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Lights! Camera! Factions! Your Eurovision Song Contest 2021 Cheat Sheet

Norway's TIX (Andreas Haukeland) performs during the Eurovision Song Contest dress rehearsal in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos
Getty Images
Norway's TIX (Andreas Haukeland) performs during the Eurovision Song Contest dress rehearsal in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

This Saturday, May 22, on or around 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, you may sense a diffuse but palpable shift in the global marketplace of finite resources. At that time, vast stockpiles of sequins, lasers, dry ice and fireworks scattered around the world will dry up spontaneously—only to reappear all at once, en masse, on a stage in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Yep: It's Eurovision time.

The Eurovision Song Contest pits 26 European nations — and sometimes Australia (long story) — against one another in a three-hour display of pure, exuberant, insanely catchy and/or just plainly insane songs, painstakingly engineered by teams of professionals to worm their way into the ears and hearts of an audience numbering in the hundreds of millions.

Each song clocks in at three minutes in length, and tends to slot into one of three categories:

1. Bops Up-tempo, egregiously catchy tunes made for the darkest, sweatiest, stickiest dancefloor in, say, Ibiza. Generally involve backup dancers who haven't had a carb since the London Olympics.

2. Anthems Stirring, bombastic, heedlessly over-the-top barn-burners about not giving up, or standing up, or looking up, possibly. Something with "up," anyway. Dance moves, if any, are scaled way way back in favor of posing defiantly.

3. Ballads Slow, emotional, achingly sincere. No dancing, no backup dancers, just the performer planting their feet and emoting their guts out in front of a light show that bathes them in (usually) the Purple Glow of Performative Melancholy.

Eurovision took 2020 off, as you can imagine, but it's back with a glittery, splendiferous vengeance this year. Two semi-finals on Tuesday and Thursday eliminated 13 countries; 26 remain for the Grand Finale, which will take place on Saturday.

What's new and important, however, is that this year, U.S. viewers will be able to watch the Eurovision finale live, more easily than ever. In the past, the only way us Yanks could take part in the global phenomenon along with the rest of the world was by setting up a VPN (ask your kids), logging onto a Swedish livestream or hopping on a plane to Europe. (Logo got the rights to broadcast it live in 2018, and in 2019 Netflix acquired the finale, but only made it available two months later.)

This year, Americans will be able to watch the Eurovision Song Contest live on Peacock.

Ukraine's Go_A performs during the Eurovision Song Contest dress rehearsal in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images
Getty Images
Ukraine's Go_A performs during the Eurovision Song Contest dress rehearsal in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

It was a rushed, last-minute announcement — the press release only went out on Monday — and while it may seem random, it does make a kind of cosmic sense. Eurovision, in all its blithe, campy, ostrich-feathered excess, has long been dubbed the Gay Olympics, and when it comes to streaming services, "Peacock" is the one with the queerest name, you gotta admit.

Having the live — and on-demand — Eurovision finale so easily available in the U.S. is great, but it's not perfect. Both of the semi-finals that aired on Peacock earlier this week were plagued by audio delays that got progressively worse as the show went on. This is likely to happen in the grand finale as well.

But that's a quibble. Given that Eurovision has as at least as much to do with how a song gets staged (lasers, dry ice, background animation, fire — lots of fire) as with what the song, you know, sounds like, you'll likely forgive the out-of-sync audio.

We inveterate Eurovision fans who've been watching for years tend not to care overmuch about such delays and technical glitches. We're used to it. The last hour of every Eurovision finale broadcast is all about the voting, as the onstage hosts chat in turn with representatives of each participating country on a kind of endless Zoom call from Hell. The various countries cast their votes, which are added to popular vote. It takes forever and it's hilariously awkward and it's basically the Miss Universe pageant plus math — but it's the price we only too happily pay for the high fabulousness that is Eurovision.

Here's a cheat sheet for the 26 songs in competition this year. I'll make some highly opinionated picks, but be warned: My tastes run to the bops, the dancefloor bangers that, as I am reliably informed the kids say, slap. That's why the 2019 winner, "Arcade," from the Netherlands, snuck up on me. I was certain it was far too much of a downbeat dirge to win. I was wrong. It's since gone global platinum, selling over a billion copies. I was... spectacularly wrong.

Albania — "Karma" by Anxhela Peristeri

Sequins? Check. Dry ice? Check. Wind machine? Check. This hits all the necessary, weirdly dutiful Eurovision beats, but doesn't manage to individuate itself.

Azerbaijan – "Mata Hari" by Efendi

Fun staging, catchy as hell, but I worry it lacks that certain demented Eurovision spark that'd put it over the top.

Belgium – "The Wrong Place" by Hooverphonic

Hooverphonic enjoyed a moment in the States in the late '90s (I am off-book on their "Club Montelpulciano," should it ever come to that), so it's great to see/hear them looking/sounding great. They seem a little too... adult-formula to fit Eurovision's whole coked-up puppy-chow vibe, shall we say. Would love to be proven wrong, and their name recognition might serve them well.

Bulgaria – "Growing Up Is Getting Old" by Victoria

The falling sand is hilariously on the nose, in a song about time passing. But Eurovision gonna Eurovision, and I love it for that. I find this song a bit of a slog, but then, I thought "Arcade" was a non-starter, too. See above, in re: My wrongness.

Cyprus – "El Diablo" by Elena Tsagrinou

Some Christian groups found this insanely catchy number's lyrics offensive. So, one imagines, did Lady Gaga's legal team. I kid, I kid! But the staging's fun and athletic. It's certainly got earworm potential, which might take it far.

Finland – "Dark Side" by Blind Channel

There's always one: Every year, a psuedo-metal band makes it to the Eurovision finals. These guys are more pop-punk than anything else, but they're certainly harder than the rest of their competitors. Not my thing, personally, but maybe it's yours. On the semi-finals show they held up a handwritten "PLAY JA JA DING-DONG!" sign, so I guess I love them?

France – "Voilà" by Barbara Pravi

If Edith Piaf was given to black lace bustiers, you'd begin to approach this super-hyper-mega-uber-French entry. I have no idea how well it'll do, but it is very much of itself, and that's to be commended.

Germany's Jendrik Sigwart (L) performs during the Eurovision Song Contest dress rehearsal in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images
Getty Images
Germany's Jendrik Sigwart (L) performs during the Eurovision Song Contest dress rehearsal in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Germany – "I Don't Feel Hate" by Jendrik

Oof. If the glitter-bedecked ukelele weren't enough of a tipoff, this is... twee. So twee, howwibly twee. So twee you could head off into the fowwest, cut it down and count its wings to detewmine its age. (This feels like a good place to point out that the "Big Five" — U.K., France, Spain, Germany and Italy — are always guaranteed a spot in the Eurovision final.)

Greece – "Last Dance" by Stefania

Quintessential Eurovision. Starts slow and bombastic, then breaks out into a dance party. Features Stefania in a glorious purple sequined superhero outfit, and backup dancers who are literally (thanks to greenscreen effects) invisible, which is every diva's dream. Pure Kylie. Whether or not it wins Eurovision (and it probably won't, as it's not quite distinctive enough), it will be the song that thousands, nay, tens of thousands of drunk gay men will stumble to the DJ booth to request this summer.

Iceland – "10 Years" by Daði og Gagnamagnið

This band was heavily favorited to win last year, before the competition was cancelled. This is hugely charismatic, fun pop purity. The song's a celebration of a 10-year marriage, which you have to admit isn't a common topic for pop music. "How does it keep getting better?" Aw. What the staging lacks in athleticism, it makes up for in charm. Never discount the power of matching sweaters, which are doing some heavy lifting here. Could win. Which would be interesting, as the band won't be performing live in Rotterdam after one member tested positive for COVID-19; rehearsal footage will be aired instead.

Israel – "Set Me Free" by Eden Alene

Impossible to know how recent events will impact Israel's chances in this resolutely silly, substance-free song competition. The song in question is bouncy, athletic, infectious. Wait for the whistle tones at the end, which the singer, rightly, seems to delight in. Note also the shiny tassels hanging from her backup dancer's waists, which we have no choice but to officially refer to as "disco tzitzit." I don't make the rules, people.

Italy – "Zitti E Buoni" by Maneskin

Hard-edged (for Eurovision, anyway) Italian rock that, for all its light-metal (tin? copper?) trappings, boasts a strong, infectious melody. The glam-rock touches in the staging can't hurt. They're considered the odds-on favorite to win it all, which: Sure, I guess? If that's your thing?

Lithuania – "Discotheque" by The Roop

Goofy, sure. But knowingly, winkingly so. And in Eurovision, goofy's a feature, not a bug. I can see this going all the way, or coming very close. Melody and beat's a bit basic, but the performers are charismatic. And, as my Eurovision superfan friend Andrew points out, the dance moves are made for Tik Tok.

Malta – "Je Me Casse" by Destiny

She's a belter, and a hugely joyous, magnetic one. Great vocals, and she's inhabiting the song — acting it — in a way Lizzo would either appreciate or litigate. A personal favorite.

Moldova – "Sugar" by Natalia Gordienko

Some pitchy vocals in the semi-finals didn't keep this song from qualifying for the final, so who the hell knows. Backup dancers always do more work than the singer — that's pretty much the job description — but it's particularly noticeable here.

Netherlands – "Birth of a New Age" by Jeangu Macrooy

That rarest of Eurovision entries — a danceable anthem. Macrooy is native to Suriname, which only shook off Dutch colonial rule as recently as 1975. The fact that some of the song's lyrics are in Sranan Tongo, Suriname's lingua franca, adds to the song's simple, implacable power.

Norway – "Fallen Angel" by Tix

He's a fallen angel, see, so he's got these wings, and he's chained to horned demons or whatever. This hilariously on-the-nose staging qualifies as "Eurovision Subtle."

Portugal – "Love is On My Side" by The Black Mamba

Snooooooooze. Bathroom break. Drink refill.

Russia – "Russian Woman" by Manizha

A woman-power anthem that's garnered some controversy back in Mother Russia. The Tajikstan-born Manizha's activism — she's tackled domestic abuse and body shaming, and is a vocal supporter of the LGBTQ+ community — is laced with biting humor, as in this clever staging.

San Marino's Senhit (L) and US rapper Flo Rida perform during the Eurovision Song Contest dress rehearsal in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Sander Koning / ANP/AFP via Getty Images
ANP/AFP via Getty Images
San Marino's Senhit (L) and US rapper Flo Rida perform during the Eurovision Song Contest dress rehearsal in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

San Marino – "Adrenalina" by Senhit(feat. Flo Rida)

Yes, that Flo Rida. Joyous, exuberant, bracing, thrilling, I'm running out of words to say I love this. (Shout out to the backup dancers' costumes, which make nothing in the way of sense, in exactly the way they need to.) I would love to see this take it all.

Serbia – "Loco" by Hurricane

Everything about Eurovision gives off drag vibes, but this entry, featuring a Serbian girl group with tight choreo, thigh boots and big hair (a blonde, brunette and redhead, so it's like Pussycat Dolls by way of Powerpuff Girls) is particularly fierce and fabulous. The song isn't particularly memorable, though. If that matters.

Spain — "Voy A Quedarme" by Blas Cantó

Dedicated to Canto's grandmother, who died from coronavirus. She deserved a more interesting song, sad to say.

Sweden – "Voices" by Tusse

Tusse's a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who's huge in Sweden, having won Swedish Idol a couple years back. The Swedes have evinced a predilection for American-gospel-inflected pop these last couple Eurovisions (shout out to John Lundvik's "Too Late for Love," which didn't win, but has earned a permanent spot in my workout mix). Rousing, but maybe not quite enough to distinguish it from the pack.

Switzerland—"Tout L'Univers" by Gjon's Tears

I'm not feeling this, personally, but it sounds an awful lot like "Arcade," so maybe I'm holding that against it. Can't help but think the intentionally jarring camerawork of the staging will work against it in the popular vote, at least.

Ukraine – "Shum" by Go_A

It's a bit severe and off-putting on first listen — which is very much not your usual Eurovision vibe — but repeated exposure breeds a fascination that's since grown into love. The weirdness! The ring lights! The dancing! The hot recorder guy! The driving tempo might take this far.

United Kingdom – "Embers" by James Newman

The backup dancers are doing the heavy lifting, here, which is never a good sign. But Newman has got a face you can't help but root for, which might factor into the equation in some strange, impossible to predict way.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.