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Get ready for the Singing Competition World Cup: Eurovision semi-finals start today

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If “American Idol” is football, Eurovision is the World Cup. The much-celebrated competition is a global obsession, especially in Europe. The first round of the semi-finals begins today, and we’ll do our best to explain what’s so appealing about a European singing competition that’s been going on for 60 years.

For starters, unlike “Idol” — which Fox recently announced would end its TV run next year — Eurovision isn’t a continental karaoke contest. You have to sing your own song. This can yield some…interesting results. See: Poland 2014 for a mix of Polish traditionalism and unexpectedly bloated hip-hop swagger.

This year’s favorites are mostly contemporary. A good number of them sing in English, so even American viewers can understand what they’re saying without subtitles.

The appeal of Eurovision is not limited to Europe. It is so cult in Australia that the country received a special dispensation this year to participate on an ad hoc basis. It looks like Australia is making the most of it with its representative, Guy Sebastian, the first winner of ‘Australian Idol’.

Here are the basics: Seven countries (Australia, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, UK and Spain) are automatically qualified for the final, which will take place on May 23. Austria have automatically scored a spot since Conchita Wurst won last year. Australia are allowed to compete just for kicks despite not being part of Europe. The other five countries essentially bought their place in the final; they are allowed to bypass the semi-finals due to the large contributions they make to the European Broadcasting Union.

The remaining finalists will be drawn from two semi-finals, with 10 acts from each progressing to the final. Yes, it’s a final with 27 countries, in which the competing acts again sing the same song they sang in the semi-finals. It can get a bit repetitive. Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Macedonia, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Serbia and the Countries Netherlands are competing today, with 10 of those 16 countries advancing. Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland play each other on Thursday for a chance to qualify. in the next round.

Russia has become accustomed to threatening to boycott all production; he sees competition as promoting homosexuality. It was do not happy when Wurst, the bearded drag queen from Austria, won last year with “Rise Like a Phoenix”. Austria, which is hosting this year, has responded with some truly top-notch trolling and has incorporated same-sex couple symbols into its very infrastructure in Vienna.

So far, Sweden, Italy and Australia seem to be the favorites to win the whole shebang, according to betting sites such as Oddschecker and Eurovision World.

Let’s take a look at the favorites:

Australian Sebastian has something of an Ed Sheeran-esque quality.

Italian Il Volo seems like what would happen if someone said, “What if we crossover the Three Tenors and the Jonas Brothers and one of them wears Sally Jessy Raphael glasses?” Everything about this clip is delightfully over the top. Bonus points to Il Volo for recreating the pot-tossing scene from “Ghost”. You have our hearts forever.

Then there is Måns Zelmerlöw from Sweden. A lot of bands tend to go for big, dramatic ballads. It makes sense – this type of song features range while having emotional appeal. (Hello, “Rise Like a Phoenix.”) But Zelmerlöw is betting on a country-tinged dance anthem.

UK’s Electro Velvet is unlikely to win, but you can still experience their 1920s electro-swing vibe that incorporates nods to Stephane Grappelli and ‘The Great Gatsby’. They’re fun, but they’re also low on the list on betting sites.

The group has already been the subject of much controversy in Britain. Telegraph music critic Neil McCormick ranted loudly against the duo, writing that their selection to represent the UK “demonstrated [the BBC’s] pledge never to host Eurovision. He continued:

Surveying all of this country’s incredible musical talent, an anonymous BBC committee has decided that our representatives at Europe’s first televised music competition should be a made-up cabaret duo featuring the frontman of a Rolling Stones tribute act and a girl who failed the blind audition for the latest series of The Voice performing an ersatz music hall jazz trifle written to order by a seasoned professional jingle writer behind the theme of Jim’ll Fix It .

They delivered a rather flat performance last week on the “Graham Norton Show”, showing what is probably their biggest weakness: Eurovision only allows six performers, including singers, on stage. Much of the energy of Electro Velvet’s music video comes from their many extras.

You can watch today’s semi-finals live on eurovision.tv. It starts at 3 p.m. EST.

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