On Saturday Finnish TV viewers officially selected Pertii Kurikan Nimipäivät (PKN), a punk rock group composed of four middle-aged men with learning disabilities, as their entrant for the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest. The competition will be held in Vienna, Austria from May 19 to 23.
Many Finns have high hopes that PKN, the first-ever Eurovision punk act, will score them their second Eurovision win. (Their last victory came in 2006 with a performance of "Hard Rock Hallelujah" by heavy metal band Lordi, dressed up as monsters.) Members of the band seem to see their upcoming participation in the competition as a platform to promote awareness of and respect for people with mental disabilities—a respectable use of a historically bizarre and garish event.
"We are rebelling against society in different ways but we are not political," PKN bassist Sami Helle recently told the Guardian. "We are changing attitudes somewhat, a lot of people are coming to our gigs and we have a lot of fans. We don't want people to vote for us to feel sorry for us, we are not that different from everybody else—just normal guys with a mental handicap."
PKN formed in 2009 at a workshop for adults with learning disabilities hosted by Lyhty, a Konala, Finland-based organization providing housing, resources, and innovative, engaging activities for adults with intellectual disabilities. After the event, Pertti Kurikka, a guitarist with cerebral palsy, kept in touch with singer Kari Aalto, bassist Sami Helle, and drummer Tony Välitalo and workshop coordinator-turned-band manager Kalle Pajamaa. They started holding regular practices and writing songs inspired by their experiences of the oppressive regimens and disrespect shown to the mentally impaired in shared residential care homes, with lyrics like, "I need a little respect and dignity in my life."
"We are different to other people," Aalto recently told The Center for Welfare Reform of the feelings that inspire their work and the message he hopes PKN can communicate to audiences. "Some people are just different—but we have the same rights as everybody else."
In 2012 the band started to gain a larger following with the debut of The Punk Syndrome, a documentary by Finnish filmmakers Jukka Kärkkäinen and Jani-Petteri Passi chronicling (with little narration or editorializing to speak of) the band's path from its first practices to its first European tour. Hooking people in with the usual band antics (a womanizing singer, finicky bassist, diva guitarist, and likeable drummer whose disputes are managed by a level-headed manager) and short songs about the problems of daily life, like terrible pedicurists, they've developed a strong following in Scandinavia and Germany and toured throughout Europe and North America—not just as a novelty act but as a serious and beloved punk band.
"There's nothing more anti-establishment as [sic] four disabled and fiery individuals literally sticking it to the institutions which they've been surrounded by," wrote Nick Hard of List in 2013, explaining his and many others' love for festival circuit darling The Punk Syndrome.
The popular support behind PKN was on display during February's Uuden Musikiin Kilpailu, the Finnish national Eurovision qualifier competition, which putted the band against 17 others ranging from bhangra to pop to reggaeton acts. Performing their 85-second-long "Aina Mun Pitää" ("I Always Have To"), a screed against healthy eating, chores, and general mundanity, the band received third place in the jury vote, but a landslide first place in the popular ballot, scoring them a spot performing the same song in the Eurovision Semifinals in two-and-a-half months.
Observers believe the band's popularity has already started to change attitudes in Finland.
"We've started to see that people consider the mentally disabled more equal than before," Kärkkäinen told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2013. "They have feelings, they want to have children, they want to drink alcohol and they want to have sex."
And the band seems to hope that their success will also inspire others with learning impairments to take a leap, put themselves forward, and start demanding their own rights and respect as well.
"Every person with a disability ought to be braver," Aalto told YLE recently. "He or she should themselves say what they want or do not want."
The Eurovision selection will prove a great platform for PKN to continue developing their fan base and raising awareness around and respect for people with mental disabilities.
"The most important thing for the band is music," Teuvo Merkkiniemi, PKN's new and current manager, told VICE, "but we understand that [our inclusion in Eurovision is a] huge statement for those European countries [where rights] of people with learning disabilities are poor."
Despite its reputation for bizarre and kitsch acts (think: Russian violinists on skates and Irish turkey hand puppets), in recent years the competition has become a forum for continental cultural discussions and social debates thanks to its 180 million person, trans-national, rabidly engaged viewership and penchant odd-to-groundbreaking acts. The 1998 win by Israeli transgender artist Dana International and 2014 victory by bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst (né Thomas Neuwirth) both sparked massive conversations on gender and sexuality. And now the hope is that a strong PKN showing can start a few much needed conversations about the rights, abilities, and socio-political status of those with mental disabilities in European societies.
Odds makers presently put PKN's chances for victory at 5-to-1, the third best bet behind Italy and Estonia (despite the fact that they're competing with perhaps the shortest song in Eurovision history). Even if they don't win, the visibility that will come with the competition is likely to greatly expand their following and allow them to push their message of respect and capability across a few more borders.
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