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Eurovision
rocked!

Eurovision
rocked!

Eurovision_2

Break-dancers, heavy metal, Norwegian elves, and Will and Grace look-alikes--this is how you put on a televised music competition.

Saturday, May 20, on the gayest night in all of television, 300 million viewers were expected to watch the 51st annual Eurovision Song competition. It's not your fault you didn't see it. It's not really well-known in North America. But here are the highlights of what you missed.

The Eurovision is a contest like no other--24 countries (down from 37 after the semifinal) compete over three hours on a live television broadcast for little more than national pride and an outside chance at an international recording career. The Greeks, still giddy with pride over the bang-up job they did hosting the Olympics, have gone all out to show that they can create a better Eurovision than anyone else. They forgo kitsch (but not necessarily camp) in offering up an Olympic-size opening-ceremony production number, complete with dancers dressed as dolphins and some 14 nearly naked circuit boys in gold body paint with angel wings riding across the arena over the heads of the audience on a golden globe representing the sun. Understated? No. But who cares? This is the Eurovision.

There's more flying ahead. Studly Greek pop singer Sakis Rouvas flies down to the stage looking like an ancient god in a modern-day leisure suit. And believe it or not, Access Hollywood correspondent Maria Menounos (an American who speaks the language fluently and whose parents are Greek) flies in from the other side to join him, looking entirely too much like a sorority girl wondering just what she did last night to find herself hanging from a wire in the Olympic basketball arena.

We're not the first to notice that the pair looks just like Will and Grace. Unfortunately, we notice that they act all Will and Grace too: He's stiff, even with his satin shirt unbuttoned to his navel. She's ungainly and giggly; just as soon as she figures out this show's not all about her, you can bet she'll create some scene to show that Yes, it really is.

Sakis and his skintight, hip-hugging blue jeans courted the gay vote for Greece at the Eurovision in 2004 with a song called "Shake It." Presumably Eurovision hired Maria to create American interest in the show--Eurovision's producers are in negotiations to bring an American version to NBC as early as next fall. But they might be wishing they hadn't, because while her morning-talk-show-giggle-I'm-just-a-girl persona might play OK at home, it's not going over well here in the Old World.

Greece gets to host the show this year because it won last year. Helena Paparizou, as the reigning queen of Eurovision, comes out to do a sexy reprise of her winning song "My Number One." She's added more dancers to the routine that arguably won her the crown--half of them leaping from the ceiling of the auditorium on bungee cords. That's a lot of stuff crammed into the first 8 1/2 minutes of this show, which races along at a breakneck pace.

Switzerland

Switzerland's instant pop band six4one should have kept with the running theme and descended from the rafters to start the competition portion of the show--now that would have been a good gimmick. Instead, the Swiss decided to hire a six-way multicultural band of mercenary singers from different countries where Eurovision is popular. It's all a shameless, prepackaged ploy for friendly votes, and although the staging makes the group looks like they're doing a promo for an ABC soap, people in the audience start to sing along. That's a good thing, right? Switzerland just wants you and everyone else to know: "If we all give a little / We can make this world a home for everyone."

Norway

Every year a handful of great songs make three minutes seem too darned short. And, sadly, more than a handful of boring, banal, or just plain bad ones make those three minutes seem like an eternity. Just when it seemed like it was going to be a lo-o-ong night, out comes Norway. Christine Guldbransen is stunning, sings beautifully (in Norwegian), and the whole staging is magical. It probably helps that most folks don't know the song is about elves. No, not Legolas or Arwen. But yes, elves. Dancing elves.

Russia

Now it's mullet time; every contest has to have one, it seems. Following the approach that's won the last three contests, Russia has a hired gun named Dima Bilan singing for them. He's young (24), hung (supposedly, he's done some, ahem, modeling), and can actually sing. Mullet aside, he's sexy in a tight singlet and low-rider jeans, and knows how to sell a song on TV. And apparently he's all about culture, because a couple of Bolshoi Ballet-also-ran-erinas suddenly appear on tippy toes behind him--right next to a piano with no player and a bowl of rose petals on it. Still, just as Chekhov demands, the piano is used halfway through: Dima leaps on top and sings to the roses while another ballerina rises slowly through the petals. Both he and the song are good enough that it really sort of works.

Romania

Romania turns the hall into a gay dance palace--except for the unfortunate break-dancers. Keep your ears open for "Tornero" at your next international circuit party or bear run.

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Bosnia & Herzegovina kick off the second half of the show by presenting a beautiful folkloric ballad, one of the gems of this year's contest. Western European countries are all a bit jaded about Eurovision, but the further east you travel in Europe, the more seriously it's taken. Nations emerging from the former Soviet Union are eager to show the West that they are ready for full participation in Europe--and they'll use the Eurovision Song Contest to do that. They proudly present themselves and their traditions on stage. You can usually count on outstanding entries from Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia & Montenegro. For them, doing well at Eurovision is a matter of national pride. The best talents in their music industries compete for the honor of going to the contest. The contest is richer for it.

On the other hand, we're pretty sure that Bulgaria sent the house band from the Sofia Holiday Inn last year. It bombed.

Lithuania

This year Lithuania sends a group of overgrown frat boys who probably dreamed up their entry over a few rounds at the Holiday Inn Vilnius. They take the stage dressed in dark suits (think Huey Lewis and the News), look around, grin mischievously, and start to slyly intone, "We are the winners of Eurovision." And shout, "We are! We are!" And then they repeat that for three minutes.

That's it. The stage act is entertaining enough. But this one couldn't win, could it? Eurovision fans of all persuasions everywhere pray, "Oh, please, God. I hope not." Bad people, however, boo.

The contrasts between the entries from Lithuania and Bosnia & Herzegovina reflect the entire second half of the contest lineup, which seems to be divided between joke entries and submissions of serious folklore. And then there's the grudge-match battle of the superstar divas from Greece, Turkey, and Sweden.

Greece

Greece tosses out the first round in the night's battle of wind machines and multioctave vocal gymnastics. Anna Vissi takes the stage wearing a designer pantsuit dress that just might win her the Barbara Dex award--that's a Belgian singer whose costume choice was...unfortunate. Fans voting online give the award to the worst-dressed performer every year. Not only is Anna Vissi daring enough to wear that dress, she's daring enough to go it alone, sans dancers. It's just her and a force 25-gale wind machine. Or maybe she had dancers and they quit in rehearsal when they saw how she writhes around the stage after she gets wound up. If you're a dancer, you worry about your ankles and your knees, but that Ms. Vissi looks like she gets out of control. She also has a shower of pyrotechnic sparks at the key change. This lady's performance may be the most professional of the night, but her song is missing something, and all the histrionics in the world can't really make up for the blandness.

Finland

Unfortunately for Ms. Vissi, the hard rock-inspired Finnish band Lordi comes up next, because no one's gonna remember her little key change by the time they get through. Suddenly the Eurovision stage is filled with fright-night demons and zombies--and noise. Lordi, like Gwar before them, always appears in monster costume; most people don't know their real faces. Lordi is hella loud when they bellow their heavy metal inspired anthem "Hard Rock Hallelujah." A rumor went around that Lordi was going to have to cancel their pyrotechnic show due to lack of funds. But a heavy metal financier stepped up and donated the fireworks, which probably cost more for one performance than the gross domestic product of some of the other participating nations. Forget the shower of sparks on the key change. Before the monster rockers have finished, the whole stage is on fire.

Ireland

Ireland brings on old-school Eurovision; the nation's seven wins are a Eurovision record, although it won back when the results were based on a jury system rather than on popular vote. In the modern era of televoting Ireland has lost her way. But this year Ireland made it out of the semifinal and is going back to its most successful formula: a ballad sung by an accomplished musician--who, unfortunately, looks like a Muppet. Brian Kennedy is telling us "Every Song Is a Cry for Love," and this one is a cry for votes. Great singer, not so great song, but seasoned pros rarely do badly at Eurovision. Rarely.

Sweden

Put Julie Andrews and Amy Grant into ABBA's drink mixer with a pinch of Kylie Minogue--Swedish superstar Carola is what you'll pour out. What you've got to admire about Carola is that she doesn't know when to quit. Carola will always give you her all. And Carola's "all" includes three force 25-gale wind machines, an onstage costume change, and a troupe of singing flag twirlers. Carola also shows up onstage with Jesus symbols tattooed on her arm in blue glitter body paint. That makes some people nervous, considering her previous association with extremely evangelical Christian factions. But gay guys absolutely adore her, even if we don't completely trust her, because she's fabulous in that freaky-talented way that Celine, Mariah, Whitney, and Wayne Newton all are. We say give people room to grow; enjoy the flag twirling routines and the fireworks, give her the benefit of the doubt--just keep an eye on the glitter.

Armenia

Armenia finishes the show. Armenia's in the contest for the first time this year, and it's done its homework well. While its entry is simple, it's polished yet a bit amateurish. Clearly Armenia is trying hard, though, and in the spirit of Eurovision goodwill, voters tend to reward first-time participants who try hard.

In all 24 songs are sung, whereupon Will and Grace come back to start the voting. Grace tries to cover up the fact that she forgot to learn her lines by shrieking from time to time. (Watch--the producers are going to think twice before hiring another American to host. Mark our words.) At least Grace has mastered the contest's slightly quirky voting system. Basically, callers in each country can make a phone call or send a text message to register a vote; systems are in place to discourage massive voter fraud (in most countries you can vote for a song between one and 20 times). Countries may not vote for themselves. There is a 10-minute window for the voting--that's it.

After the world-class Greek singer Nana Mouskouri (who sang for Luxembourg in 1963) initiates the voting, we are treated to a musical look at 3,000 years of Greek music in this year's halftime show. This program is long, so luckily, we skim over a lot of the 3,000 years. It's a very impressive tribute, but not likely to take on a life of its own the way Ireland's Riverdancing interval act did in 1994.

The reason the show is only at the halfway point is because the votes still have to be delivered. By long-standing Eurovision tradition, every country phones in its votes via a live satellite feed. ("Hello Athens, thank you for a wonderful show. Here are the results of the Andorran televote...") The points are announced in reverse order based on the accumulated votes of that country's callers. The lower-scoring favorites receive one through eight points. The top two marks from each country's televote receive 10 and 12 points, respectively. There are no nine- or 11-point marks.

With so many countries participating, no one song can be the favorite across Europe. In fact, some songs have won Eurovision by being everyone's second- or third-favorite. Other years, it's a sweeping victory, like when Katrina and the Waves gave the United Kingdom her last victory in 1997. Some years it comes down to a handful of votes, like in 1988 when Celine Dion won by one vote for Switzerland; or 1998, when transsexual Dana International won for Israel by two--after trailing in third until the very last votes came in from Macedonia.

The slate of songs in this year's contest was varied, and many songs were high Eurovision quality, so it was a hard contest to predict. We expected a showdown between Greece and Sweden, with the Romanian disco number and Bosnia & Herzegovina's folk ballad running right behind. We also knew Russia would do well. Lithuania gave everyone a good scare as their frat-boy ditty kept pulling in votes (and boos) during the call-in. Sweden's entry wasn't doing as well as we thought it might. But very soon it was clear that all of Europe was ready to shout a "Hard Rock Hallelujah."

The Finish entry handily won with 292 points, a new record. Russia came in second trailing about 50-some points behind. Bosnia & Herzegovina scored one for folk music in third place, Romania came in fourth, and Sweden led the diva race but finished merely fifth overall. Newcomer Armenia got a real A for effort and finished eighth, while just enough people liked Ireland to push her back into a top-10 finish.

The Finns in the audience were grinning so hard one feared they'd hurt themselves. The Finnish people love Eurovision, but they've waited 45 years for this first win. They've earned it. Grace starts whining that she got her hands dirty on the monster makeup when she was handing Lordi their trophy. And she keeps whining. We told you that girl would make a scene.

As Lordi took the stage to perform the traditional victory lap of their song, someone texted us, "This is a slap in the face to all fans of Eurovision."

We could only disagree and reply, "ROCK ON, EUROVISION."


Bootleg versions of many performances can be found on the Web--try searching YouTube.com, especially for Eurovision 2006 lordi and Eurovision 2006 carola. DVDs of both the 2006 semifinal and the final can be preordered now at www.eurovisionshop.tv. The next edition of the Eurovision Song Contest will take place May 10-12, 2007, somewhere in Finland.

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