'Toy' Story: Europe Enamored of Israel's Eurovision Contest Entry

Hot song by Israel's Netta Barzilai is still odds-on favorite in the annual music competition, entering the semifinal round Tuesday

Netta from Israel performs the song 'Toy' in Lisbon, Portugal, Tuesday, May 8, 2018 during the first semi-final for the Eurovision Song Contest
Armando Franca/AP

LISBON - Entering its semifinal rounds on Tuesday, this year's 63rd Eurovision Song Contest is considered to be one of the most boring competitions in years. A number of countries have submitted mediocre and old-fashioned entries to the competition in Lisbon, which sound as if they were produced by some sort of generic Eurovision song software.

Even the songs that stand out the most this year – such as those from France, Estonia, Bulgaria, Greece and the Czech Republic – have not managed to generate a buzz that wows the internet or makes them go viral.

Challenging all the boredom is Israel's Netta Barzilai with her song “Toy.” Co-written by Doron Medalie and Stav Berger, it immediately became the betters' favorite to win after it was released two months ago – and it has maintained its momentum up until now, in advance of the Eurovision final on Saturday night. Of course Barzilai has to advance in the first semifinal round on Tuesday; she will be the seventh singer performing and will face some tough competition during the show, which will be televised beginning at 10 P.M. Israel time. The second semifinal is scheduled for Thursday night.

Members of the Israeli delegation are optimistic and told Haaretz, from Lisbon: “We have a great feeling and are having a lot of fun. We are working very hard and rehearsing every day. We have come to this competition to win and to bring the Eurovision to Israel.”

The video clip of "Toy" has to date garnered an impressive following of over 17 million views on YouTube – more than any of the other songs in the contest. It hit the No. 1 spot on Spotify Israel and is on the iTunes hit parade at home and in Europe.

Israeli singer Netta Barzilai performing the song "Toy," Israel's entry in the 63rd annual Eurovision Song Contest, in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2018.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
'Toy' music video.

The appeal of "Toy" is evident in hundreds of videos that have been posted, showing everyone from tourists on islands in Thailand to girls in Ghana dancing to the song and enjoying Barzilai’s quirky crowing-rooster sounds. For her part, the singer this week explained that the cackling is meant to symbolize men who are afraid of strong women – like her.

Following a slow start in less-than-memorable rehearsals early last week, Barzilai and "Toy" returned to the top of the betting charts and opinion polls on Friday. For example, on Wiwiblogs, considered to be the most important website for the Eurovision contest, fans chose the Israeli song as their favorite, followed by Albania, Greece, Finland and Belgium.

Erratic extremes

Missing from this list but still a threat to an Israeli victory is Elina Nechayeva from Estonia, who is performing “La Forza” (in Italian). The battle between Nechayeva and Barzilai embodies the erratic nature of Eurovision. On one extreme is the Estonian opera singer, an amazing vocalist from an old, stodgy world, who stands mummified in the middle of the stage. On the other extreme is Barzilai, with her party spirit and expert looping technique, hopping and transparent – selling feminism to the masses. It will be interesting to see what Europe decides, between the two of them.

Other relatively popular contestants who have drawn attention this year are the French duo Madame Monsieur singing “Mercy,” which is about the refugee crisis in Europe. Mikolas Josef, the young Czech who is performing a pop song in the style of Ed Sheeran, is recovering in the hospital in Lisbon after being injured during a rehearsal. Norway's representative, Alexander Rybak, is making waves with the violin that accompanies him, but because he won the contest back in 2009, his chances of being No. 1 again are not great. Still, many expect him to place quite high in the final stage.

The Eurovision contest will be broadcast this year in Israel, for the first time, by Kan 11, the new public broadcasting corporation. The broadcaster's Kan 88 radio station will carry the contest too, as will its Facebook page. Popular emcee Erez Tal will be the Israeli host for the first semifinal, and the final too. Israelis who want a more international flavor can watch the competition live on the Eurovision website.

Out of the 36 countries participating in the semifinals, 26 will take part in the finals in Lisbon – the top 20 from the two semifinal rounds, along with the performers representing the five founding members of Eurovision (France, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy) and that of the host country, Portugal, which won last year’s Eurovision.

To end on a provincial note: Alongside Barzilai this year, Israel will have two other representatives on the stage in Lisbon. The British song “Storm” was written by an Israeli, Gil Lewis, for singer SuRie. And Russia’s entry, “I Won’t Break,” was written by three Israelis: Leonid Gutkin, Netta Nimrodi and Arie Burshtein. Gutkin is a Eurovision veteran who reached the top five spots twice on behalf of Russia. The way things look now, however, the Israelis and their "Toy" have the best chances to win and bring the trophy – and next year’s competition – to Jerusalem.