After the results of semi-final 1, we reached out to prominent Croatian-American academic Roko Rumora, who is a curator and Art History PhD at the University of Chicago. He originates from Croatia and took to social media on Wednesday to explain the feelings in Croatia regarding Albina’s non-qualification from the first semifinal at Eurovision 2021.
When it comes to Eurovision, it would be fair to say that Croatia had let itself go. The country which emerged onto the international stage as a mini Eurovision powerhouse has spent the past two decades barely qualifying, if at all. Croatia’s Eurovision community has largely resigned itself to this fact. The last entry to cause anything like a stir among the broader domestic audience was in the distant days of 2006. Since then, seven out of our eleven entries have failed to qualify for the final; earlier this week, Albina’s Tick-Tock became the eighth. This is no longer the Croatia of Doris and Danijela.
Enthusiasm turns into shock, anger and grief
All of this makes it difficult to interpret this week’s nationwide shock, anger and grief at Albina’s failure to qualify for the finals with Tick-Tock. Yet it is undeniable that this year has seen a near 180° turnaround in Croatia’s enthusiasm for our entry and for the contest itself. For the first time in a long time, Eurosong (as it is colloquially known in Croatia) was not simply a niche hobby of closeted gays and lonely girls. People were thrilled with Albina’s charisma, the up-tempo production, the dancers, the delivery of the song itself. The delegation was even receptive to fan input, as when they quickly decided to use the “Dora version” of the song—with that deliciously-placed Croatian-language bridge—for the Rotterdam performance. When Albina got passed over, everyone had an opinion, everyone was shocked; even the President and Prime Minister chose to weigh in. I have seen adult straight men speak seriously about “Eurovision jury bias”.
While “grief” might sound like a melodramatic way to describe something as low-stakes as a failure to qualify for Eurovision, the word is not entirely out of place here, and many of the outsized reactions to Albina’s placement are underpinned by deeper, more structural issues that have bedeviled the country since it emerged out of the rubble of the wars in the Balkans during the 1990s. On some level, the reason why this blow hurt us so much is because it revealed just how exceptionally rare it is for those living in this small, insignificant and (in many ways) failing state to feel like there is any cultural product (beyond a handful of men’s sports teams) that we can show to Europe and have it recognized as equal, as worthy of inclusion on its own terms.
Croatian identity: Danijela and Doris
What breaks my heart is the fact that Croatia’s hopes for Albina were not delusional—most folks I have talked to were realistically hoping for a “left side of the screen” or Top 15 finish. In other words, we did not feel like we deserved to win, but we did, after two decades of failure, feel like we can keep up. This is why the domestic buzz around Albina’s song has been bigger than any other Eurovision entry since the 90s. Tick-Tock is not the finest song known to man, but it is a song which does not require any excuse or explanation for why it is the way it is, or any commentary on how much better it could have been, had this or that happened.
I have always been fascinated by the role Eurovision played in the big crash of Croatia’s post-independence dream. With the end of the war in 1995 came a string of Eurovision successes: 6th place in 1995 (Nostalgija), 4th in 1996 (Maja Blagdan’s Sveta ljubav), and then the incredible back-to-back triumph of Danijela’s Neka mi ne svane (5th in 1998) and Doris Dragović’sMarija Magdalena (4th in 1999). Alongside the famed third-place finish which the Croatia men’s football team won in the 1998 World Cup, these moments represent cultural touchstones of early Croatian identity on the international stage. If you put yourself into the perspective of someone on the ground in, say, 1999, there was no indication that this string of achievements would sputter out and come to a halt before you know it.
Recovery, survival and disillusionment
And yet, instead of continued success and a period of prosperity, Croatia spent the next twenty years slogging through…Recovery? Survival? Whichever it is, it has been a period of almost universal disillusionment about what kind of future lies ahead, especially as it coincided with the definitionally-humiliating process of applying for EU membership, an endeavor which took almost 15 agonizing years. While EU membership has benefited Croatia tremendously, its arrival in 2013 opened the floodgates of a mass exodus of young Croats moving abroad, an exodus whose pace is still increasing and shows little signs of stopping. Especially for those of us Croats who did not want to, or could no longer, rely on tropes of nationalist rhetoric and chauvinistic ideas about ethnicity, the evidence that we Croats (as individuals) could actually deliver, from within Croatia, on our supposed potential kept getting slimmer and slimmer.
It is these gaps in self-perception that Eurovision has always helped disguise. As corny as the analogy may be, I believe that for countries like Croatia, Eurovision provides something like the American Dream – an obviously fake, but helpfully believable narrative that talent can be self-sustained, that no one is too poor to do well, that hard work will be recognized.
A place to feel home for the LGBTQ+ community
This is especially true for the LGBTQ+ communities across the “Eurovision East” which has always had the most to gain from believing in this narrative of equality with their European peers, and it is not difficult to see why. Namely, coming to terms with the knowledge that the majority of people around you hate you for who you are is much easier if you can convince yourself that things would be very different had you been born in Italy or France. At Eurovision, so to speak, I can see who I am really like, and the recognition of that similarity from across borders can convince me that the onslaught of hatred around me hasn’t permanently ruined me. Even if my surroundings are actively trying to tell me I do not belong, I can work with that, because at Eurovision I can see a number of places where someone like me does belong.
I cannot say much about the psychological processes of projection through which a blond-haired girl not qualifying at a singing competition leads thousands of regular Croats to feel despair and a sense of having been personally rejected by the totality of Europe. What I can say is that when such moments do happen, and the helpful illusion of equality and recognition is shown to be just an illusion, the future suddenly gapes open, wide and empty. Whatever reservoirs of hope and confidence were available in 1999 have long since been depleted.
Serbia and Croatia: Shaky affection
Bear with me, because not all is as grim as these preceding paragraphs suggest. Markedly different from the kind of specifically nationalist excitement which characterized Croatia’s feelings about Eurovision in the late nineties, this year we are witnessing a still-ongoing display of excited affection among young Eurofans in Croatia and its once-enemy, Serbia. While the armed conflict between Croats and Serbs has ceased 25 years ago, the relations between the two major ex-Yugoslav ethnic groups remain shaky at best. While it is easy to spout platitudes about future generations paving the path forward, the actual reconciliation project is made significantly more difficult by the systematic erasure of Serb culture from Croatia’s postwar curricula, making it so that high schoolers are taught more about the music, art and literature of the UK and France than about the cultural products of our immediate neighbors to the east.
And while it is true that, as the first post-war generations now enter adulthood, interethnic hatred is no longer considered the default option for either side, there is still a wide gap between “absence of hatred” and “positive relations.” In fact, many young Serbs and Croats who have independently decided to reject xenophobia and virulent nationalism will still struggle to find points of contact with their neighbors, as they have not had the mutual exposure necessary for organic, casual conversations.
There is perhaps no better use-case scenario for Eurovision than the problem just outlined, and this year has demonstrated that more than ever. For it just so happens that Serbia has had a terrific song this year as well with Hurricane’s Loco Loco – which had an easier time qualifying from the second semifinal. The performers themselves – both the Hurricane girls and Albina – have done a lot to promote each other’s songs, but the love seems to flow on both sides even without their help.
It was wonderful—startling even—to see the righteous fury of Serbian fans when Albina failed to qualify, and their expressions of support are still pouring in. There was a time when a tweet from the Serb broadcaster using a Croatian singer as a meme (“You asked who runs this account? There’s a couple of us, and here is what we look like”) would have caused a diplomatic scandal and not a stream of heart-emoji replies. On the Croat side, news of Hurricane’s qualification was greeted with joy and jubilation among the fans and even in the general public, with people cheering them on in the streets of Zagreb. The last time something like this could have been possible, during Serbia (& Montenegro’s) great mid-2000s streak of Top 5 placements (with Lane Moje and, of course, Molitva) a pervading sense of unease about what it means to celebrate Serbia still lingered on in Croatia. I hope this year has marked a final end of that era, and the start of something new, for us and for them.
What is good enough?
One of the most-often repeated refrains I have heard from my Croatian friends and family in recent days is “If this wasn’t good enough, then what is?” Ostensibly, this could be just a rhetorical question about a silly song. But there is almost certainly more to it, and I would be willing to bet that, hiding behind this question, we would find a series of anxiety-inducing propositions which we might not wish to confront: that what we thought of as our “realistic” worth was actually delusional; that this was our best, and it wasn’t good enough; that there is nothing left to show them; that maybe we are permanently ruined after all. I know, I know, my reading of the situation is overwrought and dramatic, and thus likely to exaggerate the true state of things—I understand that. But sometimes, problems need to be blown out of proportion and inflated precisely so that we can tackle them face-to-face. Especially when you are only given three minutes to work with.