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A Heavy Dose Of Glitter, Pyrotechnics and Politics At Eurovision 2016

Another year, another grand spectacle at the Eurovision Song Contest.

At Saturday's Grand Final in Stockholm, Sweden, there were pyrotechnics and glitter. There were power ballads. There were light-up dresses and costumes that rendered performers immobile. There were Cypriot rockers performing in smoke-filled cages, and British boy bands. There were capes. (Unfortunately, there were no holograms of wolves – Belarus was eliminated in the Semi-Final.)

The annual contest pits more than 40 countries against each other, as the Two-Way has reported in this handy primer. It draws tens of millions more viewers than the Super Bowl.

If you missed the live event yesterday, you can catch it on demand here via its U.S. broadcaster, Logo.

Ukraine's Jamala was the unexpected winner with her haunting song "1944," which recounts the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars under Stalin's orders during World War II.

To say this song is serious is an understatement. In fact, this is how it opens: "When strangers are coming / They come to your house / They kill you all, and say 'we're not guilty.' ... You think you are gods, but everyone dies.'"

Politics are never far from the glittery surface at Eurovision – indeed, The Guardian says it was "seen by many as the most politicised version of the competition to date." Many have interpreted "1944" as a thinly-veiled anti-Russian anthem, considering Russia's annexation of Crimea two years ago. As we reported, Jamala, who is Tatar, maintains the song is "personal."

However, speaking to The Guardian after her win, she says it has current relevance:

"Of course it's about 2014 as well. These two years have added so much sadness to my life. Imagine – you're a creative person, a singer, but you can't go home for two years. You see your grandfather on Skype, who is 90 years old and ill, but you can't visit him. What am I supposed to do: just sing nice songs and forget about it? Of course I can't do that."

After her win, she told reporters that "I was sure that, if you sing about truth, it can really touch people. And I was right." She added that she dedicated the performance to her great-grandmother and said she prepared for the performance by listening to the soundtrack of Schindler's List.

Russian officials have complained about the song, The Telegraph reports, but "the Geneva-based organisers decided the song was not in breach of the competition's rules against political speech."

Russia is probably particularly unhappy with the result considering it was their entry that was heavily favored to win. Sergey Lazarev deployed particularly strong visuals (Wings! Glaciers! Lightning! Space!) in his performance of "You Are The Only One:"

Russia ended up in third, and Australia took the second-place spot.

Reporter Andrew Jones was in the arena in Stockholm and describes the suspense to The Two-Way:

"There was lots of tension in the reveal. It's a new format, which meant that it wasn't clear until the very last result was read. So people were hunched forward in their seats staring at the results screen, unsure of what was going to happen."

He adds that Australia had actually been in the top spot with only the votes of industry professionals counted, "and people were genuinely surprised when they lost their lead when the tele-voting was factored in."

Here's Australia's entry, Dami Im's soaring ballad "Sound of Silence," which was the critic's favorite:

Wondering why Australia is a part of the European contest? As we reported: "it's basically because the Land Down Under is obsessed with the contest β€” and has been for a long time β€” so the [European Broadcasting Union] gave them an honorary membership of sorts."

Eurovision also confronted the weighty topic of the refugee crisis with a dance highlighting their plight. The performance (which aired during the U.S. broadcast between a Justin Timberlake interview and a spoof rendition of a perfect Eurovision act) shows the dancers apparently going through traumatic events before they are eventually presented with water to wash their ash-covered faces. They are then embraced by audience members and disappear in the crowd.

Mans Zelmerlow, this year's co-presenter and last year's winner, says: "It is more necessary than ever before that we unite and join together, and that is literally what we do in Eurovision, where most of the countries in Europe meet together. ...We obviously want to touch upon [the crisis]: anything else would be to bury your head in the sand," The Guardian reported.

The winning act gets to host the next year's competition – so that means next year's event will take place in Kiev.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.