Frontline Reporting: My Coverage of the Eurovision 2016 Finals

One of Israel’s most famous haircuts – and also a singer – did not emerge victorious at the 2016 Eurovision contest in Sweden on Saturday night, but it wasn’t due to a lack of effort.

Ivan the naked wolf whisperer (left) realizes that his antics won't be enough to make the finals (Ben Hartman)

Ivan the naked wolf whisperer (left) realizes that his antics won’t be enough to make the finals (Ben Hartman)

Sparkling like he’d been attacked by a 12-year-old with a spray can of foam on Independence Day three nights earlier, he took to the stage with “Made of Stars,” a ballad that was either dark or uplifting, and packed with nonsense lines like “You ride a black horse in the rain” and, “Silver fragments falling, we are made of stars.” Hovi was joined on stage by two acrobats trapped in a giant spinning metal hoop, though they could not rotate him to victory in Stockholm, and he finished 14th out of a field of 26.

A departure of sorts from the disco Euro pop techno show tunes that make up most of the fare at the singing contest, “Made of Stars” was written by Doron Medalie, who also penned “Golden Boy,” (“I’m a Golden Boy, come here to enjoy”), which Nadav Guedj and his golden winged sneakers rode to a ninth-place finish last year.

This year’s Eurovision was notable in part because it was the first time in the contest’s 60-year history that the final was broadcast in the United States (and in China). The spectacle – which is almost a hyper-concentrated version of nativist American stereotypes about weird, campy Europeans – seems tailor-made to win votes for Donald Trump, though the finale was shown on the gay-friendly Logo network, probably not a popular station with his base.

Future historians though will teach our children that the real highlight was at the semifinal on Thursday night, in the form of a naked Belarusian named Ivan, singing on stage to a wolf. In reality, it was a projected image of Ivan and the wolf, though the Belarus singer had actually performed naked with real wolves before, including, according to a Daily Mail article from April 2015, during a concert in Moscow in which “the wolf, named Shakira, didn’t miss an opportunity to take nibbles out of the naked performer.”

The article quotes Ivan – who apparently performed in Tel Aviv in April (#BDSfail?) – as saying of his lupine sidekick that “the most important thing is to feed her sausages on time.”

Alas, Ivan did not make it to the final, proving that it takes more than performing naked with wild dogs. For an event known for its over-the-top performances, this feels like a betrayal.

In general the semifinals were more enjoyable – partly because they were shorter – but also because of a number of acts like the naked wolf whisperer.

One act that did make it through to the final 26 was Georgia’s indie rock band “Nika Kocharov and the Young Georgian Lolitaz,” with “Midnight Gold.” The title sounds like it’s a song about drugs, but the lyrics – including, “When I came to, your smell on me,” and, “Stains of mud on your skin,” sound either like they were written after a barnyard tryst with a pig, or by a man who had just murdered a woman he met on the Tinder dating app (available in Georgia). Luckily for Nika and the Lolitaz, Sweden’s process of extraditing suspects to non-EU countries is rather complicated, and requires approval of the government and Supreme Court.

The acts brought to mind an article on Slate earlier this week prepping Americans set to watch the extravaganza for the first time, which said, “This is the pop that cool forgot, born from countries that never had the black American traditions of blues and spirituals to draw on.” It’s a bit strange that even though hip-hop is one of the most global genres of music (and fashion), especially in European countries such as France and Belgium, on Thursday and Saturday nights in Stockholm it looked and sounded like pop music moved to Sweden in the ’70s, bypassing the South Bronx completely.

For the sake of full disclosure, this is not my first Eurovision viewing. A few months after moving to Israel, I watched Lior Narkis perform “Words for Love” (in the chorus he sings “I love you” in six languages – if you’re a female tourist on the beach in Israel, you’re likely to meet guys who can do this) at the May 2003 contest in Latvia.

In my defense, I was at my then-girlfriend’s family home in Beersheba, and thought this is what everyone does in Israel, much like I thought Nafis and Shipudei Sof HaDerekh were the country’s finest restaurants, and the Forum the hottest nightclub in the Middle East. (Seven years later I would meet Narkis and his entourage in Uman, Ukraine, where on the banks of a lake we performed tashlich and he said a prayer for my recently deceased grandmother – in one language.)

In the end, with all of the theatrics and corny Euro pop, it was a deeply serious and political song that won this year’s contest. Ukraine’s “1944” by Jamala is about the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Stalin’s USSR in the 1940s. Jamala’s great-grandmother and her five children were among those deported to Central Asia, and her experiences were reportedly reflected in the lyrics in Crimean Tatar that Jamala sings in the song. The fact that it went down to the wire, and Ukraine was head to head with Russia, winning with a song about Crimea, brought a bit of poetic justice to a competition that had by then stretched hours into the night.

For Israelis though, there would be no such triumph. Still, perhaps they could take solace in the performance of Amir Haddad, a French-Israeli singer, dentist and IDF veteran who grew up in Herzliya, and finished in sixth place with “J’ai Cherché.”

In the meantime, like generations before us have said, “Next year in Ukraine.”

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