Tomorrow night Riga is hosting an annual event that people all over Europe have come to either love or loathe -- the Eurovision Song Contest. It's Latvia's turn to stage this battle of the bands, as it won last year's competition. Over the years most of the contestants have been fairly obscure euro-crooners. But this year's contest is slightly different -- it actually has a band that's already famous.
Prague, 23 May 2003 (RFE/RL) Latvia is entering this year's Eurovision Song Contest with F.L.Y and their song "Hello From Mars." The group will be battling 25 other entrants in Riga tomorrow night on a huge, brightly-colored glass stage dubbed the Magical Planet.
Chances are you haven't heard of F.L.Y. No surprise there -- the trio were brought together especially for this year's competition. But what about last year's Latvian winner, Marie N.? Or Tanal Padar and Dave Benton, the Estonian pop duo who won the year before? That's the thing about Eurovision. Most of the contestants come from obscurity -- and then fade quickly back into it again.
But there's something unusual afoot this year. One band has already topped charts at home and abroad: Tatu, the young Russian girl duo whose lesbian antics have scandalized some of pop's more prim enthusiasts. Their song is already the hot favorite with voters on the Eurovision website, perhaps because it stands out from the otherwise bland contest entries.
Tatu's participation is a bit of a double-edged sword for Eurovision's organizers. It may boost audiences and lend the contest some credibility. But it's also prompted fears the group might upset the show with a sexually provocative performance.
But the pair of 18-year-olds, Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova, have promised they won't do anything naughty on stage. At a press conference yesterday, Katina and Tatu producer Igor Shapovalov said contest organizers have no need to worry.
Shapovalov: "Relax, there's no bomb, no explosions. We accept the rules, as you can see"
Katina: "Yeah, as you can see."
And organizers say the other singers won't be overshadowed. Solvita Vevere is PR manager for Latvian public television LTV. "You know, I'm watching press conferences and working as PR manager in the press center for four days, and I can say honestly they [Tatu] don't differ that much [from the other groups]," Vevere told RFE/RL. "There are brilliant singers from Spain, from Turkey, from Greece, from Norway, from Iceland, and it's not [as if] they are dominating as singers. They are dominating, maybe, as a very well-known group but if we are comparing songs they don't differ so much."
Eurovision is now in its 48th year and clearly on to a winning formula. Some viewers are avid fans. Others hate its bland, sugary pop -- but watch it anyway for a laugh. Television audiences regularly reach upwards of 100 million.
That's quite something for a small country keen to raise its profile, like Latvia, or last year's host Estonia. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said this year's show is a great chance for Latvia to put itself on the "mental map" of people in other countries.
Vevere said: "For Latvia, I think this is very important because first of all we can show our hospitality. And secondly, as I'm sure we will hold the best-ever Eurovision Song Contest, we'll prove to Europe and the world that we're a country that is able to organize significant events. And actually, what we say, Latvians about Latvia, [is that] Latvia is a land that sings."
But no matter who wins tomorrow, one thing is certain. After Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania will not be making it a Baltic hat trick. Their entrant performed so badly last year they're disqualified this time around.
(The Eurovision website is at http://www.eurovision.tv/public/participants/index.html.)