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    Eurovision Song Contest 2023: Ukraine tributes and hot pants

    LIVERPOOL, England — Yellow-and-blue flags are everywhere. Vendors are selling borscht soup and cheburek dumplings. Giant illuminated birds installed throughout this city represent different regions of Ukraine.

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

    At the 67th Eurovision Song Contest — hosted by last year’s runner-up, Britain, on behalf of last year’s winner, Ukraine — the wartime tributes jostle against kitsch and extreme silliness, but it isn’t all that jarring in the context of the biggest, strangest, live music event in the world.

    Saturday’s final — streaming in the United States on Peacock and expected to be watched by more than 160 million people around the world — will feature soulful ballads, along with bonkers pop tunes, madcap costume changes and outrageous set designs.

    Why is Eurovision a big deal? A guide for perplexed Americans.

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

    They will face stiff competition from Sweden’s Loreen, a previous Eurovision winner and the bookies’ favorite, with her power ballad “Tattoo.” Her staging involves writhing on a platform beneath a suspended panel, as if she’s in the middle of a sandwich press.

    Another favorite is Finnish rapper Käärijä, who will be singing the upbeat, highly clappable “Cha Cha Cha” while dressed in neon green bubble sleeves reminiscent of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

    Käärijä is one of 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 on Saturday, before the finale, he said that his song was about “freedom” and that he wanted to sing in his own language. “Finnish people don’t believe a song in Finnish can win, but I do.”

    He added that it was “crazy” that people in Finland were supporting him by painting their nails green and knitting green bolero jackets for their dogs.

    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 reflects 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. Many of the songs are (whisper it) quite good, but without a powerful stage show, they can fall flat.

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

    Much is known about the acts from this week’s semifinals and dress rehearsals. We know that Norway’s Alessandra is opting for an intergalactic war princess look and that the Austrian duo Teya & Salena have penned a catchy, easy-to-remember chorus: Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Edgar Allan, Edgar Allan Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe Edgar Allan Poe.

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

    Croatia will put forward garishly lipsticked men who will strip down to their white undies for an antiwar song called “Mama SC.” An Estonian singer will perform with a concert grand piano that appears to be haunted by a ghost.

    One of the standout performances from the semifinals was not from a contestant, but rather from the “Ted Lasso” star Hannah Waddingham. The British actress, who is better known in the United States than she is in the U.K., is co-hosting with the Ukrainian singer Julia Sanina and “Britain’s Got Talent” judge Alesha Dixon. Waddingham has won praise on social media for her presenting skills, which included showing off her own singing skills and conversational French.

    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 are from dedicated fan websites, and they whoop and holler and sing along as they are filing their stories from the media center.

    The news conferences in the buildup to the final 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 camp, too trashy, too shmaltzy. Others take it very seriously indeed.

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

    Ukrainian 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 are 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 U.K., 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.

    Conchita Wurst, the bearded Austrian drag queen who won Eurovision in 2014, offered a theory of 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, so everyone brings their best game to the table.”

    Asked if Eurovision hopefuls seek her advice, she said: “They do sometimes. There’s no recipe. It comes down to authenticity, as it does with anything in life. You have to make it your own.”

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