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What is Eurovision? Everything to know about the European song contest

Eurovision 2024 grand final preview
Eurovision grand final to air amid protests over Israel's participation 04:23

Scores of musicians, hundreds of journalists, and thousands of music fans gathered in Malmo, Sweden, where the Eurovision Song Contest built towards Saturday's exuberant, glitter-drenched final, which was won by Swiss singer Nemo.

But even Eurovision couldn't escape the world's divisions. Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters were in the city for demonstrations urging a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war and criticizing Israel's participation in the contest.

Here's a guide to what Eurovision means and how it works. 

68th Eurovision Song Contest - Grand Final
Nemo of Switzerland on stage after winning the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final at Malmo Arena on May 11, 2024, in Malmo, Sweden. Martin Sylvest / Getty Images

What is Eurovision? 

The short answer: Eurovision is a music competition, in which performers from countries across Europe, and a few beyond it, compete under their national flags to be crowned continental champion. Think of it as the Olympics of pop music.

The longer answer is that Eurovision is an extravaganza that melds pop, partying and politics — a cross between a music festival, an awards show, and a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. It's an event full of silly fun, a celebration of music's unifying power, but also a place where politics and regional rivalries play out.

The second semi-final of the Eurovision Song Contest, in Malmo, Sweden on May 9. IDA MARIE ODGAARD/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Thirty-seven countries entered the contest, which this year took place over several days in the Swedish port city of Malmo. The country hosted after Swedish singer Loreen won last year's competition in Liverpool, England.

Through two semifinals, the acts were narrowed to the 25 scheduled to compete in Saturday's final in front of thousands of spectators in the Malmo Arena and a global television audience estimated at 180 million. 

Nations can enter a solo act or a band. They can perform in any genre and language, but the rules state they must sing live and songs must be no more than three minutes long. Staging has grown ever more elaborate, incorporating flashy pyrotechnics and elaborate choreography. This year is particularly strong on topless male dancers.

Once all the acts have performed, the winner is chosen by a famously complex mix of phone and online voters from around the world and rankings by music-industry juries in each of the Eurovision countries. As the results are announced, countries slide up and down the rankings and tensions build. Ending up with "nul points," or zero, ranks as a national humiliation.

Swedish singer Loreen wins Eurovision song competition 04:13

The musical style of Eurovision has diversified dramatically since the contest was founded in 1956. The early years of crooners and ballads gave way to perky pop – epitomized by perhaps the greatest Eurovision song of all time, ABBA's "Waterloo," which won the contest 50 years ago.

Nowadays, Euro-techno and power ballads remain popular, but viewers have also shown a taste for rock, folk-rap and eccentric, unclassifiable songs.

Who was expected to win Eurovision? 

According to bookmakers, the leading contender was Swiss singer Nemo, who performed a melodic, operatic song titled "The Code." Nemo became the first performer who identifies as nonbinary to win the contest, which has a huge LGBTQ+ following. The contest had its first transgender winner, Dana International, a quarter century ago.

Nemo's song was performed while balancing on a giant, spinning turntable, but there are no magnets or stage trickery involved, according to the BBC. The singer told the British publication that they are just "balancing all the time" while hitting incredibly high notes. 

Another nonbinary performer who generated huge buzz was Ireland's Bambie Thug, whose song "Doomsday Blue" was described by the BBC as a "witchy, spooky blend of electro-goth and grinding metal guitars." They're the only contestant known to have brought a "scream coach" to Malmo.

"Imagine Kate Bush's evil twin singing an anti-lullaby and you'll get the idea," the BBC said.

68. Eurovision Song Contest - Rehearsal for the final
Bambie Thug from Ireland with the song "Doomsday Blue" during Eurovision rehearsals.  Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images

Other acts tipped to do well included operatic Slovenian singer Raiven, Ukrainian rap-pop duo Alyona Alyona and Jerry Heil and Spain's Nebulossa, whose song "Zorra" caused a stir because its title can be translated as an anti-female slur.

The act with the most momentum was Croatian singer Baby Lasagna. His song "Rim Tim Tagi Dim" was quintessential Eurovision: exuberant, silly, a little emotional and incredibly catchy. The act is already a huge fan favorite, especially since the singer stepped in as an emergency replacement when another singer pulled out during the contest's selection process, according to the BBC.

68. Eurovision Song Contest - Rehearsal for the final
Baby Lasagna from Croatia with the song "Rim Tim Tagi Dim" during Eurovision rehearsals.  Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images

What is controversial about Eurovision? 

Eurovision's motto is "united by music," and its organizer, the European Broadcasting Union, strives to keep politics out of the contest. But it often intrudes.

Belarus was expelled from Eurovision in 2021 over its government's clampdown on dissent, and Russia was kicked out in 2022 after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

This year, there have been calls for Israel to be excluded because of its conduct in its war against Hamas.

Israel is competing but was told to change the title of its song, originally called "October Rain" in an apparent reference to Hamas' Oct. 7 cross-border attack. It's now called "Hurricane" and is performed by 20-year-old singer Eden Golan.

68. Eurovision Song Contest - Rehearsal for the final
Eden Golan from Israel with the song "Hurricane" during Eurovision rehearsals.  Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images

Thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched through Malmo hours before Golan performed at Thursday's semifinal, and another demonstration took place Saturday. Swedish police have mounted a major security operation, with officers from across the country bolstered by reinforcements from Denmark and Norway.

One performer initially set to perform in Saturday's finals was expelled from the event. The Netherlands' Joost Klein was among the acts set to perform on Saturday, but the Associated Press said earlier in the day that he was disqualified amid an investigation by organizers over an unspecified "incident." 

The BBC reported that Joost was sent home after "an allegation of intimidation was made to Swedish police by a female member of the production crew." Dutch officials have called Klein's disqualification "disproportionate" and said they were "shocked by the decision." 

Singer Joost Klein attends a press conference before Eurovision.  JESSICA GOW/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images

Klein cannot be replaced by another act since the disqualification came so late in the process, so Saturday's finals proceeded with just 25 acts instead of the usual 26, according to the BBC. 

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