Forget the Grammys or the VMAs: The Eurovision Song Contest has always been one of the most drama-filled musical spectacles of the year. But with numerous boycott calls, a ticket sales controversy and a geopolitical dispute, this month’s competition, beginning May 14 in Tel Aviv, has been even more extra than usual — which makes it a perfect opportunity for stateside pop-music devotees vaguely familiar with it to finally dive in and get serious.
Besides, the 64th annual campfest is set to be just as entertaining onstage as it’s been behind the scenes. From a surprise Hot 100 artist entering the ring to a guest appearance from the most iconic female pop artist of all time to some actually great music by artists you’ve never heard of, here’s why you should pay attention to this year’s festivities.
1. There’s no shortage of out-there entries.
Let’s face it: Many of Eurovision’s casual viewers will just be tuning in to see the kind of WTF entries that have long been a reliable presence in the competition, and this year’s field doesn’t disappoint. Iceland’s Hatari are a BDSM-clad trio whose aggressive techno-punk-gothic pop banger “Hatrið mun sigra” makes masked Finnish metallers Lordi appear about as threatening as The Wiggles. Norwegian act Keiino’s “Spirit in the Sky” initially sounds like a straight-forward slice of soaring Scandi-pop until a bald man suddenly bursts into a form of traditional Nordic chanting called joik. And Portugal is maintaining its reputation as Eurovision’s most avant-garde nation with Conan Osíris and “Telemóveis,” a bewildering but strangely hypnotic mix of folk music, baile funk and mobile-phone metaphors performed in the manner of a deranged shamanic ritual.
2. There’s a Hot 100 hitmaker competing.
Nicki French, Bonnie Tyler, Engelbert Humperdinck — several performers with Billboard Hot 100 hits under their belt have graced the Eurovision stage this century. However, most have entered in a failed attempt to restore the U.K. to its former competition glory. But in 2019, one of the few Finnish acts to have achieved success in the States will be competing on behalf of his homeland. Darude’s trance instrumental “Sandstorm” peaked at No. 83 back in 2000 and has found seemingly eternal life as a sports anthem and internet meme. Sadly, the forgettable dance-pop of “Look Away” lacks any of the spark of the DJ’s breakout smash, and without the star name behind it would probably struggle to even qualify from the semis.
3. North American artists are joining in on the fun.
While Eurovision isn’t a huge deal in North America, it does have its dedicated fans — and they don’t come much more dedicated than Ashley Haynes. A member of Swedish performer John Lundvik’s backing group The Mamas, the vocalist quit her job in Washington, D.C., earlier this year in order to make the country’s national selection process (known as Melodifestivalen) and now intends to spend the next six months living in Sweden. North American performers will show up elsewhere, too: Greece will be represented by Canadian-born singer Katerine Duska, and Romania’s Ester Peony spent four years growing up in Montreal. Of course, it’s one of America’s all-time greatest musical exports that will grab most of the headlines, as Madonna will follow in the footsteps of Justin Timberlake and perform both an oldie-but-a-goodie hit and a track from her forthcoming album, Madame X, during an interval slot in the finale. Sadly, U.S. fans will have to find a new way of tuning in: Logo TV, broadcasters of the contest since 2016, have decided against screening this year’s final.
4. A few familiar faces are returning.
No less than five of this year’s performers have already graced the Eurovision stage in previous years. There’s San Marino’s Serhat (who placed 12th in the 2016 semi-final), Hungary’s Joci Pápai (8th in the 2017 final), Serbia’s Nevena Božović (11th in the 2013 semi-final as a member of Moje 3) and North Macedonia’s Tamara Todevska (10th in the 2008 semi-final with Vrčak & Adrian). But the most high-profile returnee is undoubtedly Russia’s Sergey Lazarev, the former boyband pin-up who finished third in 2016 with a memorable performance of “You Are the Only One” that combined ridiculously overblown Euro-pop with impressive CGI visuals. The 36-year-old is expected to place similarly high with “Scream,” even if the bombastic ballad is nowhere near as much fun as his previous Eurovision appearances.
5. You might discover some cooler-than-cool new jams.
Whereas Lazarev’s old-school wailing is unlikely to convert any Eurovision sceptics, several other entries are proving that the contest can move with the times. Italian Mahmood’s autobiographical “Soldi” has become this year’s most-streamed Spotify entry thanks to an in-vogue trap sound, while Azerbaijan is bouncing back from last year’s poor showing — Aisel’s “X My Heart” was the country’s first non-qualifier since it entered Eurovision in 2008 — with Chingiz’s “Truth,” a falsetto-heavy synth-pop affair that recalls Sam Smith’s collaborations with Disclosure. But this year’s ultimate cooler-than-cool entry belongs to Slovenia’s Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl, a boyfriend-girlfriend duo whose hushed and refreshingly subtle brand of electronica has drawn comparisons to Mercury Prize winners The xx.
6. The location is making international headlines.
Following Israeli singer Netta’s chicken-clucking victory in 2018, this year’s Eurovision will be staged at the Expo Tel Aviv in Israel, a location that has inevitably sparked something of a geopolitical row due to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, several Eurovision-related performances, including France’s second semi-final show, have already been disrupted by protestors demanding a boycott of the event. And many members of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – a global movement designed to pressure Israel over its treatment of Palestinians – have also urged the withdrawal of various countries. So far, those calls appear to have been unsuccessful: The only two countries to have pulled out of the competition this year did so because of financial reasons (Bulgaria) and a major squabble between artist and broadcaster (Ukraine).
7. It’ll spotlight some trailblazing talent.
From transgender diva Dana International to bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst — both of whom will be making appearances this year — Eurovision is known for featuring artists who break down gender barriers. This year’s trailblazer comes in the form of Bilal Hassani, a French-Moroccan gender-fluid YouTube star renowned for his striking blond wigs, dazzling sequinned epaulets and defiant attitude (“You put me in a box/ Want me to be like you/ I don’t follow the codes,” goes the lyrics from his bilingual entry, “Roi”). Sadly, Hassani, who found fame in France performing Wurst’s winner “Rise Like a Phoenix” on The Voice Kids, doesn’t sound as intriguing as his backstory — “Roi” is a fairly nondescript power ballad that has little shot at winning.
8. The elaborate staging puts your average competition show to shame.
It’s difficult to see anything surpassing the charm of last year’s Moldova entry, which saw DoReDoS pay tribute to the 1960s variety show. But if the performances in the live finals echo those of the national selection performances, then you should still expect to see more than enough extravagant staging and costumes, particularly with the songs that may otherwise struggle to hold your attention. Denmark’s “Love Is Forever,” a twee folk ditty more suited to a schmaltzy dating site commercial, is performed by Leonora on a super-sized chair. Croatia’s Roko sports a giant pair of angel wings as he wails his way through the histrionic balladry of “The Dream.” And Kate Miller-Heidke will warble Australia’s bizarre EDM-opera hybrid “Zero Gravity” in a towering sparkly dress as a woman in black swings above her on a bendy pole.
9. The Netherlands might end their decades-long dry spell.
Only one of this year’s performers was alive the last time the Netherlands won Eurovision: San Marino’s 54-year-old Serhat. Back then, in 1975, Teach-In brought victory home with “Ding-a-Dong,” an impossibly upbeat sing-a-long blatantly inspired by then-reigning champions ABBA. Yet the song that could give the Dutch a long-overdue fifth win is a slightly moodier affair. With its echoey guitars, emphatic drums and explosive chorus, Duncan Laurence’s “Arcade” sits somewhere between the melancholic indie of early Coldplay and the dramatic stadium-pop of Imagine Dragons. Germany and Austria have both proved this decade that it is possible to emerge from the Eurovision wilderness, and with “Arcade” being a bookmakers’ favorite (just ahead of Russia, Switzerland and Sweden), chances are the contest could be heading for Amsterdam in 2020.
10. A few dark horses could shake up the competition.
Although the results of Eurovision are often fairly predictable, a few dark horses have occasionally threatened to cause an upset. Consider Cesár Simpson’s Austrian entry in 2018 or Moldova’s sax-wielding Sunstroke Project the year previously, both of whom were initially dismissed as rank outsiders in the betting odds but ended up finishing third. Those tracks which so far appear to have flown under the radar but could very well defy expectations include the bouncy Maroon 5-esque stylings of the Czech Republic’s Lake Malawi, the bewitching dark-pop of Armenia’s Srbuk and the summery Latin rumba of Miki, who’s provided Spain with its best entry in years. And there’s always a song that sounds destined for last place but unfathomably ends up scoring multiple douze points.