I’m sitting in rehearsals at the Eurovision Song Contest when two Montenegrin men dressed as cosmonauts start rapping in a cloud of smoke. After consulting the English translation in the programme, I’m no longer worried that I don’t speak Montenegrin. “Beat goes crazy in my head, burn down bag, give me a drink. Grill, garlic, parsley and fish, give me all so I can overeat.” I now understand why one of them goes by the name Noyz.
Fast-forward an hour and the production crew wheels a Belarusian woman on to the stage inside an oversized disco ball. She looks relieved when it finally opens. She then shakes her hips – and a barely-there silver costume that stops well north of her knees – and shrieks, “Solayoh, Solayoh, where the sun is always shinin’ on ya / We play-oh, we play-oh to the rhythm of a cha-cha.” I had no idea that Latin music was so big in Belarus.
In the two weeks that I’ve spent in Malmö, Sweden, the host of this year’s contest, I’ve watched 39 of these rehearsals, attended two semi-finals and, later this evening, will stand on the Arena floor through the marathon 3.5-hour finale. I’ve watched an Azerbaijani dancer stand on his head inside a glass box, and endured a Romanian man performing opera to a disco beat. He sings in falsetto and prefers an unshaven look. The end result is that he resembles a bearded lady. More unfortunate, however, was listening to Britain’s Bonnie Tyler rehearse “Believe in Me”, a country music song that might have been popular in the early 1990s – in Nashville. In a competition heavy on the dance music, it’s like bringing bloody sausages to a vegetarian dinner.
The thought of my annual pilgrimage to Eurovision makes plenty of my British friends nauseous. They can’t deal with the kitsch factor and inevitably moan about their ears bleeding. But they miss the point. As an American who moved to London at the age of 24, I find the lunacy of Eurovision irresistible. The mish-mash of cultures – and varying notions of good taste – remains distinctly European, as does the presence of schlager and Turbofolk, esoteric music genres I discovered far too late in life. Drawn into the Eurovision orbit in 2007 – when the Ukrainian drag queen Verka Serduchka lost to a Serb of Romany descent – the songs started to matter less to me than the thrill of the competition itself. In subsequent years I’ve also found people who share my obscure – and severely stigmatised – interest.
As the editor-in-chief of a Eurovision fan blog (wiwibloggs.com), I’m given press accreditation and access to the behind-the-scenes machinations of contestants and their people. The onstage thrusting leaves an impression, but the offstage choreography is even more intense.
“Ninety-five per cent of the outcome is the strength of the performance, but the other 5 per cent is publicity,” says Dariia Partas, the PR co-ordinator of the Ukrainian delegation. “There has to be a story and it has to be everywhere.” In 2011 Ukraine fielded an appalling number that sounded like the soundtrack to a bad telenovela. So she and her team called in Kseniya Simonova, the sand artist whose videos had gone viral on YouTube, to perform on stage during the act. “It took attention off the bad song,” she says. They finished in fourth place.
This year the Ukrainian song is so saccharine it might induce diabetes. But viewers may be too shocked to notice that. As part of her performance, the singer Zlata Ognevich has flown in Igor Vovkovinskiy, the tallest man in the United States, who stands 7ft 8in and lives with gigantism. He carries her on to the stage and, as Ognevich explains, “into the circle of life through the magic forest”. I’m still trying to unpack that, but Vovkovinskiy seems to follow. “The message of the song speaks to me because there are so many challenges in my life that I have had to overcome,” he says.
That’s one way to grab attention. Tying yourself to a political issue is another. In recent weeks Krista Siegfrids – a Finn singing a song called “Marry Me” – courted Eurovision’s gay electorate by coming out in support of gay marriage. “I want ‘Marry Me’ to be a song for everybody,” she says. “I would love for it to be a gay anthem.” That’s convenient, given that her debut album, Ding Dong, dropped on May 10.
Showing off your abs works too. The Azerbaijani contestant Farid Mammadov has made much of his background as a freestyle wrestler and fitness fanatic. He launched an iPhone app on which you can watch his capoeira workout series called Stay Fit with Farid.
Others have played the humanitarian card. The team from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have emphasised that their contestant Esma Redzepova – one of the world’s most famous Romany singers – has fostered 48 children. It’s a miracle she has time to practise her caterwauling.
Most of the aspiring pop stars at Eurovision perspire ambition. A smaller number perspire when they come under attack from journalists at the mandatory press conferences. Alyona Lanskaya, Belarus’s 27-year-old Eurovision starlet, has had to work hard to distance herself from the perceived corruption of her homeland. It didn’t help that she won the right to represent Belarus at last year’s national selection contest, only to have that right revoked after a special committee set up by President Alexander Lukashenko determined that the result was rigged. She re-entered this year and won, and will now get to jump out of her disco ball.
“I don’t know what happened last year,” she told a room of a hundred journalists when pressed on the matter. “It’s very expensive to live in the past.” So she chooses to invest her money elsewhere. Ahead of Eurovision she travelled to Belgium and sent journalists cheeky photos of herself eating waffles covered in whipped cream, and others of her laughing as she stared at a statue of a boy urinating. During her press conference, she passed out gift bags filled with chocolate, gumballs and fudge, each wrapped in paper with her face printed on top. “Don’t eat any of it,” a Dutch blogger whispered to me after putting down an 8in piece of gingerbread that said “ALYONA LANSKAYA” in white frosting. “It’ll turn you into a communist.” Others joked that she chose to wear only silver on stage as a symbol of one-party rule.
Some contestants seem a bit too committed to their talking points. Valentina Monetta, who is billed as “one of the most talented jazz singers in San Marino”, was the laughing stock of Eurovision last year. Wearing a blue leather suit, she sang “The Social Network Song” – with all explicit references to Facebook removed at Eurovision’s insistence, but still with lyrics like “Do you wanna be more than just a friend? Do you wanna play cyber sex again?”
So, in her second straight bid for San Marino, she’s back with a more mature ballad about the life cycle of butterflies and transformation. And she lets you know it. How did you prepare for the contest this year, Valentina? “I learnt to accept myself.” Great, but what did you actually do? “I found myself.” At the start of her number she clutches a spherical lamp. I ask if it’s from Ikea and she isn’t amused. “The brand doesn’t matter,” she says. “It’s the light inside of me.”
And if the Brits won’t tune in en masse to bask in her glow, Monetta can be sure the Swedes will. The nation that produced Abba, the most successful Eurovision winners ever, remains the spiritual homeland of the contest. Last year a whopping 84 per cent of the Swedish TV audience watched the final (only 36 per cent of the British audience did). Even the prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, has admitted publicly that he loves Eurovision (as well as mugs from his favourite musicals). In Malmö this week, he might also have collected a calendar with images of the Russian contestant’s face, and postcards of the Maltese contestant vogueing on a park bench.
He wouldn’t be alone. On the Saturday before the final, crowds of Swedish fans followed the trail of promotional CDs to Slagthuset, a Malmö nightclub where Alyona from Belarus was throwing a party for around a dozen contestants and 500 of her closest friends. Tables were stacked with her chocolates and bonbons. As she crooned “cha-cha” on the small stage at the end of the room, I spotted a rival PR from eastern Europe picking up some fudge. “This adds no value to the entrant,” she said, looking slightly disgusted. “It’s just below the line.” She ate a piece anyway.