They have 2.5m 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 it beat a crooner of love ballads to represent Finland at the Eurovision song contest in Athens, Greece, the competition that launched 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 lookalikes 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 Russian President Vladimir Putin to destabilize Finland ahead of a Russian coup -- an explanation for why they refused 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, Putaansuu says, has exposed the insecurity of a young country whose peculiar language is spoken by only 6 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 Putaansuu, who, as Lordi, has horns protruding from his forehead and sports black fingernails 15cm long.
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 back-up vocals; Ox, a zombie bull who plays bass; and Amen, a mummy in a rubber loincloth who plays guitar.
Dragging on a cigarette, 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.
Not everyone in this Nordic country of 5 million views the monster squad as un-Finnish. Some Finns say 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 wannabes 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,'" Nieminen said.
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