Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
Azerbaijan, which has recently jailed human rights protesters, cracked down on dissidents, and ignored politically motivated murders, might not seem like the most likely place for Eurovision's 2012 Song Contest. Unfortunately, the storm of criticism for the government in Baku isn't quite loud enough to drown out the music itself. From Russian babushkas imploring the audience to "come on and boom-boom" to mohawked male Irish twins in tin-man jumpsuits whose music was once declared an "act of war," here's a round-up of seven contestants who shouldn't have made the trip. And people wonder why America is still the king of cultural exports.
Russia: Buranovskiye Babushki - "Party For Everybody"
Parties aren't just for Miley Cyrus and the U.S.A. anymore. The Buranovskiye Babushkis are grandmothers, all originally from the village of Buranovo in the Udmurt Republic. There were eight of them, but only six are allowed to appear at Eurovision. The grannies wrote the song themselves in their native tongue, Udmurt. This isn't the babushkas' first time at Eurovision; in 2010 they performed "Dlinnaja-Dlinnaja Beresta I Kak Sdelat Iz Nee Aishon" ("Very long birch bark and how to turn it into a turban"), finishing third. If they win this year, the grandmothers say they'll use their new cash monies to build a church in their village.
Ireland: Jedward - "Waterline"
On a trip to Dublin last year, President Barack Obama was subjected to a concert by Jedward, which Fox News declared an "act of war." The 21-year old Irish twins are best known for their puffs of bleached hair, and their biggest hit until now was a mash-up of Queen and Vanilla Ice (we can only assume that hum in the background is Freddie Mercury spinning in his grave). Eurovision isn't their first time in the spotlight; they've also been on X Factor and Celebrity Big Brother, where they made friends with Tara Reid (who later starred in one of their music videos). In Baku, their biggest problem has been that the sequins on their costumes keep falling off and jamming the shower that douses them during the song's finale.
Montenegro: Rambo Amadeus - "Euro Neuro"
Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kwali — meet Rambo. He's Montenegro's most socially conscientious rapper, and yes, his stage name is a reference to both John Rambo and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He's worried about the "post-industrial informatics revolution going on" right now, and yet lays down rhymes like "only one rule/always stay cool/like a swimming pool." At Eurovision, he shares the stage with a giant Trojan horse, which Rambo claims is actually a donkey. As Rambo himself says, "I am good with words. And by the way, I am also good with music so I can go to places which are beyond any description."
San Marino: Valentina Monetta - "The Social Network Song (Uh, Uh, Oh, Oh)"
As if the IPO debacle wasn't enough embarrassment for Facebook this week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg also has to deal with a middle-aged aspiring pop star from a tiny country inside Italy waxing lyrical about the casual sex she procured on his site. The original title was the Facebook Song (Uh, Uh, Oh, Oh), but it had to be changed to meet the Eurovision rule prohibiting commercial messages. The song begins innocently enough, talking about "logging in with friends," but quickly progresses to "Do you wanna be more than just a friend?" and "Do you wanna play cybersex again?"
Latvia: Anmary - "Beautiful Song"
A songstress from Latvia, Anmary changed her name from Linda just for the contest. But a singer by any other name is still as vapid — here's a sample of her incisive (and insipid) lyrics:
"And the day when Sir Mick Jagger phones me
Tell him please that I am very busy
Writing songs with Paul McCartney
"So sorry, Mick, I'll call you back, one day I'll call you back."
It's doubtful Mr. Jagger is waiting by the phone.
Slovakia: Max Jason Mai - "Don't Close Your Eyes"
Max Jason Mai is a 23-year old rock musician sporting a six pack, a hair-metal mane, and a modicum of musical talent. A departure from the soft pop that is the usual Eurovision fare, Max made a name for himself by transforming the other competing songs into a medley of hard rock versions. But he's not all about head-banging: In an interview with ESC Daily, Max explained that he also likes "yoga, love, and nature." Opening up about his softer side, Max told the magazine he "reveres all living beings, that's why he's vegetarian and he doesn't wear clothes made from leather, as he wouldn't want to be a handbag either."
Iceland: Greta Salome and Jonsi - "Never Forget"
Originally titled "Mundu eftir mer," "Never Forget" is the English translation of the song, which was written in Icelandic. Jonsi — not related to the Jonsi of Sigur Ros — recently starred in the Icelandic version of Grease, a huge blockbuster for the island, and his partner Greta plays in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. But although some popular hits have made it across Iceland's frosty borders to broader audiences, don't expect to see this song make anyone's favorite playlist.