Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands won the 64th Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv with his doleful piano ballad “Arcade.”
Laurence was tapped as an early front-runner before Saturday’s Grand Final. But he had to rely on the fan vote to secure the country’s fifth win in the competition. Italy finished second, followed by Russia, Switzerland and Norway.
Israeli singer Kobi Marimi finished a disappointing 23rd place.
Israel’s Netta Barzilai, winner of last year’s contest, presented the trophy to Laurence.
“This is to dreaming big, this is to music first, always,” Laurence said.
It was Holland’s first win since 1975. The contest in 1976 was held in The Hague.
With Barzilai’s win last year, Israel secured the right to host Europe’s annual music extravaganza. The night featured a rollicking collection of glitzy performances awash in kitsch, soul and spectacle, and a controversial show by Madonna.
Some 200 million people around the world watched 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.
Participants wrapped up their performances shortly after midnight, kicking off the voting process across Europe. 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.
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 across the continent, including those with little or no connection to Europe, such as Australia.
Barzilai won last year’s competition with her catchy, defiant pop anthem “Toy.”
The ostensibly non-political affair tried to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and largely succeeded. Calls for performers to boycott the show over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians 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 performed her classic hit song, “Like a Prayer,” marking 30 years since its release, and a new song, “Future,” from her forthcoming album “Madame X.”
She injected some politics into her act with a call for peace in the lyrics of “Future,” which featured two of her dancers wearing Israeli and Palestinian flags on their backs.
The flag-wearing pair were the last two dancers to leave the stage at the end of the song, at which point Madonna and co-performer Quavo dramatically disappeared from the back of the stage as the words “WAKE UP” flashed on screen.
In response, the European Broadcasting Union released a statement saying that the Israeli and Palestinian flags in Madonna’s performance had not been approved.
“This element of the performance was not part of the rehearsals which had been cleared by the EBU and the host broadcaster, Kan,” the union said in a statement, according to a tweet from Reuters correspondent Dan Williams.
“The Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political event and Madonna had been made aware of this,” the statement read.
For Israel, the mega event offered a much-anticipated opportunity 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 larger than that of the Super Bowl.
The event itself was hosted by a quartet of Israeli celebrities, including top model Bar Refaeli. Israel’s own Wonder Woman Gal Gadot also made a cameo video 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 Israel was the current champion, Marimi swept straight through to the finals — along with the five European countries that most heavily fund the event. The other 20 participants qualified through a pair of semifinal rounds.
The Tel Aviv crowd naturally went craziest for Marimi, even though the crooner ended up finishing with a disappointing 47 points, putting him close to the bottom of the pack.
Marimi sang “Home,” a slow operatic number, backed up by a small chorus in evening wear.
Critics had said the song was too slow and lacked personality, but Marimi gave it a little extra for the performance.
He cried as he ended the song, barely managing to thank the crowd in Hebrew.
“Wow” is all the local announcer could manage.
אירוויזיון 2019 | צפו בביצוע המלא של קובי מרימי, הנציג הכי מתוק שלנו לתחרות האירוויזיון, שפורץ בבכי קורע לב ומדהים את הקהל pic.twitter.com/BSAsctlmgX
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) May 18, 2019
The song choice was criticized by many Israelis when it first debuted, with many complaining that it was not interesting or catchy enough. And with the operatic track trailing with bookies ahead of the show, few expected him to pull off a win.
Still, the singer himself proved popular with the public with his unique style and emotional commitment to his craft.
Interviewed by Channel 12 news on Friday night, Marimi said he felt “Home” was “My song. I sing it. I love it.”
The 27-year-old said he was “so excited to be performing this song on this stage.”
He said he’d never had the confidence in the past to say he was a singer. “I was shy about it. I didn’t think it was serious or that anyone would take me seriously,” he recounted.
But now “I think I’ve come to a point at age 27 where I know who I am as a person, as an artist.”
Marimi added that with public expectations and criticism he had been forced to take Barzilai’s advice and grow thick skin ahead of the contest. And he said he was grateful for Israel’s Eurovision team for its selection.
“They were really good about picking a song that fit me, my story and my character,” he said.
Israel has won the Eurovision four 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.
Barzilai became a role model for plus-size women after her win last year. She has been unapologetic about her weight, the loud colors she wears, and the funky chicken moves and sounds that have become her trademark.
All of Israel’s former winners took part in Saturday’s event with Barzilai and Dana International ceremoniously getting it underway.