“Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of ‘Camp.'” – Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp
The 57th annual Eurovision Song Contest kicks off later this month, and it’s no a secret that a lot of participating nations aspire toward a little American coverage of their perennially campy offerings. But America’s always had a contentious relationship with camp. It’s unfortunate, really, that despite living in a nation where the president now openly endorses gay marriage — albeit with a few caveats — our cultural consciousness remains so camp-ophobic. We are, after all, the people who failed to give Mean Girls an Oscar, John Waters the big budgets of Jerry Bruckheimer, and B*witched a chance at a career here that spanned more than one single.
Perhaps that’s where Eurovision steps in as our forbidden fruit. It’s distant enough that American audiences needn’t feel debased by (or risk identifying with) the camp, but simultaneously, it satisfies our curiosity. It’s not that we have no appetite for camp — it’s that our pop consciousness needs to be tricked into appreciating it. (Hello there, Lady Gaga.) Eurovision, then, is a delightful, drawn-out yet comfortingly foreign opportunity to revel in camp.
On a recent night, I sat through a viewing of all 42 Eurovision 2012 entries. I did this because I wanted to spare you, loyal legion of pop skeptics, from having to endure the seemingly endless parade of low-rent Céline Dion and Julio Iglesias clones that many nations are putting forth this year. There are only a handful of Eurovision entries that espouse the je ne sais quoi of camp so ferociously that they would make Sontag herself go, “Oh, hey girl!” and, as result, possess the potential to become novelty hits in America — a land where non-English songs can only wreak havoc on the Top 40 if they’re curiosities, past precedents including “99 Luftballons” or “The Ketchup Song.” With respect for (and, OK, apologies to) Notes on Camp, I’ve paired eight encouragingly campy Eurovision anthems with the Sontag tenet each embodies.
Valentina Monetta — “The Facebook Song”/”The Social Network Song” “In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.”
There is a rule in Eurovision that your lyrics can’t endorse any brands — so for the purposes of the competition, San Marino re-worked its entry as “The Social Network Song.” That failure, combined with a lack of self-awareness, makes Monetta a prime example of Sontag’s description: This is seriousness that fails. You can’t fashion a pop song about the virtues of social media and perform it with a straight face — to do so would be ridiculous. I mean, we’ll just call it here: Monetta gets the Ring Pop-studded tiara for Campiest Eurovision Anthem.
Anggun — “Echo (You and I)” “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.”
France’s entry this year is an obvious manifestation of camp: warbling diva is costumed in skanky couture while, in an homage to gender role reversal, overseeing the manufacture of a legion of outstandingly gorgeous Ken dolls who are intrepid soldiers by day and work camp hustlers by night. There’s the vague facsimile of a David Guetta-inspired beat. However, all of this seems so color-by-numbers, it’s hard to appreciate it. Camp can’t be market-researched, and as France demonstrates, such a standard expression of it leaves us jonesing for something with a little more unconscious chintz.
Mandinga — “Zaleilah” “Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles.”
The process of creating any pop song — for Eurovision or the music industry at large — should include some kind of love. That’s the element that translates across Spotify, Hype Machine, or wherever else people are listening to music, and inspires them to develop an affection for the track. Romania’s entry is just that: a celebration of what the people behind this song would like us to believe about how Romanian pop culture is created and consumed. In the new pop economy, honesty still wins a lot of listeners, so “Zaleilah” could become a big crossover smash.
Eleftheria Eleftheriou — “Aphrodisiac” “When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish. (“It’s too much,” “It’s too fantastic,” “It’s not to be believed,” are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)”
In this day and age, when other countries try to manufacture pop stars in the mold of Britney Spears circa 1999, we sigh, nod our heads, and decry the state of affairs that led them to make those mistakes. Greece has made this mistake with Eleftheria Eleftheriou, and its Eurovision entry comes off as something that, with a few modifications, Paris Hilton could’ve turned down as a B-side. Not camp, just bad.
Nina Zilli — “L’ Amore è Femmina (Out of Love)” “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.”
Like Romania, Italy has the potential to win over America with their Eurovision anthem. At some point, camp elements can be coordinated so effectively that a piece starts approaching authenticity. But something that qualifies as campy must still somehow fall short of it, and I think that’s what Italy accomplishes here — its entry is basic, but unlike France’s, it’s not trying too hard to be camp. It wants to be bigger-than-life, but it just can’t compete with the likes of Amy Winehouse.
SWEDEN Loreen — “Euphoria” “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much.‘”
In Sweden’s entry lies the heart and soul of a pop star who could probably rank right up there with Robyn… if only it weren’t for her overactive onstage swaying. But Loreen’s deathly serious movements are what elevates her into that accidental strain of camp, despite a pop song strong enough to compete in the global market.
Buranovskiye Babushki — “Party For Everybody” “Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character.’ . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.”
Russia’s Buranovskiye Babushki, or the Buranovo Grannies as the rest of the world is calling them, are fiercely camp. They’re Russian’s answer to The Golden Girls, spun with a a human interest angle about how they want to build a church in their village with the prize money should they win (and should San Marino fail to win, the Buranovo Grannies have this one in the bag). When I think of “love for human nature,” I think of the Buranovo Grannies.
Ivi Adamou — “La La Love” “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.”
Let’s just rest on Sontag’s final note on camp, then.