Eurovision 2019: Spectacular Production, Far From Spectacular Music

No producer, video artist or emcee could breathe life into something that lifeless. That didn’t stop the Eurovision production from going overboard trying

Contestant Kate Miller-Heidke of Australia during the first semi-final of 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, Israel May 14, 2019.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The first Eurovision semi-final in Israel, after a year of nerve-racking subplots that included rocket barrages and assaults on the public broadcaster by the authorities, was a magnificent spectacle of technological precision and effects. And that's about all it was.

To turn an evening of meticulously engineered trash songs into a fun, lighthearted and magical evening, you need another elusive element that can't be created with lasers, video art, lighting, pyrotechnics or sound layering. Too little of this element – let's call it "talent" – was on display Tuesday night at Expo Tel Aviv.

The delegation from Portugal performs, Expo Tel Aviv, May 14, 2019.
Sebastian Scheiner/אי־פי

For all those patriotic Eurovision fans out there, let me say: It's not us, it's them. Those Europeans and the Australian on the pole, and if there was such a glaring disparity between the way the event looked and the quality of the music, it shows that the blame is all on them.

The longer it went on, the more striking the dissonance became. When the young Slovenian duo came on with a listless ballad that had all the energy of an ancient turtle, the problem was easy to diagnose. No producer, video artist or emcee in the world could breathe life into something so completely lifeless. The concerted effort that surrounded the songs and performers seemed to be way overboard. The phony cheer was way too palpable.

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Add to that the delegations that insisted on bizarre shows of bad taste and succeeded on both the visual and the musical front: The band of growling Georgian men fresh off some apocalyptic battlefield; the Icelandic trolls who opened the gates of hell and screamed at us from inside it; the Polish women who injected a plaintive Baltic folk song with steroids; and the Australian who shattered crystal with her trippy coloratura performance while viewers anxiously worried she might fall from the flexible metal pole from which she was suspended.

The delegation from Belarus performs, Expo Tel Aviv, May 14, 2019.
Sebastian Scheiner/אי־פי

Whether they trilled or bellowed or were just plain limited in their singing ability, like the Turkish dentist from San Marino (who still provided the evening’s only catchy chorus), the final result with most of the songs was lame, pathetic and embarrassing, precisely because of the gaping chasm between the human element and the technological wizardry.

Like I said, it’s not us. The KAN public broadcaster, which came on the air exactly two years ago, gets a sterling report card. This is Eurovision, whose intricate rules make it the largest extraterritorial dictatorship in the television universe. All had to bow to it: From the glamorous hosts declaiming texts in which every punctuation mark was dictated ahead of time to the last of the backup singers and dancers on the massive (and spectacular, remember?) stage, all were commanded to produce content that equaled three minutes of fun. Maybe that’s just too much to expect anymore. Perhaps there is yet another grating discrepancy here between the fantasies of those who dared to dream and made it this far, and the annual pretensions of putting on an even more dazzling event than the year before.

KAN and its subcontractors fulfilled the mission with inspiring heroism, especially considering all the obstacles that Israeli officials placed in its way up until the last minute, but the mission itself has become ridiculous.

Instead of a party, we got a colossal sound and light show. Instead of people who like to sing, we got acrobatic cyborgs in ludicrous getups: Remember the Portuguese contestant dressed like a refugee from Star Trek with the odd mask attached to his chin? And the Noa Kirel clone from Belarus? The amateurish, off-key group from Montenegro? The babyish Belgian teen who looked so lost up there? All were the sad result of the massive pretension and massive attempt to produce a “show.” The technological ability may have now increased to the point that there is no longer any need for human performers in order to make a television broadcast. Be honest: If the Cypriot, Czech and Hungarian performers had been replaced by latex-cloaked androids with the same vocal capabilities as your cell phone, would you have noticed the difference?

Eurovision aficionados contend that the draw for the first semifinal bunched all the “weak” songs together and that something much better is in store on Thursday. Here’s hoping.

Eurovision hosts, Assi Azar, Lucy Ayoub, Bar Refaeli and Erez Tal, Expo Tel Aviv, May 14, 2019.
AFP

Meanwhile, we can already give marks to the anchors of the production. The quartet of hosts worked very well as a group, but less so when broken down into individual parts. Lucy Ayoub shone as the evening’s fresh and talented revelation. Bar Refaeli overdid it with the fake cheer, Erez Tal couldn’t even convince himself that he was happy to be there, and Assi Azar supplied the predictable gaffe, considering how familiar we are with his boundless narcissism, but it was still surprising, given the overall vibe of innocuous pleasantries.

Before the results were announced, Azar wandered through the Green Room, and confronted the Spanish contestant (who has not yet performed) with an enlarged, cardboard-mounted photograph of himself, showing him shirtless and musclebound. The entire event is scripted, approved by the Eurovision authorities and rehearsed to death, but objectification is still objectification, and always contemptible. Eurovision contestants also have the right to dress as they please and expose what they please on the stage without having an old Instagram pic shoved in their face.

Israel never looked as good as it did in the “postcards” between songs. For any sharp-eyed viewers who wish to complain – Why are they showing the Beit Guvrin caves and not the Cave of the Patriarchs? – Here is the answer: Eurovision rules say that the postcards must depict sovereign territory of the host country. So we saw the Golan and its wind turbines, as well as the Rockefeller Museum, but views of Beit El and Yitzhar and the Qalandiyah checkpoint will have to wait for the official annexation.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue to prattle about love, as in the cover performed by Dana International and about how we’re all “beautiful creatures” like Netta Barzilai, whose new and dazzling version of “Toy” was the standout performance of the evening. And we’ll take comfort in knowing that aside from a hacking of the KAN YouTube channel with a missile warning and a single page saying that Israel is not a safe place – the production was tip-top. Douze points, at a minimum.