BAKU, Azerbaijan – A memorable melody. Distinctive stage presence. Some horse-trading of votes.
Those are secrets to success in the annual Eurovision Song Contest, a televised pan-European extravaganza viewed by some 125 million people worldwide that is now entering its 57th year.
The winner is picked by juries and television viewers across the continent. Semifinals this week have whittled down the entries to 26. A smorgasbord of revealing outfits and onstage preening is expected at Saturday's final, but gray-haired acts from the U.K and Russia are stealing most of the attention.
Here's a look at favorites and wacky wonders:
Engelbert Humperdinck of the U.K. had turned 20 and was already a seasoned pop performer by the time the first Eurovision Song Contest was held — in 1956. In the 1960s, his manager convinced him to change his stage name from Gerry Dorsey to Engelbert Humperdinck — after a 19th century German composer — and he went on to become a less raunchy version of Tom Jones. Amid all of Eurovision's hyper-kinetic dance and pop acts, the 76-year-old's "Love Will Set You Free" stands out as good old-fashioned crooning.
The gray hairs are taking over Eurovision. The (old) girls from Buranovskiye Babushki from the Russian Urals are doing their bit to confirm all those stereotypes about shawl-wearing grannies. They are almost certainly the first Eurovision contestants to perform part of their song in the obscure Udmurt language, which is distantly related to Finnish. Their sheer adorableness gives them universal appeal and their folky, up-tempo "Party for Everybody" is hard to dislike completely.
The irrepressibly, and often annoyingly, enthusiastic Jedward twins from Ireland first came to prominence in 2009 on the British television talent show "The X Factor." They failed to win but have since fashioned a faintly successful pop career. They are competing for the second year running, possibly because the last thing Ireland wants now is to win and have to host the expensive contest next year. Jedward's song "Waterline" is pretty odious fare, both tinny and thumping at the same time.
Sweden's Loreen is the bookmakers' runaway favorite. The 28-year-old of Moroccan-Berber descent easily swept aside all rivals in Sweden's competition to pick its entrant for Eurovision. Her song "Euphoria" even stands a chance of fair international commercial success — it's already topped the Swedish charts for six weeks and gone platinum five times.
Romania's entry, a band fronted by sultry vocalist Elena Ionescu, is performing its richly overdone attempt at exotica in both Spanish and English, possibly seeking the Iberian vote. It's song "Zaleilah" is a global mishmash: Cuban horns, lashings of salsa, a generous dollop of Gypsy frenzy, and even a smattering of bagpipes. An earphone malfunction hurt rehearsals but bookmakers still expect a strong showing.
At the staid end of the spectrum, Serbia's Zeljko Joksimovic is playing it straight with his slow and stripped-down "Nije Ljubav Stvar." He is a Eurovision veteran, having come second in 2004 and penned Serbia's entries in 2006 and 2008. He has struck an international note by releasing versions of his song in English, Spanish and Russian — and even produced an Azeri version this week at a party in Baku. His chances aren't bad — countries from the former Yugoslavia often perform well due to their habit of voting for one another.
"Out of Love" is a brassy, lively ode by Italy's Nina Zilli that could spring a surprise. Italy has passed on the competition most years, citing a lack of interest, but Zilli's confident performance could turn that around. The first part of her stage name is a tribute to jazz artist Nina Simone, and if you listen really really hard, you can hear those hints of soul.