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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Some 100 million Europeans will tune in on Saturday for the annual giddy, big-hair-and-glitter Eurovision song contest that delights in stretching the limits of good taste, of what is music, and who is European.
Traveling from Iceland's Atlantic shores to Russia's Pacific coast, Turkey and Israel at Europe's southern fringes, most acts feature novelty costumes, outlandish arrangements and choreography, and nonsensical lyrics in a mishmash of languages.
"It's a cult thing," said sociologist Steve Aldred, who noted Eurovision brought people together for a big night in, much like the Super Bowl in the United States.
"The awfulness of it is part of the pleasure."
Merit aside, Eurovision commands a loyal following of fans who paid thousands to get to Belgrade, a city that was bombed by the West only nine years ago. The Serbian capital hosts the event's 53rd incarnation, the biggest so far with 43 countries.
The wacky good cheer is rubbing off: Belgraders talk odds and plan dining menus for the final, while hardened journalists wave flags and squeal like schoolgirls in news conferences. One gave the Latvian entrants some "lucky underwear" as a gift.
The artists also take it very seriously: a photo opportunity for Georgia's Diana Gurtskaya had her releasing doves from a cage, singing her "Peace Will Come" as she set the birds free.
"It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be an artist in this contest, honestly," said Poland's Isis Gee after qualifying to the final. "I feel like God is really watching over me."
Philip Bohlman, professor of Music at the University of Chicago, said individuals and nations are attracted to the aspects of national and nationalist expression in Eurovision.
"Sometimes national means sounding like folk music, at other times projecting something more political, even aesthetic, like Lordi's victory in 2006 for Finland, a country with an extremely sophisticated metal culture." Bohlman said.
"The massive television audience for the finale is probably the single event in which the largest number of Europeans gather to witness the complexities and differences in their common identity."
Music has always had close links to cultural identity and nationalism. When nation states started emerging in the 19th century, composers created national music by merging the folk heritage of their people into pan-European classical forms.
"In Eurovision this local flavor has now been sacrificed in favor of mass appeal, most songs are in English, you can't tell which country is which," said musicologist Paris Konstantinidis.
"It's not about music but about winning, like a football game, but as women are also interested the audience is double."
The link to national identity, however, is no less emotive. In Western Europe the event is treated firmly tongue in cheek but for smaller or newer European nations it's a national issue.
"Countries from the Eastern bloc are interested in the contest out of insecurity," Konstantinidis said, "they are unsure of their place in Europe and feel the need not only to take part but do well, be a force to be reckoned with.
Petar Popovic, Serbia's most famous music critic said that for a country with a troubled recent history like Serbia, Eurovision was a great chance to promote the nation's positive qualities: hospitality and a fun-loving spirit.
The country was an isolated pariah in the 1990s for its role in the Yugoslav wars. Nationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic fell in 2000 but Serbia still has a love-hate relationship with the West and a lingering reputation for defiant nationalism.
"Visitors will see us in a new light as friendly, nice people, something much in contrast to Serbia's image now," said Popovic. "This will help defuse our paranoia, show Serbs the rest of Europe is not against us, the world does not hate us."
Kruno Vidic, a journalist for Croatian state radio, said the event was helping repair Serbia's image even among neighbors it was at war with only 15 years ago.
"Pop culture is the best kind of diplomacy, light notes are something we all understand," Vidic said. "It's a bridge, helps people put aside the hard politics."
Between musings on the politics, choreography and singers' sex appeal, few pause on the artistic value of the songs.
"Maybe an anthropologist would say any expression is art, including Eurovision," Konstantinidis said. "It's subjective, but most songs don't stand the test of time. It's more a soundtrack written for the main attraction, the show."
Editing by Paul Casciato