Israel’s Netta Barzilai wins Eurovision song contest
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'Thank you for celebrating diversity,' enthuses singer

Israel’s Netta Barzilai wins Eurovision song contest

'Next time in Jerusalem,' jubilant Barzilai yells after victory; 'Toy' marks Israel's 4th win; hundreds jump in Rabin Square fountain to celebrate; PM calls her 'best ambassador'

Netta Barzilai after winning the final of the 63rd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, on May 12, 2018. (AFP/ Francisco LEONG)
Netta Barzilai after winning the final of the 63rd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, on May 12, 2018. (AFP/ Francisco LEONG)

Israel won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in two decades Saturday as singer Netta Barzilai clucked and bucked to the top of the international competition with the women’s empowerment anthem “Toy.”

Backed up by three dancers, her trademark side buns featuring stripes of pink-dyed hair to match her pink-and-black outfit, Barzilai busted her way through “Toy” on stage in Lisbon, Portugal, punctuating her singing with her trademark eye rolls and chicken dance moves.

“I’m not your toy. You stupid boy. I’ll take you down now,” run the lyrics of her winning song.

The win set off large street celebrations in Tel Aviv. It means Israel will host next year’s Eurovision competition — probably in Jerusalem — an event expected to bring thousands of fans and worldwide exposure to the Jewish state.

Returning to the stage after the win, a jubilant Barzilai paid homage to the song’s themes of female empowerment and her own success despite not matching Western society’s conventional beauty ideals.

“I’m so happy. Thank you so much for choosing difference. Thank you so much for accepting differences between us. Thank you for celebrating diversity. Thank you. I love my country. Next time in Jerusalem,” Barzilai told the watching world.

She then performed the song a second time.

Interviewed soon afterward on Israel’s Kan TV, the state broadcaster, she said she looked forward to the world seeing “the Israeli carnival” when Jerusalem hosts the contest next year. People will see “how wonderful we are, what a vibe we have. Best people… the best place in the world.”

“Be good to others, and be good to yourselves,” she added.

Israel’s singer Netta Barzilai aka Netta performs with the trophy after winning the final of the 63rd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, on May 12, 2018. (AFP/Francisco LEONG)

Despite the result coming through at 1:30 a.m. local time, many Israelis were awake to celebrate the win. In Tel Aviv, thousands of people gathered at Rabin Square, cheering loudly and jumped in a fountain. The city’s iconic City Hall lit up with the word “TOY.” There were celebrations, too, in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda street market.

Speaking to Barzilai by phone minutes after her victory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Barzilai,” You are wonderful. You are lovely… You are the best ambassador for Israel.”

Kapara alayich” — he said, using a phrase she uses that roughly means “bless you.”

“We’re proud of you. We are waiting for everyone next year in Jerusalem,” President Reuven Rivlin wrote on Twitter.

Israel’s singer Netta Barzilai performs “Toy” during the final of the 63rd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, on May 12, 2018. (AFP / Francisco LEONG)

For months, Barzilai had been the bookmakers’ favorite to win the Eurovision this year.

But after Tuesday’s semifinal she was overtaken in the betting by Cyprus’s Eleni Foureira whose catchy pop song “Fuego” added last-minute drama to the competition.

In the end, Israel won 529 points in total, ahead of Cyprus’s 436 points and Austria’s 342.

Barzila was behind when the various jury votes were completed, but overtook her rivals on the strength of the audience votes in the participating nations. Jury votes and viewers’ votes each counted for 50 percent of the total.

Israel had not won the Eurovision since 1998, with pop star Dana International’s “Diva.” It won twice in a row in 1978 and 1979 for “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” and then “Hallelujah.”

Barzilai, known more usually as Netta, has a witty and endearing personality. Before the Grand Final, her song had already racked up more than 20 million views on Eurovision’s YouTube channel.

In “Toy,” Netta makes funny noises, including a clucking sound like a chicken and barely decipherable words, and uses a looping machine and synthesizer.

Barzilai’s tune was seen by many as capturing the #MeToo zeitgeist of the moment.

Israel’s singer Netta Barzilai aka Netta performs “Toy” during the final of the 63rd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, on May 12, 2018. / (AFP / Francisco LEONG)

“This song needed to make everyone dance, with a happy beat,” but also to “say something different about the #MeToo movement,” the songwriter, Doron Medalie, said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

Born in 1993, Barzilai was raised along with her two brothers in the Tel Aviv region. While she was still a child, her parents moved to Nigeria where she lived for four years, learning rhythms of African lullabies sung to her by local nannies.

Back in Israel, she studied jazz at the Rimon School of Music, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country.

The event is organized by the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of public service broadcasters. In each participating country, a jury and viewers award between one and a maximum 12 points to their favorite songs. Those votes are combined to give each country a single score.

Israel nearly didn’t compete this year, after Netanyahu briefly attempted to shelve a planned reorganization of the country’s public broadcaster. The reform went ahead and Israel, in the contest since 1973, was allowed to remain.

This year’s contest largely shed its traditional hallmarks of glitz and glitter in favor of a more restrained and tasteful tone in Lisbon, which was hosting the event because it won last year with Salvador Sobral’s sober and subdued ballad “Amar pelos Dois.”

Sobral last week criticized “Toy” as “horrible music,” insisting the focus should be on the music and not the spectacle.

But Barzilai, with her Asian-themed show in red and yellow and her dancers doing funky chicken moves, was unrepentant.

“I’m happy people chose something different. It’s refreshing,” she said. “I believe authenticity (shows) through.”

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