Everything You Need to Know About Eurovision, The Crazy Song Competition Israel Just Won

Israel won this year’s Eurovision contest, Europe’s biggest televised song contest, with an amazingly catchy song full of chicken clucks called “Toy” by Netta Barzilai. This is a huuuuuge deal… for me.

I realize not many Americans have any clue what I’m talking about, but as a born-and-bred Israeli, watching the finale on Saturday night was basically my Super Bowl. Seriously, I am about to give birth to my first child and I was more emotional when I found out we won than when I found out I was pregnant (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I was REALLY happy).

But hey, why should you care? And why was this such a monumental occasion? Let me, your resident Israeli Eurovision superfan, explain:

So what is the Eurovision? Only the biggest reality singing contest ever! Over 40 countries, mostly in Europe, send representatives to the event every year, which starts with a semi-final to narrow down participants. The winning contestant’s country gets to host the competition the following year (think a lot of tourism $$$).

Wait, let’s back up. Why is Israel part of the Eurovision?! It’s not a European country! Reader, you are correct. Israel is technically on the continent of Asia. But because the Israeli Broadcast Association is a part of the European Broadcast Union, Israel gets to participate in its most glitzy contest. Israel has sent representatives to the Eurovision since 1973. We’ve had some wonderful entries, and some deeply embarrassing ones, like this one: 

The Eurovision is the oldest still-running televised song contest in the world, and it’s kind of a big deal. Yes. I know you may have never watched it (and I would suggest you remedy that ASAP) but the Eurovision gets millions of views around the world every year. So competing, let alone winning in the Eurovision, is a very big deal for a young unknown musician, especially from smaller countries like Israel, who would never have an opportunity for such a global stage otherwise. It’s also a yearly opportunity to see some of the weirdest music acts from around Europe. Like Ireland’s Dustin the Turkey:

Some big Eurovision participants from the past include ABBA and Celine Dion (she represented Switzerland).

This isn’t Israel’s first Eurovision win. In fact, it’s the 4th time we’ve taken home that shiny microphone trophy. Our first two wins were consecutive, in 1978 and 1979, for “Abanibi” and “Hallelujah”.

But Israel’s last win before Netta was really unique….

An Israeli singer was the first out transgender person to win the Eurovision, 20 (!) years ago. Meet Dana International. She is a real Diva, which is why her winning song at the Eurovision in 1998 was named “Diva” and catapulted her into international stardom in the LGBTQIA community.

International was a big inspiration for Conchitta Wurst, a bearded Austrian drag queen who won the Eurovision in 2014 with a song called “Rise Like the Phoenix.” 

Netta Barzilai, the winning Israeli singer from this year, was selected to compete in the Eurovision by winning an Israeli reality show called The Next Star. The past few Israeli representatives have been selected through this contest, which means they already have an invested local fan base in Israel before they leave for the contest, and they’ve already competed for popular votes before.

Netta is most known for her use of a looper (she wasn’t allowed to bring it on stage at the Eurovision) to create and layer melodies for her songs with vocals. But this phenomenally talented singer doesn’t just do pop; she sings acoustic covers that will make you tear up, and has even participated in experimental musical theater. She’s also seriously adorable.

The song “Toy” was written about the #MeToo movement, railing against the objectification of women with lyrics like, “I’m not your toy/You stupid boy.” And those chicken squaks? They’re meant to insinuate that said stupid boy is, well, a chicken. 

Netta won the popular vote!!! The way the Eurovision works is almost as complicated as the American electoral system (but not quite THAT BAD). Basically, it’s a combination of professional juries from every participating country and a popular telephone/app vote (you can only vote from countries that participate in the Eurovision and you CAN’T, I repeat CAN’T vote for your own country). After the jury votes were given, the Israeli song was firmly at #3. But once the popular vote came in, Israel was first, by a long shot, leading over runner-up Cyprus by almost 100 points. BTW, that Cyprus song was pretty great: 

Netta is used to dealing with bullies… as recently as during the Eurovision. In interviews, Netta has spoken about dealing with people who told her she was too fat or too different, and how she’s gone from wanting to fade into the background to wanting to be exactly who she is and flaunt her uniqueness. Last year’s winner, Salvador Sorbal, called her song “horrible” and said that if she won, he would hand her the trophy with “a fake smile.” Which is what he ended up doing, but not before Netta responded to him with nothing but love. QUEEN!

Israelis from all walks of life celebrated the win. Israel’s prime minister Bibi Netanyahu congratulated Netta with a hard to translate tweet, but so did his fiercest political opponents. Revelers from every background, including religious Israelis and drag queens, filled the streets and public squares to dance and celebrate the night away.

And most importantly, Gal Gadot, whose character Wonder Woman is featured in the song, posted this sweet congratulatory post on Instagram. How cute is that?!

There’s nothing really political about the win. Listen, this is not to say that politics are kept out of the Eurovision. Back in 2015, Russia was booed every time the country’s entry got points. And certain countries are want to give their neighbors and close allies points. But this competition is mostly just about the music. As my colleague at JTA, Cnaan Liphshiz, wrote, Netta’s song got votes from Muslim countries and countries that are a bastion of the boycott and divestment movement (BDS). So taking this win as some kind of a big victory for Israel, or, alternatively, a defeat to BDS or anti-Semitism in Europe, would be wrong.

The next Eurovision will most likely be held in Jerusalem. When Netta, glowing from her win, yelled, “Next year in Jerusalem!” and gave us all flashbacks to our seders, she wasn’t making a political statement. While there is a lot of drama and violence surrounding this week’s move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, holding the Eurovision in Jerusalem would be in line with Eurovision tradition. Both times the Eurovision took place in Israel, in 1978 and 1999, it was held in Jerusalem.

While waiting for the next Eurovision, you can learn to dance to “Toy.” Because how can you possibly listen to this song without wanting to dance to it?

Read More

Movie Made Jews

What Makes a Movie Jewish?

Alma chats with author and professor Helene Meyers about the profound impact Jewish movies can have on our identities.