit via the Renaissance – their singer performed in front of a fanned out fabric hanging, which was coloured blue for the first part of the song. This seemed to be a visual quotation of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, albeit without additional cast to help her out of her fabric shell afterwards. I have no idea whether this was deliberate or not, but it was quite sweet.
Finally, Austria. Ah, Austria, this year’s winner and the marvellous Conchita Wurst. (I’m not going to address Conchita’s gender presentation here – if you’re interested in finding out more, she talks about it directly in the first few minutes of this video interview.) Rise Like A Phoenix gladdened my little classical reception soul because it has a great big Greek mythology reference in it, and the staging did some lovely stuff with phoenix/fire/wings imagery on the back screens. It is, I suspect, also a potentially interesting symbolic move. Conchita has spoken about wanting to speak for the LBGQT community; in her brief acceptance speech, she said “this night is dedicated to everyone to believes in the future of peace and freedom. We are unstoppable.” I cannot think of a better image to represent the struggle of constantly overcoming seemingly insuperable barriers and blazing into the future, both in personal and political terms, than the phoenix. I shall be interested to see whether this imagery starts to appear more widely in the visual rhetoric used around these important current debates.