So what makes a good Eurovision song? Israel’s winding Eurovision road

There have been three more Israeli victories – Gali Atari and Milk and Honey in 1979, when the event was held in Jerusalem, Dana International in 1998, and Netta Barzilai last year.

May 13, 2019 09:46
So what makes a good Eurovision song? Israel’s winding Eurovision road

Israel’s Eurovision entry Kobi Marimi.. (photo credit: EUROVISIONWORLD)

Israel celebrated wildly and proudly around this time last year when Netta Barzilai’s “Toy” walked away with the Eurovision title. But it wasn’t the first time there was blue and white pride coming out of the annual song contest.

Israel entered the international pop competition fray back in 1973, when Ilanit represented us in Luxembourg with “Ey Sham” (Somewhere Over There), coming in a highly creditable fourth. Five years later we won the thing, when Izhar Cohen and his Alphabeta band triumphed in Paris with the seemingly nonsensical “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.”

There have been three more Israeli victories – Gali Atari and Milk and Honey in 1979, when the event was held in Jerusalem, Dana International in 1998, and Barzilai last year. Not bad going for a small Middle Eastern country.

SO WHAT makes a good Eurovision song? With four-and-a-half decades of presenting radio and TV shows under his belt, Menachem Granit knows a thing or two about the field.

“I contributed to Dana International’s success,” he says jokingly. The transgender vocalist won the contest in 1998, with “Diva” – strong opposition to her participation in some religious and conservative quarters notwithstanding – and went on to become an international success, particularly among the LGBT community. “I was on a committee of four or five people who chose Dana’s song,” Granit recalls. “It was clear that it was a winner.”

Despite picking “a winner,” Granit says there is no hard and fast formula for Eurovision success. “There was a time when they believed, here, that the songs should have a more Western orientation. Some said they shouldn’t have too many [of the Hebrew letter] het in the words of the song. Then [in 1983] you had Ofra Haza singing ‘Hai, hai, hai,’ and it came second,” he laughs. “There are no rules. I think at the end of the day, the artists should have onstage charisma and, of course, you have to have a good song.”

That, really, is a prerequisite for any musical entertainer. Then again, this is the Eurovision Song Contest we are talking about. This is the epitome of thousand-watt pageantry and ostentation. This is Entertainment, with a whopping great E.

“I have noticed that, say, in the last at least 10 years or so, the gimmick is the winner,” Granit observes.

Does Barzilai, with her Japanese-style hairdo, chicken choreography and full figure qualify for that marketing stratagem line of competitive attack?

“Netta Barzilai – that’s a combination of a number of things,” says Granit. “First off, there was some kind of message in the song, let’s say in the wake of #MeToo.” The lyrics included lines such as “I’m not your toy (Not your toy), you stupid boy (Stupid boy),” and “Don’t you go and play with me boy!”

“She looked a little different, actually very different,” Granit admits. “But she had a catchy song.”

The bottom line, for Granit, is that you can come up with the wildest, most shocking, eye-catching onstage gizmos, but if you don’t deliver on the musical front, you’re sunk.

That might offer a degree of comfort to those who don’t exactly go for all the bright lights, whooping audiences, grandiose productions and state-of-the-art props.

If you lean that way, you’re not on your own. If you ever caught the BBC coverage of the contest, it is more than likely that your host for the evening would have been Terry Wogan. The Irish-born media man delighted in poking fun at the extravagance of the international TV occasion, frequently delivering, in his inimitable tongue-in-cheek style, such erudite observations as: “I don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a major musical event. I love the Eurovision Song Contest, and it will continue long after I’m gone. Just please don’t ask me to take it seriously.”

Indeed, Wogan left us for celestial pastures in 2016 and, as he predicted, the Eurovision show keeps on rolling merrily along unabated.

NOW-70-YEAR-OLD Benny Dudkevitch, who, before he retired around three years ago, served as one of the country’s preeminent pop music radio show presenters for nigh on half a century, says he gained firsthand knowledge of the Eurovision platform’s ability to launch Israeli artists on the global stage. Mind you, it did take him a minute or two to decode the musical and lyrical delivery.

“My wife and I were on our way to Australia, and we stopped off in Bangkok,” he recalls. That was 41 years ago, shortly after Cohen landed our first Eurovision title. “Wherever we went, I heard this melody, but I couldn’t make out the words. It was ‘dan-dan-din-dan-dan-dang-dang.’ I told my wife I recognized the song. But when you hear it in Thai, you don’t really get that it’s ‘A-Ba-Ni-Bi,’” he laughs. “I heard it in every store, everywhere we went. It drove me mad until I realized it was the Izhar Cohen song. The Eurovision win made him a massive success.”

Some may indeed look down on the contest as too cheap and cheerful for their artistic sensibilities, but you can’t argue with its universal appeal.

“The same thing happened with Dana International, with ‘Diva,’” Dudkevitch continues. “You heard that playing in supermarkets, or in some club in the Far East, or in Europe. It was everywhere.”

But it hasn’t been all milk and honey for our doughty contestants over the past 45 years. While Israel proudly holds the record for never coming in last, there have been a few flops along the way.

“There have been many songs that didn’t produce anything,” Dudkevitch notes. “There were a few things, how should I put it, that were really weird.”

One, in particular, even ruffled some feathers in the upper echelons of the country’s political establishment.

“There was [1987 entry] ‘Shir Habatlanim’ [The Bums’ Song], with [Natan] Datner and [Avi] Kushnir,” says Dudkevitch, referencing the comic-actor twosome. “They presented it like a sort of Blues Brothers act. It sounded really poor.”

The culture minister at the time, Yitzhak Navon, viewed the Datner-Kushnir act as so poor he even threatened to resign if they represented us on the grand Eurovision stage. In the event, Datner-Kushnir didn’t do that badly, coming in eighth. Oh, and Navon did not quit.

Sometimes, the professionals at home, responsible for selecting our competition emissaries, clearly did not quite have their finger on the Europop pulse. In 1974 Kaveret was a smash hit here. Kaveret was considered the seminal rock-pop group of the early 1970s, and gained popularity across all ethnic divides. But it was quite some way off the pace when all the votes came in, to Brighton, UK, coming in seventh.

Dudkevitch says hopes had been high. “In Israel, Kaveret’s song ‘Natati Lach Hayai’ [I Gave You My Life] was a smash hit. The melody was great and really catchy. But abroad the song didn’t get anywhere. It was a kid '70s song that sounded like it came out in the early '60s. It was dated.”

Granit prefers to put the Kaveret failure down to the quality of the opposition. “Yes, it didn’t do well in the competition, but don’t forget it came up against [Swedish pop band] ABBA, with ‘Waterloo,’” he says.

That isn’t confined to the Eurovision scene. “There were a lot of Israeli artists who tried their luck abroad and didn’t make it. [Israeli pop-rock icons] Shalom Hanoch and Shlomo Artzi tried, and [crooner] Yigal Bashan tried, but they didn’t succeed.”

There is the odd exception. “Esther Ofarim was a great success,” he says about the longtime German-resident Israeli singer who actually sang for Switzerland in the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest. In the late 1960s, she and then-husband Avi Ofarim had several English-language hits, including “Cinderella Rockerfella,” which made No. 1 in a bunch of countries, including the UK.

IF THE Israeli entry does poorly, there are always cries of politicization from some quarters. Granit does not go along with that.
“I don’t think you can blame our failures on politics. Yes, there are politics in Eurovision. You know, Sweden generally gives points to Denmark, and so on. But I don’t think politics gets in the way, with Israel.”

He has a point. Otherwise, Israel would never win the competition; and, with four victories over the last 40 years, Israel is sixth in the winners table, behind Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden, France and the United Kingdom, and level with the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Dudkevitch marvels at Israel’s triumphs on the glittering European pop stage, despite being considered by many as a pariah state. “I think it is surprising that we have done so well, even though politics is often against us.”

It is not just a matter of anti-Israel sentiment. Dudkevitch believes there are a number of regional pacts that basically rule out any possibility of Israel or, for that matter, anyone else gaining the odd point from them. “You see the Slavic countries and the Scandinavian countries all vote for each other.”

Then again, there’s no arguing with quality. “Even with all that, you see Netta Barzilai and Dana International winning, simply because they have a good song. They broke with convention. Politics lost out with them. The song won. Their performance won. And Dana International had a sex change, and she was victorious. That was an innovation. And Netta also broke the mold, with her looks. You can’t beat a good song.”

Whether Kobi Marimi’s effort is up to scratch or not remains to be seen. Either way, it looks everyone in Tel Aviv is up for the party.

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