On a stage where contestants sweat ambition, it's only fitting that someone would rock up singing a song called "Popular." Eric Saade, Sweden's offering at Eurovision 2011, uses his three minutes to convey his desire for pan-European stardom -- and the groupies that accompany it. "I'm trying to say that I want to be number one, and I want to get there on my own," he told me in a recent interview. Any inspirations for that? "I love Robbie Williams because he is a #1 entertainer, and also Justin Timberlake because he is the #1 performer." So much for singing for the love of singing.
In the official video for "Popular," the obsession with being on top sees Eric don his biggest pair of aviator sunglasses before convincing his boys to join him in an event called "Dance Battle." In a scene straight out of She's All That, he and his posse twist and gyrate and draw attention to their crotches in a well-choreographed bid to win a bartender twice Eric's age. The lyrics suggest that fame will lead him straight to a bed of his choosing.
I will be popular, I will be popular/ I'm gonna get there, popular/ My body wants you girl, my body wants you girl/ I get you when I'm popular
He may not be far off the mark. In Sweden, Eurovision paves the way to riches and esteem in a way no other television show can. It stems partly from the country's rich Eurovision history. ABBA, which famously won the contest for Sweden in 1973 with a ditty called "Waterloo," went on to conquer the world, giving the contest immense street cred in Stockholm. To honor that legacy, the state broadcaster pours big bucks into the show. Melodifestivalen, the country's national selection contest, airs Saturdays during primetime for six weeks every spring. It's sheer spectacle: last year Eric sang a song called "Manboy" and danced beneath an on-stage shower, and this year he literally broke out of a glass cage at the climax of his song. In recent years up to 44 percent of the entire population have tuned into the finale, and the country's biggest music stars clamor for a chance to compete.
For Eric -- who saw off competition from 31 other acts en route to his victory -- the road to Eurovision glory took an ugly turn in April. Tvoy Den -- a Russian tabloid -- suggested that Eric's Eurovision dance sequence resembled old routines from this year's Russian entry -- Alexey Vorobyov. Alexey, who has chosen the more friendly stage name Alex Sparrow for Eurovision, is still picking his jaw up from the floor. "It is simply outrageous!" the paper quoted him as saying. "I would not pay attention to it if it was repeated just once. Can't the Swedish participant hire himself a choreographer, who will be able to stage his own dance?" Subsequently papers accused Eric of stealing his glass cage idea from Alexey too, and videos like this started cropping up on YouTube:
The controversy reached a climax in mid-April when Eric arrived in Moscow to perform "Popular" on the Russian program Stars Factory. Alexey's team reportedly urged producers to cancel Eric's appearance, saying it would be unpatriotic to give him airtime. For peace-loving Sweden, belligerent Russia had crossed a line."Eric had no idea who this Alexey was until we showed him this YouTube clip last Thursday," Tomas Lingman, Eric's manager, said of the scandal. "And the rest is, of course, just a cheap way to create headlines. I personally and Eric as an artist have been exposed to a series of attacks by Alexey's people during this weekend. I can only regret that they choose to play these dirty games." Meow! (For the record, Alexey's team has denied any game-playing, and placed the blame on Alexey's YouTube fans.)
Last year Sweden learned that its Eurovision legacy doesn't make it invincible. The country crashed out in the semi-finals for the first time in the contest's history, and an entire nation mourned. Eric sees that as a good thing: "That makes it better for me because if we get to the finals this year that will be a success."
He'll have no problem achieving that. Eric competes in the second semi-final, and bookies have consistently rated him as the contestant third or fourth most likely to win. As of May 5, he is also the third most-googled Eurovision contestant according to Google's Eurovision 2011 prediction tool. That suggests he'll do well in terms of the popular vote, which makes up 50 percent of the final score. And given that Sweden's producers rule the world (Madonna and Lady Gaga, among others, rely on their tricks), Eric will do well with the professional jury.
In the final, Eric's chances may hinge on Europe's appetite for electro-pop. "Popular" is one of the few numbers you could legitimately hear playing at a club. But that's not necessarily a good thing. The five acts that bookies place ahead of Eric include France -- an opera number about losing a loved one -- and Azerbaijan -- a modern ballad comprised of mid-tempo cheese. Fortunately for Eric, his staging still includes the controversial glass cage. If it makes the same impact in Düsseldorf that it made in Stockholm a few months ago, Eric will cruise to a Top 5 finish. Given the strength of the competition, though, a win is out of the question.