Trying to get a seat in the Ahoy Arena in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where the Eurovision finals are taking place, isn’t that simple.
Last year’s Eurovision was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year, the Dutch organizers have come up with an elaborate admission and testing scheme to keep the virus out while holding the largest music contest on the planet. All visitors have to undergo a test for the virus, people over 70 are not allowed and reporters are banned from the main auditorium during the final round.
More than 3,500 mainly Dutch fans were in to see the show, while journalists, some 400 of them, have been tucked away in a dark, rather depressing conference hall, where they can follow the event on four large screens.
Inside, people were filled with exuberance, partly because the show was going on after a year’s hiatus, and partly because it just felt so good to be out of lockdown. The costumes were colorful: Near me, two men were wearing orange tuxedos and another man wore a British flag as a cape.
Yet some of the reporters working for specialist Eurovision blogs and other outlets told me the setup that kept them away from the crowds made them sad. “Eurovision is about bringing people together, but they are forced to keep people apart,” said William Lee Adams of Wiwibloggs. “I’ll gladly wear a military grade face mask, if I can be among the singers and the public.”
I decided not to miss out on the live event. So I found myself at 10 a.m. this morning standing in the rain on a drab field outside of the city of Lisse for my Covid test. In hand, I had my ticket, which cost a mere €650, or about $790.
Will Ferrell may well have succeeded where past winners like ABBA and Celine Dion failed: His movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has raised awareness in North America of the world’s biggest singing competition.
Eurovision is so unknown in the United States that a common reaction to the film among Americans was: “This is based on a real thing?!?”
Yes, it is — a real thing that has been drawing hundreds of millions of viewers since 1956. But since the contest is not usually broadcast in the United States (the cable network Logo last had the rights in 2018), few knew of its existence, let alone what it’s all about.
The second-most-common American reaction to the movie’s Belarusian horror rockers and bare-chested Russian crooners seemed to be: “OK, but they must have exaggerated it.”
Well, no, they didn’t — “Fire Saga” eerily captures Eurovision’s most demented aspects, especially its signature unselfconscious reveling in over-the-top theatrics. Ferrell (whose wife is from Eurovision-crazy Sweden) pulled off a spot-on satire that eschews condescension: The film doesn’t laugh at the contest or its fans, but with them. And like many of the acts from the real competition, the songs from the movie are infernally catchy: “Husavik,” the lead number in “Fire Saga,” was nominated for an Academy Award.
This year, 16 of the 26 finalists are acts returning from last year’s canceled competition.
But Eurovision rules require the contestants to perform a different song from the one they had planned for the 2020 event. In a competition known for one-hit wonders, this year’s contestants have to prove they don’t fit that pattern.
The entrant facing the biggest challenge in capturing last year’s magic is Dadi Freyr, a singer performing with the band Gagnamagnid, which is Iceland’s entry. Last year, he was a favorite to win with “Think About Things,” a catchy disco number about Freyr’s newborn child.
The band’s entry this year is another fun track called “10 Years.” Freyr said he wanted to keep the track similar in style to “Think About Things,” since Icelanders had voted for a disco tune to represent them at the competition. It took 12 attempts to come up with a new song he liked, he added.
Jeangu Macrooy, the Netherlands’ entry, said he also struggled. “I was getting no inspiration — I was just sitting inside,” he said.
Then, in December, a host of thoughts and feelings around the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement started bubbling up inside him, he said.
Soon he conjured the lyrics to “Birth of a New Age,” an uplifting gospel-inspired track: “They tried to drain you of your faith / But you are the rage that melts the chains.”
Macrooy said he hoped it would speak to everyone standing up for their rights, whether people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. people or members of other marginalized groups.
Eurovision’s organizers put in place a host of measures at this year’s event to reduce the risks of a coronavirus outbreak among competitors.
Acts had to undergo regular testing and adhere to social distancing, and they were effectively locked away in their hotel rooms unless visiting the auditorium to rehearse.
But that clearly wasn’t enough.
Last Saturday, a member of Poland’s delegation tested positive for the virus. Last Sunday, so did a member of Iceland’s entry. They were staying in the same hotel.
The news about Iceland was a particular blow for Eurovision fans, as Dadi Freyr, who is representing the country with the band Gagnamagnid, was among the favorites to win.
So what happens now? Well, fortunately, Iceland will still appear. The band managed to perform at a dress rehearsal on the Rotterdam stage before the positive test, so footage of that will be shown tonight.
The pandemic might also be influencing some of the lyrics we hear tonight. Lithuania’s entry, “Discotheque” by The Roop, is all about dancing alone. (“There’s no one here and I don’t care / I feel it’s safe to dance alone,” it goes) — something we’ve all had to do over the past year.
Many of the returning acts have switched from emotional ballads to upbeat numbers to give viewers a break from feeling maudlin.
“I was like, ‘I need something that will make the world feel good again,’” Destiny, who is representing Malta, told me recently by phone. “I wanted a song that when you listen to it you’d be like, ‘Wow, let’s leave Covid behind for three minutes.”
Here’s her entry, “Je Me Casse.” I’ll leave it to you to decide if it makes you forget about the pandemic.
If you’re in Europe, chances are the competition will be broadcast live on TV.
For those tuning in from the United States, the final can be watched live via the streaming service Peacock from 3 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. It will then be available on demand. Peacock is a subscription service, but it offers a seven-day free trial.
You can also watch it on the Swedish streaming service SVT Play, which is allowing anyone in the world to stream the final for free via their website.
Why on earth are we doing a live blog about the world’s silliest song contest? Because Eurovision is more than just a camp extravaganza. It’s “the world’s biggest music competition: a fiercely competitive, always surprising, sometimes surreal Olympics of song,” as Scott Bryan said this week in our beginner’s guide to the event.
Ever since the Eurovision Song Contest started in 1956, Europe has been transfixed, and with good reason. Abba won in 1974 with “Waterloo,” and soon became a global pop sensation. In 1988, Celine Dion won, representing Switzerland with “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.”
More recently, in 2014, Conchita Wurst became one of the world’s most famous drag artists, after winning for Austria with the soaring “Rise Like a Phoenix.”
Even if the music is not to your taste, Eurovision is always a spectacle, with outrageous costumes, bizarre dance routines and a host of pyrotechnics to secure the votes of an audience watching at home.
More seriously, it’s also occasionally a showcase for social and political commentary.
So who’s in the running to win? Here’s our guide to six of the favorites, including Italy’s hard-rocking Maneskin and Go_A, a folk-techno act from Ukraine. There is even an American entrant this year, the rapper Flo Rida taking part for San Marino.
The show begins at 3 p.m. E.S.T. and we’ll be bringing you live updates from the contest — with some expert commentary and reports from the scene in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.