Conchita Wurst, the Austrian drag-act winner of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, can certainly belt out a tune, as his numerous Shirley Bassey-invoking supporters have pointed out. Yet even he would have struggled to be heard above the braying self-congratulation that accompanied his triumph on Saturday night.
This would be fine if those rigorously slapping themselves on the back were simply fans of the song and performance of Herr Wurst (Mr Sausage). After all, it was a decent bit of Eurovision kitsch impressively sung by a 25-year-old man in an evening dress, his face, feet deep in foundation and mascara, set off by a distinctly ironical beard. It was the kind of thing devotees of Eurovision seem to enjoy.
But it hasn’t really been Eurovision fans cheering Wurst’s success. Instead, it’s been Western commentators and politicos who see in Wurst not just an Austrian light entertainer with a nice pair of lungs, but a symbol of everything that makes Western Europe superior to the East, especially that lightening rod for all that is backward and retrograde, namely Russia. One columnist at the Telegraph even went so far as to declare: ‘With her Eurovision victory, the Bearded Lady from Austria unwittingly fired the opening salvo in this culture war.’
It’s not hard to see why Wurst has been weaponised by establishment voices looking for a way to say ‘the West is best’. Wurst, whose real name is Tom Neuwirth, is a gay man, who dresses as a woman, but persists with a hairy legacy of his machismo on his prettified face. He (if such a pronoun is still viable) is a play on identity, a figure who has wrapped the Byzantine nomenclature of gender identity around his tiny waist. He is a violation of tradition, a two-fingered salute to custom, a smiling rebuke to prejudice. He is, in short, a sign of progress, a corrective issued to people who hold the ‘wrong’ views. Or as the Austrian president, Heinz Fischer, put it: ‘[This was] not just a victory for Austria, but above all for diversity and tolerance in Europe.’
More importantly, Wurst, post-tradition, post-gender, post-just-about-bloody-everything, can be created in the mind of Western elites as the embodiment of what those backward types in Russia despise. Which is exactly how Wurst has been rendered – as an affront to the prejudiced and bigoted over in Russia. Wurst even seems to have embraced his role in this culture war. Speaking in Vienna yesterday, he explained that his post-victory slogan, ‘We are unity and we are unstoppable’, ‘was obviously meant for certain politicians whom we all know’. Asked if it was directed at Russian president Vladimir Putin, Wurst gave a knowing nod, replying, ‘among others’.