Talk about a sympathy vote. The year 2022 will go down in world history as the year that Russia brutally and inexcusably invaded Ukraine. In Eurovision Song Contest history, it will be remembered as the year that Ukraine won through the geopolitical vote. It was a matter of singing the country’s praises as it battled for survival far away from the bright lights of the stage in Turin, Italy.
The musical event maintains that it is apolitical, but last week’s performance showed that it dances to a different tune. Many commentators noted that Ukrainian Eurovision presenter, Timur Miroshnychenko, broadcast his coverage of the event from a bomb shelter. It was both a sensible measure and a symbolic act.
Israelis tend to blame international politics when Israel fails to do well at the world’s biggest song contest. The final score these days is compiled from a jury vote from each of the competing countries and a public vote, which this year overwhelmingly supported Ukraine. The lack of natural voting allies of the sort that the Scandinavian countries, for example, can rely on, is a disadvantage for Israel. On the few occasions when Israel has managed to take the top spot – in 1978, 1979, 1998 and 2018 – national pride hit a high note.
This year it was obvious that Israel’s Michael Ben David, who didn’t even make it to the finals, did not stand a chance. It was Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra, out of the 40 entrants, that stole Europe’s hearts. Kalush’s song, “Stefania,” was written by 27-year-old rapper and band frontman Oleh Psiuk as a tribute to his mother, but after the war started, it turned into an allegory for Mother Ukraine.
The all-male six-member band with a folksy-hip hop fusion sound could have sung anything, worn anything, and said anything and they would still have won – although to be fair, this was Ukraine’s third Eurovision win.
Kalush was not originally slated to represent Ukraine but singer Alina Pash was accused of being pro-Russian and had to drop out. Russia was also forced out of this year’s competition.
Shortly after Vladimir Putin started moving his troops towards Kyiv in February, triggering the biggest wave of refugees in Europe since the end of World War II, some friends pondered why the entertainment world had not yet responded with a “Band-Aid”-style concert.
Last week’s Eurovision provided a solution. The music was largely forgettable, the political overtones less so. The expressions of support offered a morale boost to Ukrainians and a feel-good factor to all those who deplore Putin’s actions. It was a Band-Aid in blue and yellow that could be stuck on and worn as an expression of sympathy. Like most plasters, it was useless at staunching heavy bleeding but it helped Ukraine show Putin that Europe is not on his side. Mind you, it’s doubtful that the Russian president who imprisoned provocative punk singers Pussy Riot cares much about how he’s perceived at the over-the-top festival, dominated in recent decades by flamboyantly gay culture.
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 glamour, and was riveted by the voting. I also enjoyed testing my French comprehension at a time when the singers had to sing in an official language of the country they were representing. I always gave the show “douze points,” (12 points) to use the French phrase that became so popular in Israel that it can almost be considered colloquial Hebrew for “full marks.”
I was thrilled by Israel’s first win, “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” sung by Izhar Cohen and Alpha Beta in 1978. Strains of Gali Atari and Milk & Honey’s winning “Hallelujah” the following year were a fitting musical accompaniment for my move to Israel.
Gradually, however, the music changed, the world changed, and perhaps I changed.
As the Iron Curtain lifted, more and more countries joined the Eurovision until it became necessary to hold the semi-finals over a two-day period. The contest has grown noisier and the glitzy show factor overtook the music and lyrics I loved in my youth.
I managed to quit my Eurovision addiction until Netta Barzilai “Toy-ed” with my mind with her 2018 win. This led Israel to host the event in Tel Aviv in 2019, the last pre-pandemic celebration.
Ignoring the implied message of Eurovision peace and unity, Hamas threatened to derail it with more rockets from Gaza and BDS supporters urged that the contest be boycotted simply for being held in Israel. Nonetheless, Israel put on an impressive show that I watched from start to finish.
This year, I neither tuned in nor completely tuned out. I watched the opening of the finals – which winked at Ukraine with Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” – and caught a few of the songs that I saw between a Netflix mini-binge. (Incidentally, if you’re looking for a pleasant way to show support for Ukraine from the comfort of your sofa, I recommend Servant of the People on Netflix, the political satire series in which Volodymyr Zelensky rose to fame as the man who accidentally became president, vowing to fight corruption.)
In an interesting Eurovision aside, there was a notable return to songs in national languages rather than English this year. Even more significantly, no song was sung in French. The entry of five-time winner France was this year sung in Breton, the dialect of Brittany, perhaps another sign of independence movements and local pride.
Whatever was happening on the stage, it was the Russian invasion of Ukraine that provided the backdrop and scenery. Geopolitics won.
Despite the European Broadcasting Union’s purported ban on politics at the Eurovision, several spokespersons for the various countries’ juries wore blue and yellow armbands and some made overt statements of support for embattled Ukraine.
Israel’s voting representative was also not chosen by chance. Ukrainian-born actor Daniel Styopin is best known for his role as Anatoly in the Emmy-winning comedy series Cash Register (Kupa Rashit). In one episode, he portrays a former Eurovision rock band contestant for Moldova.
In a more practical expression of support, Israel this week provided 2,000 helmets and 500 vests for emergency and civilian organizations in Ukraine in addition to its previous humanitarian aid shipments.
There is certainly bigger news related to the Russia-Ukraine war, but the Eurovision win seems to be emblematic. Mariupol might have fallen, bringing Russian forces that much closer to control over the Black Sea. Sweden and Finland shed their pretense of neutrality and applied to join NATO, a bid ironically being contested by that bastion of goodwill, Erdogan’s Turkey (Eurovision winner in 2003). And McDonald’s pulled out of Russia after 30 years, marking the end of an era when signs of Western culture felt at home in the heart of the former Soviet Union.
The idea behind the Eurovision, first held in 1956, was to bring people together in peace and harmony. A battle for 12-points among performers is better than a war. The show’s biggest historical impact to date might be making the word “Waterloo” as famous for the 1974 win by Swedish group ABBA as for Napoleon’s European loss nearly 160 years before.
If Putin has his way, an Iron Curtain would descend again over much of eastern Europe (and the number of Eurovision competing countries would shrink as the curtain came down.) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised his country’s win last week, saying, “Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe! Next year, Ukraine will host the Eurovision song contest.”
Given all the surprises of the 2020s so far, who knows what will be by spring 2023. Here’s hoping Ukraine wins where it really counts.