The Eurovision Song Contest decided the final 10 contestants who will battle to be crowned Europe’s best pop act in the event’s second semifinal Thursday, as Tel Aviv rocked to 18 different acts.
The Netherlands, Sweden, North Macedonia, Albania, Russia, Azerbaijan, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Malta were chosen to advance to Saturday’s final, joining 10 previous picks and six countries that automatically qualified.
The contestants eliminated from the running were Ireland, Armenia, Moldova, Latvia, Romania, Austria, Lithuania and Croatia.
The Netherlands is considered one of the front-runners for Duncan Laurence’s doleful piano ballad, “Arcade,” which contrasted starkly with another fan favorite, the athletic Luca Hänni, whose clubby strobe-lit performance earned Switzerland its first grand final slot in years.
“Too Late for Love,” sung by John Lundvik, started slow and soulful then exploded into a hallmark Eurovision electro-pop act, complete with glitzy background dancers and rhythmically flashing lights, carrying forward Sweden’s successful Eurovision track record.
One surprise was North Macedonia, competing for the first time under that name, on the strength of Tamara Todevska’s mournful power ballad “Proud.”
Todevska noted it was the first time her country had made it to the final in six years.
Thursday’s choices join the 10 winners from the first semifinal to vie for the top prize and the exposure it provides.
Five European countries sweep straight to the final because they contribute the most money to the competition. Israel automatically qualified because it won last year.
An estimated 200 million viewers worldwide, more than the Super Bowl, are expected to tune in on Saturday to watch the 26 finalists belt out their tunes in contest’s 64th year.
Winners are picked by a mix of votes from phone-in viewers and professional juries from 41 participating countries.
Israel earned the right to host after Israeli singer Netta Barzilai carried off last year’s prize with her spunky pop anthem “Toy.” Israeli contestant Kobi Marimi will be attempting to follow in Barzilai’s footsteps on Saturday night, but he faces an uphill battle, with oddsmakers currently predicting he will finish near the bottom of the pack.
Perhaps anticipating controversy, organizers decided to hold the contest in Tel Aviv — Israel’s freewheeling cultural capital known for its beaches and gay-friendly lifestyle — instead of in the contested, conservative capital of Jerusalem.
Thousands of screaming fans watched in the Tel Aviv hall and on giant screens streaming the show outside the venue.
The city timed it’s annual White Night Festival, an all-night cultural event, to coincide with Thursday’s semifinal, sending tens of thousands into the streets to party even after the lights went down at the Expo Tel Aviv venue.
The ostensibly non-political pop extravaganza 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 Israel’s treatment of Palestinians have failed to yield tangible results.
But the contest waded into murky waters when one of its Israel-themed promotional clips streamed at Thursday’s show introduced Norway’s performers prancing in what the video labelled the Judean Desert, and what most of the international community calls the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim for their future state.
Coming just days after the latest skirmish between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, security was high near the contest.
Neil Farren, a Eurovision commentator live-blogging contest preparations in Tel Aviv, said the visibly heightened security and briefings on air raid sirens and bomb shelters likely rattled some contenders, who have so far remained tight-lipped about the political situation.
But at least Madonna is coming.
The Queen of Pop landed in Israel on Tuesday evening after she confirmed she had rejected calls for her to boycott Eurovision, saying she will “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda.”
On Thursday, Madonna signed a contract to perform on Saturday, ending uncertainty after repeated delays.
“Now it’s official,” Kan, which is producing the event with the European Broadcasting Union, wrote on its website.
The Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel had urged artists to skip Eurovision in Tel Aviv. In a statement, it accused Madonna of “artwashing” and urged her to cancel.