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Where the stage is littered with glitter: The top 10 acts of Eurovision 2023

Käärijä, representing Finland, rehearses for the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 in Liverpool.
Anthony Devlin
Getty Images
Käärijä, representing Finland, rehearses for the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 in Liverpool.

The big, boundless, Brobdignagian spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest is back, albeit with a bit of a sobering real-world hiccup. Although Ukraine won last year, and by tradition should thus be hosting the Grand Final this year, the ongoing war prevents this. So last year's second-place finisher, the United Kingdom, offered to host on behalf of Ukraine at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool.

A performance in solidarity with Ukraine during the National Lottery's Big Eurovision Welcome event outside St. George's Hall on May 7 in Liverpool.
Shirlaine Forrest / Getty Images for The National Lottery
Getty Images for The National Lottery
A performance in solidarity with Ukraine during the National Lottery's Big Eurovision Welcome event outside St. George's Hall on May 7 in Liverpool.

The Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final, which will be streamed live on Peacock here in the States at 3:00 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, May 13, features acts from 26 different countries singing their sequined-jumpsuited guts out. Five European countries – the U.K., Spain, France, Germany and Italy – are guaranteed spots every year, as is the previous year's winner.

Two semi-finals earlier this week winnowed the remaining competitors to the 20 other acts performing on Saturday. The contest introduced some big changes to that voting process this year.

  • There was no jury of experts weighing in this time – it all came down to the viewers, who voted by phone, internet or by Eurovision app. (Of course, there's a Eurovision app.)
  • For the first time ever, many countries not participating in the contest – including the U.S.! – were allowed to vote, although those votes were summarily lumped together under the hilariously dismissive moniker "The Rest of the World," and carried the aggregate weight of a single participating country. 
  • Despite these potentially earth-shaking shifts in the voting process, Eurovision oddsmakers still easily predicted which acts would make it through to Saturday's competition; the earth didn't shake. It barely shimmied.

    Singer Noa Kirel, representing Israel, performs during the first semi-final of the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool.
    Paul Ellis / AFP via Getty Images
    AFP via Getty Images
    Singer Noa Kirel, representing Israel, performs during the first semi-final of the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool.

    There will be a jury vote for the Eurovision Grand Final on Saturday, which is well and good because the awkward, interminable process of collecting those votes from various national spokespeople is a venerable tradition, beset as it is by stiff banter and yawning satellite delays. It's also, historically, a time when the world comes together as one to refill its drink and empty its bladder.

    But fans in the U.S. will be able to vote on our favorite acts this year, although our impact will be blunted by the same "The Rest of the World" vote-weighing that took place in the semi-finals, which seems only fitting. You'll get 20 votes to distribute as you will between the 26 acts, but know that each vote you cast will cost you 0.99 Euro.

    Music duo Tvorchi, performing on behalf of Ukraine, rehearses ahead of the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool.
    Paul Ellis / AFP via Getty Images
    AFP via Getty Images
    Music duo Tvorchi, performing on behalf of Ukraine, rehearses ahead of the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool.

    The song(s) remain the same

    The song stylings of Eurovision historically break down into 2.5 general types:

    Bops: Up-tempo, egregiously catchy tunes made expressly for the darkest, sweatiest, stickiest dancefloors of Ibiza. Generally involve backup dancers who haven't had a carb since the London Olympics.

    Ballads: Slow, emotional, achingly sincere. No dancing, no backup dancers, just the performer planting their feet and emoting all over the stage in front of a light show that bathes them in the (Usually Purple) Glow of Performative Melancholy.

    Anthems: A subcategory of Ballads, you'll know you're watching an Anthem if it's a stirring, bombastic, heedlessly over-the-top barn-burner about standing up, or looking up, or holding up, or not giving up — something with "up," anyway. Dance moves, if any, are scaled way way back in favor of posing defiantly.

    The group Vesna, representing the Czech Republic, rehearses for the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool.
    Anthony Devlin / Getty Images
    Getty Images
    The group Vesna, representing the Czech Republic, rehearses for the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool.

    As I list my personal top 10 acts of Eurovision 2023, just know that I'm a man partial to bops with inescapable hooks. This year's roster is rife with ballads sung by sad lads – a Eurovision staple – but I'm always gonna gravitate to the less-than-gravid.

    Counting down to number one

    10. Portugal: "Ai Coração" by Mimicat

    Amid this year's roster of entries, laden as it is with sad, wan lads warbling about their broken hearts, this gleeful, high-energy number from Mimicat not only cleanses the palate, it stirs the soul. Putting a given country's traditional music through a processed Eurovision filter is certainly nothing new, but Mimicat is a hugely engaging live performer who makes it seem so. Sure, it's still about a broken heart – or heartsickness, technically, as many of the verses simply list symptoms (dry mouth, burning chest, insomnia, etc.), but I'll take lustful longing over sulky self-pity any damn day.

    9. Norway: "Queen of Kings" by Alessandra

    This song's got a driving cadence that'll run you over if you try to resist it, and the imagery's so steeped in Nordic mythology it could be airbrushed on the side of a van. Alessandra wrote it expressly for the contest as an anthem of self-acceptance. Eurovision number as stirring bi-visibility battle cry? Plus a whistle note? Skål!

    8. Australia: "Promise" by Voyager

    Australia participates in Eurovision – in proud defiance of the most fundamental laws of continental geography – simply because it wants to so badly. Australians are Eurovision superfans, and the Aussie prog-metal band Voyager, headed by Daniel Estrin (no, not that Daniel Estrin) has been vying to represent their country since Australia first entered the competition in 2015. This year they got their wish with this high-energy, hooky-as-hell banger that both mocks and celebrates '80s new wave. (If the arch-but-pure timbre of Estrin's vocals didn't tip you off to that, that keytar should.) Australia's contract to participate in Eurovision expires this year, so there's potentially a lot riding on how well this song does. But the audience in the arena on Saturday is absolutely gonna eat it up, so I'm not worried; The Fixx is in.

    7. Lithuania: "Stay" by Monika Linkytė

    A ballad that's a cry of emotional need dressed up in anthem-of-defiance drag? Classic Eurovision. Monika's soaring vocals thread that highly-specific needle effortlessly, and every time I start worrying that the instrumentation is drowning them out, I resign myself to the fact that "Eurovision" and "overproduced" are practically synonymous. But still. I can't deny that those drums, with their implacable heartbeat rhythm, paired with the repeated intonation of the Lithuanian phrase Čiūto tūto lend the song a kind of driving, even ritualistic insistence.

    6. Armenia: "Future Lover" by Brunette

    This song opens with a haunting but deceptive sweetness that's almost cloying; don't be taken in. The first verse, about wanting to make art and shop in bookstores and drink lattes with an imagined future lover, is the stuff of the most basic, cringeworthy, "Live, Laugh, Love" TikTok account in your feed ("I decide to be good, do good, look good"). But then right about the 1:20 mark, the song cracks open and reveals itself to be an indictment of influencer culture – of pretending to live a fulfilled, idealized life when one's lived experience is full of pain, indecision and panic attacks. It's a big risk, expecting an impatient live audience to hang with you until your song's halfway over before unleashing the hook. But it's a great hook; we'll see how it does.

    5. France: "Évidemment" by La Zarra

    Even if you don't speak French you'll pick up on this song's vibe of wry, knowing resignation. It radiates from La Zarra's glittering stage presence, you can hear it hanging in every note. "Even at the top of the highest mountain/You still can't touch the sky/Obviously." It's one long performative shrug, set to a driving disco beat. Get more French than that, I dare you. (Still not convinced? Try this on for size: "It's always too good to be true/But never too ugly to be unreal." Zoot alors! La mélancolie!)

    4. Sweden: "Tattoo" by Loreen

    Loreen is Eurovision royalty, having won for Sweden back in 2012. She's heavily favored to win this year, too. You will see why instantly – the song features some high-degree-of-difficulty hairpin turns in its vocals, which she sailed through effortlessly in the semi-finals, and she knows how to fill a Eurovision stage with an emotive performance. But this song's staging isn't doing her any favors – she performs under a lighted platform that slowly (too slowly?) rises above her. It's giving tanning bed vibes, for no thematic reason. It's the only reason this pretty terrific song, which is already charting around the world, didn't secure a higher berth on this list.

    3. Austria: "Who the Hell is Edgar?" by Teya & Salena

    "There's a ghost in my body and he's a lyricist" is a great first line, I think all reasonable people can agree. But let's go further and acknowledge that "His name is Edgar Allan Poe and I think he can't resist," is an even better second line. Toss in a reference to how much Spotify pays artists per download ("Zero dot zero zero three") and an infectious, if hilariously on-the-nose hook ("Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe/Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe/Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe/Edgar Allan, Edgar Allan/Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe/etc"), and you've got a top-ten, maybe top-five, Eurovision finisher on your hands.

    2. UK: "I Wrote a Song" by Mae Muller

    On the surface, another "I'm better off since you broke up with me" anthem of self-empowerment, in the long and storied tradition of Kelly, Miley, Taylor, Carly, etc. But it's a knowing and irresistibly groovy one (Da-da-da-da-da-di, indeed!) that makes a compelling argument for channeling romantic trauma into art. It's already charting in several countries, so no matter what happens in the Grand Final, this song is on the fast track to achieving cultural ubiquity. Coming soon to a gay bar near you. Then to a straight bar near you. Then, inevitably, to a CVS near you.

    Before I reveal my favorite act of Eurovision 2023, some Honorable Mentions:

    Honorable Mention, Well-Earned Weirdness Edition

    Croatia: "Mama ŠČ!" by Let 3

    Let 3 first formed in 1987, and they've acted as gleeful socio-political/musical provocateurs ever since. Their Eurovision entry is an anti-war song about Mommy buying a tractor and kissing a moron and yeah you know what? Never mind. Just sit back and bask in the mustaches, the drag, the rockets, the iconography.

    Honorable Mention, Breath Control and Choreo Edition

    Israel: "Unicorn," by Noa Kirel

    It happens every year: I convince someone to watch Eurovision for the first time, and they text me during the broadcast: "So this is just a lip-sync competition?" "NO," I text back, so quickly it startles them. "The performers are required to sing live. What you're watching are artists who have been trained to dance and sing at the same time; when they do it right, it LOOKS like lip-syncing." I'm not nuts about Israel's song this year, but man, Noa Kirel's breath control is astonishing.

    (Note: The performers are required to sing live, but they're prohibited from playing any instruments live. Keep that in mind while watching those acts with "rockers" wailing away on their guitars and pounding away on their drums. It's cute.)

    Honorable Mention, Solidarity Edition

    Ukraine: "Heart of Steel," Tvorchi

    This year's Ukraine entry was always going to face a tough challenge. Last year's stirring win by Kalush Orchestra cast a long shadow, one that this year's entry – a much more conventional, contemporary Eurovision song – never quite crawls out from under. But it's got nice harmonies and a defiant message, and it will do very, very well in the Grand Final. Likely top three.

    The best act of Eurovison 2023 is ...

    1. Finland: "Cha Cha Cha" by Käärijä

    Some Eurovision songs are made for the dance floor; some are made for lying on the sofa and staring at a crack in the ceiling while wallowing in regret, stewing in spite, or some artisanal mixture of both. But it cannot be denied: Some Eurovision songs are made for the workout mix. Witness this year's Finland entry, which exists to get you up and moving; imagine a Crossfit instructor shouting at you in Finnish. I'll admit that I originally had "I Wrote a Song" topping this list, because it's easily the one number from Eurovision 2023 I've listened to the most. But it didn't seem right, as Muller's admittedly catchy-as-hell bop feels more like a conventional, of-the-moment pop confection. And as such, it can't truly represent everything Eurovision can and should and must be.

    Enter: "Cha Cha Cha," which is weird and aggressive and vaguely disturbing (check out the teeth and the dead-eyed stares on those backup dancers! Try to look away! You can't!). To me, the best Eurovision entries exude a distinctive, defiantly off-kilter sensibility that's impossible to locate in a specific time. Think Mentos commercial, with a pyro budget. "Cha Cha Cha" has all of that, while managing to come off wildly agreeable and friendly and earnest, especially when it breaks into pure melodic pop in the final minute, and you realize the song's about coming out of your shell by grabbing some drinks and hitting the dance floor. And that is Eurovision, distilled to its essence.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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