LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — The final of the Eurovision Song Contest kicked off Saturday in Liverpool, with a Swedish diva and a party-loving Finnish rapper among favorites to win a joyous music competition clouded, for a second year running, by the war in Ukraine.
Britain is hosting on behalf of Ukraine, which won last year but can’t take up its right to hold the contest because of the war — air raid sirens sounded across Ukrainie as the contest was underway. Under the slogan “united by music,” the grand final fused the soul of English port city that birthed The Beatles with the spirit of war-battered Ukraine.
The sights and sounds of Ukraine ran through the show, starting with an opening film that showed 2022 Eurovision winners Kalush Orchestra singing and dancing in the Kyiv subway, with the tune picked up by musicians in the U.K. — including Kate, Princess of Wales, shown playing the piano.
The folk-rap band itself then emerged onstage in the Liverpool Arena on a giant pair of outstretched hands, accompanied by massed drummers.
Contestants from the 26 finalist nations entered the arena in an Olympics-style flag parade, accompanied by live performances from Ukrainian acts including Go A, Jamala, Tina Karol and Verka Serduchka — all past Eurovision competitors.
Now in its 67th year, Eurovision bills itself as the world’s biggest music contest — an Olympiad of party-friendly pop. Competitors each have three minutes to meld catchy tunes and eye-popping spectacle into performances capable of winning the hearts of millions of viewers.
The favorites include Swedish singer Loreen – the 2012 Eurovision winner, tipped by the bookies to take the title again with her power ballad “Tattoo” – and Finland’s Käärijä, a performer with Energizer bunny energy and a lurid green bolero top who goes from metal growler to sweet crooner on party anthem “Cha Cha Cha.” The infectious song got one of the biggest sinaglong crowd reactions of the night.
Italy’s Marco Mengoni also has a strong following for “Due Vite” (Two Lives), a seductive ballad with enigmatic lyrics.
Austrian duo Teya & Salena was first to perform with “Who the Hell is Edgar?” — a daffy satirical ode to Edgar Allen Poe that also slams the meagre royalties musicians earn from streaming services.
After that, the varied tastes of the continent were on display: the cabaret-style singing of Portugal’s Mimicat; the Britney-esque power pop of Poland’s Blanka; echoes of Edith Piaf from La Zarra for France; smoldering balladry from Cyprus’ entry, Andrew Lambrou.
Rock is unusually well represented this year at a contest that tends to favor perky pop. Australia’s Voyager evoked head-banging 80s stadium rock on “Promise,” while Slovenia’s Joker Out, Germany’s Lord of the Lost were also guitar-crunching entries.
An offbeat contender was antiwar rock opera “Mama ŠČ!” by Croatia’s Let 3, who mock militarist dictators amid Monty Pythonesque imagery before stripping down to their underpants onstage.
Reigning champion Ukraine is represented by Tvorchi, an electronica duo who pay tribute to the country’s resilience on “Heart of Steel.” Britain’s entrant is Mae Muller, scheduled to be the final performer of the night with her jaunty breakup anthem “I Wrote a Song.”
About 6,000 fans watched the show inside the arena, and tens of thousands more at a Liverpool fan zone and at big-screen events across the U.K. The global television audience has been estimated at 160 million.
Under spring sunshine, fans flocked in their thousands to city’s dockside area — now a vast party zone — near the contest venue ahead of the contest. Many were draped in flags of their favored nations or dressed as their favorite acts. A large number of British fans wore red, white and blue Union Jack dresses or jackets.
“Just to come down and see people from all different nationalities, all different cultures — it’s good fun,” said Australia fan Martin Troedel, sporting a kangaroo on his hat.
“Frankly there’s some quite odd acts, which is what I love about it. You never know what to expect.”
Liverpool has embraced Eurovision, and Ukraine, with businesses across the city flying Ukrainian flags and a program of cultural events introducing locals to the art, music and food of the eastern European country.
Amid the musical celebration, viewers were reminded of the brutal cost of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though organizers say they turned down a request by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to make a video address. The European Broadcasting Union said that would breach “the nonpolitical nature of the event.”
The winner will be decided by Eurovision’s famously complex system of jury and public votes, with each act hoping to escape the humiliation of getting “nul points” — zero points.
Founded in 1956, Eurovision is a European cultural institution that has produced breakout stars — ABBA and Celine Dion are both past winners – alongside performers whose careers sank without a trace.
In recent years, it has once again become a platform that can launch stars. Italian rock band Måneskin, who won in 2021, have played major U.S. festivals and opened for the Rolling Stones on tour. Last year’s British runner-up, Sam Ryder, has had a No. 1 album and performed at the Glastonbury festival.
“People know the value of stepping on that stage to 160 million people, knowing that they could go huge,” said Steve Holden, host of the official Eurovision Song Contest podcast. “ABBA did it in the 1970s, then it went quiet and it wasn’t quite seen as the launchpad it is now.
“Now, the music industry, the world, knows that if you appear at Eurovision, you could be in for a great thing.”
Follow AP coverage of Eurovision at https://apnews.com/hub/eurovision-song-contest and of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine