Eurovision hits and kicks

The Eurovision is scheduled to take place in Lisbon in May, but the competing songs are beginning to be broadcast.

Israeli fans wave flags before last year’s Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final at the International Exhibition Center in Kiev, Ukraine (photo credit: REUTERS/VALENTYN OGIRENKO)
Israeli fans wave flags before last year’s Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final at the International Exhibition Center in Kiev, Ukraine
A few years ago, I wrote a column with the title “Bad songs, they say so much.” It was dedicated to the Eurovision Song Contest, which at this time of the year provides background music that goes way beyond the very extended borders of today’s Europe.
Unfortunately, with most performers producing a similar and instantly forgettable sound, the Eurovision has lost its magic. Once my heart went “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” in the words of Lulu, who won in 1969. (I used pocket money to buy the single.) But for several years now I have managed to basically tune out the competition.
The Eurovision is scheduled to take place in Lisbon in May, but the competing songs are beginning to be broadcast. In Israel, 25-year-old Netta Barzilai drew a lot of attention as this year’s representative with a song called “Toy.”
Barzilai definitely has her own sound, although some hesitate to call it music. The song with its lyrics, such as they are, was written by Doron Medalie and Stav Beger.
It includes Barzilai making chicken sounds, which works as a gimmick even though purists clucked their disapproval.
Israeli start-up Spot.IM, which scours the social media worldwide, found that many talkbacks referred to the strange chicken noises.
Altogether, Barzilai seems to enjoy doing her own thing and being her own person, who is, let’s put this diplomatically, larger than life.
Although her size has grabbed much attention, I find it refreshing that a performer doesn’t feel the need to be half starved in order to please the crowd. Almost as soon as Barzilai’s song was released (or leaked), she was being touted as a favorite in the competition. Like political polls, such surveys are no guarantee of success. Several Israeli Eurovision entries passed into instant obscurity.
On the other hand, in 1978, before “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” became the first of Israel’s three winners, an English pundit determined that the only thing the song could win was a speeding ticket.
The following year was a time of double national pride for Israel: Gali Atari and Milk and Honey won the contest from Jerusalem itself with the appropriately named “Hallelujah.”
It remains a classic nearly four decades later and was recently chosen to be the theme song for this year’s 70th Independence Day events. It will be performed as a duet by Atari and popular 23-year-old singer Eden Ben Zaken.
Initially Ben Zaken was reportedly offered the number on her own, causing outrage (mainly by people like me, old enough to remember when the song first came out). One offended radio presenter declared that Atari had been “replaced by a younger model.” And with due respect to both Ben Zaken (a graduate of Israel’s X Factor) and Barzilai, who was chosen for the Eurovision after winning The Next Star, it ain’t over when the fat lady sings: Age shouldn’t be a handicap for female singers.
Israel’s third winner, Dana International, who won with the synonymous-eponymous “Diva” in 1998, was ahead of the times. Her fame came from her singing talents and innate sense of show combined with her colorful background as a trans-sexual. She perhaps marked the start of the trend toward an ever more camp Eurovision.
Israel doesn’t take the show as seriously as it did in the days when the French words “douze points,” the 12 points given to the juries’ top choice, became a Hebrew catchphrase.
But then Europe is not what it was when the Eurovision met its Waterloo with the ABBA hit in 1974.
When the Eurovision was launched in 1956 there were just seven participating countries. There are now so many, 43, that the semifinals are spread over two days.
Songs like Cliff Richard’s “Congratulations” (which won second place for Britain in 1968) were made to last.
But many of the countries, including Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, disintegrated.
One of the most overlooked disputes in Europe involves Greek objections to its northern neighbor calling itself Macedonia. When it competes in the Eurovision, it is under the unwieldy name “Former Yugoslavian Republic Macedonia.”
The issue of what Macedonia calls itself was powerful enough to drive tens of thousands of Greek protesters to rally in Athens last month, the most notable being Mikis Theodorakis, the composer of Zorba the Greek fame. It is part of the swing to the Right that can be seen throughout the continent.
The story behind Spain’s winning song in 1968 not coincidentally resurfaced last year around the Catalonian independence referendum. The song “La, la, la” was originally meant to be performed by Joan Manuel Serrat, who intended to sing in Catalan. Franco nixed the idea and he was replaced by Massiel singing in Spanish.
Spain’s “Eres Tu,” which was the Eurovision runner-up in 1973, the first year Israel competed, became a huge hit, but at the time there were rumors that it had been plagiarized from a previous Yugoslavian entry and that the only reason it wasn’t disqualified was that Franco’s Spain was viewed more favorably than Tito’s Yugoslavia.
THE “GOOD old days” were not all good. And today’s situation is nothing to sing and dance about either.
The poisoning in Britain of Soviet double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia provides riveting material for a spy novel or movie, but in real life the incident is more than disconcerting. British Prime Minister Theresa May this week announced the expulsion of more than 20 Russian diplomats in response and said that the government and royal family would boycott the FIFA World Cup scheduled to start on June 14 in Russia.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin last week invoked hateful old tropes when he told an NBC News interview that those responsible for alleged interference in the US elections might not be Russians: “Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship, even that needs to be checked.”
It has been mooted that such acts and comments are part of the build-up to the Russian presidential election on March 18. Not that Putin has much to fear when it comes to reelection. It’s his opponents who have very real reasons to be afraid.
Incidentally, I think some of the bravest people in politics anywhere in the world were the very few members of China’s National People’s Congress who voted against making Xi Jinping president for life.
Israel’s coalition crisis this week, which nearly resulted in an early election, is nothing to be proud of but the local politicking, however dirty, can’t be compared to those of China and Russia. It’s absurd that people who constantly censure Israel and even advocate boycotting the Jewish state see nothing wrong with China hosting the Olympics or Russia hosting the football World Cup.
Despite the professed wish for world peace made by beauty pageant contestants, all international competitions, including Miss Universe, the Olympics and the Eurovision, are based on a natural form of rivalry.
There is, of course, a world of difference between national pride and the ugly face of nationalism.
Like all Israelis, I revel in our successes and blame our failures on politics. One reason for Israel’s difficulties is, similar to its situation in more serious international forums, it does not have natural partners in the way that the Scandinavian countries or Baltic states do.
The Eurovision has come a long way since Sandie Shaw won the contest for Britain in 1967 with “Puppet on a String,” and not necessarily in the right direction.
Nonetheless, when Netta Barzilai belts out “I’m not your toy,” even if I don’t watch her, I’ll be hoping she gets multiple “douze points.”
At least in the Eurovision, unlike Putin’s Russia, scores are settled in public.