On Tuesday, during the first semifinal of the Eurovision song contest, the Bosnian singers Deen and Dalal stood onstage inside Stockholm’s Globen Arena singing to each other through a barbed-wire fence.
As they crooned about love, a woman in strategically sheer leggings squeezed a cello with her gym-honed legs. She didn’t seem to mind that her gold tinfoil jacket made her look like a rotisserie chicken.
Despite rapturous applause from 14,000 spectators, the act failed to advance to the final, leaving a nation of Eurovision fans mourning.
Two days later, Deen and Dalal’s stage director, Haris Pasovic, told me that the foil jacket represented the blankets given to Syrian refugees landing on the Greek island of Lesbos.
“We wanted to say there is humanity under these blankets,” he said. “We believed that this human element would come across. We don’t know why it hasn’t.”
At Eurovision, whose final will be broadcast live for the first time in the United States on Saturday, much is lost in translation. But everything — a shirtless acrobat spinning around a pole (Slovenia), a hologram of a naked man with a wolf (Belarus), a singer clutching a peach (Italy) — is steeped in meaning.
This is my seventh trip to the Eurovision finals. It’s not just a two-week vacation for me, though. The contest now sets the rhythm of my entire year. National selection contests kick off in the fall, and I travel to interview aspiring pop stars in places as far afield as Moldova, Latvia and Israel for my Eurovision blog. My therapist recently told me that I’m in an abusive relationship with the contest, which she says leaves me “adrenalized” and running off the fumes of televised spectacle.
I was not raised on Eurovision. I’m an American who grew up in Georgia, loving power ballads of perseverance from Whitney and Mariah. School often felt dangerous — I’d come out at 13 — and home life could be even worse. Amid those tensions I developed an affinity for women who took center stage and shouted back at everyone who tried to dim their light.
At 24, I moved to London, where I’ve been for nearly a decade. My British boyfriend — now husband — forced me to watch Eurovision, which I had assumed was a lame version of “American Idol.” But as I soon found out, after a lesbian of Roma descent beat out a Ukrainian drag queen dressed as the Tin Man, Eurovision isn’t just about sweaty starlets and the desperate need for Auto-Tune. It’s live TV on steroids, pumped up even more by a desire to shape one’s national story.
Over the past few years, as the Continent has buckled under the weight of the refugee crisis and Russia’s political posturing has set European Union nations on edge, this wildly camp singing show has served as a barometer of the anxieties of state broadcasters and artists. It’s a safe, eccentric and vast platform to express individualism and political views — even if the rules expressly forbid the latter.
Some people call Eurovision “the gay Olympics.” But a huge gay and lesbian following is just one element of the contest’s fan base, which includes plenty of heterosexuals, who joke that Eurovision has taught them what it means to be on the margins.
Established in 1956, the Eurovision contest sought to unite a continent still recovering from the ravages of World War II. It started as a sober affair with women in ball gowns singing classy chansons.
Over time it loosened up, a process that intensified with the breakup of the Soviet Union. As competitors from fledgling Eastern European states flooded the contest, they raised hemlines, cranked up the wind machines and greatly expanded notions of good taste.
In recent years, Eastern countries have dominated, with Estonia winning in 2001, followed by Latvia, Turkey and Ukraine. Western fans saw their country’s fortunes decline rapidly, perhaps best exemplified by the British act scoring exactly zero points in 2003 — the dreaded “nil points.”
The notion of Europe has continued to expand, and so has Eurovision, which had an audience of roughly 200 million people last year.
Well aware of the exposure the contest provides, artists, state broadcasters, who select the acts in some cases, and nations use it as a way to influence public opinion.
This year France’s state broadcaster sent a French-Israeli singer named Amir, significant in light of growing anti-Semitism and a series of high-profile terrorist attacks.
Russia’s broadcaster also seemed to want to send a message. Perhaps to distance itself from the country’s notorious anti-gay and lesbian laws, the broadcaster chose Sergey Lazarev, who is known for a music video in which he appears well-oiled, shirtless and wearing pink leather pants. During his stage show he flirts with the camera, even when riding an LED iceberg and floating in space.
He is the bookies’ heavy favorite.
One of his greatest challenges could come from Ukraine, which sat out Eurovision 2015 because of the conflict in that country. This year, Ukraine is back, and the public chose Jamala, who belts out an otherworldly song about the forced deportation of Crimean Tartars under Stalin. At the climax she screams for the victims, while a tree of yellow and blue LED lights — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — shoots up from the floor.
As the Russian Mr. Lazarev says in his number: “Thunder and lightning, it’s getting exciting.”
William Lee Adams is the founding editor of the Eurovision site wiwibloggs.