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Azerbaijan triumphs in Eurovision Song Contest

By Charlie Amter, Special to CNN
Eldar and Nikki celebrate their victory in the Eurovision Song Contest in Dusseldorf, Germany, on Saturday.
Eldar and Nikki celebrate their victory in the Eurovision Song Contest in Dusseldorf, Germany, on Saturday.
  • Eldar and Nikki of Azerbaijan win with sweet pop song "Running Scared"
  • Italy is second, Sweden third in contest viewed by fans across Europe
  • Viewer votes and music industry jury combine to determine winner
  • Last year's winner, Germany's Lena, came in 10th
  • Azerbaijan
  • Lady GaGa

(CNN) -- While several European countries have long had their own versions of "American Idol," the longest running televised pop music competition where fans choose their favorite songs and singers is Europe's Eurovision Song Contest, now in its 56th year.

Saturday evening, Azerbaijan won the 2011 running of the annual competition, with a sweet pop song that Europe slowly fell in love with during the course of the contest, titled "Running Scared," by Eldar and Nikki (also known as Ell/Nikki).

The song, somewhat of a surprise winner to many, beat out early favorites from France and England to win over Italy and Sweden. Sweden's Eric Saade was winning the contest in the early going, until it became apparent that Eldar and Nikki would run away with a trophy. Ironically, Swedes Stefan Örn and Sandra Bjurman wrote Azerbaijan's song, making Saturday night a win for Sweden all around -- Saade came in third at the competition. Italy's Raphael Gualazzi was second.

But the true victors Saturday were Azerbaijan's Eldar and Nikki, who seemed stunned yet ecstatic just after the ceremony.

"We're very happy right now. ... We're very proud," said Eldar Gasimov at a post-show press conference.

The winner was determined by fans across Europe who voted by phone, and a jury made up of music industry professionals. Saturday's final capped off two weeks of fanfare surrounding the event, and followed two semifinals and a kind of dress rehearsal, a jury final, on Friday evening.

Some 36,000 watched Saturday's Grand Final event live from a stadium in Dusseldorf, Germany, which was chosen as the host city for 2011 after Germany won the song competition in 2010 with Lena's "Satellite."

It was the first time in 28 years Germany had played host to Eurovision fans. Lena, who represented Germany again in 2011 to defend her title, did not do quite as well this year, with her "Taken By A Stranger" placing 10th. "Satellite" wowed crowds last year, making Lena a star in Germany seen often on TV and on billboards.

Ratings for Saturday's grand finale fared well around Europe, but within Germany, semifinal viewership was down this year, with some German newspapers citing "Lena fatigue" as one reason fewer Germans seemed excited in 2011 for the annual pop music contest.

Conversely, interest in the annual competition spiked this year in English-speaking countries, largely due to strong contenders from both the United Kingdom (contemporary boy band Blue) and Ireland, which sent a pair of identical twins (Jedward). BBC ratings for both semifinals earlier this week nearly doubled last year's numbers.

The number of English and Irish fans also seemed high Saturday night in Germany, where UK tourists swarmed Dusseldorf's arena, showing patriotism with the kind of colorful clothing usually reserved for soccer matches. Ratings for Saturday's final were also up in Spain and Austria compared with 2010 viewership, according to newspaper reports.

So what's behind the enduring appeal of the Eurovision Song Contest for fans from as far away as Australia?

According to John Kennedy O'Connor, who wrote "The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official History," it's a mix of curiosity and love of music.

"You can come at it from any angle you like," he said outside the arena Friday before the jury final, which precedes the actual grand final and makes up 50% of the vote determining who wins the annual competition.

"One can watch it to see how appallingly bad the talent will be, or one can watch it to see how good it's going to be. ... Neither of those opinions is invalid," he said. "It's an entertainment show."

And the entertainment was there during Saturday's Grand Final, with production values approaching something like a U2 concert -- think state-of-the-art indoor pyrotechnics and lighting displays tailored to each individual country's stage set.

While many Americans were unaware the competition took place this past week, the United States did have a stake in the game, via a few U.S.-based songwriters, who were likely watching online Saturday, awaiting results.

Los Angeles-based songwriters in particular were paying attention. Gus Seyffert and Nicole Morier wrote Lena's "Taken By A Stranger," while Beverly Hills' Bryan Todd co-wrote TWiiNS' "I'm Still Alive" for Slovakia.

But the biggest L.A.-based name who generated interest in Eurovision this year was Lady Gaga producer RedOne. The songsmith co-wrote Russia's entry for 2011, Alex Sparrow's "Get You," which didn't fare as well Saturday night as many had hoped, yet still impressed many.

"The universal language is music," the songwriter said from a private pressroom before the event Saturday night, after a crush of Russian photographers snapped pictures of him and Sparrow together. "All the borders are falling away (because of the Internet)," said the hitmaker, currently riding high on world pop charts with his and J-Lo's hot "On The Floor."

"Songwriting has no boundaries," he added, noting he had been tweeting about his newly signed Russian artist, Sparrow, who performed in the finals Saturday. "I grew up watching Eurovision," said the producer, who lived in Sweden before immigrating to America.

So will Americans care next year about a televised song competition which doesn't air in the U.S.? RedOne, for one, hopes so.

"It's a beautiful contest because it's all about the songs and the artists," he said. "It's like 'Idol,' but with original songs. Americans should really get into it."

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