Space Opera Author Catherynne Valente on the Out-of-this-World Appeal of Eurovision

If you follow Catherynne M. Valente on Twitter, you’ve probably seen her Tweeting about something called “Eurovision.” Even if you haven’t, you might have heard a little something about her book Space Opera being “Eurovision in space.”

Today, she joins us to explain what Eurovision is, why she loves it—and why you might already too, even if this is the first time you’ve heard the word.

If you live in America, you may have had trouble watching the Eurovision Song Contest this year (tomorrow is the last day). For three years, it broadcast here, and Americans slowly started to wake up to the utterly amazing spectacle already in progress across the pond, but not so in 2019.

I hope you will find a way to catch the finale; it is not to be missed. I have spent many years now trying to enlighten my countrymen to the glories of this glam rock Super Bowl of the Soul.

I won’t make my pitch here, except to say: it’s The X-Factor meets Miss Universe meets WWI and it is, in all its highs and lows, camp and class, tawdriness and tears, a must for life on Planet Earth. You can find my many longer pleas and exhortations elsewhere, and most passionately, in my Eurovision-in-space novel Space Opera.

I will say that, even if you are just hearing the word for the first time, and even if you live in America, you probably already know more about Eurovision than you think.

Eurovision is an engine for a certain genre of European pop music, and thus it makes its way over the pond in trickles and drips. ABBA is the most famous example; they won the contest in 1974, launching them into global stardom. Celine Dion won in 1988.

These are names everyone knows—but I can usually blow minds with the fact that the song “Cottoneyed Joe,” an wedding music staple in America, was in fact written by a Swedish band called Rednex who were later thrown out of Eurovision (representing Romania) for performing a song not specifically written for the event.

Household names, even here among the purple mountains majesty, including Olivia Newton-John, Englebert Humperdinck, Katrina and the Waves, t.A.T.u, and Bonnie Tyler, have all sung for various nations in the contest—some starting their careers, some ending them, some reaching for a bit of former glory.

Recently, it’s less the music than the spectacle that has seeped into American culture. Stephen Colbert has poked fun at it on his show; Will Farrell is working on a feature length parody for Netflix as we speak. With the rise of drag as a mainstream art form (Eurovision has long been a welcoming space for LGBT art and artists), images of Conchita Wurst, in full beard and full gown, appeared everywhere for a brief moment, though often without context. Social media lights up with discussion of the fashion and staging, even if the songs don’t often chart in the U.S. American acts have begun to perform during the judging interval, notably Justin Timberlake in 2015 and Madonna this year.

Bit by bit, Eurovision slowly arrives on our shores. And as Australia and other countries not, strictly speaking, part of Europe begin to participate, and Eurovision Asia threatens to actually happen some year or another, the august song contest comes closer and closer to being a global phenomenon. I have never thought America should participate—the concept of not voting for your own country would rub many of us the wrong way, and despite someone trying to do a honky-tonk song nearly every year, I’m not sure our musical tastes would fit with the in-crowd. We have enough cultural hegemony. Not every event has to include us.

But damn, we should be watching it. It will fill you up with absurdity and glitter and weirdness, give you a little hope for humanity, and leave you humming songs no one at your office has ever heard of for weeks.

Eurovision is life, Eurovision is love. It was invented to unify a war-torn continent and allow everyone to put aside politics in favor of, if only for a moment, art both high and low. There’s nothing more human and divine than that, little more necessary right now than that, and however you can access it, I’d recommend gluing yourself to the screen for the finale this weekend.

Catherynne M. Valente is the author of Space Opera, a, er, space opera inspired by Eurovision. It’s just as wonderful as you might imagine (not to mention a 2019 Hugo Award nominee).

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