In the weeks leading up to the Eurovision Song Contest 2014, I’ll be reviewing each of the 37 entries competing this year. Today I’m looking at Austria, who are drawn sixth in the second semi-final with ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ by the inimitable Conchita Wurst. 

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Austria: Conchita Wurst – Rise Like a Phoenix 

So here it is. By far the most talked about entrant in this year’s contest, possibly the most talked-about entrant since Dana International. She’s been the subject of debate, derision and even a few petitions, and now it’s time to find out if Conchita Wurst – Austria’s self-styled ‘bearded lady’ – can justify the attention.

Austria: Conchita Wurst - Rise Like a Phoenix | Eurovision 2014In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months (or, y’know, just aren’t that into Eurovision – but if so why on earth are you here?) Wurst is the drag persona of singer and performer Thomas Neuwirth. A popular media figure on Austria, Wurst is notable for the fact that unlike most drag queens who adopt a more classically feminine – albeit exaggerated – appearance, she always wears a neat but prominent beard. She claims to do this as a statement that it’s possible to achieve your dreams no matter what your appearance or gender – the fact that it’s also an attention grabbing gimmick is obviously just an added bonus.

Mild whiff of cynicism aside, the essential message of tolerance and self-worth that Conchita espouses is of course a lovely one – but nevertheless she’s proved a highly divisive figure. Not only from the predictable right wing and religious groups – though they’ve certainly been vocal – but also among the LGBT community itself. Some feel that the bearded lady angle enforces negative stereotypes, or even belittles the struggle of the transgender community. Personally, I don’t really buy this. Thomas Neuwirth is not a transgender person, Conchita is a drag persona and nothing more – and drag queens are as valid a part of the LGBT community as any other – beard or no beard. Even the most beautiful drag queens seldom try to actively pass as biological women, so the idea that the beard crosses some sort of invisible line in that regard doesn’t really make sense to me.

Conchita is far from the first drag performer at Eurovision either – notables from the past include Verka Serduchka from Ukraine, Sestre from Slovenia and DQ from Denmark. What seems to separate her from those performers – aside from the beard – is the fact that her act is not being played for comedy. She can really sing, and Rise Like a Phoenix is a fabulously dramatic, stirring powerballad that owes a considerable debt to the Bond themes of Adele and Shirley Bassey. Some people (incorrectly) equate drag with clowning, and therefore can’t get their head around why a ‘serious’ song would be presented by a ‘joke’ performer. But while drag can obviously be played for broad comedy, at heart it’s simply a form of performance art – and can be as light or as serious as the performer wishes. Conchita’s performance is – for want of a better term – played entirely straight, and it’s all the better for it.

The best way that I can think about Conchita in terms of her chances at the contest is ‘how would I rate this song’s chances if it wasn’t being performed by a bearded drag queen?’ The answer is, very well – I think. It’s undoubtedly one of the strongest ballads in the contest this year, the way it’s structured is classic Eurovision – quiet start, big dramatic finish – and the vocals are very strong. In a post-Skyfall world it doesn’t sound as dated as, say, San Marino’s entry (which also has a strong whiff of the Bond theme, but much less striking production). Ultimately, Conchita risks falling between two audiences – those who vote for musical quality, and those who vote for entertainment.  But I think enough people will be drawn in by her surface and then impressed by the content to guarantee a very strong finish for Austria. The odds on this one don’t suggest it’s a major contender, but I’m not so sure. This phoenix from the flames could turn out to be a dark horse…

Prediction: Qualifier