WATCH: Israel's Eurovision Pick Sings TOY Live for the First Time - and the Crowd Goes Wild

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Netta Barzilai. Her performance was a spectacular ending to a successful night.
Netta Barzilai. Her performance was a spectacular ending to a successful night.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

Eurovision came to Israel this week – but who was the best act? Tens of thousands of people filled Tel Aviv's central Rabin Square on Tuesday night in order to watch “Israel Calling” - an extravagant event that is turning out to become a yearly prequel to Eurovision, the European annual singing competition, which will be held next month in Lisbon, Portugal. 

The crowd gets excited watching the Danish song.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

No less than twenty-seven representatives from all over Europe (and Australia) came to Israel and took to the elevated stage at the square. Among them were delegations from France, United Kingdom, Spain, Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Iceland, Switzerland, Romania - and of course Israel. They tried to captivate the audience, which was diverse in nature - comprised of straights and gays, religious and secular people. Journalists and bloggers from across the world were joined by many tourists, waving their countries’ flags, stressing that they are the biggest fans of the Eurovision contest.

It seemed like the city's gay pride parade has come early this year: Trangender singer Dana International came on stage to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her 1998 Eurovision win with “Diva.” She used the opportunity to announce that she’d jump into the square's fountain in a bikini next month if Israel’s Netta Barzilai wins in Lisbon with her hit 'TOY'. Judging by the performances of all the other participants on Tuesday, she would do well to start shopping for a new shiny bathing suit. 

1998 winner, Dana International, right, and hopeful Netta Barzilai meet backstage at the 'Israel Calling' show.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Iceland's Ari Ólafsson gave a powerful and professional performance. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

In order to grasp the intensity of the buzz Barzilai and 'TOY' have managed to create this year, one should remember that the “Israel Calling” event attracted only a few hundred fans last year. The song has become a megahit in the Far East, the Middle East, and in Eastern and Western Europe, leaving competitors biting the dust.

Netta – Toy Live: Israel Calling 2018

Barzilai had her first trial by fire, performing live with her looper. She mounted the stage excitedly, wearing a particularly unsightly golden dress, and her voice quivered when she tried talking to the audience. And yet, the 25 year-old singer who used to perform in front of audiences numbering in the dozens at Tel Aviv’s Clubs managed to excite an entire square full of tens of thousands of her fans, doing it with great energy and verve. She clearly left the others far behind.

Madam Monsieur Mercy live in Tel Aviv 10.4.2018
French duo Madame Monsieur perform their song 'Mercy.' One of the best of the nightCredit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Ben Melzer, a confirmed Eurovision fan, is a member of Euroflash – a dance troupe that knows the choreography of all the Eurovision hits since the competition’s inception. He and his group used to perform regularly at the Evita gay bar until it shut down two years ago. Yesterday, as he watched the performances of the singers who will be competing this year in Lisbon, he said: “We’re in luck this year. The competition is usually difficult and tight at the top, but this year Netta doesn’t really have any serious competition. The Czechs are alright and so are the Swedes, but they don’t really stand a chance against Netta.”

Australia sent an energetic and tight pop song, Azerbaijan had an effective song, but one that seemed to be a blend of all previous Eurovision hits (with an emphasis on Sweden’s Euphoria). Denmark sent an impressive representative who will try to sweep the audience along with a song containing Celtic elements and beautiful harmonies. Austria found a singer with a strong voice, but one who has listened too much to Hozier singing “Take Me to Church.”

The Spanish duo Amaia y Alfred perform their song Tu canción. Now that is a vision indeed. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Fans on the Rabin square. An exciting atmosphere.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

The most serious competitors Netta will face come from the Czech Republic and France. The 23-year-old Czech Mikolas Josef, a former model, is Eurovision 2018’s Justin Timberlake, who will try to win over the audience with charm and an up-to-date and precise punk song. He took to the stage on Tuesday despite being sick, and delivered an excellent performance. The fact that he’s had a contract with Sony for some time will only help in giving him an extra push toward the competition’s group of finalists.

Alekseev from Belarus performing 'Forever.'Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Madame Monsieur, who will represent France this year are partners in life and onstage. Their song “Mercy” is not only an atmospheric pop song, a perfectly engineered French song, but a number carrying an important and relevant political message regarding refugees fleeing Africa and knocking on Europe’s doors. The name of the song comes from the name of a baby girl born to a Nigerian woman at sea. The woman had almost died earlier on a rubber boat on which she was smuggled out of Africa. The screen showed the faces of African refugees, creating a spine-tingling and reverberating impact.

Netta Barzilai on stage. Could she win the competition? Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“We saw the baby’s picture in the paper and we were so moved by her story” remembers Emilie Satt, who wrote and performs the song together with Jean-Karl Lucas. “We wanted to write a song that would make people feel what we felt at that moment.” She emphasizes that it is not intended as a political song. “It’s a song with a message of hope and humanity. It’s about people helping other people with no special reason. This baby is like an icon for all the children who’ve been born under unacceptable circumstances around the world.”

And yet, the refugee problem is one of the most burning issues on Europe’s agenda. How was the song received in France and elsewhere?

Jean-Karl Lucas: “We’ve received thousands of messages from around the world, including from French-language teachers who told us that they are using the song for teaching the language. Parents wrote us that they are using the song in order to explain the problem of migration to their children. Children love it, and then they’re told what it means.”

The French music industry is huge. Many people there look down on Eurovision. How were you treated after you were selected?

Dana International performing 'Diva' on stage. The last Israeli winner of the competition, having won it 20 years ago.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“What you’re saying is quite true, but over the last two years things have changed a bit, especially since we sent Amir [Haddad, the French-Israeli singer who represented France and came in sixth in 2016]. Many people have returned to watching the competition. His song was up to date and cool. It wasn’t just another cliché song. France is one of the veteran countries in this competition. People weren’t expecting to win anymore, but because of Amir, things have changed somewhat.”

Eurovision fans, they come in all shapes and sizes.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Australia's Jessica Mauboy singing on stage. Was one of the highlights of the show.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv