'Idol's' Distant Cousin

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008


It may appear to be just the most silly celebration of pop kitsch ever imagined -- glass-shattering divas, rapid fan clubs, buckets of sequins -- but the annual Eurovision Song Contest is actually a geopolitical battleground where Europe sorts out its complicated feelings about itself, and this year, where a divided, ravaged Serbia chooses its future.

The song competition, the most watched non-sporting show in the world, is a lot like "American Idol," but with passionate, nationalist overtones. It's three times as popular as the American sing-off -- according to the European Broadcasting Union, more than 100 million viewers watched the schmaltzy talent show air live from the Belgrade Arena on Saturday night. The winner: Russia and its dewy-eyed crooner Dima Bilan, who belted out his ham sandwich of a song "Believe," as Olympic figure skater Evgeni Plushenko spun pirouettes around him onstage.

You get the picture. Too much is never enough at Eurovision Song Contest, whose competitors this year include Latvians dressed as singing pirates, a blind balladeer from Georgia, and a Finnish heavy metal band with waxed chests who sang, "Where all the men ride forth/There the sheep cannot graze." It is the World Cup in pumps. The Olympics for Euro-Britneys. It has been called "the gayest show on Earth," and there is a Siegfried and Roy level of showmanship. Thousands of gay and lesbian fans have descended on Belgrade, where the nation's one and only gay pride parade in 2001 ended in a melee after onlookers attacked the marchers.

But to its legions of fans and critics, the show contains levels of deeper meaning. The contest is held in the country of the previous year's winner, and last year the winner was Marija Serifovic, a Serbian songstress who opened the show this year in a gender-bending performance -- she wore a tuxedo while blond dancers, first dressed in bridal gowns, stripped down to their underwear and did the Robot dance.

In the streets of Belgrade, where huge crowds of young people gathered to watch the show on jumbo screens at Revolution Square outside the City Hall, the meaning was obvious. "It is a statement of gay rights, of course, and an appeal for humankind to relax and like one another," said Velimir Sekulic, a university student out with friends. He added, "This is great for a new Serbia."

Serbia under strongman Slobodan Milosevic was considered a pariah state by Europe and then bombed by NATO forces during the Kosovo war, and government buildings around Belgrade are still in ruins. Just three months ago, 150,000 protesters took to the streets to oppose the declaration of independence by neighboring Kosovo, which the Serbs consider their medieval homeland. Several thousand people split off from the main rally to attack the embassies of Western Europe and the United States. The U.S. Embassy was set ablaze.

Then earlier this month, national elections were held, with the vote evenly split between the anti-Europe nationalist right-wing Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, who is currently at the Hague facing a war crimes tribunal, and the pro-Europe Democratic Party led by Serbian President Boris Tadic. Which way will Serbia go? East or West? Alone or integrated with Europe? With neither side having enough seats in Parliament to declare victory, the kingmaker may be Milosevic's old party, the Socialists.

Amid all this fervor came the Eurovision Song Contest, which brought with it not only the overemoting performers with their canned tans, but also 3,000 journalists (many of them from fanzines) and 15,000 visitors, many from Europe. There was not a hotel room to be found over the weekend in Belgrade, a vibrant but gritty capital that is not known as a prime tourist destination. But streets, cafes and nightclubs were filled with outsiders speaking foreign languages, and Belgrade was loudly proclaiming itself "the New York of the Balkans" for the weekend.

"As a social scientist, I'm fascinated by what on the surface seems so frivolous, like the Eurovision Song Contest -- my God! -- and what it means for the future of Serbia. But there is something going on," said Chris Holzen, a director of the International Republican Institute, which does nation building for the U.S. government. "I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that all of Europe coming here, all of Europe watching Belgrade, means something to the Serbs and makes them think a little bit differently about themselves. They might think: Maybe Europe doesn't hate us. Maybe we want to be a part of Europe."

Holzen had just flown to Belgrade from Baghdad (via Amman and Paris) to attend the contest.


"I love it," he said. "I love the political intrigue."

And the costumes. Holzen paid 300 euros (about $475) for a scalped ticket.

"I know," he said. "I'm crazy."

"It is never a dull moment here in Serbia. But I think this is important for us, the Eurovision, because we are not yet a part of Europe, but we are very close, but not there yet," said Vesna Marjanovic, member of the Serb parliament and a leader of the Democratic Party, who needed to wrap up the telephone interview so she could watch the show begin. "The contest is a cultural event, yes, but it has a political significance here. The context is about the elections. It is all about Europe and whether we will be a part."

Beyond the issues of Serbia's future, the talent show is also where new Europe -- the former Eastern Bloc of Soviet satellites -- is vying for the limelight against the cultural dominance of the old established Europe. The past five years have seen Eurovision victory for Serbia, Finland, Greece, Ukraine, Turkey. This has created tensions. Old Europe -- meaning France, Britain, Germany, Spain -- pay most of the costs of the contest and so their performers are guaranteed slots in the finals, but they haven't won the top spot in years.

In the United Kingdom, the show is mostly watched as an object of derision. Or is it? BBC's host of the show, Terry Wogan, complains about an "Iron Curtain" of "bloc voting" among former Soviet countries as the reason why England no longer rules the pop airwaves.

Of the 25 nations appearing in the finals this year, the United Kingdom and its representative, Andy Abraham, came in dead last, alongside Isis Gee, "the Celine Dion of Poland" (the real Celine Dion won Eurovision in 1988, representing Switzerland). Ireland didn't even make it to the finals this year. But then again, Ireland entered a costumed kiddie show host, "Dustin the Turkey," as its representative.

Academic dissertations have been written on the voting patterns of the Eurovision Song Contest. In the old days, panels of judges from each country made the decisions -- which allowed dictator Francisco Franco to allegedly bribe a win for Spain in 1968, according to a new documentary. Now the viewers vote, a la "American Idol," via telephone and text message. The difference is that they cannot vote for their own country. But it is clear that neighbors vote for neighbors. Greece and Cyrpus, for example, often swap votes. So do Turkey and Azerbaijan, the Scandinavian countries, and the Balkans, which many observers say is a positive thing because recent former combatants such as Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia support one another's acts.

As the start of Eurovision this year, controversy focused in France on its entrant, Sebastien Tellier, who sang his song not in French but English, which caused a split in the French cabinet. Tellier pointed out that most international pop music today is sung in English. In fact, 15 of the 25 finalists at Eurovision sang in English, which has become the unofficial language of Europe. And the entire Eurovision show was conducted in English -- sometimes heavily accented but still recognizable. Even one of the Serb hosts, musician Zeljko Joksimovic, was required to take intensive English lessons to perform his duties.

Oh, and the song that won, from Russia, the rising petro-powerhouse to the east? It was sung in English and produced by the American hitmaker and rapper Timbaland.

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