The Eurovision Song Contest, like everything else, has been canceled this year. But an only-on-television substitute event will still highlight one of the most interesting crop of Caucasus entries the contest has seen.
Azerbaijan’s entry firmly embraces an “oriental” identity, a departure from the generic international pop style of its previous efforts. At the same time, the lyrics explicitly celebrate queerness, an eye-raising development from a country that is perhaps the least LGBTQ-friendly in the Eurovision world.
Georgia’s song also takes a surprising approach to national identity, with lyrics complaining that an embrace of European ideals means diminishing one’s individual dignity.
These will be featured on the May 16 TV program, “Eurovision: Europe Shine A Light,” that has been concocted as a way to give fans their fix amid the coronavirus lockdown.
The show will also feature the entry from Russia, a goofy novelty song that includes a bit of Caucasus flavor in the form of a backup dancer playing to the crudest Russian stereotypes of Chechens; and Armenia’s, a standard Beyonce-style R&B number that could be from any country.
But for fans of the politics of Eurovision, the Azerbaijani and Georgian entries stand out.
Azerbaijan has been the most successful Eurovision competitor of the Caucasus, frequently finishing toward the top of the contest and winning it all in 2011. That success has been achieved mostly via generic pop songs that most would identify as classically “Western” and that somehow consistently manage to crack the code of Eurovision success.
This year’s entry, though, breaks that mold. Cleopatra, by Efendi, is a pastiche of self-orientalizing tropes – an Egyptian theme, and even some Buddhist chanting – along with recognizably local elements like the Azerbaijani traditional instrument, the tar, and the video’s setting in the Gobustan desert.
It's tempting to recall the opening scene of the classic novel of the Caucasus, Ali and Nino, where a Russian (i.e., European) teacher tells a classroom of school children in Baku that it will be up to them whether they want to be part of “progressive Europe or reactionary Asia.” One Azerbaijani boy in the back of the class raised his hand and replied: “Please, sir, we should rather stay in Asia.”
That ambivalence about Azerbaijan’s place vis-à-vis the East and West remains strong today, with official discourse frequently grappling with the question and coming out on all different sides of the debate as the occasion requires. One wonders whether (and this reviewer hopes that) Azerbaijan might follow the lead of its close ally Turkey, which enjoyed Eurovision success in the late 1990s and early 2000s with several winking East-meets-West performances like the 2003 winner, the rapping, belly dancing Sertab Erener.
Perhaps even more remarkable are Cleopatra’s LGBTQ-positive lyrics. “Cleopatra was a queen like me / Just like me / Yeah just like me / Straight or gay or in between,” Efendi sings. Azerbaijan, like its neighbors in the Caucasus, is a queer-unfriendly place, with any public manifestations of non-traditional sexuality taboo. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association ranks the country dead last in Europe in terms of being welcoming to LGBTQ people.
Maybe because Eurovision has taken a lower profile this year, the groundbreaking nature of the song hasn’t been much discussed in Azerbaijan, though Efendi herself has not shied away from it.
“It is truly a song about freedom, a celebration of all cultures and all sexualities and it’s a song that is meant to inspire people to be who they are and to be proud of themselves – just as Cleopatra was,” she said in an interview on the Eurovision website. “She was a queen who went through love, heartbreak, and betrayal, but she stood up for herself and is now remembered as an icon of strength and femininity."
On the Eurovision fan blogs, the song – one called it a “bisexual anthem” – has been positively received. “The ethnic trills coupled with the spiritual chant crossed with the infectious chorus makes for a song perfect for the Eurovision stage,” one reviewer enthused. Another predicted that it “will surely be a Euroclub hit for years to come.”
Georgia’s entry also represents a sort of rejection of the west, though a grumpier, more self-pitying one. Its song, Take Me As I Am, is a grunge rock complaint about being forced to adopt European ideals.
How do you want me to talk, like an English man?
Where do you want me to dress like an Italian?
Now, do you want me to dance like a Spanish guy?
I guess you don’t love me.
No, you don’t love me.
The singer, Tornike, laments also being expected to “smell like a French homme” and “play [presumably soccer] like a German.”
It’s impossible to not interpret the lyrics in terms of Georgia’s dominant political discourse, which has prescribed Westernization as the way toward economic development and away from Russia’s grasp. This has resulted in an anti-Western backlash, which is most commonly seen in Georgia in terms of the church’s and far-right groups’ violent rejection of LGBTQ rights. But, as in the rest of the “non-Western” world, it’s also seen in a softer resentment of the type that Tornike voices.
The message, though, would seem to not be a winning Eurovision formula, as fan blogs have panned the song – mostly for its heavy-handed lyrics.
“If this had been performed in Georgian (or some other language I don’t understand) it would probably be in my top 5, or at least very close. However, the utterly cringeworthy lyrics pushes it down my list a bit,” one reviewer wrote.
Another reviewer pointed out that the message was a hypocritical one: “Tornike’s lyrics tell us to not put expectations of who he should be as a Georgian, but they poorly come across as a derivative of stereotype when referencing the men of other European cultures (i.e. all Italians dress well, all Spanish men dance), defeating the point of the song.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.