Finland Squirms as Its Latest Export Steps Into Spotlight

Helsinki, Finland - They have eight-foot retractable latex Satan wings, sing hits like "Chainsaw Buffet" and blow up slabs of smoking meat on stage. So members of the band Lordi expected a reaction when they beat a crooner of love ballads to represent Finland at the Eurovision song contest in Athens, the competition that was the springboard for Abba and Celine Dion.

But the heavy-metal monster band did not imagine a national identity crisis.

First, Finnish religious leaders warned that the Freddy Krueger look-alikes could inspire Satanic worship. Then critics called for President Tarja Halonen to use her constitutional powers to veto the band and nominate a traditional Finnish folk singer instead. Rumors even circulated that Lordi members were agents sent by President Vladimir V. Putin to destabilize Finland before a Russian coup — an explanation for their refusal to take off their freakish masks in public.

The fury also spread in Greece, winner of last year's Eurovision and therefore the host of this year's contest, where an anti-Lordi movement called Hellenes urged the Finnish government "to say 'no' to this evil group." One young Finn calling himself Suomi (Finland in Finnish) wrote to a newspaper Web log saying, "If Lordi wins Eurovision, I am leaving the country."

The lead singer, Lordi — a former film student who goes by his real name, Tomi Putaansuu, when not wielding a blood-spurting electric chain saw — is philosophical about the uproar.

The affair, Mr. Putaansuu says, has exposed the insecurity of a young country whose peculiar language is spoken by only six million people worldwide and whose sense of identity has been dented by being part of the Swedish kingdom and the Russian empire until gaining independence in 1917. Most Finns, he adds, would rather be known for Santa Claus than heavily made-up monster mutants.

"In Finland, we have no Eiffel Tower, few real famous artists, it is freezing cold and we suffer from low self-esteem," said Mr. Putaansuu, who, as Lordi, has horns protruding from his forehead and sports long black fingernails.

As he stuck out his tongue menacingly, his red demon eyes glaring, Lordi was surrounded by Kita, an alien-man-beast predator who plays flame-spitting drums inside a cage; Awa, a blood-splattered ghost who howls backup vocals; Ox, a zombie bull who plays bass; and Amen, a mummy in a rubber loincloth who plays guitar.

Dragging on a cigarette, Mr. Putaansuu added, "Finns nearly choked on their cereal when they realized we were the face Finland would be showing to the world."

Often derided as a showcase of kitsch, Eurovision is one of the most watched television programs in the world. It pits pop groups from all over Europe and the Middle East against one another, with the winner decided by popular vote by more than 600 million viewers.

It is not the first time the contest, which began in 1956, has spawned discontent. Last year's Ukrainian entry song was rewritten after being deemed too political by government officials in Kiev because it celebrated the Orange Revolution. When Dana International, an Israeli transsexual, won in 1998 with her hit song "Diva," rabbis accused her of flouting the values of the Jewish state.

But not everyone in this Nordic country of five million views the monster squad as un-Finnish. Some Finns say that Lordi is right at home and that the band's use of flaming dragon-encrusted swords and exploding baby dolls expresses the warrior spirit of the Vikings.

Alex Nieminen, a Finnish ad executive, says the band harks back to the Hakkapeliittas, the legendary Finnish cavalry unit that fought as part of the Swedish army in the 17th century. He argues that the slasher film imitators embody Finnish self-assertion after decades of isolation.

"Lordi represents a rebellion by Finns who are saying, 'Hey we are not all the Nokia-wielding people the government would like you to think we are,' " Mr. Nieminen said.

On the eve of the vote, fans in ghoulish monster outfits held Lordi parties from Helsinki to Lapland and sent text messages urging everyone from grandmothers to young metal heads to "Change the face of Finland!" Lordi won the right to go to Athens with its Kiss-inspired anthem "Hard Rock Hallelujah" and its lyrics, "Wings on my back/I got horns on my head/my fangs are sharp/and my eyes are red."

The Finns' fascination for Lordi may reflect their eternal hope after coming in last at Eurovision eight times. Some Finns rank that humiliation with their nation's appeasement of the Soviet Union or losing in hockey to Sweden.

Finns blame their losing streak on the fact that contestants have typically sung in their mother tongue, a famously difficult Uralic language where words with three umlauts are not uncommon.

" 'Finland, zero points' has become a source of deep embarrassment in the nation's psyche," Ilkka Mattila, the country's leading music critic, said. "So Lordi's success must be understood as a vote by people who feel we have nothing to lose."

Finns are so uncomfortable with themselves, says Alexander Stubb, a Finnish member of the European Parliament, that when they meet someone for the first time, they stare at their own feet. Then, after 10 years of friendship, they stare at the other person's feet. But there is little risk that anyone, Finnish or otherwise, will stare at Lordi's furry platform demon boots, he adds, noting that Lordi could embarrass Finland when it takes over the European Union presidency in July.

Timo Soini, leader of "Ordinary Finns," a traditionalist political party from rural Finland, says Lordi has attracted criticism because Finns are so thin-skinned about how others perceive them. "Finns are suspicious when they see someone new come to play in their sandbox," Mr. Soini said. "And that is particularly the case when that someone looks like a monster."

While other boys in Lapland were playing hockey, Mr. Putaansuu played with his Barbie doll and began experimenting with makeup. In film school he became obsessed with horror films and the heavy metal bands Kiss and Twisted Sister. Like his fellow metal heads, Mr. Putaansuu hoped that transgression would sell big. But he says it took 10 years to get a record deal because Finnish labels were so turned off by the band's appearance.

Under their masks, the band members are quintessential Finns. Awa, the ghost, is a soft-spoken blond who wears glasses and studied classical music. Even Mr. Putaansuu, who wears a black leather jacket when not sporting serpent lapels, says his music is closer to gospel than Satan. After all, one of the band's hit songs is "The Devil Is a Loser."

"Even if we lose the contest, we have already won," Mr. Putaansuu said. "Many Finns would rather have sent someone boring and acceptable than to be represented by freaks like us."