Israel hosted the Grand Final of the 64th Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, with Madonna set to showcase Europe’s annual music extravaganza.
Some 200 million people around the world were expected to be watching as 26 countries competed to be crowned Europe’s top pop act and follow in the footsteps of past winners such as Swedish icons ABBA and Celine Dion, who once represented Switzerland.
The Eurovision debuted in the wake of World War II to heal a divided continent. Over the years, the earnest show of European unity has ballooned into a campy, over-the-top, gay-friendly spectacle that brings together acts from 41 countries, including those with little or no connection to Europe, such as Australia.
Israel earned the right to host the show after Netta Barzilai won last year’s competition with her catchy pop anthem “Toy.”
The ostensibly non-political affair has tried to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has so far succeeded, despite swirling threats of controversy. Calls for performers to boycott the show over Israeli policies toward Palestinians have failed to generate much momentum.
A small protest took place outside Tel Aviv’s Expo Center before the show, following another one from musicians in Gaza earlier in the week. A recent round of rocket fire toward Israel from there also failed to temper excitement.
Madonna herself had faced calls from a Palestinian-led campaign to avoid performing at the event in Israel. But the Queen of Pop rejected the boycott motions, saying she will “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda.”
Madonna was set to perform her hit song, “Like a Prayer,” marking 30 years since its release, and a new song “Future” from her forthcoming album “Madame X.”
For Israel, the mega event offered a much-anticipated opportunity to to put its good face forward and project an image of normalcy to the world. Israel-themed promotional clips featuring each of the participants dancing in various scenic locations across the country streamed before each performance to a TV audience expected to be larger than that of the Super Bowl.
The event itself was being hosted by a quartet of Israeli celebrities, including top model Bar Refaeli. Israel’s own Wonder Woman Gal Gadot was also set to make a cameo appearance. The Tel Aviv hall was packed with thousands of screaming fans, while tens of thousands gathered to watch the final at the city-sponsored Eurovision village and at public screenings elsewhere.
As the current champion, Israel swept straight through to the finals — along with the five European countries who most heavily fund the event. The other 20 participants qualified through a pair of semifinal rounds.
The Netherlands has been tapped as an early front-runner for Duncan Laurence’s doleful piano ballad “Arcade.” Other favorites include Switzerland’s energetic “She Got Me,” sung by Luca Hänni, Sweden’s soulful “Too Late for Love,” sung by John Lundvik, and Australia’s breathy act, “Zero Gravity,” by Kate Miller-Heidke, which showcases dancers’ fancy footwork on stilts.
To maximize onscreen tension, performers are picked by a mix of fan votes and professional juries from the 41 participating countries. Spectators cannot vote for their own country, but like-minded countries tend to fall into blocs that back their regional favorites.
Israel has won the Eurovision three previous times and it has provided the country with some of its cultural touchstones. “Hallelujah” became the country’s unofficial national song after Milk and Honey won the contest for Israel when it hosted the event in the late 1970s, and Dana International became a national hero and global transgender icon when she won with “Diva” in 1998.
Dana International and Netta Barzilai ceremoniously opened the show Saturday.