Dex appeal

One truism echoes through digital society; “the Internet never forgets.” It reminds us that removing history, deleting posts, or undoing or reversing or generally altering something can never truly erase the cyber footprints logged through our actions. This is true of the music we used to love, the political positions we once held, and the fashions we once wore. What to make of the sartorial history of our personal timelines? Would we appreciate these choices being described as “outfits so unflattering and unattractive”? Would we consider it fair to encourage our closest friends, let alone complete strangers, to decide if we “look truly heinous”?

Those quotes come from an archived version of a well-known ESC fandom site. For fans tend not to forget much, either, and the Internet archive has a habit of making things quite clear, even when an awfully long time has passed.

Let me rewind, for this is a personal opinion piece, and my opinion starts in 1993. As was the style of the Eurovision Song Contest at the time, fashions ran alongside parallel timelines. Megastars at the height of their powers in that era included Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and Madonna. In the UK charts, a Europop trend saw Ace of Base, Culture Beat and 2Unlimited hit Number 1. This was not reflected on stage at Millstreet, the smallest venue to ever host the ESC. The 1980s clung on for dear life: ballads and mid-tempo pop ruled supreme. Only the UK, perhaps ironically, seemed to represent contemporary chart sounds.

Representing Belgium that year was Barbara Dex. As was sadly commonplace, the result for a Flemish-language song was less impressive than for those sung in French during alternate years. Her ballad, then and now, sounds sweet, a little pedestrian, and in need of a production meeting or two. Alas, that name “Barbara Dex” is not linked to her song, or the unfortunate result in the basement of the 1993 final placings. Her name is linked to something else. Something which has, like the Contest itself, run alongside rather than intertwined with the trends of wider society.

Barbara Dex performing at Eurovision 1993 (Source)

Let me fast-forward, for now we must all look at the 21st century, in which we live, around which various narrative threads echo strong as stormwinds and as persuasive as fast-flowing streams. In tabloid newspapers, on hundreds of YouTube channels, in your friendship circles, are judgements on who wore what, the best, the worst. Ranking charts grow like weeds. Human nature, it is argued, returns to this as a healthy hobby. Red carpet fashions, their importance, their analysis, their strength and power and the rise and fall in status for both designer and wearer: mere seed for the birds, water for the plants. We all take a look at the shocks, the surprises, the best dresses, the worst suits. We are human after all.

The past few years have seen gear-changes in wider attitudes against the judgement from an unaccountable panel of self-appointed experts towards actors, singers, and celebrities who wear one item of clothing rather than another. Women, for it must always be women, are targeted with the harshest, most unfair, vitriol. Fight-backs are not new. Björk had her “swan dress” to satirise the telescopic analysis of women’s fashions on the red carpet. Her irony has perhaps been lost to history. It would take years for women to realise that they had the strength, and the human right, to make the same point.

Let me set the context, for we have just enjoyed one of the most confident, most intelligent, most contemporary Eurovision Song Contests ever held this year in Rotterdam. The Russian entry wished to encourage women to break the walls around them. The Dutch song, on home soil, was the most black, the most queer, the most relevantly political song on the ESC stage in years. Things have moved on: The audience, the production, the entrants, the song-writers. Have the fans moved on? Has the fandom?

Barbara Dex. Those two words, once a name, once a woman, a singer, a representative of Belgium, her country. Let me take you back to her. She is, she remains, a label attached to a dubious “award.” Let me remind you of the opening quotes, from the start of this article, from a fandom website, about this “award.” She wore a dress that was self-designed, for which her song, her presence, her memory, has been replaced in the collective fandom memory as a punchline to a joke she was not allowed to heckle.

The “award” was created to celebrate what fans agreed upon as the worst dressed, the ugliest dress, the least flattering. We are told that human nature does this all the time. What are you wearing? Can you believe mum wore that when she was young? Dad?! What were you thinking? For my generation, I remember the Gallagher glasses, the hooded coats with furry lining, the boot-cut jeans. What about your generation? What makes you go, “I can’t believe I wore that?!”

But, context. Who laughs at your faded photographs of fashion faux-pas? Yourself. Your partner. Your children. A narrow circle. And the following year, do they award someone with a label, named in your dishonour? Badly dressed now. Badly dressed next year. Always celebrated as a tribute to the “heinous”. No. Of course not.

This year, following the most black, the most queer, the most empowering Eurovision Song Contest, the current organisers of the Barbara Dex “award” realised that the wider narrative had changed. That the “worst dressed” celebration was falling foul of rules we have had to re-examine. That their “award” celebrated women more times than men. Women like Debbie Scerri of Malta, for wearing a blue and green dress in 1997. Women like Lydia for Spain, for a rainbow dress in 1999. Women like Sanda for Romania in 2004. Women like Rona Nishliu for Albania, a celebrated jazz singer, a bold and daring presence on the Eurovision stage. Reduced, like all women, like all “award” winners, to a punchline. You looked funny, you looked strange, you made fans go “WTF?!” in their living rooms. You are reduced, as a woman, to an award given in the name of a woman. You are this year’s photocopy of “Barbara Dex”.

Top: Debbie Scerri, Eurovision 1997 (Source); Bottom: Rona Nishliu, Eurovision 2012 (Source)

This year, then, the organisers changed direction. The award will still have its name. The name of a reduced woman. The name of a woman we associate only with her appearance, her dress, her fashion. The “award” will be given to someone whose personal history, whose context, whose reasons, won’t matter. The “award” is fan driven, fan focused, after all. The “award” is reflective of the parallel narrative of Eurovision: always, but not quite, contemporary.

Let me conclude. I once ignored the Barbara Dex “award.” Didn’t really care. Didn’t really take notice. Didn’t vote, contribute, argue against, support. It happened. Fans took part. Fandoms encouraged. But now, maybe because of the context of the pandemic, and #MeToo and #BLM, and the new, exciting, queer, black, different, era of Eurovision, I look at this “award” with fresh eyes. We could, with fresh eyes, look at something different, something better, something alternative. We celebrate songs because they are written well, produced well, performed well. Then what? We celebrate the opinion that a woman – for it is almost always a woman – looks different, funny, silly, stupid, lesser, reduced, redefined. “Barbara Dex” stands as a proto-meme, an early 1990s attempt at a running joke, created when the Internet was different, society was less self-aware, the Contest was of a different style. Let us conclude. Let us draw down the curtain. Let us ask ourselves – what does an “award” represent when it judges a woman as badly dressed having performed a song in front of 200 million viewers worldwide?

This “award” has been an awkward narrative running alongside the Contest from the age of dial-up Internet. It no longer seems in fashion. Let’s start wearing new attitudes from now on.