A woman of valor

Netta Barzilai’s journey to stardom defied musical convention, social norms, and Israel’s discontents.

Netta Barzilai performs after winning the Grand Final of Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena hall in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 12 (photo credit: PEDRO NUNES/REUTERS)
Netta Barzilai performs after winning the Grand Final of Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena hall in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 12
(photo credit: PEDRO NUNES/REUTERS)
MUSIC IS the shorthand of emotion, said Leo Tolstoy, in what best sums up what happened Saturday night, May 12, between Lisbon and Tel Aviv.
Out in the Portuguese capital, 25-yearold Netta Barzilai and her unorthodox performance of “Toy” swept the packed Altice Arena’s 15,000 pop fans off their feet and another 200 million television viewers worldwide, with a musically inventive march of charisma, courage, and crusade.
Back in Barzilai’s hometown, thousands crowded Rabin Square to celebrate her victory in the Eurovision song contest the way Israelis did in other outbursts of national pride, like Maccabi Tel Aviv’s defeat in 1977 of Soviet basketball champ CSKA, or judoka Yael Arad’s 1992 win of Israel’s first Olympic medal.
Yet the Eurovision, a controversial carnival that often blends musical experimentation, lyrical kitsch, and artistic exhibitionism peppered with political acrimony, this time avoided its familiar pitfalls when Barzilai and her catchy chorus roared as an unfolding Zeitgeist’s voice.
Geopolitics bedeviled the flashily staged Eurovision throughout its 62 years, with repeated charges that votes reflected national bias and political calculus rather than musical judgment, for instance in 2004, when Britain’s road to victory was blocked by Monaco’s granting 12 points to France.
Similar suspicions arise in every competition, for instance in Greece’s granting this year 12 points to Cyprus, whose song “Fuego” came second after “Toy,” or in the 1990s when assorted Balkan enemies’ Eurovision votes matched their battlefield alignments.
Much more conspiratorially, many believe Spain’s narrow victory in 1968 over Britain’s Cliff Richard was bought by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who wanted Madrid to host the following year’s contest, and thus generate some urgently needed foreign currency.
More recently, Ukraine and Russia extended in 2016 their war’s military theater to the contest’s cultural stage, where the former’s song, “1944,” echoed Stalin’s deportation of the singer’s ancestors along with the rest of the Crimean Tatars.
Russia’s protests of politicization fell on deaf ears, and “1944” not only participated but actually won the contest amid claims Germany, Poland, and Georgia voted for Ukraine just to spite Russia.
In such a setting, many Israelis attributed any disappointing vote over the decades to anti-Israeli agendas and also antisemitic reflexes.
Even Israel’s three victories during its 45 years of competition may have been helped by momentarily pro-Israel sentiments: the first two, in 1978 and 1979, came as Israel and Egypt were negotiating peace, and the second, in 1998, came between the Hebron and Wye Plantation agreements, when Israel and the Palestinians seemed to be approaching reconciliation.
There was no such context this year.
Barzilai’s victory came at a time when military friction from Gaza through Syria to Iran is acute and peace is nowhere in sight. If anything, Barzilai’s appeal was in her song’s abandonment of national contexts in in favor of a universal cause for which, it turns out, millions deeply care.
The departure from the national context was reflected in her decision to sing in English (except three words), a choice already made previously by Israeli competitors, but not by the winners, all of whom sang in Hebrew.
In terms of lyrics, Israel’s first winning song, Yizhar Cohen’s “Abanibi,” was a recollection of love’s place in childhood, a typically bland Eurovision theme. Cohen’s song included the national ingredient of a secret kids’ language unique to Israel, but the following winner, Gali Atari’s “Hallelujah,” was a blabbering collection of generic praises for a world that is “wonderful” and a day that is “beaming” as well as a salutation for “yesterday and tomorrow,” and also for “everything.”
The third Israeli winner, Dana International’s “Diva,” was a bit more substantive as it hailed feminine power, mentioning Aphrodite, Cleopatra and Victoria and stating that the proverbial Diva is “a woman larger than life.”
Then again, with feminism having by then been a veteran idea and victorious cause, there was nothing new, let alone daring, about those lines, which were indeed overshadowed by their singer’s sexual identity.
Having undergone a sex-change operation five years before her Eurovision appearance, Dana International – born and circumcised in Tel Aviv as Yaron Cohen – was the contest’s first openly transgender winner.
Israel’s choice of Dana International as its representative was attacked by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, much the way Austria’s choice of drag queen Thomas Neuwirth, who won the 2014 contest as a bearded woman named Conchita Wurst, sparked fire between Europe’s liberal and conservative parts.
Led by Russia’s protestation that the Eurovision had become “a hotbed of sodomy, at the initiation of European liberals,” and animated by the Armenian competitor’s reference to Conchita as “the pervert from Austria,” the songfest morphed into an East-West cockfight. With serious publications like the British newsweekly, The New Statesman, stating that “a vote for Wurst is another vote against Russian homophobia and transphobia,” there was reason to suspect that at least some of the voting, both for and against, was not about Wurst’s art, but about Conchita’s identity.
Netta’s case is entirely different.
“WELCOME BOYS,” Netta’s statement in her song’s fifteenth line, maps no right-left battlefield, but the arena where men and women meet as harassers and their victims. The subsequent chorus, “I am not your toy, not your toy / You stupid boy, stupid boy” – composed so rhythmically it can be used to march a political rally – needed no explanation.
Thousands listening to these lines thought of sexual offenders like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Moshe Katsav and the rest of the fallen men of power who refused to realize that the bastards had changed the rules.
Written and composed by Israeli songster Doron Medalie, the song’s assertive demand, “don’t you go and play with me, boy,” preceded and followed by the Hebrew “ani lo buba” (“I am not a doll”), appear to have been interpreted by millions as a call for feminine assertiveness.
That may explain why 42 national juries voted “Toy” into third place with 212 points after Sweden’s 253 and Austria’s 271, while millions of televoters offset that vote by giving the two competitors a combined 92 points compared with an additional 317 for Netta and “Toy” to bring her total to 529 points.
Still, “Toy” struck a chord not only in its message but also in Netta’s personality, voice, and music.
Visibly overweight, Netta’s statement in her song’s opening words, “Look at me, I'm a beautiful creature,” is the aftermath of a childhood she painfully recalls as a chubby girl’s struggle to belong.
Having won a zaftig young woman’s struggle for acceptance, Barzilai brushed off Ilana Dayan’s “concern” – as the iconic investigative TV reporter put it to her – that “someone will now promise you a tremendous career and you will take the route they all take, and the first thing that will happen is that you will lose weight.”
Unimpressed with what was intended to compliment her defiance of convention, Barzilai retorted, “And if that happens, so what?” Dayan’s reply, “Then you will disappoint many people,” impressed Barzilai even less. “Let them be disappointed,” she said assertively and added, “Listen, I am going to be me.”
The daughter of an engineer who worked for Israeli construction giant Solel Boneh in Nigeria, and a mother who is a senior executive at Teva Pharmaceuticals, Netta speaks fluent English obtained during her early childhood in Nigeria.
Added up with several years as a youth-movement counselor and then a year of volunteer work with troubled youth prior to military service in the Navy Band, Barzilai is a worldly idealist, who planned a career in education before winning a TV singing contest that broke her path to musical stardom.
It is a background suitable for harnessing her talent to social causes, which explains why when she climbed the stage after winning Netta told the exuberant audience: “Thanks for choosing difference, thank you for celebrating diversity.”
Still, Netta’s performance was unique in its style no less than its message.
With her song’s opening lines a gibberish jumble of “Ree, ouch, hey, hm,” followed by “He’s a baka-mhm-bak-mhm-bakbakbak-mhmboy” – all of which is meant to insinuate that harassers are chickening cowards – the chicken dance with which Netta animated her diatribe was soon mimicked worldwide.
TV announcers lifted their elbows and winged their arms while delivering their country juries’ choice of “Toy” as the winning song, as did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while followed by TV crews en route to the weekly government meeting, not to mention the thousands who chicken-danced cheeringly while singing along with the victorious Netta at Rabin Square upon her return home.
Enthusiasm with Netta’s performance suggests she is at the cusp of a great career.
The media, from The New York Times and the Guardian to Le Monde and Die Zeit, ran rave reviews while Eurovision executive supervisor, Norway’s Jon Ola Sand, said, “Toy” may be the greatest hit in the contest’s history.
Even so, the longevity and intensity of Netta’s sudden stardom remain to be seen. Most Eurovision winners don’t become timeless musical icons, partly because contestants are seldom their countries’ most established stars.
Britain’s Cliff Richard was one exception, having participated in 1968 as a celebrity in league with Elvis Presley. Swedish pop troupe Abba was even more exceptional, as its participation – and victory – in 1974 with “Waterloo” touched off a spectacular career, second in its sales only to the Beatles.
Netta will doubtfully strive that high but considering the originality, strength of char acter, and vocal power she has displayed, and considering she has already won in her struggle to belong, she has reason to hope her success has hardly begun.
If anything, Netta’s struggle to belong now moves to the Jewish state itself.
Eurovision rules lead the contest to the winner’s homeland.
Physically, this designation will likely lead to southern Jerusalem’s Payis Arena, which seats 11,000, a thousand more than the minimum requirement, which disqualifies the International Conventional Center that hosted the Eurovision in 1979 and 1999, when there was no such minimum bar.
Politically, however, the location can be counted on to stir Israel’s enemies, one of whom, Dublin Mayor Micheál Mac Donncha, has already called on his country to boycott next year’s contest, moments after learning of Israel’s victory.
Considering that two Eurovision contests have already been held in Jerusalem, it will clearly return there next year, what’s more that since 1999 Jerusalem has lost its dubious distinctiveness as a terror target, a status it now shares with cities like Paris, London and Berlin.
Then again, the Eurovision’s moderators were instructed to address every jury by its city, as in “good evening Helsinki,” or “Belgrade,” or “Paris,” except the Jerusalem-based jury, which was to be addressed with “good evening Israel.”
It was evidently to them that the breathless Netta, absorbing 15,000 people’s standing ovation after completing her encore at Altice Arena, said in typical defiance: “Thank you; I love my country; next time in Jerusalem.”