Billed as the world’s biggest singing competition with a global television audience of 200 million, Eurovision was lifted this year by a guest appearance by Madonna and enough glitz, plumes of fire and special effects to invigorate even the blandest Europop.
But the winner, Duncan Laurence, 24, opted for a more minimalist approach surprisingly devoid of gimmicks. He sang his moody solo, “Arcade,” about a broken heart, while accompanying himself on the piano.
Behind the scenes of this year’s Eurovision, the ever-present political tensions in host country Israel played out. Israel was chosen for having won last year’s contest, but an international pro-Palestinian campaign urged artists and the public to boycott the five-day event.
The boycott campaign claimed a degree of victory, citing growing awareness of its cause. But no contestants or countries dropped out of the competition, which Israelis said served as an unrivaled showcase for their country.
Tel Aviv took on a carnival atmosphere with tens of thousands of Israelis packing an open-air Eurovision village on the beachfront to watch free concerts and live broadcasts of the competition on giant screens.
Israel left little to chance in its effort to rebrand itself as a hip, gay-friendly tourist destination as opposed to a fraught Holy Land wracked by conflict.
The secret weapon was Madonna, a devout student of kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, and her appearance was shrouded in mystery. She signed a contract with the organizers two days before the final after months of rumors. And she performed her 30-year-old classic “Like a Prayer,” and the world onstage premiere of “Future,” with U.S. rapper Quavo.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel had urged Madonna to boycott the event, accusing her of “artwashing Israel’s brutal oppression of Palestinians for a million dollars.”
Instead, her guest appearance, sponsored by Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli tycoon and philanthropist, delivered a public relations boost to both Eurovision and Israel. In part, Adams said, the idea was to increase the visibility of Eurovision in less engaged parts of the world, particularly North America.
In an on-camera chat with one of the Israeli presenters of the show, Madonna addressed the criticism by declaring, “Never underestimate the power of music to bring people together.” On stage, two of her dancers briefly flashed Israeli and Palestinian flags stuck on their backs, flouting Eurovision rules.
Many critics said Madonna, appearing at around 1 a.m. Israeli time, sang out of tune.
Some Eurovision artists have catapulted to international fame, including ABBA, the Swedish quartet that won in 1974 with “Waterloo,” and Celine Dion, the French Canadian chanteuse who won the contest for Switzerland in 1988. For the most part, though, contestants have faded into relative obscurity outside their home countries.
This year’s finalists included the operatic. Australia’s entrant, Kate Miller-Heidke, a classically trained soprano, sang an ethereal number, “Zero Gravity,” as she and her dancers appeared to float in a starry night sky.
Countries outside Europe can compete in Eurovision through membership in or by invitation from the organizer, the European Broadcasting Union. The first Eurovision, held in Switzerland in 1956 with seven countries competing, tried to promote unity on the postwar continent.
This year, in a jarring contrast to Eurovision’s vibe of love and harmony, Iceland’s dystopian, bondage-themed, techno-punk band Hatari practically growled its way through “Hate Will Prevail.” In the official English translation of the lyrics, the song goes: “Hate will prevail/And Europe’s heart impale.”
Unsmiling Hatari members also unfurled a scarf that read “Palestine” in the colors of the Palestinian flag on screen during the voting. The home crowd booed.
At the other end of the spectrum, Serhat, a Turkish entertainer (and dentist) representing San Marino, a tiny, mountainous republic rarely heard of outside Eurovision, performed “Say Na Na Na,” a self-aware bit of digestible Europop. The audience in the 7,500-seat auditorium was more than a fifth the size of San Marino’s population of 35,000.
Israel’s contestant, Kobi Marimi, went straight to the final, a privilege afforded to the host country, although his ballad was panned by Israeli critics. He came in 23rd out of the 26 finalists.
Marimi, 27, largely unknown in Israel until he won the reality show that made him the country’s pick for Eurovision, had previously said he thought Israelis were missing the point by focusing too much on the outcome.
“You can only win in Eurovision. You cannot lose in Eurovision,” he told reporters.
The results combine the rankings of professional judges from each competing country — who often vote in regional or linguistic cliques — and those of viewers who vote via phone, text or Eurovision app.
Israel, a non-European member of the broadcasting union, has won four times since the 1970s — including last year in Lisbon with “Toy,” sung by Netta Barzilai, a flamboyant singer who stands for women’s empowerment.
This competition, Israel’s third time as host, was accompanied by unusually intense background noise as the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement campaigned against Israel’s role.
Omar Barghouti, founder of the movement, said that holding Eurovision in Israel was “a political decision and a very immoral one at that.”
The movement’s goals range from opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to supporting a right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, an aim that Israel’s advocates say means the dismantling of the country as a Jewish state.
There were mass petitions against participating. Two international DJs dropped out of a Tel Aviv beach party. Scores of LGBTQ groups boycotted the event and held parties that screened alternative concerts with Palestinian artists.
The boycotters took credit for a lower-than-expected turnout of Eurovision tourists. About 10,000 people came from abroad, according to Israeli officials, including 1,500 journalists and bloggers and 1,500 members of the delegations. Last year’s contest in Lisbon, Portugal, drew an estimated 90,000 tourists.
But Eurovision fans said the cost of traveling to Israel — rather than taking a bus or train on the European continent — kept many away. A deadly bout of fighting with Gaza a week beforehand may also have tamped down tourism.
Barghouti said the campaign had managed to raise awareness about Palestinian rights among millions of people whom the movement would not normally reach.
Brushing off the lower number of visitors, Israelis said that Eurovision was mainly a television event in any case and that clips showing the contestants dancing in beautiful spots around the country promoted Israel.
William Lee Adams, the founder of Wiwibloggs, a leading independent Eurovision site, said he had been in tenser situations, with more visible security, like at the competition in Ukraine two years ago.
“At Eurovision in Kiev in 2017, there were men in the press center with large guns,” he said. “Here we have an ice coffee machine.”