The Catchy Songs Of Eurovision Transcend Europe's Divided Politics

Eurovision: Love it, hate it, or have no idea what we're talking about? With tensions high in Ukraine, Russian performers are facing the music at the kitschy singing contest.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What started in 1956 as an effort to try and bring a shattered and divided Europe together around a song contest, has since wielded it the most watched live non-sporting event in the world. It's Eurovision, and the grand finale of kitch is tonight in Denmark. With tensions high between Russia and Ukraine, Europe is again rife with divisions this year. Pyrotechnics and outrageous costumes may not be the solution. On the other hand, maybe they won't hurt. We sent Sidsel Overgaard to find out.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: Since Ukraine is the word of the day, we'll start there.

(SOUNDBITE OF EUROVISION)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Tick-tock - can you hear me go to talk?

OVERGAARD: "Tick-Tock" is kind of classic, as Eurovision entries go. There's the catchy chorus, a wind machine and a backup dancer inexplicably spinning around in a giant hamster wheel. Eurovision fan Renee Caroline (ph) has come to watch the semi-finals on a big screen set up along Copenhagen's famous Walking Street. For her, all of these stage antics add up to one thing.

RENEE CAROLINE: Drinking games.

OVERGAARD: Her husband, Mark Vandinberg (ph), explains.

MARK VANDENBURG: Every time there's a key change, you do drink, and every time there's a wind machine, you do drink. And every time there is someone dressed in white, you do drink.

CAROLINE: This year, they've had the wind machine on, and they haven't turned it off. So we've been drinking the whole time.

VANDENBURG: Yeah.

OVERGAARD: Too bad.

OVERGAARD: These two are here all the way from Australia, but they're watching alongside an enthusiastic crowd of Brits, Hungarians, Irishmen and Norwegians - many of them draped in flags.

VANDENBURG: This may sound so cliche, but it does transcend politics. And it is one of those things where you look around and you see the flags on the screens.

OVERGAARD: Which is nice, except it doesn't actually transcend politics.

GAD YAIR: Second world war, Cold War - it's all there, and you can see it through the Eurovision.

OVERGAARD: Gad Yair, a sociologist from Israel, describes himself as the founding father of Eurovision studies, an interdisciplinary field that's the subject of a conference at the University of Copenhagen this week. In Eurovision, countries award each other points based partly on audience voting. That makes for a lot of data. And almost 20 years ago, Yair became one of the first people to crunch the numbers. What he found was a few distinct voting blocs - countries that tend to support or reject each other year after year - for example, the Nordic block who all vote for each other, that don't always play nice with the Mediterranean countries.

YAIR: And I think that through the Eurovision, you actually get a seismographic control, assessment graph or deeper forces, which look - this is not silly stuff.

KAREN FRICKER: One of the big things in this year's contest is Russia Ukraine. This is the first major international event where that relationship is tested.

OVERGAARD: Karen Fricker is coeditor of a book on Eurovision. She says when Russia's young singing twins performed during the semifinals, they were fairly well received.

(SOUNDBITE OF EUROVISION)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN #2: (Singing) Telling all the world to show some love.

OVERGAARD: But when the hosts announced that Russia had made it through to the finals, the crowd erupted in booing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

FRICKER: I've been going to the contest for 10 years, and I've never heard anything like that. But I think it was both a comment on Russia's current aggressive position towards Ukraine and also because this is a contest very much favored by gay people, by LGBTQ people. Russia's hard line stance against homosexuality has also been something that has been very much talked about this year.

OVERGAARD: Even the political intrigue and cultural commentary, it's easy to forget that Eurovision is just a song contest. But does anyone actually care about the music?

(SOUNDBITE OF EUROVISION)

PETER RASMUSSEN: I've listened to all of the 37 songs a few times. And...

OVERGAARD: Is that ever painful?

RASMUSSEN: Yes, 30 of them is.

OVERGAARD: But this is Peter Rasmussen's job. He's a bookie. And for 16 years, he's been single-handedly trying to pick the winners of Eurovision, with around a million dollars riding on his odds.

RASMUSSEN: I will say I have done my job very good the last years.

OVERGAARD: And Rasmussen says, while politics play a part, his predictions really are based mostly on the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF EUROVISON)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN #3: (Singing) At last I know what I should do, undo...

OVERGAARD: This year he's betting on Sweden which those drinking games Aussies will like, since it includes a key change...

WOMEN #3: (Singing) ...Undo my sad...

OVERGAARD: ...Though no wind machine. For NPR news, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Copenhagen.

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