“People say I’m a funny guy,” Finnish rapper Käärijä says, reclining in the sauna truck he had shipped across northern Europe, wearing only some tight leather shorts, a set of spiky green sleeves and an aggressive bowl cut.
“But I always tell them: I’m just a normal guy from Finland.”
Käärijä is not a normal guy; he’s an infectious ball of zeal in a head-swiveling get-up, with a laugh that cuts through the steam in his sweaty private hangout. But at Eurovision, he’s just the latest in a long line of eccentrics to capture the continent’s music-loving hearts.
“I just want to make people happy when I walk on stage and do my crazy things,” Käärijä says, clearly more comfortable in the heat than this CNN reporter. “After this, you have to go shower,” he tells me plainly.
The Eurovision Song Contest -- the brightest, gayest and most heartwarming event of the year in Europe – is a magnet for many of the region’s otherworldly musical acts. Each year it receives more than 150 million TV viewers worldwide and brings swarms of fans to its host city – which this year is Liverpool, England, handling proceedings on behalf of last year’s winner Ukraine.
Its Grand Final will air live on Saturday night at 8 p.m. BST (3 p.m. ET) and will see one country crowned this year’s winner.
Even here, Käärijä’s reputation precedes him. “The Finland guy – he has a different vibe,” Lithuania’s contestant told CNN. “When he comes out, it’s dramatic,” Armenia’s added.
Käärijä brags about downing multiple Pina Coladas in his power-rap “Cha Cha Cha,” a track that becomes dramatically less intimidating once its lyrics are run through Google Translate. “I’m not afraid of this world … when I pour champagne on myself,” he warns us.
That unfazed demeanor will serve him well against serious competition. If you believe the bookmakers, he’s locked in a two-horse Nordic showdown with Loreen, Sweden’s returning Eurovision royalty, whose 2012 uber-banger “Euphoria” transcended the contest and became a club staple around Europe.
Winning more than a decade ago was “one of the most important moments in my life,” Loreen told CNN. “Before ‘Euphoria,’ I was a struggling artist trying to find my way.”
Now, she’s one of Eurovision-mad Sweden’s most celebrated entrants ever – perhaps just one victory away from getting her own money-making hologram. Or as she puts it: “I’m a servant of creativity, darling.”
“It’s like home for me, the Eurovision community,” Loreen said. “It’s a safe space for me.”
Drowning in music
In many ways, the battle for this year’s crown symbolizes the two extremes on offer at Eurovision – a polished vocalist with a minimalist, TV-friendly performance going up against a cacophony of delightful Eurosilliness.
But Eurovision has a bit of everything. “This is like the perfect salad of music,” Lithuania’s Monika Linkytė tells CNN. Pi, a member of Germany’s pop metal outfit Lord of the Lost, says Eurovision “reminds me of the ‘Hunger Games’ – but you swap the death for joy, and you swap the competition for companionship.”
Everyone is talking about energy – their energy, the energy of the crowd, the energy of their home countries. Loreen used the word 11 times in a 12-minute interview. There’s so much energy in Liverpool it’s a miracle the lights in the arena haven’t tripped.
Amid the love and joy and energy, though, there’s competition – and some acts have already been jettisoned at the semi-final stage.
Ireland’s Wild Youth, fronted by an Elvis Presley waxwork that someone left in the sun, failed to generate much enthusiasm with “We Are One” – a song that reads like a ChatGPT-generated ode to meaninglessness, and sounds like a commercial for a supermarket’s range of barbecue equipment.
“The truth is they never give Ireland a chance,” the band grumbled in a since-edited Instagram post that went down like a lead balloon among the masses in Liverpool.
Only the strongest 26 contestants can proceed, and the diversity on show is staggering. We have former contestants from the Albanian version of “The Voice,” the Swiss version of “The Voice,” the Georgian version of “The Voice,” and a winner of “Estonian Idol” who can also boast an appearance on the Baltic-region version of “The Voice.”
Many acts are legitimate stars in their home countries, but Eurovision is the great equalizer – so behind every artist is a team of publicists furiously attempting to talk up their talent.
Portugal claims that its singer Mimicat, a real estate agent in a previous life, has “a ‘sassy-badass’ stage presence,” a claim CNN could not independently verify. Georgia’s Iru has been “drowned in music” from an early age, the poor thing. Serbia’s Luke Black doesn’t just make music; he “shapes his own destiny” with “storytelling wrapped in cinematic sounds.” He’s also frequently pictured holding a lobster to his face, presumably for artistic reasons.
Switzerland is less boastful – noting only that Remo Forrer has “solid vocal chords.”
And here’s how Linkytė describes the meaning behind her ballad: “Everything that you have in your mind, it can actually be the truth, I guess. But we are putting so many doubts about the dreams we have that we are not receiving those dreams, mostly.” So that clears that up.
This is, by the way, the most global Eurovision ever. For the first time, viewers all around the world can vote – and while few artists here would cite Tim McGraw or Toby Keith among their inspirations, Americans can still get involved if they watch along on Saturday.
That’s news to Linkytė, though. “They can vote? Are you serious??” she screams. “Americans: I love you so much!”
A lyrical smorgasbord
Brits don’t usually catch Eurovision fever quite as viscerally as their continental friends – perhaps because they haven’t had a winner this millennium – but hosting the show has changed that.
And what a show it is: Last year’s winner and runner-up, Ukrainian rap group Kalush Orchestra and the UK’s Sam Ryder, will each perform on Saturday, as will Ukraine’s majestically unhinged 2007 entrant Verka Serduchka.
Organizers said they rejected a request from President Volodymyr Zelensky to address the show –though his office later claimed he had never made one – but Ukraine’s Tvorchi crushed their dress rehearsal on Friday and are hoping to send a message home.
“We feel a huge sense of responsibility,” one member of the duo, Jeffery, tells CNN. “We know what we have to do; we know what mission we’re here for.”
Flying the British flag is Mae Muller. As is the case with anything fun that happens in Britain ever, her selection briefly infuriated the country’s culture warriors, who expressed outrage after discovering she had once been critical of Boris Johnson. But blowback was softened by the fact that criticizing Johnson has arguably become the country’s most cherished pastime in the past year.
Punk rockers Let 3 are famous for performing naked back home in Croatia. In Liverpool, they’ve made some really – unique? Let’s go with “unique” – costume choices.
Lord of the Lost, meanwhile, provide the obligatory thrust of heavy metal. It may surprise you to learn they supported Iron Maiden on their European tour last year. (It may also surprise you to learn that Iron Maiden are still touring).
But even their lead singer, Chris Harms, is a gentler form of Rock God. Harms has adopted several abandoned kittens – two of which are called Piwo, Polish for “beer” – whom he feeds with a milk bottle. “You can’t let them die, the little f**kers,” he told CNN.
In the hometown of Lennon and McCartney, we have a real lyrical smorgasbord to please the ears on Saturday. Austria’s Teya & Salena tell CNN they went to Eurovision songwriting camp (that’s a thing in Europe, you guys) to create their entry, which describes being inhabited by the ghost of 19th century writer Edgar Allan Poe.
“Maybe someone out there knows where Shakespeare is so I can get a taste,” they sing as they thrash their way through the English-language literary canon.
The deadline to finalize entries came too soon for Armenia’s Brunette, who accidentally submitted the world’s most insufferable Hinge bio instead. “I just wanna make art, read books and just find someone who likes me enough to kiss my face,” she sings. “I wanna explore with him and visit old bookstores.”
The truth is, most artists don’t care about where they end up on the leaderboard after a long, draining, drunken evening on Saturday. “You’re talking to five guys who will win many hearts,” Harms says.
Alas, not everyone has time for that airy fairy nonsense. “I expect to win,” Pasha Parfeni tells me. The bookies don’t agree. But Pasha is Moldova’s Eurovision Guy – he’s been here twice, entered the national selection another few times, and has co-written past entries.
He’s “quite big” back home, he notes in a brooding voice, handing a vape to his media manager, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. “I’m in love with all my songs,” Pasha adds – particularly this year’s. He even provides some totally impartial analysis, free of charge. “The meaning is pretty deep, we have a lot of layers here,” he says.
Whoever wins, this year’s Eurovision has reignited Britain’s love for the contest and pulled together an incredibly strong selection of talent.
And, of course, energy. Loreen says that if she wins, her first task will be to “send back some energies” to her team. “And I’m gonna have, maybe, a glass of wine.”