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RETROSPECTIVE: How Queer Can Sanremo Be?

We're giving a piggyback ride to the revolution baby!

Måneskin at Sanremo 2021 with 'Zitti e Buoni' (2021)

It’s 3:00 AM. It’s the fifth and final night of the Festival di Sanremo 2021. Four twenty-somethings in sparkly body suits are being announced as the winners of Italy’s most prestigious music competition. Damiano David, Måneskin’s vocalist, is being handed the fancy, velvet-lined box holding the most prestigious award of the Festival. Luckily, no mics capture the river of expletives coming out of the mouth of bassist Victoria De Angelis. When they’re told by presenter Amadeus that they have to perform the winning song, ‘Zitti e Buoni’, they turn as pale as their outfits. A camera captures De Angelis mouthing ‘col cazzo’, which I’ll leave you to type into Google Translate. And so, the band performs, effectively consolidating in front of the thousands watching from home that Italy has voted for them, that rock is the victor of the biggest music competition in the country, and that you can scream into a microphone and give a piggyback ride to your guitarist on stage as you casually deliver one of the most iconic performances Sanremo has ever seen.

So, that was a lot. Some introductions are due. The Festival di Sanremo (Sanremo for short) is a yearly, televised music competition where songs are presented to the Italian public from the stage of the Ariston theatre in the city of Sanremo. The competition turned 71 this year and, despite the exhilarating freshness that dominated the 2021 edition, you could still definitely feel the weight of its age-old, traditionalist baggage. After all, this is the same stage that, back in 1971, didn’t let Lucio Dalla perform the integral version of his song ‘4/3/1943’. The reason? Its original lyrics refer to whores and pimps in the same breath as Jesus and oh no, that just won’t do!

Nevertheless, Dalla brought songwriting centre stage, where it would remain in later editions, defining a certain kind of Italian music that shaped my parents’ generation. Dalla, De Gregori, Mina, Venditti, Celentano… I’m just listing names here, but these are the voices I grew up with, bellowing or crooning out of CD players back home. They produced a variegated spectrum of music, one that is now indelibly associated with Italian culture, as it both reflected and shaped it. And all of the above-mentioned performers were highly criticised at one point or another in Italian media for going against whatever custom we felt attached to at the time.

Lucio Dalla at Sanremo with '4/3/1943' (1971)

As you can see, Sanremo is a big deal musically, historically, and culturally here in Italy. But now I have a confession to make: I hadn’t watched Sanremo in years. My knowledge of the last few Festivals is peripheral and comprises two main sources: memes that inevitably sprout from badly received jokes throughout the evening, and Italian radio stations. Trust me, you better be ready to hear the winning song played on repeat over the summer months.

But I think that’s the beauty of this year’s Festival. It was a Sanremo enjoyed by those who haven’t enjoyed it in a while, or truly never did. Måneskin was the first band to bring rock music to the podium atop the Ariston, and this may well be because we are living through a global pandemic. This year, parents and grandparents were joined in voting from home by sons, daughters and whatnot, who were unable to go out and ignore the festival, but who were also more likely to stay awake until three in the morning to vote in the first place.

After all, this year’s Sanremo was a festival marked by youth, even on stage: Måneskin to start (average age of 20), followed by Madame (19), Fulminacci (23) and Gaia (23). It feels like an obvious shift. To quote the wisdom of Sharpay Evans: ‘out with the old, in with the new’. But as it often happens with innovation, criticism of this edition was rife, with older commenters lamenting the loss of a certain kind of Italian melody, missing what Sanremo once was. While a range of ages might not have felt represented by the proposals on stage this year, the Festival stood out because of the impressive buzz it generated on social media. It really feels like the public watching and voting from home reflected the same desire for change marked by the presence and success of the giovanissimi on-stage at the Ariston.

The ongoing pandemic also contributed to making this year’s Festival unique in other ways. For the first time ever, there was no audience filling the seats of the theatre, which meant that performers had to sing and presenters had to lead the show to a literal void. And in front of this apparent void, fifty years after its introduction on the stage of Sanremo, Dalla’s ‘04/3/1943’ was performed again, uncensored, in a tribute to the artist’s legendary career and life; a career and life that a lot of the Italian public still pretends was not queer. Listening to Dalla’s music, some misguided souls still perform contrite, death-of-the-author gymnastics to remove his personal life from the songs he left to Italian culture as a wonderful, eternal inheritance.

Despite their undeniable impact, queer people have often been masked behind Sanremo’s veil of censorship. 2021’s edition, however, has been the most explicitly queer one so far. Madame’s ‘Voce‘, a queer love song brought to life with incredible care and tenderness, won the prize for best lyrics. La Rappresentante di Lista brought colour and energy into the Ariston with ‘Amare, singing about a love that is rich when nothing else in your life is. A representation of the margins in the mainstream, this song’s queer, Southern Italian sound stays stuck in your head and refuses to let go. And of course, let’s not forget the winners: Måneskin with ‘Zitti e Buoni’, which tells the old to shut up and breaks down doors for the new. It’s a catchy, eclectic song with purpose.

La Rappresentante di Lista at Sanremo with 'Amare' (2021)

For all of these reasons, this year’s Festival kind of felt like a revolution, one many had been craving for a long time. But in hindsight (and having caught up on all the hours of sleep I lost trying to keep up with the kermesse for a week), it kind of feels like luck. The blatant sexism of presenter and artistic director Amadeus is one of the most obvious signs that, deep down, not much has changed between this Sanremo and past editions. Really, what is this obsession with giving every female performer flowers? Some of these artists reflected the Internet’s bafflement at this persisting tradition, challenging it when several handed their mandated bunch of beautiful flowers to their partners, guests, even dedicated it to the orchestra musicians. Amadeus awkwardly kept up the tirade of handing bouquets to whoever he decided was a woman, and even after announcing that ‘everyone will get flowers’ on the final night, he somehow still managed to make things worse. Instead of giving everyone flowers as promised, Amadeus instead decided that women and the men that performed next to them would get flowers, but not the men performing solo. This is an… intriguing understanding of the gender binary that most gender studies departments take years to construct, and yet Amadeus and his team managed it in a couple of hours, with just flowers as their symbols of power. You’ve got to admire the dedication to upholding sexism masked as courtesy!

Måneskin challenging the flower embargo (2021)

But this idiosyncratic nature, for all its faults, is very Italian. We are contradictory. We take two steps forward and one backwards immediately after. Just like we praise Dalla’s music as legendary while singing along to censored verses, it makes sense that we would also propose a stage blooming with youthful rebellion only to turn around and give flowers to men only when they’re singing next to someone who might have a vagina.

Nevertheless, the little crumb of revolution we did get is making me feel giddy. Maybe I’m naïve, but to see queer, tongue-in-cheek rebellion on the most important stage in Italy, while cultural institutions across the country have been ravaged by a pandemic that is preying on the most vulnerable… It’s such a power-kick. It’s addictive and I feel starved. And it also feels like the opposite of homonormativity; Sanremo’s on-stage rebellion feels just as radical as when it is taking place outside the doors of the theatre. They’ve let us in. And now they’ve got to deal with it.


Maria Orlando is a writer who traded Italy's mild weather for London's constant drizzle. Oh well. She can especially be found writing about anything even remotely queer.

This article was edited by Ainhoa Santos Goicoechea (pronounced "I-know-ah"), a culturally confused Creative Writing postgraduate student from the Basque Country, Spain. She is passionate about film, music and politics, and she should probably know more than she does about all three.

Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He edited this article and he is also a Fleet Foxes shill.

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