Rotterdam, Netherlands: The Eurovision Song Contest final returns in Rotterdam on Saturday after a year off, bringing giant angel wings, cheesy lyrics, and a message of hope in the time of coronavirus.
Italy, France, and Malta are the favorites to win a unique version of the love-it or hate-it kitschiest, which is defiantly going ahead in the Dutch port city under pandemic rules.
This year’s theme is “Open Up”, and measures including limited fan numbers and compulsory testing could be a model for events like Euro 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics as the world emerges from lockdown.
Organizers insist that the relentlessly upbeat contest, canceled last year for the first time since it was created 65 years ago to unite war-blighted Europe through song, is more relevant than ever.
“These are times where we are debating each other, fighting a pandemic. Now it’s also time to have some fun,” Eurovision project manager Dave Geensen told AFP this week.
They say the show must go on despite a number of scares, with Iceland ruled out of Saturday’s live show after a band member tested positive, forcing them to take part via a recorded performance instead.
A similar fate has befallen 2019’s Dutch winner Duncan Laurence, who came down with coronavirus symptoms during rehearsals this week.
‘Impatience and joy’
However, the focus during Saturday’s final — one of the world’s most-watched television events with an audience of nearly 200 million people — will be on the music and the flamboyant costumes worn by the 26 finalists.
Italian punk rockers Maneskin are the bookmakers’ favorites, but French chanteuse Barbara Pravi is hoping to end her country’s 44-year losing streak with her song “Voila”.
Often compared to legendary singer Edith Piaf, Pravi said it was “not pressure I feel, it’s impatience and joy”, despite a nation’s hopes for a first win since 1977 riding on her shoulders.
Malta’s 18-year-old sensation Destiny Chukunyere has also attracted attention for her stunning voice and bold wardrobe choices and is third favorite for her song “Je Me Casse” (French for “I’m outta here”).
They will all be performing to an audience of just 3,500 fans who are allowed in the live audience at Rotterdam’s cavernous Ahoy Arena, only around one-fifth of its full capacity.
Audience members will have to wear masks when they move around but not while in their seats.
Performers meanwhile have spent the week in a biosecure bubble and are strictly separated from members of the press and other staff at the venue.
Everyone entering the site must be tested for coronavirus every 48 hours with a rapid breath test — and if that fails to produce a proper result with a nasal PCR swab — with the result linked to their entry pass.
The Dutch government allowed a live audience as part of its FieldLab program, which has also carried out concerts and other events as it tries to open up social life.
Some 3,500 fans were also allowed into each of this week’s two semi-finals, which offered a glimpse of the weird and wonderful offerings in store.
Highlights included Cyprus’ entry “El Diablo” (Spanish for “The Devil”), which has been accused of blasphemy and satanism by the Cyprus Orthodox Church and religious groups.
Russia’s contestant Manizha has angered conservatives with her song “Russian Woman” — even as she wowed audiences with a huge Russian doll-style dress that burst open to reveal the singer in a red boiler suit.
“I’ve hit a nerve,” the Tajik-born refugee and feminist activist told AFP in March.
Norway’s contestant Tix, who took to the stage in huge white angel wings, takes his stage name from the tics that he suffers as a result of having Tourette’s Syndrome.
And tiny San Marino pulled off one of the surprises of the competition with a cameo from US rapper Flo Rida, helping them qualify from Thursday’s second semi-final.
At the other end of the scale, Spain and Germany look set to battle it out to avoid the dreaded “nul points” — when countries fall foul of good taste and national rivalries and end up without scoring.