By Rob Picheta, London, May 21 (CNN): Europe has had an utterly miserable 14 months, thanks in large part to *gestures broadly at everything*. But fear not; the task of cheering up the continent's 750 million inhabitants could not have fallen to a more qualified group.
A trumpet-playing German dancer dressed as a middle finger! A singer accused of advocating Satan-worship! A smattering of central and Eastern European talent show veterans! And, for some reason, Flo Rida! They're all on hand, along with scores of other eccentrics, to cheer up a region itching for a party.
Eurovision, the world's campest and occasionally cringeworthiest competition, is back in action a year after its first-ever cancellation.
The competition may look a little different this year -- Covid protocols mean the pre-tested audience is smaller than usual -- but the leather trousers, confounding lyrical choices, and trademark key changes that define music's most bewildering spectacle are all very much present and correct.
So what, exactly, is Eurovision? According to Portugal's contestant Pedro Tatanka, "It's about grandiosity -- it's a big, huge, worldwide musical celebration."
It's a "testament to pop music and humankind," says Denmark's Fyr & Flamme. Or as Norway's TIX tells us, "It's so weird! You can be as extra as you want, and it's not only allowed, it's encouraged." Maybe the easiest way to explain Eurovision is to say that Eurovision is Eurovision, and leave it at that.
This year's event holds special importance; the contest is by far the biggest continent-wide event thrown in western Europe since the pandemic began, and those involved are hoping it will offer both a distraction from lockdown and a blueprint for events this summer and beyond.
Or, to quote a lyric from Benny Cristo of the Czech Republic: "There ain't no apocalypse, as long as you're here on my lips." Well said, Benny, well said.
Things can get pretty weird. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/File
"I think people have been craving this," Estonia's contestant Uku Suviste tells CNN. "If we can pull it off, and keep Rotterdam from exploding with Covid cases, it will show not just Europe, but the whole world, that we can return to our normal lives."
The contestants represent a smorgasbord of Europop royalty, national stars, novelty acts, and fading names hoping to claw back some relevance. But whatever their backstory, and despite this year's restrictions, each one is feeling the thrill.
"I see people in masks, but I see their happy eyes," Natalia Gordienko, the host of Moldova's lottery show and the nation's contestant for 2021, tells CNN.
"We're all excited," Austria's Vincent Bueno adds. "The wait has been way too long -- this is our chance to shine."
'It's our Super Bowl'
For the uninitiated, Eurovision is a gaudy annual spectacle of glitter, razzmatazz, and frilly national dress that was initially invented to foster peace after World War II.
Having successfully rid Europe of all its inter-state tensions, it now serves as a medium for geopolitical back-slapping, carefree kitschiness, and disarming musical eccentricity. There are also sequins everywhere.
In some countries, like the too-cool-for-school United Kingdom, the approach to Eurovision is simple: The singers sing, the presenters stumble through some over-rehearsed casual banter, the viewing public gets drunk, and everyone goes home with their dignity still partially intact. But across much of the continent, it's a far more serious business.
"I would say it's like a national holiday," six-foot-ten singer Daði Freyr from Eurovision-mad Iceland tells CNN from his band's Rotterdam hotel room. "All the streets are empty ... If you're not watching Eurovision, what are you doing?"
"It's like the Super Bowl," his bandmate Hulda Kristín Kolbrúnardóttir adds.
They're not joking. During the last contest, 98.4 per cent of Iceland's television viewers tuned into the Grand Final. In total, 182 million people across Europe watched the event, the European Broadcasting Union said.
Freyr and Kolbrúnardóttir's group, Daði og Gagnamagnið, went viral with their memorable would-be entry last year, and like most of 2020's frustrated hopefuls, they're back for another shot this time around. But a positive Covid-19 test has meant that, come Saturday, they'll be relying on rehearsal footage; a sudden reminder of the difficulties of throwing a party in a pandemic.
Iceland's Daði og Gagnamagnið during rehearsals. The band are one of the biggest names at Eurovision this year, but a positive Covid-19 test has thrown their preparations into chaos. Credit: Thomas Hanses/EBU/Eurovision
Travel rules, meanwhile, meant Australia's entry took part in the semi-finals from thousands of miles away. "It definitely sucks," says artist Montaigne.
Eurovision novices usually wonder why Australia is involved anyway, given that most atlases place them some distance outside Europe, but the answer's simple: Many Australians get up at 4 a.m. to watch it, displaying exactly the kind of maniacal behavior organizers covet, so the organizing body offered them an invite, expanding the tournament's reach worldwide.
"There is a really passionate and dedicated supporter base in the country," says Joshua Mayne, the editor of the Sydney-based Eurovision website ESCDaily. "It has this unique kind of lighthearted competitiveness that does not exist anywhere else in the world."
Less passion is shown in Britain. "Music industries in other countries thrive on Eurovision acts and songs but that isn't the case here," British Eurovision expert Will O'Regan says.
It may never be clear just how much Moldova's momentously off-puting 2011 folk punk band Zdob și Zdub contributed to the UK's decision to vote in favor of Brexit, but in the last-minute scramble to finalize an exit deal last Christmas, Westminster officials presumably forgot to include a clause withdrawing the UK from the competition -- so here they are, back again, awkwardly laughing along with Europe's inside jokes and preparing for a zillionth consecutive humiliation when the votes are cast. Or perhaps not, if you believe their contestant James Newman.
"If I go out there and smash it on the night and get the votes, I could easily win," he tells CNN from Rotterdam.
"I think we've lost touch with Eurovision a little bit," he adds. "People that are entering from other countries are big stars. Everyone else sees this as a really big opportunity."
"A lot of people think that no one wants us to win, but that's not the case," says Newman. "Eurovision doesn't hate us. Eurovision wants us to try harder."
France and Italy are this year's frontrunners, while Switzerland could mount a challenge.
"I wanted a song that had the feeling of being in an explosion," their contestant, Gjon's Tears, explains. And he's really tugging on Europe's heartstrings in his pitch for votes: "For my ego, that would be cool," he tells us.
The other surprise favorite hails from the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta. Destiny, their performer, tells CNN it would be "special" if they triumphed. "It would be a party, and all Maltese people would be so looking forward (to it), because we're obsessed with Eurovision."
Everything else you need to know
When not rehearsing, this year's Eurovision hopefuls have been confined to their hotels -- TIX says it's like "a really nice prison" -- with regular Covid testing.
Still, artists have left nothing to chance. "We sent 160 kilograms of costumes here," TIX tells us. During one rehearsal, he says he "almost passed out" because of the sheer weight of the fluffy white wings he dons while performing his ballad.
TIX is far from the most remarkable individual present, which can't often be said of an adult who has to pay excess baggage fees at the airport in order to dress like an angel on a business trip.
That mantle may belong to Lithuania's unnervingly intense and unnecessarily yellow dance troupe The Roop, Ukraine's goth-pop-rockers Go_A, or Azerbaijan's reality TV veteran Efendi.
Lithuania's The Roop were one of several contestants set to enter last year's contest before the pandemic scuppered those plans. This year they're back with "Discoteque," a dance anthem that some have pegged as a dark horse for victory. Credit: Paulius Zaborskis/Eurovision
But whoever your favorite, rest assured that everyone is bringing their A-game.
Israel's Eden Alene plans to hit a B6, the highest note ever heard in the contest (in 1996, current record-holder Maja Blagdan of Croatia could only reach a frankly embarrassing B6 flat, a semitone lower than Alene's effort.) While Alene's note doesn't rival the vocal gymnastics of singers like Mariah Carey, it's eye-popping impressive by Eurovision standards.
Meanwhile, commentators say Spain's giant inflatable moon might be the largest Eurovision prop in the history of Eurovision props.
The interval act will feature previous winners of the contest, each singing on the roof of a different Rotterdam building.
And there's a surprise! San Marino's entry "Adrenalina" inexplicably features a verse by none other than 2009's third-favorite rapper, Flo Rida.
Why is Flo Rida at Eurovision, representing a tiny, eight-mile-long microstate in Italy's the Apennine Mountains? It's a great question.
Perhaps he was charmed by its 17 centuries of history, or maybe the "Who Dat Girl" hitmaker hopes to follow in the footsteps of President Abraham Lincoln by becoming an honorary Sammarinese citizen.
Either way, to say the country is excited by their newfound association with Mr. Rida is an understatement; their act, Senhit, appeared in rehearsals wearing a giant golden shrine to the rapper on her head, adorned with images of him and a number of cryptic question marks, and she's been busy hyping the fact that he might, just possibly, swing by.
"He said he would be super proud to come," Senhit insisted to CNN. "You will see probably something, or not." And good news! After we spoke to Senhit, it was confirmed that Flo Rida has indeed found time in his schedule.
Slow songs about love are the most successful Eurovision formula, a study found last year -- because of course, scientists are producing academic research about Eurovision winners.
That should have been good news for Romania's Roxen, described by her delegation as "a labyrinth of an artist, with a dreamy sound and mesmerizing voice that creates an entirely new universe with every release." Sadly, Europe appeared to disagree; Roxen dropped out in the semi-finals.
And then there's Finland's Blind Channel. Finally, a musical act bold enough to fuse heavy metal with bubblegum pop! They call their music "violent pop," and tell CNN: "We were not Eurovision fans, we haven't followed Eurovision, but then we were like: 'F*** it, why not?'" These guys are sitting at Eurovision's cool table, and they definitely want you to know it.
The weird stuff
Eurovision's rulebook states that "lyrics, speeches (or) gestures of a political nature" are all banned -- but if you believe that, I've got a bargain pair of white leather trousers to sell you.
Every year brings its own snafus. This year there's already been religious controversy, after the Orthodox Church of Cyprus condemned the country's entry, "El Diablo," saying it "favored our global ridicule by advocating our surrender to the devil and promoting his worship."
While the Eurovision stage has, historically, been a popular forum for global ridicule, Cyprus's singer insisted her effort was "clearly an allegorical song!"
The stage at the Rotterdam Ahoy arena, which 3,500 fans and 26 hopefuls will fill on Saturday night. Credit: Avrotros Nathan Reinds/NOS/NPO/Eurovision
Linguistic clangers are also inevitable. Most Eurovision ballads appear to take much of their inspiration from the journal entries of a lovelorn pre-teen, with well-worn cliches apparently actively encouraged.
"Unchain my wings and the oceans of tears, all fade to black with the sum of my years," wails North Macedonia's entry. "Bundle tears in my hand, They are rusty. I looked for you through empty hearts and realized nothing seduces me," Albania's contestant moans.
The most overtly raunchy entry for 2021 is Moldova's Sugar. "It's not about the sugar you put in your coffee," singer Gordienko reliably informs us. "It symbolizes love, happiness, sex, and positive vibes."
According to Eurovision's official translation, Ukraine's entry contains the lyrics: "In the garden, sitting on a maple tree, You've been spinning a shirt ... Shum, get twined with periwinkle ... Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing hemp plants." Which makes total sense, compared to some of the previous entries in Eurovision's archive.
"Sunshine, I wanna touch you ... Wind blow, I wanna see you ... Mountain, I want to feel you," sings Georgia's Tornike Kipiani, who seems to still be exploring the best use of his five basic senses.
But Belgium's entry may provide the most appropriate summary for the Eurovision experience with their opening line: "I wake up, and I think: I could use another drink."
As lovably odd as Eurovision is, its contestants are united in their belief that their performances mean something more this year -- and given the show's reach, they may be right.
"Eurovision feels less like a contest this year. I'm feeling a sense of responsibility," says TIX. "There are people whose past year has been f***ing miserable. A lot of people find comfort in the Eurovision community."
"It's going to be a great night," adds Newman. "It's going to be fun, it's escapism -- it's a glimmer of hope."
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