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Why Eurovision really, really, really matters

ABBA  (AFP via Getty Images)
ABBA (AFP via Getty Images)

It was Christopher Isherwood who first added the word ‘camp’ to literature in the brilliant 1954 novel, The World in the Evening. Our hapless bisexual protagonist is chatting to the gay physical therapist he’s been allotted after a car accident. The two gentlemen discuss what is and isn’t camp. Mozart? ‘Camp.’ Beethoven. ‘Not camp.’ Flaubert? ‘God, no.’ El Greco? ‘Certainly.’ High Camp, asserts the scholarly therapist, ‘is the whole emotional basis for the ballet and Baroque art’.

If we were to transpose Isherwood’s dialogue into 2023, the first pit-stop in the conversation would surely be the Eurovision Song Contest. The annual musical bun fight is a high-voltage shockwave of transcontinental camp, dotted with occasional moments of sparkling sincerity. Eurovision flicks a limp wrist at the calendar each year, appearing to make Saturday night last forever. It ends in the crowning of a fleeting musical hero whose career will implode in the blink of an eye shortly thereafter. This year’s French number, La Zarra’s ‘Evidemment’, a slick hybrid of mid-period Daft Punk with early Edith Piaf, delivers everything hardcore Eurovision fans desire from the contest — in a statement hat. 2023 will struggle to find anything camper.

This reclamation of camp is institutionally engraved into Eurovision architecture. It is oblivious to fashion, yet shameless in its cheap approximation of trend. Eurovision tests the boundaries of instant gratification to its elastic limits. In the wake of the success of last year’s British entry, Sam Ryder — an evangelist so committed to the fundamental principles of Eurovision that he turned up styled as a baffling composite of every member of Abba — the contest arrives this year in Liverpool.

As we were so recently reminded by the death of Paul O’Grady (RIP), the city has a uniquely gung-ho relationship with camp. Local heroes Frankie Goes to Hollywood have reformed, to play together for the first time in 36 years in its honour. Proceedings will be looked over for the BBC by Scott Mills, Rylan Clark and Graham Norton, the three-pronged national gauge of broadcasting camp. Britain will be represented by plucky Dua Lipa-lite, Kentish Town native Mae Muller, singing a snappy pop song currently spiking the Spotify accounts of every regional gay bar. For one night only, the waving of Union Jacks will be stripped of its machismo, as middle-aged gays with too-tidy beardlines fling their arms to the sky.

We know a lot more about gay culture now than Isherwood did in 1954. But the implicit rules still prevail. The Eurovision Song Contest is a sort of cycling proficiency test for queer kids, silencing the family living room around them, high on the excitable, flashy endorphins prompted by how singularly Muller’s dance routine speaks to them individually; then just as suddenly bereft, crestfallen by the crushing defeat of a measly nul points approval rating from the collective voice of Europe.

By the onset of pubescence, these kids will hate everything about Eurovision. They will turn instead to something more monochromatic and interior as their tastes sophisticate. Yet Eurovision will turn up, like a camp fantasia of gay Christmas past, each year reminding them that they once looked at the world with the magic of child’s eyes, those special portals through which you can spot beauty where there is only horror. Like an LGBTQ+ World Cup, Eurovision is the closest we get to a dress rehearsal for the disappointment of life. By the time you read this, Ron DeSantis will probably have banned Florida from watching it — if they ever did in the first place.

Eurovision is the transubstantiation of camp, a singular sensibility with strange, wilful, tenacious, unremitting superpowers, from margins to mainstream. It is a garish, unsightly, often unlistenable composite of everything sacred about the power of pop music. It commands attention by staying true to its implicit idiosyncracies. Vive la difference, and all that.