The first Eurovision contest dates back to May 1956, and it’s highly unlikely that founder Marcel Bezençon could have imagined that the wildly famous pan-European song competition would one day give us the likes of dancing grannies, rapping astronauts, and the almighty Ukrainian drag queen Verka Serduchka. As the contest has grown, a different type of competition has emerged aside from a country trying to show off its ear for a catchy three-minute tune — bizarre costumes, staging, and choreography have opened up another way to make international pop history. As many of its most unforgettable moments prove, some of the best Eurovision competitors involve one country submitting a performance with simple hopes that millions of others will either tap their feet or get the joke.
The new Netflix comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is about two such performers, with Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams playing musicians who dream of winning first place for their native Iceland. They earnestly believe in their flashy, kitschy costumes and their hopeful hit “Double Trouble,” presented as just one act in an entire roster of kooky performers. But in reality, the contest is filled with more self-awareness, as nations have taken to being tongue in cheek with their annual submissions.
Below is a collection of performances that took a mad dash to the strange and unforgettable side of Eurovision history, many of them seemingly supported by countries without ever meaning to seriously win. Good luck getting these songs, and their performances, out of your head.
This list is going to focus mostly on the modern iteration of Eurovision — performances that come after 1999, when the contest got rid of live orchestra accompaniment in favor of backing tracks — but we’ve got to honor the catchy penguin ditty “Papa Pingouin” and the costumes it gave the world. Luxembourg’s 1980 submission featured singing sisters Sophie and Magaly in bright, triangular tuxedo suits that predate Klaus Nomi’s similar fashion, accompanied by a tall man who waddles around onstage in a large sequin penguin costume (the backup singers were in penguin sequins, too). Eurovision entries sometimes waver between bleeding-heart power ballads and eager dance tunes, but this one is silly just for the sake of it, advancing an attitude that would inform countless playful and memorable entries from the decades to come.
Some countries seem to offer submissions that intentionally throw their chances of victory into the trash, but it was a Lithuanian supergroup that declared themselves winners from the very first sentence. Bringing some pompous sarcasm to the contest’s playful nature, “We Are the Winners” forces audiences to associate its title phrase with their hooky melody, bouncing along like a Green Day song sans crunchy guitars. Performed with specific minimalism, the act featured the men standing on the stage and eyeing the camera, until one of them breaks out into flailing dance moves to the tune of a violin solo. Though the tune only went to sixth place, LT United nonetheless succeeded in stealing a piece of Eurovision history.
“Dancing Lasha Tumbai,” from Ukraine’s silver-adorned drag queen Verka Serduchka, is undoubtedly one of Eurovision’s most famous performances. Her performance was out of this world at the 2007 contest, where she looked like she dropped in from a space disco that specialized in sequin dresses. Driven by a repetitive accordion hook, the song has Serduchka marching around the stage in high heels with a big star on her head. Her outfit alone helped make this an iconic moment, but the song achieved its own history when it ended up winning second place that year.
For some reason, Switzerland wanted to earnestly tell Eurovision audiences that vampires were indeed alive, and also that “we will be forever young.” Built around these vampiric sentiments, this peppy banger from DJ BoBo is total Eurovision-grade cheese. There’s no bloodsucking here, but plenty of fierce looks with questionable hair and makeup choices.
Flight attendants don’t have many songs to call their own, but the United Kingdom sought to adjust that with the anthem “Flying the Flag,” as performed by bubblegum-pop group Scooch. This performance was pure flight-attendant campiness, with beverage carts and preflight instructions incorporated into dance moves and lyrics that barely conceal their innuendos (“Would you like something to suck on for the landing?”). It’s one of those Eurovision performances that aimed for a big wink more than anything else; they even made sure to include a metal detector onstage.
Eurovision’s history of silliness hit another high point when puppet Dustin the Turkey took the stage in 2008, performing his not-so-subtle earworm “Irelande Douze Pointe.” As a cheeky bid for 12-point votes (the highest any nation can give to another), it was performed by the puppet and accompanied by high-energy dancers meant to look like Irish turkeys. The song leaned into the nation’s desperation of getting points from other nations, even to the point of self-deprecation: “Give us another chance / we’re sorry for Riverdance.” The performance won 15th place.
Sometimes, a country’s Eurovision submission seems written by the costumes first, as is the case with the Latvian group Pirates of the Sea. Their 2008 submission, “Wolves of the Sea,” was basically little more than a pirate costume party that happened to have singing, fist-pumping, and a generic beat. To their credit, the Latvian group commits to their wobbly plastic swords, kitschy costumes, and simple choreography. It was enough to get the song placed 12th.
Comedian Rodolfo Chikilicuatre, wearing an Elvis-esque wig, opened his Eurovision performance with a toy-guitar riff that led into his reggaeton goof “Baila el Chiki-Chiki.” It’s a performance designed to disrupt the usual smoothness of a Eurovision dance routine, with one dancer even making a point to constantly stagger after she initially falls to the ground. All the while, Chikilicuatre’s lyrics are full of sly political references, cementing this as a deep troll move from Spain that adds to the contest’s overall absurdity.
We have Ukraine and Svetlana Loboda to thank for a Eurovision performance that breathlessly mixes sexy Roman soldiers, a blinding light show, and a set piece that features three massive gears. And yet before you even get your bearings, the high-energy Loboda gets behind a drum set and performs a solo while surrounded by Ukrainian flags and pyrotechnics, sneaking a wink into the middle of it all. The lyrics to “Be My Valentine (Anti-Crisis Girl)” might seem like they were devised in a factory, but this must-see moment from Eurovision history is assuredly not.
Rap does not have an expansive history in the Eurovision contest, but it does have one standout moment from 2013. The rap duo Who See put on astronaut suits for their hardcore rap/dubstep song “Igranka,” set amid a haze of smoke and green lasers. It then got even nuttier when singer Nina Žižić emerged from the floor in a makeshift cyborg costume, inspiring the two rappers to pretend like they’re moving in slow motion. The whole thing was presented with complete seriousness, which somehow makes Montenegro’s musical statement (which took 12th place that year) even more spectacular.
The closest that Eurovision ever got to producing a mosh pit arguably came in 2015 thanks to Finland. That’s when they sent punk-rock band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät to barrel through their minor-key power chords and garage-ready riffs, performing “Aina Mun Pitää,” the shortest song in the contest’s history. Rarely does a Eurovision song rock this hard (even harder than Lordi’s winning “Hard Rock Hallelujah”), with lead vocalist Kari Aalto screaming through his words with dissonant abandon. Sometimes the most standout Eurovision moments don’t involve the highs and lows of pop music, but rather triumphs of head-banging alternative music.
Slavko Kalezic’s commanding performances of his disco ballad “Space” is one for the books. Maybe it’s the seductive eyes, the mesh see-through shirt, and the lyrics about rocketing to the stars. But what truly launches it into the hall of fame is the moment when Kalezic grabs his long ponytail and twirls it around it onstage, like some sort of sexy helicopter. While crowded productions and flashy set pieces have their place, sometimes all you need for an unforgettable Eurovision performance is the right person and the right delightfully cheesy song (though a long, thick rope of ponytail helps, too).