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Eurovision's got American Idol beat

As I sit here in Moscow and read about Sanjaya and American Idol, I can't help but be amused. Here in Europe (yes, Moscow is part of Europe. At least it is for this blog – but more on that later), singing and controversial performances have long ago been elevated to an art form known as the Eurovision Song Contest, which will be held next month.

The Eurovision was first held in 1956 in Switzerland with 14 countries participating and the winner selected by a jury (surprisingly, it was Switzerland). The Eurovision has since become more democratic in voting  -- now by viewers calling in and sending text messages -- and the definition of Europe has expanded -- 42 countries will compete this year, including Israel and Georgia.

What's at stake? The winning country hosts the Eurovision (and the assumed tourism euros) the following year. OK, so it's not the Olympics. But let's face it --Andorra, Malta, Albania, and Belarus don't have a shot at 2016 anyway, so hosting the ESC isn't such a bad consolation prize.


VIDEO: ABBA's 1974 victory with "Waterloo"

And despite the fact that few Eurovision winners have gone on to large commercial success (with the notable exception of ABBA's 1974 victory with "Waterloo"), it doesn't stop singers from trying to win.

'Hard Rock Hallelujah' rules
The rules are simple. Songs can't be longer than three minutes, they can't be political, and viewers can't vote for their own country. With so many countries competing now, what does it take to get noticed and win over viewers who span 42 countries and 11 time zones? If last year's winner is any indication – it's all about the controversy.

Finland's entry in 2006 was Lordi, a hard-rock band specializing in monster costumes. Before the contest, articles all over the world (including the New York Times) picked up on the controversial band and its alleged glorification of Satan worship.


VIDEO: Lordi's 2006 victory with "Hard Rock Hallelujah"

Despite, or perhaps because of, platform shoes, spark-spewing guitars, and the song's laughable lyrics – they warn about the coming Arockalypse and the Day of Rockening – "Hard Rock Hallelujah" cruised to first place by over 40 points.

This year, it looked like the Israeli band Teapacks was the first to play the controversy card. Its entry, "Push the Button," was being investigated by contest officials for being too political.


VIDEO: Teapack's performance of "Push the Button"

The English-Hebrew-French, punk-ska-rap song includes lyrics about "crazy rulers" who will "blow us up to bloody…kingdom come"- a reference which many took to be about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement to wipe Israel off the map.

Upside: three different languages and controversy. Downside: the song is absolutely horrendous.

Russian slam or reference to Mongolian 'churned butter'?

But that spat pales in comparison to the current controversy surrounding Ukraine's cross-dressing entry, Verka Serdyuchka (real name: Andrei Danilko).


VIDEO: Verka Serdyuchka's performance of "Dancing Lasha Tumbai"

The controversy surrounds one phrase of Serdyuchka's song, where it sounded like the singer was saying "I want to see/ Russia goodbye."

Serdyuchka's management has since denied any anti-Russian sentiment in the song and has said that the phrase is actually "I want to see/ Lasha tumbai," in reference to the Mongolian for "churned butter." Mongolian speakers have debunked this translation, though, and the real meaning of lasha tumbai is still a mystery.

This could be costly for Ukraine in a contest where friendly relations count for a lot of points (I guarantee you that Greece and Cyprus give each other top votes). Not to mention that Serdyuchka could be out-dragged by Peter Andersen, a famous drag queen who is representing Denmark.


VIDEO: Serebro's performance of "Song #1"

As for the Russian entry – it's a no-name girl band, Serebro, with a Soviet-styled named song, "Song #1." The brilliant lyrics include "don't call me funny bunny/ I'll blow your money, money… Put your cherry on my cake/And taste my cherry pie."

So it's not that I'm not interested in what Sanjaya's hairdo will look like next week. But with my hands full of Mongolian churned butter, Ukrainian cross-dressers, and Russian funny bunnies with a month to go to the May 12 Eurovision, I'm waiting to see who will be crowned the European Idol.