On Saturday night, all of Europe will have its eyes on Baku, Azerbaijan, a glimmering petro-tropolis on the Caspian Sea. The country is host of the 2012 finals of the Eurovision Song Contest, which, for the uninitiated, is an annual competition that combines the international one-upsmanship and hypernationalism of the Olympics with the musical popularity contest of American Idol and then a veritable Ke$ha-ton of glitter dropped on the whole thing. It is kitsch to its core, and it is wonderful. It broke the careers of ABBA, Celine Dion, France Gall and Gina G and made “Nel blu di pinto di blu” (the song you may know as “Volare”) an instant international classic.
Only 26 countries remain in the competition after two heated semifinals, with the host country of Azerbaijan and the “Big Five” (the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany and Spain) gaining automatic entry to the finals. Here are our picks of who to watch to be the next international cheese-sensation, and who to put your hypothetical bills on. (All odds are based, for reference, on bet365’s numbers, but may not be reflective of current trends.)
Pasha Parfeny – “Lautar” (Moldova)
Moldova is a relatively new country to the competition, and it still never gets enough credit for choosing performers that really bring it. The past two entrants from Moldova have gone the Balkan funk-rock-by-way-of-Gogol-Bordello route and have both been really enjoyable. Although Pavel Parfeny loses points for not adopting Zdob si Zdub’s crazy gnome hat strategy, his brassy party anthem is a crowd-pleaser.
Gréta Salome and Jónsi – “Never Forget” (Iceland)
American viewers will likely be disappointed when they realize the Jónsi involved is not, in fact, the dude from Sigur Rós. Despite the odds being stacked against them, the other Jónsi and his duet partner, Gréta Salome, have created the ultimate bring-on-the-pathos epic love ballad flecked with hints of the Cold Mountain soundtrack, but the whole thing just screams “Eurovision Winner.” The pure pop songwriting prowess and bring-down-the-house ending recall ABBA and the competition’s glory days. This one will be a big hit with the juries and viewers, but a Northern Europe deadlock with Sweden could cause another entry to slip past them.
Can Bonomo – “Love Me Back” (Turkey)
Not sure what the best part of this is. The sea-chanty-by-way-of-Balkan-funk instrumentation, the lyrics ("oh, oh oh/we need a bit of rock and roll") or the video. Or all of it.
Eleftheria Eleftheriou – “Aphrodisiac” (Greece)
The party anthem from Greek singer Eleftheria Eleftheriou (great name) takes a fairly common Eurovision strategy, which is to use scatting or "whoa-oh" type hooks to avoid the language barrier and make the song accessible to all of Europe. It's one of the more summer-y entries, one we could see tourists getting down to in Izmir or Ayia Napa or wherever the kids are going these days. The song was well-received at the semis, so despite the low odds, definitely not wise to count them out yet. "Maniac" and "aphrodisiac" is a pretty good rhyme too, for what it's worth.
Pastora Soler – “Quédate Conmigo (Stay With Me)” (Spain)
The pop star, whose most recent album reached the No. 3 spot on the Spanish charts, has been (jokingly) asked to try not to win the competition by Spanish public broadcasting organization TVE, as the country would face some financial difficulties paying to host the competition the following year, and Soler said in an interview she thinks it would be “impossible to stage the next edition because it costs so much money.”
Soler is a talented singer with a powerful voice, and the entry is better than Spain’s poor-performing effort from last year, but there’s not much to distinguish this from some of the other (and better—or at least more popular) ballads in the competition.
Roman Lob – “Standing Still” (Germany)
I didn’t know the dude from The Fray was German. Just kidding, y’all, it’s Roman Lob, your charming rocker-type entrant from Germany (and the most likely to win American Idol, based on previous trends.) Lob’s got a great adult-alternative radio voice, but it’s the mercenary songwriting talents of recording artist Jamie Cullum and Steve Robson (the latter who co-wrote Rascal Flatts’ “What Hurts The Most”) that give Lob a professional advantage.
Jedward – “Waterline” (Ireland)
Eurovision repeat offenders and X-Factor alumni Jedward are probably the only entrants in the competition to have a paradox named for them and to become an issue of international diplomacy. John and Edward Grimes, the futuristically dressed, mildly creepy twins who, by their powers combined, become Jedward, finished eighth in the competition last year for Ireland with “Lipstick.” This year’s number, “Waterline,” is better, but ultimately, once again, the hopes of a nation will lie squarely upon the shoulders of Europe’s tween fangirls.
Mandinga – “Zalieilah” (Romania)
The combination of Latin pop with traditional Romanian instruments (most notably a Cimpoi, the traditional bagpipe) works, the hook is goofy and fun and the song seems to have a big international following on the YouTubes. It had mixed reviews on first appearance in its home country, but the voters like it, so it should fare well in Baku.
Engelbert Humperdinck – “Love Will Set You Free” (United Kingdom)
The United Kingdom hasn’t been a true powerhouse in Eurovision since the 1990s, when they brought high-performing one-hit wonders like Katrina & The Waves and Gina G (“Ooh, Aah… Just A Little Bit”) to the world stage. In an attempt to return to greatness, they’ve enlisted one-time chart-topping pop veterans for the past couple of years—all-star boy band Blue in 2011 and this year, crooner Engelbert Humperdinck, who once knocked the Beatles themselves off the UK pop charts. The ballad is cheesier than Branson, Missouri, but that tends to actually work pretty well for Eurovision. He could bring in quite a few douze points from the juries.
Nina Zilli – “L’Amore É Femmina (Out Of Love)” (Italy)
After a 13-year hiatus from the competition, Italy came back strong and placed second in Eurovision 2011 thanks to Raphael Gualazzi’s likable jazz-pop number “Madness of Love.” Out of anyone from the “Big Five” (the major Western European nations granted automatic entry into the finals), it’ll be Zilli and this sax-addled, ‘60s girl group-meets-jazz-club number that recalls the early days of Amy Winehouse.
Zeljko Joksimovic – “Love Is Not An Object” (Serbia)
Serbia's entry has really climbed up the ranks in the past few days to become a surprise favorite. It's a ballad, there are strings, the singer is very talented. Overall, a solid entry and one that will go well with the juries. And a ballad won last year—but it was also a ballad in English, and the last three contest winners have all been English-language competitions. Could the choice to perform in Serbian affect his odds with fan voters?
Buranovskiye Babushki – “Party For Everybody” (Russia)
If there’s an upset to be pulled, it will happen here. Eurovision’s ultimate dark horse comes in the form of six delightful grandmothers in traditional Udmurt dress. Buranovskiye Babushki (literally, “The Grannies from Buranovo,” referring to their hometown of less than 700 people in the autonomous Udmurt Republic) delighted audiences at the national qualifiers and semifinals and have quickly become a fan favorite with their catchy bilingual ditty about having the family over for dinner and enjoying the company of loved ones. We’re pretty sure all of Europe at least secretly wants them to win.
As much as viewers love them, though, they may have trouble getting past the national juries, who consider this competition to be Serious Business and will not be mocked by your singing grannies. But, if they win, they’re donating the proceeds to building a church in Buranovo.
Loreen – “Euphoria” (Sweden)
This is the heavy favorite to win it all, and it's clear why. This song (in English), performed by a former contestant on Sweden's Idol competition, could be a massive club hit with or without the competition, with its soaring-diva range chorus reminiscent of Katy Perry's "Firework," wide appeal and hints of Gaga's "Edge of Glory." This is the kind of Eurovision songs that make songwriters and producers foam at the mouths with rage thinking "Why, oh why did I not write this?"