Dutch contestant removed from Eurovision hours before final

MALMO, Sweden — As many people prepare to don sequins and spangles, others ready protest banners and Palestinian flags for Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest final in the Swedish city of Malmo. The competition that pits nations against one another for pop music glory is reaching its conclusion, with Croatia and Switzerland among those tipped to take the trophy, and Israel at the center of a political storm.

Just hours before the final, Dutch contestant Joost Klein was dramatically removed by organizers over a backstage incident. He had failed to perform at two dress rehearsals on Friday, and contest organizer the European Broadcasting Union said it was investigating an “incident.”

The EBU said Swedish police were investigating “a complaint made by a female member of the production crew” and it would not be appropriate for Klein to participate while the legal process was underway.

Though rumors had connected the incident to Israel’s delegation, organizers said the incident “did not involve any other performer or delegation member.”

Though the contest’s motto is “united by music,” this year’s event has attracted large protests from Palestinians and their supporters, who say Israel should be excluded because of its conduct of the war against Hamas.

Thousands of people are expected to march for the second time this week through Sweden’s third-largest city, which has a large Muslim population, to demand a boycott of Israel and a cease-fire in the seven-month war. In Finland, a group of about 40 protesters stormed the headquarters of public broadcaster YLE on Saturday morning, demanding it withdraw from the song contest because of Israel’s participation.

Several miles (kilometers) from central Malmo at the Malmo Arena, 25 acts — narrowed from 37 entrants by two semi-final runoffs — are due to perform three-minute songs in front of a live audience of thousands and an estimated 180 million viewers around the world.

It all makes for a messy climax to an event that draws both adoration and derision with its campy, kitschy ethos and passion for pop.

Dean Vuletic, an expert on the history of the contest, says that despite this year’s divisions, “there is no other cultural event which brings Europeans together quite like Eurovision does.”

“Just this moment where everyone is watching the same television show, which is being broadcast live across 37 countries — that’s something very special.”

This year’s entries range from emotional to eccentric. They include the goofy 1990s nostalgia of Finland’s Windows95man, who emerges from a giant onstage egg wearing very little clothing. Ireland’s Bambie Thug summons witchy spirits onstage and has brought a scream coach to Malmo, while Spain’s Nebulossa boldly reclaims a term used as a slur on women in “Zorra.”

The favorites include Swiss singer Nemo — who would be the first nonbinary Eurovision winner if their operatic song “The Code” tops the voting — and Croatia’s Baby Lasagna. His song “Rim Tim Tagi Dim” is a rollicking rock number that tackles the issue of young Croatians leaving the country in search of a better life.

Vuletic says that despite the contest’s reputation for disposable bubblegum pop, Eurovision often tackles “political and social issues such as feminism, European integration, gender identity.”

“And I think they’re the very interesting songs to look out for, especially because they’re the most highly ranked by the bookies,” he said.

Sometimes, though, songs run afoul of the contest’s ban on openly “political” statements. Eurovision organizers told Israel to change the original title of its song, “October Rain” — an apparent reference to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed about 1,200 Israelis and triggered the Gaza war.

Israeli singer Eden Golan has shot up the odds since performing the power ballad, now titled “Hurricane,” in Thursday’s semifinal. Golan faced some booing at dress rehearsals, but was voted into the final by viewers around the world.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised 20-year-old Golan for performing despite “contending with an ugly wave of anti-Semitism.”

Protesters argue that Israel should not be allowed to take part amid a war that has killed almost 35,000 Palestinians.

“I don’t think they should be a part of it at all because they are committing crimes against humanity,” said local resident Lorenzo Mayr, who attended a demonstration on Thursday.

The competing musicians are feeling the pressure, inundated with messages and abuse on social media and unable to speak out because of the contest rules. Italy’s contestant, Angelina Mango, made a statement by walking into the Eurovision media center on Friday and performing John Lennon’s “Imagine” as dozens of journalists gathered around her.

Swedish singer Loreen, last year’s Eurovision champion — and one of only two performers to win the contest twice — urged people not to shut down the “community of love” that is Eurovision.

“What is happening in the world today and in different places is distorting and traumatizing all of us,” she told The Associated Press.

“What heals trauma …. Does trauma heal trauma? Does negativity heal negativity? It doesn’t work like that. The only thing that heals trauma for real — this is science — is love.”