In the run-up to this year's Eurovision Song Contest, celebrity contestants dominated the headlines and the bookies' odds tables. Britain's boy band Blue which has sold 13 million records worldwide since 2001 flew the British flag. And Jedward the world's most famous set of singing identical twins, who finished sixth on Britain's The X Factor represented Ireland. But during the grand finale, held Saturday evening, May 14, in Düsseldorf's Esprit Arena, European voters bypassed all the celebrity hype in favor of Ell & Nikki two unknowns from Azerbaijan singing a ballad about the madness of love. "I'm just a housewife with two kids," Nikki (real name: Nigar Jamal) said at the press conference afterward. "My only dream was to represent my country."
It's easy to understand why. Although critics dismiss Eurovision as a cultural eyesore for its garish outfits and lyrics seemingly written with Google Translate, it remains the world's most watched nonsporting event, drawing more than 120 million viewers annually. Tens of thousands of fans fill the ranks of the Organisation Générale des Amateurs de l'Eurovision (OGAE), the international network of Eurovision fan clubs, which has chapters in 34 countries. And from Armenia to Greece to Sweden, national selection contests which are televised in prime time over several weeks are the most popular programs on TV. For the devoted fans who make pilgrimages to these finals, and for the contestants dreaming of pan-European stardom, Eurovision is practically their religion, its songs their holy scripture.
In fact, for those fans, who travel from as far afield as Hong Kong and Australia, the cheesy, over-the-top aspect of Eurovision performances is part of the appeal. This year's Swedish contestant literally broke through a glass cage on stage while singing "My body wants you, girl/ My body wants you, girl." The Moldovan act included a woman dressed as a fairy on a unicycle and digital gnomes flying across the stage's LED screen (the largest in the world). And the Ukrainian act focused less on singer Mika Newton and her song "Angel" than on Kseniya Simonova, the sand artist and YouTube hit, who drew clouds, planets and angels in sand while Newton howled into a wind machine.
But look past the glitter and sequins, and the contest transforms into a barometer of contemporary Europe. Belarus' Anastasiya Vinnikova delivered a patriotic ode to her motherland called "I Love Belarus," an effort to give the nation something to sing about following months of mass demonstrations against embattled President Alexander Lukashenko. "I love Belarus/ Got it deep inside/ I love Belarus/ Feel it in my mind," she sang in a slinky dress as flames shot 100 ft. (30 m) into the air. Despite the rise of far-right, anti-immigrant parties in Norway in recent years, voters there chose to send Kenyan-born Stella Mwangi to Düsseldorf. A pioneer of Norway's hip-hop scene, she penned a song in Swahili and English called "Haba Haba" (Little by Little), partly about the perseverance that helped her family, who are political refugees, adjust to life up north. "There were days when, if you were Norwegian, you had to look a certain way or talk a certain way," she tells TIME. "Norway proved those days are over."
Most controversial was Portugal's entry, Homens da Luta, who many felt violated Eurovision's rule banning songs with overtly political messages. Written in March as Portugal teetered toward bankruptcy, their song "Luta é Alegria" (The Struggle Is Joy) criticized the government's proposed austerity measures. "Bring on the bread/ Bring on the cheese/ Bring on the wine," sang the sextet, dressed as working-class Portuguese protesters. "Come celebrate this situation/ And let us sing against reaction!" Sung at protests throughout the country in March, the song became an anthem of rebellion against Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who ultimately resigned.
At Eurovision, though, European voters sent the popular, outspoken group packing in the semifinals. Perhaps they should have taken a cue from the Azeris, who ignored politics in favor of good old-fashioned schmaltz the cornerstone of any strong Eurovision ballad. Their song "Running Scared" tells the story of a man and woman frightened by their mutual obsession. Because the moments they share are so perfect and their love so tender, the simple act of breathing could make it all fall apart. "I'm running, I'm scared tonight/ I'm running, I'm scared of life/ I'm running, I'm scared of breathing/ 'Cause I adore you." After the victory, it looks like Europe adores them too.