Nina Sublatti takes flight to the weird zone of autocratic sovereignty. andres putting

At this very moment, half a world away, synthesizers are warming up, flags are being unfurled, and shredders are pulling double shifts at the confetti factory. That's right: It's Eurovision time again! The Eurovision Song Contest, the most popular gathering of European nations for a common goal since the 30 Years' War, is an event in which people from all lands and tongues of Europe gather to celebrate their varied cultures and aesthetics.

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Naturally, they do this by singing pop songs in English.

(They're not all in English, but the fact that so many of them are only makes the whole thing sound that much more foreign.)

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the melodious melee, which has survived the advents of rock 'n' roll, punk, and hiphop without batting an eyelash. Not even the death wishes and disinterest of its own participants can imperil the grand charade: Italy sat Eurovision out for 14 straight years. France declined to enter in 1982 when its national "Head of Entertainment" declared, "Eurovision is a monument to drivel." Are you drooling yet?

Despite having trudged along for more than half a century, Eurovision feels oddly ahistorical. Concocted in 1956 by a cabal of media barons, the contest was modeled after Italy's Sanremo Music Festival (then only five years old). The broadcasting union's intentions weren't just musical: Television had begun to infiltrate the continent, and the European Broadcasting Union used the event to test burgeoning technology like live broadcasting and, later, satellite linkup.

The rules and standards of Eurovision entrants are similarly hard to nail down. Its juries have always been anonymous, though theoretically made up of average Josefs. My favorite piece of ESC-officiating trivia: Between 1959 and 1966, the rules expressly banned "music experts" from participating in the vote. In the past, songs couldn't go over three minutes by decree; now the time limit is more like a tacit agreement. Even the French know that pop should be short.

What makes a Eurovision winner? Impossible to say. The aesthetics of Eurovision entries tend to lag about 15 years behind the mainstream music marketplace, which allows most contenders and many winners to dwell in a weird zone of autocratic sovereignty—a candyland governed by odd, syllable-based hooks, the worship of adolescent romance, and lyrics even the Von Trapp Family Singers would have found unsophisticated. Here are some titles of songs that actually won: "La, La, La" (Spain, 1968); "Boom Bang-a-Bang" (UK, 1969—actually a four-way tie with Spain, France, and the Netherlands); "Ding-a-Dong" (Netherlands, 1975); "A-Ba-Ni-Bi" (Israel, 1978); "Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley" (Sweden, 1984). Other winning songs—most notably British star Sandie Shaw's 1967 "Puppet on a String," a song she openly hated—only feel like nursery fodder.

Eurovision's reputation for global starmaking is ironic, given how few global stars it has produced. Only two previous contest winners, ABBA (1974) and Celine Dion (1988, representing Switzerland), attained worldwide fame that could be logically traced to their victories—although, to be fair, those are two of the biggest musical success stories in history. Some losers, like Spanish syrupsmith Julio Iglesias, went on to bigger things. As for the songs themselves, they tend to get lost in transit off the coast of Portugal before they hit America. Only ABBA's "Waterloo" and Domenico Modugno's "Nel blu dipinto di blu" (you may know it by its other name, "Volare") became major US hits.

In a couple of cases, political or conscience-driven forces have resulted in surprise winners. Last year's victory of "Rise Like a Phoenix" by Austrian drag performer Conchita Wurst was widely interpreted as a repudiation of Vladimir Putin's homophobic regime, which spurred 15,000 Russians to petition the state channel to cancel its Eurovision broadcast lest their children witness "a hotbed of sodomy." (The fracas almost overshadowed the fact that "Rise Like a Phoenix" was actually a pretty good song that would make a great James Bond theme.) And every once in a great while—actually, maybe just once—someone interesting sneaks into the winner's circle, as in 1997, when "Love Shine a Light," performed by Katrina and the Waves and written by Kimberley Rew (formerly of the Soft Boys), won it all.

So why even bother with Eurovision? Various reasons, mostly related to oblique strategies of the global music business. The imperfect pageant, as comprehensibly inaccessible as it is on the west side of the Atlantic, has bargained with its trademark campiness (the history on the official Eurovision website stops just short of self-mockery) and its eras of utter artistic barrenness (the '80s leap to mind) to become an amusing sideshow of the internet age.

So. What delights does this year's contest hold in store? In what most of my inner circle would call taking one for a team that neither wanted nor requested it, I watched the videos for all 40 songs, and just gave them another audition while writing this piece. Overall, Eurovision 2015 makes for a pretty dour—though mercifully brief—playlist. What follows is my list of... well, "favorites" isn't quite the right word. Let's borrow an honorific from the festival at Cannes and call them "items of a certain regard":

Måns Zelmerlöw: "Heroes" (Sweden) As of this writing, "Heroes" is the oddsmakers' favorite to win it all. But that doesn't mean a whole lot; Eurovision voters' playful volatility (and tendency toward alleged nationalistic tampering) ensures at least a modicum of suspense. As for the song: Coldplay with a millimeter more edge. If that's your thing, perhaps Måns is your man.

Anti Social Media: "The Way You Are" (Denmark) According to the video, nostalgia for the Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do! is apparently alive and well in Hamletville. By process of elimination, this is one of the year's better songs. Citation for awful band name noted.

Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät: "Aina mun pitää" (Finland) In all seriousness, it's hard not to root for this one. Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät are a punk band made up of four middle-aged men, all of whom have learning disabilities, specifically autism and Down syndrome. They formed at a charity event in 2009 and have a pretty sizable following in their homeland. (They have, very cheekily, covered Devo's "Mongoloid.") At one minute and 24 seconds, "Aina mun pitää" ("I Always Have To") is the shortest song in Eurovision history. Currently listed as the fifth favorite, which means it very well could take the whole thing.

Mørland & Debrah Scarlett: "A Monster Like Me" (Norway) This is another one where you have to see the video, in which an uncomfortable, possibly incestuous couple purges their sins by drugging an entire dinner party. Not killing them—just drugging them, which turns out to be even creepier. The song's all right.

Nadav Guedj: "Golden Boy" (Israel) A lighthearted, Timberlakean jaunt from an effortlessly charming screen presence who ends the song by saying "We gotta go: three minutes! Bye-bye!" Bonus points for reading the rules!

Guy Sebastian: "Tonight Again" (Australia) For whatever gloriously random reason, Australia, on the exact other side of the world from Europe, was invited to participate for the 60th-anniversary contest. They won't be back next year unless they win. My friend from Melbourne says some Australians are afraid this song's too slick and milquetoast to win. Compared to the other contestants, however, Sebastian sounds like freakin' Bon Scott.

Il Volo: "Grande Amore" (Italy) A video in which fresh, handsome tenors from the land of Fellini and Bertolucci pay homage to Back to the Future, Ghost, and the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi Spider-Man. The song honors the intersection.

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There are, of course, 37 more, and the finals are on Saturday, May 23. If you prefer to spend Memorial Day weekend apart from institutions like Sasquatch! or the Indy 500, but still want to enjoy entertainment that only makes sense when you're drunk on a Saturday afternoon, Eurovision is yours to savor. The only public viewing party The Stranger has been able to track down is at the Swedish Cultural Center, and it's free—if you're a member (worth it). Or, if you're more enterprising, you can search for an internet feed of the BBC, or a European equivalent, and huddle around a laptop.

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