Tomorrow, 24 bands from across Europe will compete in the Eurovision Song Contest, which this year comes from Estonia's capital, Tallinn. The annual competition is often ridiculed as being a tacky showcase for bland pop music, but every year it manages to attract millions of viewers and occasionally even launches careers in show business for the winners.
Prague, 24 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Prime Minister opens the Eurovision Song Contest with a song titled "Northern Girl." Obviously not the Russian prime minister, of course -- this is the four-piece Russian boy band that hopes to beat 23 other contestants to win this year's Eurovision Song Contest.
The oft-derided contest, now in its 47th year, is expected to draw more than 100 million television viewers around Europe tomorrow.
Contestants will take the stage in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, which is hosting the competition for the first time. The Baltic state won that honor after an Estonian duo -- Tanal Padar and Dave Benton -- topped last year's contest.
That victory sparked an uncharacteristic display of public exuberance from the normally reserved nation. Then-Prime Minister Mart Laar summed up the nation's feelings by saying: "We are no longer knocking at Europe's door. We are walking through it, singing."
The European Broadcasting Union launched the contest in 1956 as a project to reflect the drive for European unity. It says its mission is to contribute to the creation of "high-level popular songs."
Entrants are put forward to the Europe-wide finals after winning national contests. This year's current favorite is Swedish singing trio Afro-Dite, with their song "Never Let It Go."
Most of the entrants in the Eurovision Song Contest are female solo singers, but there is a fair sprinkling of boy bands, too, like Russia's Prime Minister. Most lyrics are in the familiar pop territory of love lost, found, or unrequited, but one entrant, Spain's Rosa, sings in praise of European unity in her confusingly titled "Europe's Living a Celebration."
Many contestants are touted as already being famous in their home countries -- though to be sure, being hailed as "Malta's best female singer" might not sound like much of an achievement to those who don't live on the tiny Mediterranean island.
Some descriptions in the official biographies suggest that mediocrity carries no shame. The one for Lithuania's entry, Alvaras, says he is a virtual unknown who was admitted to the finals only because the previous entrant was disqualified for putting forward an old song.
Most contestants will be singing in English, since the old rule requiring native-language lyrics no longer applies. One exception is the Macedonian singer Karolina, pictured on the official Eurovision website wearing what appears to be a Madonna-esque pointy-breasted corset.
And like all good events in search of publicity, there's been a bit of controversy, too -- Slovenia's transvestite entry Sestre (Sisters) caused a bit of a storm at home, with one political leader saying they were part of a "crisis of values" in the country. Still, their song, "Only Love," is innocuous enough:
Sestre and their rivals will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of those acts among the almost 50 previous Eurovision winners who have gone on to major music careers, such as ABBA in 1974, Celine Dion in 1988 and, well, that's about it, really.
This is just one of the reasons why the contest is never taken seriously in many of the participating countries, says Alexis Petridis, pop music critic for Britain's "The Guardian" daily. In the U.K., he says, it has always carried the stigma of light entertainment -- the kiss of death for groups hoping to develop a serious, trendy image.
"If I was a band manager I wouldn't say to a young, hip, happening act, 'Here's how we're going to promote you to the nation and indeed to Europe as a whole. You're going to go on the Eurovision Song Contest. That'll make you really successful.' "
One previous winner, Ireland's Johnny Logan, joked about this image problem on CNN today. He said he still enjoys success in Denmark and other European countries, but in the U.K. and Ireland, he says, "My records don't get released, they escape."
Still, millions of people will be tuning in tomorrow. Petridis says he'll be among them -- rooting for Greece, his father's homeland. But he says the secret to Eurovision's enduring popularity -- at least in the U.K. -- is what he calls its "kitsch" appeal.
"I was listening to this radio show on [BBC] Radio 2 recently. It was called 'Sounds of the 60s' and this woman wrote in and she actually said, 'Could you please play the Italian entry in the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest? Because I haven't heard it since, and it's such a brilliant record.' So there obviously are people for whom Eurovision profoundly affects their life, but I think most people watch it in England for kitsch reasons."
But for Estonia, hosting the biggest international event in its history is serious business -- it's had to cough up half of the contest's estimated 7.8 million-euro cost. Sander Ukskula says it's worth it. He's on the organizing team and in charge of the press center, which is dealing with hundreds of journalists there to cover the big night. "I think it's very important. It's a great opportunity [for Estonia] to show itself [as] a small country and promote its developments and all kinds of stuff."
Ukskula was diplomatic when asked to name his favorite song: "I liked the Austrian song and the Estonian song. These were my favorites a month ago, but by now different, other songs are rating in my top list. I don't think there are one or two good songs, I think there are lots of them."
Representing Estonia this year is Sahlene, who is actually Swedish. But that doesn't bother Prime Minister Siim Kallas. "Eurovision is very international and, for me, it is not an embarrassing aspect that a non-Estonian represents us," he is quoted as saying on the official website. "Her song is nice."
Kallas says he'll be there tomorrow, cheering Sahlene on in the hope she'll make it twice in a row for Estonia.
(RFE/RL's Estonian Service contributed to this report. The official Eurovision web site is http://www.eurovision.tv)