Eurovision fever: Growing up with the European song contest

Israel is now, once more, in the midst of Eurovision fever, and I have been caught up in it.

May 13, 2019 13:19
4 minute read.
Eurovision fever: Growing up with the European song contest

Dana International performs during a rehearsal for the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest in Dusseldorf in 2011. |. (photo credit: REUTERS/INA FASSBENDER)

Just when I thought I was permanently over an addiction to the Eurovision Song Contest, along came Netta Barzilai and “toyed” with my mind. Netta (international singing sensations can get away with using just their first names) did what many thought was impossible: She won the world’s best-known singing competition in 2018, and brought the contest back to Israel for the first time in 20 years. Larger than life and with a powerful voice and #MeToo-era message, Netta boosted national pride in her own, remarkable way.

Growing up in the UK of the 1960s and ‘70s, a love of the Eurovision came naturally. “My heart went boom-bang-a-bang,” as the competition grew near, in the words of Lulu (UK winner of 1969.) I loved the music, adored the presenters’ dresses, and was riveted by the voting. I also had fun testing my comprehension skills at a time when the singers had to sing in an official language of the country they were representing – although, absurdly, they didn’t have to be a citizen of that country, and some performers hopped from one place to another.

I always gave the show “douze points,” to use the phrase that became so popular in Israel it can almost be considered colloquial Hebrew.

The dawn of my love for Israel coincided roughly with the country’s first appearance at the Eurovision. In 1973, Ilanit sang “Ei Sham” (“Somewhere”). Those were not the good old days. In the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, the trigger for my Zionist awakening, there were fears of a terrorist threat, particularly against an Israeli singer. As the late Terry Wogan, the UK’s long-serving Eurovision commentator, often quipped, security was so tight that the floor manager advised the audience to remain seated while applauding or risk being shot by counter-terrorist forces.

As I became increasingly entrenched in my plans to emigrate to Israel, I took increasing pleasure in Hebrew songs. Watching Kaveret, Shlomo Artzi and Yardena Arazi with Chocolate, Menta, Mastik, created a link to my soon-to-be home.

My pride came before a personal downfall in 1978, when the almost unimaginable happened and Izhar Cohen & Alphabeta took first place with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.” (As I recall, a British pundit predicted that the only thing it could win was a ticket for speeding.) The competition that year fell on the second night of Passover and, as a religious Jew in the Diaspora, I didn’t watch it. The next day, school friends badgered me with questions I could not answer: I had no idea what the lyrics meant and suspected that my beginner’s Hebrew was even worse than I thought. Only later did I discover the words were a children’s language game.

I had more reason than most to celebrate the win the following year of Gali Atari and Milk & Honey’s “Hallelujah.” Here was a word and a sentiment I could understand. The song accompanied me as I made my aliyah journey to Israel in the summer of 1979.

I CONTINUED to follow the Eurovision (on a black and white television), watching one year at an IDF army base where I was the only soldier interested in the fate of the British group. Later, I had fun as a journalist covering the pre-Eurovision contests to select Israel’s entry and monitoring the voting (“and here are the results of the Israeli jury”) on Eurovision night.

But gradually the music changed, the world changed, and perhaps I changed.

As the Iron Curtain came down, more and more countries joined the Eurovision until it became necessary to hold the semifinals over a two-day period. The contest became noisier, and the glitzy show factor overtook the music and lyrics I had loved in my youth. I can still sing along to most French-language Eurovision hits and even perennial favorites such as Spain’s “Eres Tu,” a runner-up in a language I never studied, but I can’t remember the tunes and English-language lyrics (such that they were) of more recent winners.

Dana International – “Viva la Diva!” – put Israel back on the Eurovision map with her stunning win in 1998, and as the first openly transgender contestant, she changed the Eurovision forever. Like all good Israelis, I revel in our successes and tend to blame our losses on ever-present politics (and a lack of a natural voting ally of the sort that the Scandinavia countries can rely on.)

As Cliff Richard sang in 1973 (UK, third place), “Power to all our friends.” But we are not, as Sandie Shaw (UK, 1967) put it, “a puppet on a string.” That’s why Netta’s “Toy” brought such joy.

Israel is now, once more, in the midst of Eurovision fever, and I have been caught up in it.

I can’t wait to see what Bar Refaeli and Lucy Ayoub are wearing and what Erez Tal and Assi Azar have to say in Euro-English (take my British-born word for it – there is such a thing).

Most of all, I’m waiting to see who will earn a rendition of Cliff Richard’s “Congratulations,” (second place, 1968). Obviously,  I wouldn’t be sorry to see Israel’s Kobi Marimi winning with “Home” in Tel Aviv, but if that doesn’t work out, I’ll be secretly relieved that we don’t have to go through all this again next year. It’s not easy to recover from a Eurovision addiction.

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