Eurovision Song Contest 2023: Sweden, hot pants and tributes to Ukraine

LIVERPOOL, England — The laser-flashing, music-pounding grand finale of the 67th Eurovision Song Contest offered proof that there is no top to how over-the-top competitors can be — from garishly lipsticked men dancing wildly in their white undies to a singer crooning next to a concert grand piano that appeared haunted by a ghost.

In the end Saturday night, it was a power ballad by Sweden that won this year’s competition — a musical extravaganza that offers catchy tunes and joyful camp to many Europeans and confusion to many Americans who don’t understand why singing in a star headdress is a thing.

The 2023 contest was hosted by last year’s runner-up, Britain, on behalf of last year’s winner, Ukraine. Wartime tributes to Ukraine jostled against kitsch and extreme silliness, but they weren’t all that jarring in the context of one of the biggest, strangest live music events in the world.

Saturday’s finale — expected to be watched by more than 160 million people around the world — featured soulful ballads, along with bonkers pop tunes, madcap costume changes and outrageous set designs.

There were also lots and lots of sequins. And hot pants. And sparkling onesies.

In a prerecorded video, Catherine, the Princess of Wales, made a surprise cameo with last year’s winner, the folk-rap ensemble Kalush Orchestra. The newly crowned King Charles III and Queen Camilla also popped up in a video, alongside men in wolf masks walking by because, well, Eurovision.

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Contestants representing 26 countries advanced to the final round, including Ukraine’s electronic music duo Tvorchi, who were selected from an underground bomb shelter. They performed “Heart of Steel,” written about the siege of the Mariupol steel plant a year ago.

The one to beat, the bookies long said, was Sweden’s Loreen, a previous Eurovision winner, who delighted with “Tattoo.” Her staging involved writhing on a platform beneath a suspended panel, as if she was in the middle of a sandwich press.

Finland was the fan favorite and secured second place. The Finnish rapper Käärijä sang his upbeat, highly clappable “Cha Cha Cha” dressed in neon green bubble sleeves reminiscent of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

Käärijä was among the many artists singing in his native language. The chorus of his song, translated, reads: “I hold the drink with both hands like that, cha cha cha …”

In an interview earlier Saturday, he explained that his song was about “freedom” and that he wanted to sing in his own language, even though “Finnish people don’t believe a song in Finnish can win.” He added that it was “crazy” that people back home were painting their nails green and knitting green bolero jackets for their dogs to match his attire.

Käärijä, a Finnish rapper best known for his song “Cha Cha Cha,” is one of the favorites to win the 67th Eurovision Song Contest. (Video: Karla Adam/The Washington Post)

The competition between Sweden and Finland reflected a broader tension in the contest. Voting is split between national juries of industry professionals, who tend to like powerful singing and songwriting, and the public, who want wind machines and pyrotechnics.

In a change to the rules this year, people in nonparticipating countries, including the United States, could join in online voting.

As far as epic costumes and lyrics, Norway’s Alessandra looked like an intergalactic war princess. Austrian duo Teya & Salena reminded everyone the world needs more songs about Edgar Allan Poe. Their catchy chorus repeated the word “Poe” 30 times.

But that didn’t rank particularly high on the weird meter.

Croatia put forward lipsticked men who stripped down to their undergarments for an antiwar song called “Mama SC.” An Estonian singer performed with that seemingly haunted piano.

One of the standout performances from the night was not from a contestant, but rather from co-host Hannah Waddingham. The “Ted Lasso” star has won praise on social media for her presenting skills, which included showing off her own singing.

Eurovision was begun in the late 1950s by a handful of countries as a way to bring together war-torn Europe. Underscoring how much the contest has grown — in participants and popularity — more than 1,000 journalists from 50 countries were accredited to cover this year’s event in Liverpool. Many were from dedicated fan websites, and they whooped and hollered and sang along as they are filed their stories from the media center.

The news conferences in the buildup to the finale were memorable.

The lead singer for Germany’s Lord of the Lost, who was dressed in a red bodysuit with one pant leg cut off, was asked by a reporter what kind of shoes he was planning to wear onstage. He responded “heels” and plunked his feet onto the table for the assembled reporters to see.

Some people think Eurovision is a joke — too campy, too trashy, too shmaltzy. Others take it very seriously indeed.

“Slovenia crushed it,” shouted a Slovenian reporter at a dress rehearsal.

In a stark reminder of why the contest wasn’t being held in Ukraine, Russia fired missiles on the hometown of the country’s competitors moments before they took the stage. President Volodymyr Zelensky asked to address the competition — a request the organizers denied, saying that it was a nonpolitical event while stressing that “Ukraine, its music, its culture, and its creativity would feature strongly throughout” the competition.

Many Ukrainians were nonetheless excited, and for many, it’s about uniting through music, the theme of this year’s competition. Halyna Sladz, 35, a Ukrainian refugee based in the United Kingdom, said the contest is “a party, a chance to celebrate.” She was walking in a “discover Ukraine” area along Liverpool’s vibrant waterfront. “I hope one day you will all be able to come to Ukraine to celebrate,” she added.

Liverpool was decked out in yellow-and-blue flags. Vendors sold borscht soup and dumplings. Giant illuminated bird installations throughout the city represented different regions of Ukraine.

Conchita Wurst, the bearded Austrian drag queen who won Eurovision in 2014, offered a theory on Eurovision’s popularity.

Speaking to The Washington Post in a makeshift room with a leopard-print sofa and golden bathtub filled with plastic bubbles, Wurst said: “In Europe, we have so many different little countries. There are so many different approaches to music, culture, art, fashion … Everyone brings their best game to the table.”

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