Eurovision, the annual camp family favourite, went through a rather depressing period a few years back, its reassuring rear-guard kitsch appearing as corny and irrelevant as Miss France. But, in 2014, there came a first glimmer of hope when the Austrian contestant, bearded drag-queen Conchita Wurst, won the competition and went on to walk the podiums for Jean Paul Gaultier. Five years later, in 2019, it was France’s turn to be represented at the Tel-Aviv final by Bilal Hassani, a young queer artist and teenage idol who was selected via social media. The self-promotion of music on apps and streaming represents a paradigm shift that has given voice to a whole new generation of performers who communicate directly with their audience, expressing aesthetic codes, identities and gender concerns that in turn find them- selves reflected in the venerable old Eurovision Song Contest.
So it is that among the line-up for the 2022 Turin edition this May we find the duo made up of Mahmood and Blanco. At the San Remo Song Festival in early February, which is where Italy’s Eurovision contestants are traditionally selected, their rendering of the song Brividi (“shivers” in English) offered a moment of pure grace and beauty. Up on stage, 29-year-old Mahmood, dressed in Prada, and 19-year-old Blanco, in Valentino, brought raw intensity and nuanced sensitivity to a story of toxic love. “The song is about experiences, our feelings and our fears,” say the two singers. “It was the result of a pure accident. Last summer, we met up at the producer Michelangelo’s studio. He was playing the piano and the chorus of Brividi came thanks to a false note. Afterwards, we composed the verses ourselves over the rest of the summer. Then, when each of us played the song to our parents, they all of them said, ‘You must sing it at San Remo.’”
It was also at San Remo, in 2019, that Alessandro Mahmood, the son of a Sardinian mother and an Egyptian father, first triumphed on a national stage. His song Soldi, a total UFO in the tacky world of Italian pop, was definitely not the bookies’ favourite, but would end up taking the rather staid old festival by storm. Since then, Mahmood has continued to polish his discreet elegance and subtle vocals, sometimes borrowing from his father’s Arabic roots, which he mixes with a more contemporary urban genre that he twists towards a sophisticated pop. Although, in both his songs and his public persona, he owns a vulnerability that contrasts radically with the traditional stereotypes of Italian virility, he takes great care to avoid established labels and classifications of sexual identity, pointing out that the simple fact of asking him about his sexuality is discriminatory and homophobic.
“I’m passionate about fashion. It’s an art that goes perfectly with my music. I see in it another way of expressing myself and of promoting freedom.” – Mahmood
Blanco, whose real name is Riccardo Fabbriconi, first came to attention on Soundcloud in 2020. After just two years in the music business, he already has platinum discs to his name and has collabo- rated with some of the most prominent Italian rappers, including the ubiquitous Sfera Ebbasta, who also co-authored a track with Mahmood. Both Mahmood and Blanco sing in Italian, which hasn’t stopped Mahmood’s hits from enjoying international success in a world that is clearly far more open to cultural authenticity and diversity than it used to be. Both Mahmood and Blanco represent a very contemporary fluidity and subtlety in both their music and their masculinity, and the passionate, destructive romance of Brividi finds its emotional truth in their mutual understanding. “Despite the age difference, we have a very strong friendship, we’re always there for each other, ready to listen or to offer advice, and the experience of doing this song together has taught us a lot, encouraging us to stray yet further from the beaten track. Everything you saw on stage at San Remo was the result of instinct and spontaneity. We didn’t seek to take a political stance. For us, for today’s generations, it’s natural to express ourselves more freely, and this move toward liberty is the underlying message of our song.”
Even without a political message or intent, Mahmood and Blanco’s triumph is good news in a country where the question of rewriting gender roles is fraught with controversy. These questions aside, the duo are thoroughly enjoying their success and thrilled to be representing Italy as the host country for Eurovision. And then there’s their looks, which will ensure them a long-term romance with the fashion business. With respect to this aspect of his success, which is still rather new for him, Blanco told Numéro that he wants to transmit his own identity “with a touch of something strange that creates a contrast.” As for Mahmood, he walked the runway in London for Burberry this March, and has been accompanied for several years now by Burberry’s artistic director, Riccardo Tisci. “I’m passionate about fashion,” says the singer. “It’s an art that goes perfectly with my music. I see in it another way of expressing myself and of promoting freedom.” It’s clear that freedom of every stripe is at the heart of his preoccupations, which makes it fitting that Mahmood should start his European tour on 23 April this year in a highly symbolic venue, Paris’s Bataclan. After which he’ll be hitting Turin for a new performance, with Blanco, that will have millions of viewers shivering with pleasure.
Brividi (2022) by Mahmood and Blanco, available on all platforms.