Slovenia, a dependable but rarely distinctive contributor to the Eurovision spectacle, has given me more than usual to think about performance with over the first weekend of selecting its entry for this year’s contest in Kiev: firstly with this pop-opera Kraftwerk or pop-opera Laibach production, playing some very mid-2010s games around dystopian uniforms and propaganda, which didn’t progress past the first semi-final, and then, well, this.
‘Flower In The Snow’ taps into a gothic, fairytale aesthetic which Slovenia already packaged successfully for Eurovision in 2014, in Tinkara Kovač’s flute-wielding ‘Round And Round‘, and on a very different sized stage for the actress Tanja Ribič in 1997 – so long ago that Ribič’s 19-year-old daughter was another competitor in the Slovenian Eurovision heats this year.
What Nuška Drašček’s performance does is even more directly bring to mind – or letting you think it brings to mind, which for the viewer amounts to the same thing – the tropes of constraint, emotional release, and self-discovery through magic which have crackled out of female-centric popular culture from The Craft to Frozen, not unlike the way that one of Eurovision’s most iconic winners, Ruslana, could ground her own performance in everything a viewer might have known and felt about Xena: Warrior Princess.
Both of which when seen through the right lens are, in their own way – we’ll get on to Ruslana here in due course – full of the potential to be powerfully and thrillingly queer.
I’d like to be writing this in May, explaining why ‘Flower In The Snow’ ought to be a contender to win in Kiev, but Eurovision national finals are thankless things and there’s a seven-to-eight chance Slovenia will pick what could be anything from a quite cobbled together pub-band song, to a man shooting digital and physical flame around the stage in a Superdry t-shirt (which rather takes the edge off his shooting flame around the stage).
The growing intensity, soaring choruses and one-verse-to-another character arc of ‘Flower In The Snow’ are straight from musical theatre and work the same way, with Drašček’s high-collared black outfit guiding the imagination towards the gothic, as the musical sub-genre Idina Menzel has made her own: what can only be described as witches’ coming-out songs.
‘Defying Gravity’, the showstopper for Wicked‘s misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, and ‘Let It Go’, the very pole of the commercial pack-ice that is Frozen, are two aspects of the same archetype: the woman accepting that the qualities which put her on the margins of society aren’t just traits to fear or marks to hide but powers, gifts, even if a society that fears them can never understand them, especially if a society that fears them can never understand them: and so why not climb on the broomstick, build the ice palace, become what the pointed hat or wind-machine hair already held out to you, what generations of artists and folklorists have already shown is wrapped up in the word witch.
I can’t not be what you say I am; therefore I’ll be so much like that as to be fearsome.
Making more public the self you are – the one you hope you might be, that you’re afraid you might be – after years of conceal-don’t-feel, years of accepting-limits-cause-someone-says-they’re-so, is a crossing of boundaries through which millions of listeners have heard the last lines of ‘Let It Go’:
Here I stand, in the light of day
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway
‘Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know – well, now they know’: no wonder there are whole icebergs of the internet devoted to queering Elsa.
There’s a vulnerability, a lostness, a resilience, but also a frozenness, and inescapably therefore a Frozen-ness, to the image of a flower in the snow. Drašček’s first line – ‘Lost in the streets, the night is cold’ – primes the atmosphere, with a cloud of other standards like ‘On My Own’ or ‘Memory’ just out of sight, and the chorus – ‘Hit me in my cold heart, I just need a jump-start / Feel the silent pain in these loveless veins’ – is deep in Menzel territory even before the second verse echoes both anthems at once:
Now I’m not afraid of who I am
Cause I’ve found a way to change the plan
Now that I let it go, it heals my wounds and heals my soul
Now I’m not afraid of who I am: as ready as anything on Broadway to be queered, in defiance of forces as inexorable as temperature or, well, gravity, and to do the same work that queer audiences have made of every other diva musical; a fantasy of power through self-recognition, imaginable through an act of self-recognition in itself, an identification between listener and character, that is happening right now; all the more so when you can project something of yourself into the character on screen and maybe just maybe take it back inside.
With the second half of the chorus – ‘Throw me out a lifeline, let me see the light shine / And just watch me grow, like a flower in the snow’ – we have, just like Conchita Wurst and her lyricists managed with ‘Rise Like A Phoenix‘, an arc of emotional sincerity and a storyline, even if we’re only seeing it at the beginning. (It’s no surprise at all to find out that, four years ago, Drašček recorded the Slovenian translation of ‘Let It Go’.)
The damaged sorceress who finds redemption through painfully opening herself up to human contact again isn’t just Elsa’s story, but a trope of its own in today’s retellings. Not least for Lana Parrilla’s Regina (aka the Evil Queen of Snow White) who makes her own contribution to fairytale’s high-collared gown collection as one of the stars of Once Upon a Time:
You discover your desires aren’t what they were expected to be, probably long before you get to find out what they are; and along the way there are so many missteps and misrecognitions, so many reasons not even to try again because the costs were so high that last time, when you got it wrong – that no wonder queer viewers, in particular, are drawn to characters like these.
Drašček, as a performer, understands the bodily language of screen witchery. Holding a commanding hand to camera, keeping eye contact with the lens as it spins round, grasping the air just where the producer would CGI an orb of mana or a fireball: the choreography of magic from Buffy‘s Willow to Elsa.
Meanwhile, with the help of her make-up artist Emperatrizz, she’s by accident or design very good at recreating something else: the kohl-rimmed glare and out-of-control grin of the most emblematic character from 1996’s ‘year of the teen witch‘, Fairuza Balk’s Nancy in The Craft.
I came late to The Craft, like most things at that time. When I did see it, I was already into my own, quite necessary, phase of locking myself back in from the thrill of going too far – well, now they know… – that I resisted taking it as one of my stories, the way so many women have who as teenagers in and around 1996 saw in the revenge fantasies of Sarah, Rochelle, Bonnie and Nancy allegories or direct reflections of their own isolation. It didn’t have to be queerness; but it often was.
The witch, the sorceress, the evil queen, in nineties-noughties-nowties popular culture – from Nancy to Elsa, Elphaba to Regina – is a woman who turns her outsider position and the reason for it into the very basis of her power, her glamour and her image: one of the strongest, surely, of the secret chords, the codes you hear to recognise yourself.
I can’t say whether or not we’re meant to see any of this in ‘Flower In The Snow’ (although, if we’re talking secret chords, how much more exciting it would be if we were, right down to Drašček’s very last wide smile before the camera pans away).
The performance, as always with spectatorship, becomes the genealogy it becomes in this viewing because of everything else I’ve seen, and what those meant. The craft of a performance, how Ruslana harnesses Xena or Conchita harnesses Bassey/Bond or Nina Sublatti – the benchmark for digitally-enhanced Eurovision gothic – harnesses the black-feathered antagonist of a dozen video games, is in how voice and movement and language and special-effects and design put enough out there so that as viewers we meet them halfway, and that space in between is where meaning happens.
It’s a space, for this performance where queer women, in particular, have something to put in, whether it was meant for us or not.
Hardly anyone outside Slovenia might even see it. It’s happened before; last year’s producers gave Anja Baš’s ‘What If’ an alter-ego interpretive dance routine that, now I’m so used to filling in the blanks and starting to write the words that bridge them, comes to me on queer autopilot. (I mean, look at that.)
It lost quite convincingly to a reasonable reconstruction of pre-1989-era Taylor Swift.
‘Flower In The Snow’ might or might not have been designed as a queer performance (at least one of Drašček’s team, on the other hand, is queer: Emperatrizz, who performed at Eurovision fifteen years ago as one of the drag trio Sestre); but the aesthetics of gothicness and enchantment, freezing and unfreezing, that through its images probably convey at least something of the Menzel anthems to almost anyone carry enough queer meanings that they can crystallise as soon as they are seen.