Eurovision blows away Europe blues
Watched by tens of millions live on television, Europe's pop music extravaganza the Eurovision Song Contest kicked off on Saturday in characteristic flamboyant fashion.
Before the first of the 25 finalists took the stage in Duesseldorf, Germany, hosts Stefan Raab, Anke Engelke and Judith Rakers performed a rocked-up version of last year's winning song, Lena's ueber-catchy "Satellite".
Lena, 19, also took part and was due to return to the stage later as the German singer tries to become the first in Eurovision's decades-long history to win two years running.
Next up was Finland's Paradise Oskar with his environmental ballad "Da Da Dam", followed by Bosnia-Hercegovina's Dino Merlin, the contest's oldest performer at 48.
"It's great -- the atmosphere, the kitsch, the whole thing. It's a big party," fan Els Mahieu, 34, who travelled from Belgium clutching her 89-euro ($126) stadium ticket for the show, told AFP.
Europeans have few reasons for cheer at the moment, but on Saturday night they put their feet up, turned on the television and let their hair down for Eurovision, as they have done for decades. This is the 56th contest.
Often cringe-worthy but always watchable, the contest is a cherished institution, with 43 nations -- including some from outside Europe -- competing, then whittled down to 25 for the grand final.
"It's amazing. This competition brings Europe together and brings countries together. This is what I went into music for," said Lee Ryan, 27, a member of this year's British entry, newly reformed boy band Blue.
"It's a big holiday, a big holiday for everyone in Europe, with such great singers and beautiful songs. The Eurovision is unique," Ukraine's Mika Newton, 25, hoping to secure her country's second victory, told AFP.
Despite Europe's linguistic diversity, most acts perform in English, providing 22 winners over the years. French songs have won 14 times, Dutch and Hebrew songs three times each. Norway's 2011 entry is partly in Swahili.
This year, the song tipped as the favourite is in Corsican -- for only the second time in Eurovision history -- with Amaury Vassili, 21, hoping to end more than 30 years of French failure at Eurovision.
"The language is very close to Italian," the tenor told AFP. "There is the same fluidity for singing. And it has a romantic side that is very like Italian."
But he faces some tough competition, not least from spiky-haired Irish twins Jedward and their song "Lipstick", Azerbaijan's duo of Ell and Nikki, Britain's Blue and Estonia's Getter Jaani, a winner of the "Estonia's Got Talent" TV show.
A number from Zdob si Zbub, a difficult-to-pronounce group of lively Moldovans in "cosmic" pointy hats is also a strong contender, as are songs by Sjonni's Friends from Iceland and from Italian crooner Raphael Gualazzi.
The TV show, one of the world's longest-running, is now broadcast not only in Europe, but also in Australia, Canada, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Korea, New Zealand and the United States, even though they do not participate.
Viewers at home and juries from each of the countries vote for their favourite song.
The country of the winner, announced at around midnight (2200 GMT), gets to host the competition the following year, which is why the 2011 contest is in Germany.
This can lead to problems, however, as when in 1998 Israeli transsexual Dana International won, riling the country's ultra-Orthodox community, who then had to contend with the 1999 contest taking place in the holy city of Jerusalem.
"It's not serious. It's happy, you know. I think we have to enjoy it," Germany's Lena said.
"Maybe the rest of the world can watch it and do something like we do, can do a Worldvision. All countries just having fun."
© 2011 AFP