On the Eurovision Song Contest and Disability

I’m sure some of my regular blog readers are rolling their eyes and skimming past whenever I go off-topic to talk about the Eurovision. It’s something that outside of May tends to be feel (in the UK anyway) like a bit of a niche interest. Which is odd given that it’s the biggest musical event in the world. Personally I enjoy following it because of the way an ostensibly-silly show has a habit of highlighting all kinds of interesting topics.

Last year’s contest highlighted the issue of gender identity, with bearded drag act Conchita Wurst taking the prize. This year, 3 of the acts have physical or intellectual disabilities. This leaves me wondering whether 2015 will do for disability what 2014 did for gender.

The act that’s been getting the most headlines is Finnish punk band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, or PKN if your Finnish pronunciation ain’t that great. They’re actually a first for the contest on three levels. First artists with learning disabilities to perform in the show, first punk band and shortest ever song. The act has acquired as many detractors as fans – some criticise the song’s brevity, lack of technical polish and (if you happen to speak Finnish) simplistic lyrics. Personally I don’t see a problem with any of those, because it fits well with the genre. Punk has always valued authentic, sincere statements of, “This is who I am, take it or leave it” over technical ability. Personally, I think these guys entering the contest is the most punk thing that’s happened in a long time.

This evening Poland announced that they’d be sending Monika Kuszyńska, who has been wheelchair-bound since a car crash in 2006. It’s a ballad, which isn’t generally my thing, and entering a ballad in Eurovision runs the risk of getting lost among other, similar songs. That said, of the ballads that have been entered so far, it’s definitely one of the better ones.

The UK are represented by electroswing act Electro Velvet, whose co-singer Bianca Armstrong has cystic fibrosis. Reactions have been a bit marmite, with people either loving or hating it. Personally I like electroswing – I do a lot of voluntary work at festivals and it’s been a popular genre on the festival circuit the last couple of years – so I do like it. Though part of me would have preferred it if rather than forming a band from scratch the BBC had used an established electroswing act such as The Correspondents or the Electric Swing Circus.

I’ve heard a lot of positivity around these acts on the Tweetoblogowebs, though also some unfortunate negativity too. Don’t get me wrong, if people say, “I don’t like punk, so I don’t like PKN” or “Monika Kuszyńska’s song is just a boring ballad” I don’t have a problem with that. I do, however, have a problem with some people referring to them as “gimmick” acts because of their disabilities, as though Kuszyńska decided to be paralysed to be more hipster or something. (Electro Velvet haven’t had this aimed at them, possibly because Armstrong’s disability isn’t so visible.) Both PKN and Kuszyńska are established acts in their home countries. PKN have released four albums and been the subject of a documentary movie, The Punk Syndrome. Some gimmick.

Such comments tend to remind me of an autistic friend I heard debating with a right-winger who complained about the supposedly over-generous benefits that disabled people receive in the UK. He retorted that he’d gladly give back the paltry sums he gets from the state in exchange for a fully-functioning brain. Prejudice against disabled people tends to be wrapped up in euphemisms, and while I don’t think by any means all of PKN’s or Kuszyńska’s detractors are speaking from ableist prejudice, some of them do have more than a whiff of ableism to their comments.

Despite some of the thinly-veiled prejudice floating around online, I think it’s great that these acts are in the Eurovision. The show has done some good in the past by giving a stage to positive LGBT figures such Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it can do the same for people with disabilities.

Edited to add: Tara Wills has blogged similar thoughts, giving a much more detailed and eloquent explanation than me as to why PKN embody the punk ethos admirably.

2 thoughts on “On the Eurovision Song Contest and Disability

  1. Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but certainly I’m always pleased to read your Eurovision posts – I hope you keep writing them!

    And pleased as well to read something more nuanced about Electro Velvet, rather than the relentless negativity I’ve seen elsewhere. When I first heard it I didn’t think it was terrible (at least it has a memorable hook, and some of the lyrics are … well, maybe not exactly funny, but witty), so I was a bit taken aback to see apparently everyone saying it’s the worst thing we’ve ever entered.

    (I can’t comment on any of the other entries, because I haven’t heard them yet. I prefer to hear the songs for the first time during the competition – it makes it more like it used to be when I was a kid.)

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