MALMO, Sweden (AP) — An ethno-inspired flute and drum tune from Denmark is the bookmakers' favorite to win this year's Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, which also features a bizarre opera pop number from Romania and an Armenian rock song written by the guitarist of Black Sabbath.
Yes, it's that time of the year again.
The televised pan-European extravaganza, known for its kitschy shows, bad taste and bizarre offerings, is still expected to be seen by about 125 million television viewers worldwide.
This year's contest is being hosted in Malmo, southern Sweden, following the victory of the Nordic country's contestant Loreen with "Euphoria" last year.
According to bookmakers, the hippie-chic Emmelie De Forest of Denmark is the favorite to win, driving the song "Only Teardrops" with her deep, Shakira-like voice. Her main challenge comes from the clean-cut techno pop tune "I Feed You My Love" by Norway's Margaret Berger, who rose to fame at home after becoming the runner-up in Norway's version of Pop Idol in 2004.
"I will be nervous before going on stage," De Forest said Friday. "I think we have a really good song that can take us far, but let's see, anything can happen."
Finland's Krista Siegfrid provided this year's controversy, ending her bouncy bubble-gum pop number "Marry Me" with a girl-on-girl kiss that some have interpreted as a stance promoting gay marriage. While the show will not raise eyebrows in most parts of Western Europe — where Eurovision has long been a bastion of gay culture — the act may jar sensitivities in parts of eastern and southern Europe.
"The fact is that Finland is the only country in the Nordic countries where gay marriage is not allowed, and I think that's wrong," Siegfrid told The Associated Press. "It's 2013 now and ... I can kiss anyone I want to. It shouldn't be a problem."
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who arrived in Malmo to watch the competition Saturday, said it is a unique event that unites Europe.
"We see the old Yugoslavia, now independent states, after a decade of war they always vote for each other in Eurovision, " Bildt said. "That I think is fun."
This year's competition also sees the return to the international stage of two seasoned European stars. "Total Eclipse of the Heart" singer Bonnie Tyler is representing Britain with "Believe In Me" while Anouk, whose song "Nobody's Wife" was a big hit in Europe in the 1990s, is singing the song "Birds" for The Netherlands.
Among the more notable performances is the Ukraine's Zlata Ognevich with her song "Gravity." Ognevich is carried onstage by the tallest man in the U.S. — Ukrainian-born Igor Vovkovinskiy. Vovkovinskiy — who stands 7 feet, 8 inches (234 centimeters) —wobbles onstage in a fur and feathers, placing the fairy-like Ognevich on a rock where she stands for the rest of the performance.
There is also Armenian rock group Dorians, whose gloomy song "Lonely Planet" has been written by Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.
Romania's Cezar, who resembles a Dracula reborn as a high-pitched vocalist, is apparently a reputable opera singer, but is attempting a crossover opera pop number with techno beats and pyrotechnics. Three muscular male dancers in red body paint are delivered out of a large red cape.
Two semifinals this week have whittled down the contestants from 40 to 26. The winner is picked by juries and television viewers across the continent, and the winning nation will stage next year's event.
Having won five times, most famously with ABBA's Waterloo in 1974, Sweden is a veteran of Eurovision. This weekend it is taking the opportunity to showcase some of its big music acts. The opening of the competition is set to feature a song especially composed by Swedish super DJ Aviici, together with ABBA members Bjorn Ulveaus and Benny Andersson.
Yet the event — with a price tag of around 153.5 million Swedish kronor ($23 million) — won't measure up to last year's lavish competition hosted by oil-rich Azerbaijan in its capital, Baku.
"We have attempted to host Eurovision with less money to show that it is possible to do this without it being too painful for the host country," said Jan-Erik Westman, a spokesman of host broadcaster SVT.
The festive atmosphere was visible throughout the city of Malmo on Saturday, where residents and visitors blended on the streets waving the flags of their favorite countries.
Associated Press television producer David MacDougall and Associated Press reporter Jan Olsen contributed to this report.
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