L'Idol Ancien: Europe's Long-Running Singing Contest

Belgrade hosts the 53rd edition of the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest this Saturday. Serbia won the rights to host the competition after Marija Serifovic, from Serbia, came away with the top prize last year.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

Forget David and David, and all those American Idol kids. Do not bother with America's Top whatever it is this week. The original embarrassing reality contest show is back for its 53rd year. I'm referring to the Eurovision Song Contest. Don't get too excited here. In 1955, it seemed like a pretty good idea. Each European country would perform one song, and the results would be transmitted simultaneously in all nations. Remember they were coming out of war in this time, they were looking for a way to unite. They thought the song contest would result in peace and harmony, and what they got was this little ditty.

(Soundbite of song "Waterloo")

ABBA (Band): (Singing) Waterloo, couldn't escape if I wanted to, Waterloo, know that my fate is to be with you.

SMITH: I don't need to tell you, that is "Waterloo" by ABBA.

PESCA: So it worked, they got their harmony.

SMITH: They got it. Eurovision song champions 1974, and you know there has been barely a conflict in Europe since that song was released in '74. Well Serbia is hosting the 2008 Eurovision finals this Saturday, I think we can get ABBA out of here, and my head. BBC reporter Fiona Pryor is on the phone with us from Belgrade. Fiona, welcome.

Ms. FIONA PRYOR (BBC, Reporter): Hello.

SMITH: You sound like you're in Belgrade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PRYOR: Is there a bit of a delay? I'm actually in the Eurocafe at the moment in Belgrade, which is - all the fans are actually taking part in the Eurovison Convention.

SMITH: Wow. Is this the kind of assignment that a reporter dreams of, to cover this universal harmony of peace and love and music? Or did you draw the short straw?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PRYOR: Well, I've never done it before, but I was told by all my colleagues in the office that it's great fun, and I have to say that since I've been here it has been brilliant. The fans, I've never seen anything like it. I don't think they'll mind me saying too much, but they are a bit mad. They are really nice, and they are so fanatical. It's really like one big Eurovision family here actually. It's lovely.

SMITH: Well give us the quick basics of how this competition works. I'll say we haven't been paying a lot of attention here in the United States. So each country presents - each country gets one song, and then ever country gets to vote, how does that work?

Ms. PRYOR: OK, well there are two semifinals this year, which is very unusual, it's the first time they've done it this year. And each country votes can vote on other countries' songs, but you can't vote for your own. So yes, that's how it works really. Last night was a semifinal, let's have a look. Basically there's the big four, France, Germany, Spain and the UK they all go automatically to the finals, because they put a lot of money into the pot. And then there's the host country, Serbia which also goes through, and then we've got the two semifinals to determine the other finalists. All together there are 25 finalists who will be performing on Saturday night. Well let's hear one song. This is Andy Abraham, and he represents the UK, and this song is called "Even If."

(Soundbite of song "Even If")

Mr. ANDY ABRAHAM (Singer): (Singing) You're keeping me fascinated. Know I'm running all over town. I feel so intoxicated. I'm struggling to keep my feet on the ground. I'm not playing, girl. This ain't no game at all. And for the first time I'm not looking for love.

SMITH: That's Andy Abraham, representing the UK in the Eurovision song contest. Now this guy is a former garbage man? Will he be in the finals?

Ms. PRYOR: Yes, yes he will. The UK automatically goes through. I met him last week. Yes, he is a former bin man. He won a reality TV show over here called the X Factor, Simon Cowell is behind that. I think you guys are familiar with his work. And he is a very, very talented guy. He is lovely. He is very relaxed about the final, I have to say, but unfortunately there are a lot of people out here that are saying it's not necessarily a very Eurovisioney song. A lot of people have said to me, he's probably one of the most talented artists to take part this year, but the song, I don't know whether it's Euro-pop.

SMITH: Well what does that mean, it's not a Eurovision-type song? It's too talented, it's too good?

Ms. PRYOR: Well, kind of, yes. I mean, most songs have a lot of gimmicks, Dustin the turkey being one of them, unfortunately that got dropped the other night. But yes, most of the Euro-pop songs, you know, a lot of people have been saying, strong key changes, when a song literally changes key, they love that out here. Whenever a song changes key, they stand up and go crazy. A heavy, kind of, Euro-pop trash is just anything with lots of different music, and something you can really get your foot tapping to.

SMITH: Well you mentioned Dustin the turkey...

PESCA: She did mention Dustin the turkey, I couldn't help hearing this.

SMITH: Perhaps the countries are not taking this fully seriously. He is a puppet, and let's hear a little bit of Dustin the turkey. Can we hear Dustin?

Unidentified Puppeteer: (As Dustin the Turkey) (Singing) Oh Europe, where oh where, did it all go wrong? Come on.

SMITH: That was Dustin the turkey, wow, he makes the Pogues sound good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: He has more teeth than Shane.

SMITH: So explain to us, he's out of the contest, but does it show that some countries do not take this as seriously as they should?

Ms. PRYOR: Well, I think really the main thing to remember is the UK generally don't do very well in the Eurovision Song Contest. Last year we got no points whatsoever. So generally in the UK it's seen as a little bit of a joke. However, the fans here, all fans from all different countries, they take it very, very seriously. And generally the feeling was out here that Dustin the turkey should never have been put forward to the competition. I don't know if it's wrong for me to say, I actually quite liked it. I wasn't too sure about the puppet, but the song itself was great, I really enjoyed that. But many people out here hated it.

SMITH: Well are there some countries that get totally into this? Can you say that there's sort of one European country who gives its all, who will all be glued to the television this weekend?

Ms. PRYOR: Well, I think Serbia, actually, are taking it very seriously. All the people I've spoken are here, all the locals, they think they can do it again. And I think Sweden as well. Yesterday I went to the semifinal rehearsal, I mean, it's only a rehearsal, and there were lots and lots of fans in the front row with flags and T-shirts saying Team Sweden on the back, so they are actually taking it very, very seriously.

SMITH: OK, Fiona, time for you to place your bets on live radio. Who will win this competition? We can't wait.

Ms. PRYOR: Oh my goodness! Well, I love the Georgia song. It's sung by a blind lady, and towards the end of the act, there's a bit of magic. This is someone who is impressed by a rabbit being pulled out of a hat, but that really does impress me. But one of my colleagues back in London has spent weeks compiling a BBC poll with fans all over Europe, and Sweden has come up top. There's an impressive key change, I've already mention that, which everyone loves, and...

PESCA: That's the key!

Ms. PRYOR: A very, very strong finish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Well, we'll see how the predictions go, 'cause I think we'll all be glued to it. Is it on TV here? I don't think it is. But maybe on the internet we could find out what happens. All right...

PESCA: Go Turkey!

Ms. PRYOR: Yes.

SMITH: The Eurovision final takes place this Saturday. BBC reporter, Fiona Pryor speaking from Belgrade. Thanks, Fiona.

Ms. PRYOR: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: And we at the Bryant Park, could execute a key change of our own by going from human speech to just a pure drilling format, which you may be hearing in the background.

SMITH: Oh, I thought that was me. I thought I was just hungry, but...

PESCA: No, actually...

SMITH: There is...

PESCA: I think they had to drill...

SMITH: Yes. Our entire studio is shaking.

PESCA: NPR decided to debut their all-drilling, all the time, you give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the drill, format.

SMITH: "The Drill" is a great name for the show.

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