'It's a competition that changed my life'

Meet the hitmaker behind ‘Toy,’ Israel’s sensational Eurovision song

Doron Medalie, whose entry for Lisbon event, sung by Netta Barzilai, is the hot favorite, has spent much of the last decade directing and writing music for the annual contest

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

There’s substance as well as sizzle behind “Toy,” Israel’s quirky Eurovision 2018 entry that’s already a sensation in Europe.

The snappy pop song, sung by Netta Barzilai and rising quickly to the top of the betting charts, was co-written by Doron Medalie, who’s known as Israel’s hitmaker and who thinks of the annual song contest as part of his DNA.

“I’m known as the Minister of Happiness,” said Medalie. “This song needed to make everyone dance, with a happy beat that was reminiscent of A-Pop,” the Asian pop music that both he and Barzilai are fans of.

Medalie grew up on Eurovision, the annual music competition that is beloved but often derided by Israelis, learning all the songs by heart with his friends. He later studied music and dance.

For much of the last decade, he’s directed Israel’s Eurovision entry, and also wrote three of the songs performed by Israeli contestants, including “Golden Boy” performed by Nadav Guedj for Eurovision 2015 and “Made of Stars” with Hovi Star in 2016. He also wrote “Tel Aviv Ya Habibi Tel Aviv,” and songs for Shlomi Shabat, Eyal Golan, Omer Adam and others.

But his intention with “Toy” was to create something different, lighthearted, joyous and catchy.

Doron Medalie, the hitmaker behind hundreds of Israeli songs as well as the latest Eurovision entry, ‘Toy’ (Courtesy Doron Medalie)

Once Medalie and his writing partner, Stav Beger, found their beat for “Toy,”” they began working with the toy theme, a motif that Medalie couldn’t find in any past Eurovision song, much less any pop song in recent history.

“That’s a bingo for me,” he said. “And when Netta looks and behaves the way she does, so it turn toys into ‘I’m not your toy, don’t play with me.’ Let’s use toys to say something different about the #MeToo movement.”

Potential Eurovision voters across Europe have hailed the song for its lyrics, which ride the tide of the past year’s #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment, as well as for its catchiness and quirks. This year’s content takes place in Lisbon in May.

Medalie reflected that since it was two men writing the song — he bemoaned the current lack of female songwriters, after a wealth of women in the 1980s — they had to relay the right message about female power and the male role. He wanted to make it a little funnier and less dramatic, while still relaying the message that this woman, Netta Barzilai, was okay without a man.

Look at me, I’m a beautiful creature
I don’t care about your modern time preacher
Welcome boys, too much noise, I will teach ya
Hey, I think you forgot how to play
My teddy bear’s running away
The Barbie got something to say, hey
My “Simon says” leave me alone
I’m taking my Pikachu home
You’re stupid just like your smartphone

There are also references to Pokeman character Pikachu, which was Barzilai’s addition (“that’s more her generation than mine,” said Medalie), as well as to Wonder Woman and by association, Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who recently played the superheroine to great acclaim.

Wonder Woman don’t you ever forget
You’re divine and he’s about to regret

“Of course, we are in love with Gal Gadot, and I watched Linda Carter as Wonder Woman,” said Medalie. “This was the only thing on TV! It closes many circles from my childhood.”

For Medalie, every song — even this pop-driven, lighthearted dance melody — has to have layers, “mounds of layers in every single word.”

Medalie’s favorite line is “Look at me, I’m a beautiful creature/I don’t care about your modern time preacher,” referring to himself and to Barzilai, a curvaceous woman who dresses with great character and panache. Medalie said he was fed up with seeing only one kind of look on the streets, and was seeking a different kind of face.

Netta Barzilai, Israel’s contestant in the 2018 Eurovision, will sing the song ‘Toy’ (Courtesy Eurovision)

“When I saw Netta in her first audition, I knew she should win,” he said. “She was very special and unique, and I couldn’t take my eyes off that girl. I’m a star hunter, that’s what I do and every few years comes someone special.”

Barzilai also added touches to the song, making the comical chicken sounds:

He’s a bucka-mhm-buckbuckbuck-mhm boy
I’m not your bucka-mhm-buck-mhm-buck-mhm

They later found out that bucka in Mandarin is defined as a kind of idiot, lending a bit of international flavor — and Asian pop meaning — to the lyrics.

There’s very little Hebrew in the song, just a few phrases and sounds, acknowledged Medalie. (Although the National Library decided to translate the song into Hebrew, just for the fun of it.)

רִי, אוֹיָה, שָׁלוֹם לְךָ, הֶמְמְ, לָהרִי, אוֹיָה, שָׁלוֹם לְךָ, הֶמְמְ, לָהרִי, אוֹיָה, שָׁלוֹם לְךָ, הֶמְמְ, לָה…

Posted by ‎הספרייה הלאומית‎ on Monday, March 12, 2018

That absence, despite Israeli wins in previous decades with the all-Hebrew “Abanibi” and “Hallelujah,” stems from the realities of the current Eurovision, he explained.

“This competition is fast and there’s so many songs,” said Medalie. “You want to create something that will live more than three minutes after it’s broadcast. You want to create a hit for your country but also something international that people can relate to.”

It appears that “Toy” is already tackling the task at hand.

Before the song was leaked a day ahead of its official release, “Toy” was ranked ninth with odds of 20-1 to win, according to a combination of several betting sites, including Ladbrokes. After the release, it quickly climbed to the top, with winning odds of 3-1.

Israel has won three times in the contest’s 60-plus-year history, the last time being in 1998 with “Diva”  by Dana International. While votes are cast according to quality and performance, regional geopolitics also play a part, with culturally or politically linked countries often seen voting for each other.

Eurovision has changed dramatically in the last decade, particularly following the geopolitical changes in Central and Eastern Europe, which bumped Eurovision’s number of participating countries from 25 to a current total of 43.

Other changes included a shift from orchestra accompaniment to songs performed by playback — a form of reproducing recorded sound.

“It became crazy, crazy, crazy,” said Medalie. “There’s nothing to compare to any longer, it’s totally different now.”

In this year’s final rounds, 27 countries will be competing.

“This has been my playground for the last decade,” said Medalie. “But it’s never happened that the song gets released and everyone says it’ll be the winner. Usually you have two, three, four or five countries that represent real competition for the betting.”

Now Medalie and his team are in rehearsals, following the release of the audio clip and video earlier this week. These days, even his phone’s ringtone is tuned to “Toy.”

“I’m 40 years old, and my work is my hobby,” said Medalie. “My first memory as a child is of Ofra Haza singing ‘Hai’ onstage in Munich, in Germany.”

For Medalie, Eurovision is a celebration.

“Many people like to be embarrassed about what they grew up with. I’m not,” he said. “As a child, it was fascinating for me to find out about these other cultures; it was before Google and the internet. I only knew about Iceland from Eurovision.”

Yet it’s that sense of cultural differences that Medalie felt had disappeared from recent Eurovisions. He wanted to return to a distinct sense of ethnicity as a way of making the Israeli team stand out.

“It’s a competition that changed my life for real, not only for the music,” he said. “Eurovision is in my heart. I can take it and make it relevant again, and no one will call it pathetic because I’ve been making hits for years.”

Medalie is determined to win, mostly because he says Israel is the “one of the most lovable countries in this competition.”

“In the last decade, our consciousness has been polluted by Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] telling us everyone hates us,” he said.

He expects that the BDS activists — proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement that targets Israel for its perceived mistreatment of the Palestinians — will begin making noise about the song, “because that’s their job.”

“But we should prove otherwise,” he said. “What you’re seeing now with the betting is the proof that Israel can win the Eurovision.”

The current rehearsals will be followed by public relations tours and then two full weeks in Lisbon for the 2018 Eurovision, which Medalie says is the biggest live show in the world.

“This is the longest process that you invest in for a three-minute song,” he said.

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