Following performances from Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Raichel and 2018 Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai, who sang her latest single “Nana Banana,” Madonna opened her set with “Like a Prayer.” The stage was appropriately propped to resemble an ancient church, the sort you would find in any number of cities in Israel. Accompanying Madonna on the controversial and provocative 1989 smash was a back-up choir-cum-dancers dressed in traditional monk attire.
It followed with a highly choreographed version of “Future,” featuring Quavo of Migos, who was also in attendance (earlier, he spoke of his trip to Jerusalem as “really special”). The two held hands as the song came to a close, and behind them were projected the words “Wake Up.”
Some in the audience, and watching at home, noted that “Like a Prayer” sounded “off-key.” It’s unclear whether there were any issues with Madonna’s in-ear monitors; the singer’s rep declined to comment.
Earlier in the show, Madonna was interviewed briefly. Wearing her new signature eyepatch and with her hair in braids, Madonna joked that she only sees the Tel Aviv beach from her hotel perch. She then addressed the contestants participating in the international music contest. “You’re all winners,” she said. “To get where you are right now is not easy. … You’ve earned your way. … That makes you a winner no matter what happens.”
Asked by the show’s host if she wanted to use the global platform to send a message, Madonna did just that. “Look at all the delegates — everybody is here from all over the world,” she said. “And the thing that brings all of these people together is music. So let’s never underestimate the power of music to bring people together.”
She then led the 5,000 in attendance in a chant of the chorus to her 2000 hit “Music,” joshing the crowd and its ability to “follow directions” and sing the hook, “Music makes the people come together.”
Madonna’s participation in the beloved international competition was not without controversy. On May 14, her much-publicized performance came into question after the show’s organizers revealed that no contract had yet been signed. The paperwork was sorted out just in the nick of time and on May 16, Madonna was given the all-clear.
Madonna’s arrival was facilitated in part by Israeli-Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams, but a source tells Variety that Madonna did not receive a fee, as was rumored in the hours leading up to the event at the Tel Aviv Expo, and made up for any production deficit out of her own pocket (the performance was budged for $1 million).
In addition, there were vocal objections by pro-Palestinian activists for performers and international broadcasters to boycott the show due to Israel being the host nation. Adding fuel to that fire, one of Madonna’s backup dancers was photographed with a Palestinian flag sewn on the back of her costume. She had her arm around a male dancer wearing the Israeli flag. Says an insider: it was meant as a message of peace.
Last week, Madonna addressed calls to boycott by saying she would “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda, nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be.”
“My heart breaks every time I hear about the innocent lives that are lost in this region and the violence that is so often perpetuated to suit the political goals of people who benefit from this ancient conflict,” the singer said. “I hope and pray that we will soon break free from this terrible cycle of destruction and create a new path towards peace.”
Eurovision is a beloved annual global event in which countries compete against each other for the best original song. Each country submits a song that is performed live on the show. Afterwards, viewers in each country can then vote for their favorites, excluding the song from their own nation, with points awarded by ranking. The country with the most points is declared the winner. The live show is watched by about 200 million viewers worldwide.