Did Susan Sontag Write “Notes on Camp” Specifically About Eurovision? Who’s to Say?

The year was 1956. Europe, torn up and traumatized by war, needed something that might help it heal. In came the Switzerland-based European Broadcasting Union with an at-the-time highly ambitious idea: broadcast a song contest between European countries, each represented by a performer, to the whole of Europe simultaneously. Ever since then, with the exception of 2020 as it still stands at the mercy of COVID-19, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) has been bringing hearts together.

If you are not familiar with the ESC, the gist of it is pretty simple and has remained almost the same throughout the years: performers representing countries are each judged by representatives of other participating countries as well as by audiences who send votes in; performances are meant to not only be well-written, well-sung songs but rather a dazzling show; whoever ends up scoring the most points, of course, wins, and the ESC will be hosted in their country the following year. Wholesome, is it not? Exactly what war-torn Europe needed, and evidently still a hit today. A night of laughter, excitement, and friendly competition; a night where any friction between countries can only be understood through the gifting of a low number of points to each other, where sassy commentators enjoy the company of a large viewership all just here to have fun, where presenters are not afraid to make embarrassingly bad jokes.

If you’ve never experienced a Eurovision live-watch party, I highly recommend it. Chances are you’ll find one in any gay bar in a participating country, full of Eurovision enthusiasts who will gladly tell you everything about the history of the competition and have already made their bets on the winning song. You see, over the years, the ESC has become closely identified with the LGBT community, and especially with gay men. Last year, Hungary went so far as to pull out of the competition due to its queer nature, a decision that was just one small part of a wave of anti-LGBT legislation. The ESC has been making its pro-LGBT stance clear for many years now, even though it largely leaves politics aside. One example of that LGBT-friendly spirit, which is close to my heart as an Israeli, is Dana International, a transgender woman who won the ESC in 1998 for Israel with her song Diva. Her win inspired the LGBT community in Israel to ignite the first official Pride march in the country. Academics have researched the connection between Eurovision and the LGBT community, and Eurovision enthusiasts love to speculate on how, exactly, the contest became so damn gay. In trying to understand the phenomenon myself, I’ve often thought there must be some quality inherent in Eurovision that appeals to gays. My best theory? Eurovision epitomizes Camp. 

To demonstrate my thesis for all to see, I have assembled a humble collection of iconic Eurovision performances that exemplify Sontag’s Notes on Camp, and all you need to do, reader, is be prepared to either love it or hate it, but most definitely get into it. If you are here because, like me, you are already deeply addicted to the ESC, please know I couldn’t cover all iconic Camp performances over more than 50 years of Eurovision, so this is by no means an attempt at an exhaustive list.

ABBA – Waterloo (1974)

I am pretty certain that if Sontag had written “Notes on Camp” in the post-ABBA world, ABBA would have qualified as a prime example of what Camp is. Hence, I’ve chosen to open my argument with this unforgettable little number. “All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice,” is what Sontag wrote in note number 7 of her essay. With their tax-evading outfits, a conductor dressed as Napoleon, an eerie Swedish jubilance combined with a fairly static performance and a bizarre introduction by the presenter just to top it all off, the winning song of 1974 is not only a great example of Eurovision Camp but also a moment that we, as members of this world in general and the LGBT community in particular, have a lot to be thankful for. Where would we be without ABBA? If “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style,” then ABBA is the world that Camp envisions. Eurovision is where it began.

Teddy Scholten – Een Beetja (1959)

There’s something to be said about Eurovision in its early years, when each country sang in their own language. It’s rare to see such a feat in the later years of the competition, where everybody puts on the heavily-accented cloak of the “universal” language, English. Both attitudes contain their own characteristics of Camp as described by Sontag: one a complete disregard of communicating content to every viewer and trusting that the aesthetic is what makes the song tick (“to emphasize style is to slight content”), the other a fortification of the artificiality of the ESC. 

Now, it may be that I’m only saying this because “the relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental,” but Teddy Scholten’s winning performance hits a Campy note, not just because of the language. Notice the storybook stage that turns to grant a quintessential Dutch backdrop for the song, the exaggerated expressions of the face, the supporting, almost awkward body language. These were all attempts at seriousness, to a degree. If Camp is “either completely naive or else wholly conscious,” The Netherlands’ entry for 1959 is a satisfyingly naive sort of Camp. Looking back at old Eurovision performances highlights the “overtones of the acute, the esoteric, the perverse” that makes it all so Campy. Maybe, in this case, it is the process of something that has been “distributed throughout all of high culture” now becoming “a special taste”, the hobby of few, that makes this performance seem so Campy. In any case, Camp persists.

Verka Serduchka – Dancing Lasha Tumbai (2007)

From the naive to the wholly conscious. Though Sontag writes that “intending to be Campy is always harmful,” as in many of her notes on Camp there is a loophole: “Even when it reveals self-parody, [it] reeks of self-love.” Sometimes you just have to let things speak for themselves, especially when it comes to Camp, and so I am going to let one of my favorite Eurovision performances of all times do just that. Verka, oh Verka.

Dafna Dekel – Ze Rak Sport (1992) & Dschinghis Khan – Dschinghis Khan (1979)

I’m lumping these two performances together because they speak to the same fundamentally Campy nature of Eurovision: they are quite cringey. Dafna Dekel’s perfectly-timed look over the shoulder as the song begins, the dancing Genghis Khan whose sole job on stage is to impressively pirouette; the outfits, the colors, the choreography. Do you even care what they sing about or are you simply mesmerized and unable to look away, as if from an accident? “Camp is the glorification of ‘character’,” and that is certainly the case of Ze Rak Sport and Dschinghis Khan. Like “[Greta] Garbo’s incompetence as an actress enhances her beauty,” these songs, though not incompetent per se, are more enjoyable due to their abundance of cringe. The metrics that Camp uses to judge art are, as Sontag writes, not merely “good” or “bad.” So we can either call these performances good or bad and argue about that, or we can simply call them Campy, and enjoy the ride.

Cezar – It’s My Life (2013)

We love a Dracula with panache, an incredible falsetto, extra dramatic stage-setting, and semi-nude dancers. When Sontag says that “there is seriousness in Camp … and, often, pathos,” when she gives Bellini’s operas as a Campy example, when she speaks of the spirit of extravagance, the theatricality of Camp, the glamour and the effort toward the extraordinary she is most certainly describing this perfect Cezar performance. As a Romanian by blood, I am very proud that Cezar is an outcome of my grandparents’ country. This performance does justice to Dracula adaptations, which are usually lacking in Camp, even though, like, come on. Cezar was not afraid to embarrass himself, and he did not, because Camp can never be embarrassed. 

Marie N – I Wanna (2002)

Dyke Camp, anybody? Ay. Here is one of the most fun Eurovision performances I have ever experienced. It just keeps going, and it just keeps getting better. The oversized suit, then the on-stage tearing of the suit to reveal a short dress, and then the dress being pulled down to be revealed as a long dress? The bisexual dancing? The — frankly — transmasc representation? The DRAMA of it all? “Camp is playful, anti-serious … one can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” Marie N is definitely that. Marie N is that and more. Marie N is giving my love for Camp a breath of fresh air. Not to mention Grandma there giving a wolf a loaf of burnt bread at the opening. Latvia, you did good.

Though I could, I absolutely do not want — nor do I have the time, unfortunately — to keep going with this list forever. So, my point is that there’s nothing more bewildering than Eurovision, and that makes it the loveable show that it is. “It’s good because it’s awful” is Susan Sontag’s last note on Camp, and, yes, a sentence that can absolutely surmise, if not Camp itself, then at least Eurovision. Camp sensibility is one of the most prominent aspects of Eurovision that makes it special. Camp is the mode of enjoyment through which people enjoy Eurovision. It’s not a song contest like The Voice, like whichever country Got Talent or whichever country’s Idol. Taking Eurovision as seriously as these shows is not possible. “It’s a love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character.’” In short, you take Eurovision seriously like you love the movie Mamma Mia! unironically — with Campy passion, or not at all.

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