×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

For Eurovision Contest, Even a Controversial Move to Tel Aviv Is Pop Business as Usual

Even with international headlines whirring about Hamas-fired rockets raining down on southern Israel, there was a feeling of business-as-usual in Tel Aviv ahead of the first semifinal show of the Eurovision Song Contest Wednesday night. In the coastal Mediterranean city, considered a secular bubble of liberal politics and parties stretching well past dawn, both locals and the roughly 5,000 tourists that descended upon Expo Tel Aviv for the 64th annual event seemed far more interested in whether or not Madonna will end up performing at Saturday night’s Eurovision finale (she has yet to sign an official contract) than in global politics.

Watched by about 200 million viewers worldwide, the Eurovision Song Contest, in which contestants from 41 countries compete for the winning title, barely registers in America’s pop culture zeitgeist, but across Europe and Australia it’s so wildly popular that last year’s event, held in Lisbon, Portugal, drew approximately 90,000 tourists.

The numbers are much lower for this year’s Eurovision, broadcast by local channel Kan and hosted by Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli and TV personalities Erez Tal, Assi Azar and Lucy Ayoub. While this dip in attendees is likely a result of mounting pressure from the Boycott Divest Sanction movement and last week’s rocket fire, the participants that are here remain focused on the heart and soul of the song contest, which is to celebrate international music and diversity among recording artists and act as a creative medium through which to bridge cross-cultural divides.

“I’m so happy people chose different and people chose refreshing,” 2018 Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai (pictured above) told the crowd at this year’s first semifinal. “Thank you so much for accepting differences between us,” added the singer, known mononymously as Netta, whose song “Toy” proved a radio smash. “Thank you for celebrating diversity.”

“No country has a perfectly clean moral slate,” said Doron Gabbay, general manager of Oleh! Records, a Tel Aviv-based non-profit organization that promotes Israeli music acts. “There needs to be some level of intellectual consistency. If you boycott every country whose government doesn’t reflect your values, no artists will be able to play anywhere. These artists should use the [Eurovision] stage to spread messages of equality and progressiveness, to support the LGBTQ movement and support people of color. That’s what Eurovision is about. It’s about uniting people.”

Seventeen entrants took the stage during Wednesday’s semifinal, including Icelandic’s rampantly “anti-capitalistic BDSM techno performance art” trio Harari, Serhat from San Marino, D Mol from Montenegro and Australia’s delegate Kate Miller-Heidke. Like Netta, Israel’s 2018 entry, Kobi Marini was chosen to represent the host nation after winning this past season of Israel’s reality singing competition “Rising Star.”

Yoav Tsafir, the showrunner of “Rising Star,” pointed out that for a while, “Eurovision was a dead horse in Israel — nobody cared, nobody watched it, there hadn’t been an Israeli finalist for six straight years in a row.”

It was “Rising Star” which pumped new blood into the competition and through which Israeli audiences regained passion for Eurovision.

This year’s Swedish contender, John Lundvick, broke through in 2018 on another reality show, Sweden’s “Melodifestivalen.” He took third place then, but in 2019, Lundvik’s song “Too Late for Love” earned him the top spot, and he was crowned Sweden’s official Eurovision entry.

“That song made a huge impact on Sweden and gave me the wings as an artist,” said Lundvik, who courted press at Tel Aviv’s boutique Lighthouse hotel, which is hosting the entire Swedish delegation, — including Lundvik’s back-up singers Dinah Yonas Manna, Lou Lou Lamotte, Ashley Haynes and Paris Renita, known collectively as the Mamas.

“Eurovision is a tool to bring people together,” added Lundvik, who will perform at Thursday’s semifinal show (the number of semifinalists is too large to compete on the same night). “Music is the universal language. It connects the gay community with the straight community; it connects different countries. There are so many [Eurovision] fans that are involved with the gay community and they are also so important becaue they write so many blogs about Eurovision. It shows diversity and that everyone is welcome and that is something that is very important these days in the world.”

For the Mamas, all four of which have come to Israel for the first time, exploring a country they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to visit is heightened by their connection to Eurovision.

“If I came here as a private person I hopefully would have been taken care of and has a good experience, but I think it’s elevated because of the music,” said Yonas Manna. “Because of the competition, people are so happy here and music itself brings everyone together.”

“I think with everyone being so supportive and everyone exuding and just putting out love and that message and not trying to … I know it’s a competition, but for us, we don’t really try to compete, we just do what we love,” added Haynes. “And I think that realness — people connect to that. All of us connect to that.”

The following ten contenders have qualified for Saturday night’s Eurovision Song Contest 2019 grand finale: Katerine Duska with “Better Love” (Greece); Zena with “Like it” (Belarus); Nevene Božović with “Kruna” (Serbia); Tamta with “Replay” (Cyprus); Victor Crone with “Storm” (Estonia); Lake Malawi with “Friend Of A Friend” (Czech Republic); Kate Miller-Heidke with “Zero Gravity” (Australia); Hatari with “Hatrið mun sigra” (Iceland); Serhat with “Say Na Na Na” (San Marino); and Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl with “Sebi” (Slovenia).

Rachel McAdams (“The Notebook,” “Spotlight”) is also in Tel Aviv researching her upcoming role as an Icelandic singer in the Will Ferrell-penned comedy “Eurovision.” The movie will lens this summer at Pinewood Studios in London.

“It’s my first time to Israel and I have no idea what to expect,” said McAdams while boarding her El Al flight from LAX. “I had to jump at the chance. It just felt like the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Popular on Variety

More Music

  • Ric Ocasek'The Imitation Game' film premiere,

    Ric Ocasek’s Cause of Death Revealed, Paulina Porizkova Posts Touching Note

    Cars frontman Ric Ocasek died of cardiovascular disease, according to an autopsy report released Monday by the New York City medical examiner’s office cited by Yahoo News and other outlets. More specifically, the cause was hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, also called atherosclerosis, which is an accumulation of plaque in the arteries that can weaken [...]

  • Megan Thee StallionMegan Thee Stallion in

    Megan Thee Stallion Confirms She's Collaborating With Kehlani on Next Album (EXCLUSIVE)

    Hip-hop’s It Girl of the summer, Megan Thee Stallion, has exclusively told Variety that she’s collaborating with Kehlani and a few other famous ladies on her next album. The rapper, who dropped a video for her song of the season “Hot Girl Summer” earlier this month, was asked by Variety on the red carpet at Rihanna’s annual [...]

  • Schoolboy Q

    ScHoolboy Q Reveals ‘CrasH’ Tour Dates

    Top Dawg Entertainment recording artist ScHoolboy Q today announced dates for his next jaunt across the country, the CrasH Tour 2019. Special guest NAV will join on select dates; dates appear in full below Produced by Live Nation, the 19-city tour will kick off November 4 in Houston and make stops in Atlanta, Brooklyn, Toronto, Chicago, and more [...]

  • United Talent Agency Reveals New Logo

    UTA Unveils New Logo, Corporate Image

    UTA raised the curtain Monday on a new corporate logo. The three-dimensional image is meant to emphasize the talent agency’s focus on uniting ideas, opportunities and talent. Building signage with the new logo will go up next month at UTA’s headquarters in Beverly Hills. Related Demi Lovato Joins Netflix Comedy 'Eurovision' Live Nation Sued Over [...]

  • Taylor SwiftMTV Video Music Awards, Arrivals,

    Taylor Swift Joins 'The Voice' Season 17 as a Mentor

    Taylor Swift is returning to “The Voice” as a mega mentor in the upcoming 17th season of the NBC singing competition series. The “Blank Space” singer will offer advice to each team of artists as they prepare for the knockout rounds in the show. Related Demi Lovato Joins Netflix Comedy 'Eurovision' Live Nation Sued Over [...]

  • Ric Ocasek and Alice Cooper 1989Ric

    Seven Times Ric Ocasek Surprised Us, From 'Hairspray' to Bad Brains

    In a universe of strong and eccentric personalities, Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, who died Sunday at the age of 75, was certainly – and happily – an odd bird. By most accounts he was quite friendly in person, yet Ocasek, 75, always seemed distant and aloof, as if he was as hermetically sealed off from [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content