Just like Netta Barzilai, Kobi Marimi is an unconventional performer who possesses an odd charisma mixed with huge talent. But Marimi’s mission to win the competition and score a home-field victory 40 years after Gali Atari did it with “Halleluya” will be incomparably harder.
When Barzilai won the finale of “The Next Star,” the show that selects Israel’s Eurovision contestant, a year ago, it came after 20 years of Israel failing to win the big contest. Marimi will have to soar over the high bar that she subsequently set. Anything less than a victory in the Eurovision finale in Tel Aviv is liable to be deemed a failure. And if that weren’t enough pressure, there are already television promos screaming for a “double” – featuring dramatically edited footage of the “Hallelujah” win that came after the “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” win. The ads conveniently ignore our 1999 failure at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem (where the group Eden placed fifth following Dana International’s victory the previous year).
Now the work starts for Marimi and the Kan broadcasting corporation, as they attempt to find the right song. “Toy” was a knockout from the start, singled out as a serious contender as soon as it was released. This year, Israel’s guaranteed spot in the final as the host country actually holds some danger – as the five founding countries whose place in the final is assured each year (because they are also the main financers of the European Broadcasting Union) can attest.
Non-participation in the semifinal means there is less interest in their songs, which are only partially heard during the semifinal and do not appear as part of the reminders during voting time. It’s a problem. As is, perhaps, the antagonism toward them felt by the other countries that are forced to compete for a spot in the final. For all these reasons, these countries, with their illustrious cultural traditions and thriving music industries, fail at Eurovision year after year. Spain hasn’t won in 50 years, France in more than 40 years, Italy in 30 years, Britain in 22 years and Germany has just one victory to its credit in the past 35 years.
Granted, in the five years from 1992 to 1996, Ireland won four times, but there is no chance of such madness recurring. In the nearly quarter-century since then, no country has won at home, mainly because of the increased number of contestants, the voting methods that have changed and the fact that the host country often puts less effort into its song – either for lack of interest, a dearth of resources or both. Strangest of all in this regard was Austria, which hosted the competition in 2015 and finished in last place with an incredibly awful song. Awkward.
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But hold on. Besides the honor and prestige, who needs this again? We even forwent the option of hosting a second time after our consecutive wins in the 1970s. Finance Minister Yigal Horowitz wouldn’t hear of it after the government had had to pay for the Israel Broadcasting authority to purchase filming equipment the year before so it could broadcast the contest in color.
What about today? Given the tattered relations between the prime minister’s close circle and the Kan administration, there’s no way the latter would be able to fund another Eurovision production with loans. And then there’s also Israel’s special status. In one stroke, Barzilai’s victory last year crushed the claims of political, possibly even anti-Semtic, voting. But worries about the event being politically exploited amid a flood of BDS threats must be keeping the organizers up at night.
1,500 journalists, photographers and bloggers will be looking to report on anything unusual, and it needn’t only be political or security-related. Complaints by tourists about poor treatment could also hurt Israel’s image. Last year, a protester leapt at the British singer Suri in the middle of her performance and stole her microphone. She declined to sing again, and there’s no way of knowing if this was why she finished close to last.
Who knows what the Scandinavian countries might be cooking up right now, as they did in Jerusalem 20 years ago when they nabbed the top two places? Who knows what the countries of the former Soviet Union might be scheming, or if the Azerbaijani president and his daughter will decide once more to try every trick in the book to bag the win?
Good luck to you, Kobi.