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Tensions Between Russia And Ukraine Blend Into Eurovision Contest



It is May, which means - you hear that - it is Eurovision time. You know what I'm talking about if you follow the glitzy, sometimes weird world of European pop music. The Eurovision Song Contest helped launch ABBA's career, for one thing. It's known for wild costumes, international divas, lots of pyrotechnics.

Andrew Jones is in Kiev for this year's event. He is a supervising editor here at MORNING EDITION. Andrew, we're good. There's no news back here in the U.S. We don't need you editing anything. You enjoy yourself over there.

ANDREW JONES, BYLINE: I'm definitely in the most important place in the world, absolutely.

GREENE: You surely are. I know you go every year. Can you remind us why, like, what exactly this thing is?

JONES: Yeah. I mean, it's the sort of glitziest, most glamorous, most campy international music competition I think that is out there. It has songs from countries all around the world. There were 42 countries competing this year. And we're talking Europe as well as Azerbaijan, Australia, all over.

And just to give you the scale of it, I've been here all week. We had two semifinals. Saturday is the grand final. And while it's a bit niche in the states - you know, it airs on LOGOtv, the pretty small cable channel - we're talking about an absolutely massive audience worldwide. More than 200 million people around the globe watched at least part of last year's show.

GREENE: Well, Americans are just missing out. They're going to have to get more into this. Aren't there political tensions that always come up at this?

JONES: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. With that many countries, you're going to get some drama. Most recently, it's been with Russia. So, you know, a few of the past you've, had Russian acts get booed not because the songs are particularly bad but more as a protest against the country's policy. You know, whether it's, you know, the attitude towards LGBT people in Russia. There are a lot of Eurovision fans who are gay, and so that's one way for them to express displeasure.

But you also have, you know, the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine actually won last year - that's why we're here in Kiev - with a song that was viewed as this sort of thinly-veiled criticism of the annexation. And this year, Ukraine actually banned the Russian singer from even entering the country because she had performed in Crimea after annexation.

GREENE: Oh, that's interesting. So it does get tense. Well, let's get to the actual competition. I mean, you said the finals are Saturday. Who are the favorites?

JONES: Yeah. So I think, you know, one of the absolute favorites is Italy. I can actually play a bit of it for you.


JONES: It's by a man called Francesco Gabbani. It's called "Occidentali's Karma."


FRANCESCO GABBANI: (Singing in Italian).

JONES: A fun, peppy song.

GREENE: So much fun.

JONES: But the staging is also really important. So this song actually is performed with a man in a gorilla suit dancing by the singer on stage.

GREENE: (Laughter) Of course, I mean, I mean, obviously.

JONES: Of course. Well, what else would you do?


JONES: And Portugal and Bulgaria are also quite strong.

GREENE: All right. Anything even weirder than a man in a gorilla suit dancing on stage?

JONES: Oh, yeah. That's like the most normal thing that's out there.

GREENE: Of course.

JONES: I mean, you have Croatia, which is this guy who's singing a duet with himself, like, turning dramatically and singing to himself.

GREENE: (Laughter) That's great.

JONES: But I think probably the weirdest one this year is Romania. So the singers are Ilinca and Alex Florea. And I don't even know that there are words that can tell you how weird this is. So I think we should just play a bit of it.


ILINCA: (Singing) So bring it on, bring it on. I'm a dreamer. If you don't believe it, come and see me, I'll teach you.

ALEX FLOREA: (Singing) If you never try, you'll never be alive. You are going to miss out on this ride.

ILINCA: (Yodeling).

GREENE: Are they yodeling?

JONES: Oh, oh, there's yodeling. There's rapping.

GREENE: Oh, that's great.


I love it.

JONES: There's singing, everything.

GREENE: If you come back here without being able to yodel for us, then it was a failed trip.

JONES: I will do my best.

GREENE: Andrew Jones in Kiev.

MARTIN: (Laughter) I have faith in you, Andrew.

GREENE: Yeah. Thank you, Andrew.

JONES: Thanks, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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