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O.M-R. – Europe is limping; it seems tired, lacking energy. At the same time, many insist on the urgent need to strengthen European identity, an identity based on open and democratic and values, in order to counteract religious fanaticism of all signs and right-wing ideologies. Identities are built around symbols. Europe needs fresh symbols that embody those values of democracy, tolerance and diversity arguably inherent to European tradition. It needs symbols that are able to penetrate popular culture. Why not pay more attention to Conchita Wurst and Sister Cristina, two unorthodox music and media stars, who have emerged forcefully this year on the continent?

The triumph of Conchita Wurst in the last edition of the Eurovision Festival and that of Sister Cristina in The Voice of Italy will become part of the 2014 annals as two of the most remarkable sociocultural phenomena of the year. Or is it perhaps the same phenomenon, the two sides of the same coin? The young gay singer Tom Neuwirth, aka Conchita Wurst, of Austrian origin and the young Italian nun Cristina Scuccia, Sister Cristina, with her powerful voice, share more than the fact of being born the same year, 1988, in Catholic countries of conservative tradition. Both have found in singing the medium through which to express their messages of transformation, and in television and social networks the platform from which to disseminate them. If there is anything that defines them both is their capacity for transformation. Conchita and Sister Cristina not only transform themselves on stage, as happens to real stars, but they also seek to transform their environment.

 

Conchita Wurst.  'Jean Paul Gaultier' exhibition, Grand Palais, Paris (2015)

Conchita Wurst. ‘Jean Paul Gaultier’ exhibition, Grand Palais, Paris (2015)

 

Dressed like an elegant and glamorous woman and wearing a trimmed beard as he sings Rise like a Phoenix, the winning Eurovision anthem, Conchita aims to transform our way of seeing whoever is different or, in his own words, to show that if one is faithful to and believes in oneself one can achieve anything in life. With her vibrant voice, in her Ursuline habits and inconspicuous glasses, Sister Cristina transforms pop hits such as Madonna’s Like a Virgin into hymns to God with which she seeks to convey the Gospel. Their messages are actually not so different. They talk about the need for love, tolerance and respect for others. Even though they do this from different places, their audiences are not necessarily. Besides this messianic resolve, in each of their performances the two young singers transgress the rigid heteronormative canons that are prevalent in our society about what is beautiful and sexually attractive. They force us to ask ourselves, why cannot a bearded woman be beautiful?; why cannot a man dressed as a woman be? As sociologist Rodanthi Tzanelli (University of Leeds) suggests, while the smooth and perfectly made up face of Conchita meets the traditional standards of beauty, his trimmed beard breaks them, causing discomfort in the viewer. It is the same discomfort and rejection that the LGBT collective as a whole still causes in some groups, a collective for which Conchita has become an iconic advocate.

Some may find the image of Sister Cristina singing and dancing more familiar as it evokes the protagonists of the film and musical Sister Act, but the negative reactions of some Catholic and non-Catholic sectors to her performances force us to answer the question of why a nun you cannot sing pop songs, even songs of ambiguous content; or why female singers just have to show their curves. Some social fora explain the success of Sister Cristina in that it offers a different model of woman than the one that has dominated Italian popular culture in recent decades, namely, that of the voluptuous woman dressed to suit the imagination of the traditional male. Some people may warn of the danger of such an anti-model because it brings us close to reactionary positions defending the idea of feminine modesty and bliss, offering arguments also to those religious communities in Europe that advocate the use of the veil, for example. Arguably, above Sister Cristina’s attire emerges her great personality, and that is never a bad example. In her book If nuns ruled the world, journalist Jo Piazza defines Sister Cristina, along with other nuns with social projection, as an example of the feminine genius in the Church; women who have heard the call of Pope Francis to go out on the streets, but who have also assumed his refusal to accept female priesthood, and are aware that, for now, they must find other ways to contribute to the mission of the Church.

The great self-confidence that Conchita Wurst and Sister Cristina project, their ability to be themselves despite the media maelstrom that has erupted around them, gives reality and authenticity to their personas, preventing them from being reduced to mere products of television and entertainment marketing. The same goes for the spirit of personal and social transformation that they want to convey, which otherwise could be perceived as naive or simple-minded, especially in these times. On the contrary, in the midst of the weariness caused by the economic crisis and the corruption scandals in many European countries, and the subsequent disaffection towards national and European political institutions, the emergence of Conchita and Sister Cristina is a breath of fresh air. It reminds us of the existence of a younger generation of Europeans who, despite everything, feels full of energy and faith in the future. This is a generation that has convictions, but that is freer from religious and sexual prejudice than the previous ones. We are also reminded that only in Europe is the simultaneous victory and success of two transgressive stars of seemingly opposite worlds and appearance possible. Despite visceral reactions to the nomination and subsequent victory of Conchita Wurst in the Eurovision Festival among some politicians and citizens, especially in Eastern Europe, and the questioning of Sister Cristina’s conduct by conservative Catholic sectors, the majority feeling among Europeans has been that of admiration and respect for two talents that go beyond the strictly musical. This is not to idealize these young people, but taking precisely their contradictions and their provocative effect as symbols of European identity and values. The concert that Conchita Wurst gave in front of the European Parliament on 8 October is a good start.

Olivia Muñoz-Rojas

NB: This article was originally written in Spanish, and has been translated into English by the author. See previous post.

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