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Eurovision Song Contest To 'Shine A Light' With Pandemic Special

Dutch singer and television host Jan Smit dances on stage as presenters prepare for Saturday's Eurovision: Europe Shine A Light special.
EBU/Kris Pouw
Dutch singer and television host Jan Smit dances on stage as presenters prepare for Saturday's Eurovision: Europe Shine A Light special.

Each year, the Eurovision Song Contest unites 180 million viewers in more than 40 countries for an electric-falsetto night of glitter, glam and hard-rock hallelujah.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the contest for the first time in its 64-year history. But instead of leaving so many super fans dance-crying to the 1974 winner Waterloo (ABBA), the song contest has instead decided to air a live two-hour special, Eurovision: Europe Shine a Light, Saturday on public broadcasting channels in more than 40 countries. (The U.S. is not one of them, so anyone living in that country will have to watch on Eurovision's YouTube channel, where the show will be live-streamed.)

The show is hosted in the Netherlands, where the contest was supposed to be held this year at the Ahoy concert hall. (The venue has been converted into an emergency hospital for coronavirus patients). All 41 contestants will perform remotely, though this year fans won't be able to phone in their votes for the winner.

The pre-pandemic 2020 favorites included the nerd-disco gem Think About Things by Iceland's Dadi og Gagnamagnid; the bodice-ripper Cleopatra by Azerbaijan's Efendi; and the auto-tuned hallucination jig that is Uno by Russia's Little Big.

In the weeks leading up to the show, several Eurovision performers past and present participated in sweet, low-key home concerts. Fans who missed the signature pyrotechnic drama also turned to Eurovision.TV to look up the vampire-opera "It's My Life" by Romania's super-soprano Cesar (2013) or the Hellenic solid-gold dancing in My Number One by Greece's Helena Paparizou, the 2005 winner.

The Eurovision song contest began in 1956 to bring together a continent shattered by World War II. Seven countries competed that first year, and the winner, Refrain by Switzerland's Lys Assia, is about lost love and innocence. The contest grew to include more countries, including those not in Europe, like Israel.

In the early years, performers were often backed by live orchestras. They sang in their native language: Vivo Cantando (1969), Hallelujah (1979), Ein bisschen Frieden (1982). As newlyweds in Athens in the 1970s, my parents lived next-door to the 1976 contestant from Greece, folk singer Mariza Koch, who sang this beautiful song in Greek. When I moved to Greece more than a decade ago, I befriended the 1995 contestant from Cyprus, who sang this Eurovision cult classic, also in Greek.

These days, it's mainly the French and Italians crooning in their native tongues, with these award-winning exceptions.

The Eurovision Song Contest has also expanded far beyond Europe and now includes Australia, though it did lose Hungary this year.

Hungary's national public broadcasting association said it wanted to focus its resources on "Hungarian pop singers" though one report said pro government media called the contest a "homosexual flotilla." Hungary has never won the contest but came in fourth in 1994 with this ballad sung by Friderika Bayer.

Many fans observing social distancing cannot hold Eurovision parties at home this year. Some made up for it with online watch parties, which involved tuning in remotely to watch reruns of previous contests. At Saturday night's Eurovision alternative, a featured performance will be the unity anthem Love Shine a Light by Katrina and the Waves, the 1997 winner. The super fans might sing along and also hope that ABBA will too.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.