Popnography: Idol, meet your maker: The Eurovision Song Contest

As America heaves a collective musical yawn for the “Battle of the Davids” snoozefest this week on American Idol, Europe has amped up for the über-gaystravaganza Goliath known as the Eurovision Song Contest, with semifinals today and Thursday leading up the big 25-nation showdown on Saturday. While this year’s competition — the 53rd — can’t quite compare to the queerificness of last year’s (where Serb lesbian Marija Serifovic took the top prize, with Ukrainian drag queen Verka Serduchka as her first runner up), there is, as always, enough camp and high drama to musically satiate any ironic homo palate.

Statesiders for more than half a century now have somehow managed to remain bewilderingly ignorant of the Eurovision contest itself, but its byproducts are well known to us all: This is where ABBA got kick-started in 1974, competing for its native Sweden and besting no less than Olivia Newton-John, who battled for the U.K. that year. Other notable Eurovision veterans include Celine Dion, who competed (and won, natch) for Switzerland in 1988… which might seem odd given Miss Dion’s widely heralded French Canadian roots. But this is Eurovision, where oddities are by far the rule rather than the exception.

As neatly as something so nutty can be nutshelled, the Eurovision game goes like this: Early every year, each of the competing countries (it’s now up to 43 since the Iron Curtain fell and the Balkans keep splintering) elects its own 3-minute-ditty-singing representative. Then in May, under the watchful and heavily pink TV eyes of 100 million-plus, the national reps come together in the country that nabbed the previous Eurovision crown to battle it out head to head. Through a longstanding but increasingly grumble-inducing rule, if you’re England, France, Germany or Spain, you’re automatically a finalist. Last year’s winner also gets a bye.

Everyone else dukes it out semifinal style, this year for the first time ever via two separate contests. Today and again on Thursday, 19 countries will vie from Belgrade for 10 spots in Saturday’s all-important 2008 final. Voting is done by the phone-wielding Europublic in a brief 15-minute window immediately following the competition, wherein one may vote for anyone except one’s own country… but one tends to vote for whichever of one’s next door neighbors has historically invaded one the least.

For whatever it might be lacking in overtly gay entrants, 2008′s Eurovision roster is as wild and wacky as ever. The hands-down prize for most controversial goes to Ireland’s Dustin the Turkey, literally a sock puppet howling “Irlande, Douze Points”, fowl-ly urging each country to grant its 12-point highest score nod to Ireland. Far more likely, those nods will instead go to Russia’s sexy Dima Bilan (above), whose Timbaland-produced ballad “Believe” is actually the singer’s own perseverance chronicle after his loss in the 2006 final to surprise Finnish hard rock winners Lordi.

Also watch for another former Eurovision champ, Sweden’s Charlotte Perrelli (who’s been likened to a diva doing a great drag impersonation of herself), to do well again this year with “Hero”. Other strong ’08 contenders include Ukraine’s Ani Lorak with her very gay-disco-friendly “Shady Lady,” and Latvia’s Pirates of the Sea with their exceedingly campy pirate romp “Wolves of the Sea.” And don’t count out dark horses Rebeka Demelj, a sultry Slovenian beauty queen singing ” Vrag Naj Vzame,” nor little Andorra’s Gisela with her wallop of giddy gay Eurovision formula, “Casanova.”

Semifinal 1 (including Russia, Ireland, Slovenia and Andorra) commences at 3pm Eastern time today, while Semifinal 2 (including Sweden, Ukraine and Latvia) begins at the same time Thursday. Watch both broadcasts live at Eurovision’s website, then check back Friday for our pre-final ruminations…the perfect remedy for those post-Archuleta blahs.

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Popnography: Idol, meet your maker: The Eurovision Song Contest