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Culture

Eurovision Song Contest: Europe's Cultural Carnival

The world's largest music event takes place in Belgrade on Saturday, May 24, as participants from 43 nations compete for the Eurovision title in all their outlandish and freakish glory.

Latvia's Pirates of the Sea wearing pirate costumes

Latvia's Pirates of the Sea are a long shot, though they have that old-school Eurovision feel

Critics of the current state of the Eurovision Song Contest think there's only one thing left to do.

"The best thing would be to abolish it," said one anonymous observer. "It's turned into a complete joke. The songs are horrible and neighboring countries just vote for each other."

Gone are the good old days, when English was not the lingua franca and the contest still went by Grand Prix de la Chanson d'Eurovision -- the days, when the competition was all about composers and songwriters and less about scurrilities and costumes.

Swiss glamour

Lys Assia

Still elegant: Lys Assia

The first Eurovision took place in the Swiss town of Lugano in 1956. Switzerland's glamorous Lys Assia kept the trophy in the country. Back then, only seven countries participated in the event, which began turning into a major event by the late 1960s.

It's even turned into a political nightmare from time to time -- as was the case of the Spanish victory in 1968 while dictator Franco was still in power. To this day, singer Massiel, who is actually called Maria de los Angeles Santamaria Espinosa, remains a hero in her country -- after all, she snapped away the prize from Britain's Cliff Richards.

The authors of a Spanish documentary recently suggested that Franco might have helped with a bit of manipulation. While there's no proof for such allegations, Eurovision's voting system remains controversial as countries seem to forget about the larger European idea when it comes to picking their favorite.

Nasty nepotism

Neighboring countries shower each other with points -- especially those of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact as well as the new states of the former Yugoslavia, who seem to have forgotten -- at least as far as the contest is concerned -- that they were fighting wars with each other until recently.

Eurovision officials have been trying to deal with the problem by introducing new rules: This year, two semi-finals, held on the Tuesday and Thursday before the final, were meant to prevent block voting by separating neighbors.

Nicole with a white guitar

A white guitar and sparkly dress was all Nicole needed

After all, it's meant to be a peaceful contest and only peace can lead to victory -- as Germany's sole winner, Nicole, can attest. In 1982, she made Germans proud by winning with "A little bit of peace."

But the only real hit song to emerge from the competition is Swedish group ABBA's "Waterloo" in 1979. It jumpstarted the group's ascent to world stardom -- a feat no other Eurovision participant has managed to replicate so far.

Grandmas and loincloths

The main reason for Eurovision's metamorphosis into a bizarre festival of outrageous performers was a decision to end the tradition of having expert juries from each country vote for the winners. Instead the process was opened up to the entire population via voting over the phone.

Ukraine's Ruslana performing at Eurovision 2004

A loincloth helped Ukraine's Ruslana win in 2004

On the one hand, the switch led to a boost in viewer ratings. On the other hand, it brought an end to clean-cut pretty ladies and handsome young fellows singing lovely songs. They were replaced by men dressed as female flight attendants, grandmothers with drums, wild dancers in leather loincloths and grizzly monster rockers from Finland.

This year won't be that different: The roaring Finns are back, France may commit a major faux pas by singing in English, and Ireland is sending a turkey doll.

The secret of success

Will this be the Eurovision status quo from here to eternity? Maybe not: Last year's winner, Serbia's Marija Serifovic, was quite normal when compared to the freaky rest.

Unfortunately, there's no secret to success, and Germany, for one, has been trying for decades to break the spell of being relegated to the lower ranks year after year. Last year, some people suggested Germany should ask acclaimed writer Botho Strauss to take care of the lyrics and find some suburban transsexuals who would yell abuse at the Balkan states.

The Germans nixed that idea and are sending girl group "No Angels" to Belgrade. Their song's called "Disappear" -- not exactly an optimistic title, but maybe it'll just do the trick.

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