This year’s Eurovision Song Contest was a celebration of Europe’s musical talents. It was also very political, including during last night’s final in Tel Aviv, Israel, during which the Netherlands won the top spot.
Eurovision was established to bring European countries together after World War II. To allow for dozens of very different countries to co-exist on one stage every year, the contest organizers say it is resolutely nonpolitical. The rules state that “no organization, institution, political cause or other cause, company, brand, product or service shall be promoted, featured or mentioned directly or indirectly during the Event.”
And yet politics make their way into Eurovision almost every year (paywall). In February, Ukraine’s Anna Korsun withdrew from the contest after the national broadcaster told her not to perform in Russia. When Ukraine hosted Eurovision in 2017, it barred the Russian contestant, Yulia Samoylova, from performing, and Russia boycotted the contest as a result. (Russia illegally annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.) Last year’s Eurovision winner, Netta Barzilai, said her song “Toy” was inspired by the #MeToo movement. And past performers have used their songs to draw attention to LGBTQ rights.
Rules aside, everything from who hosts Eurovision to who performs in it and what they sing is often political. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that a Eurovision final organized in Israel would not escape this fate.
Some activists called for a boycott of the contest because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Social media users tried to pressure contestants (paywall) into dropping out. In Jerusalem, ultra-orthodox Jews clashed with law enforcement when they protested against Eurovision being held during the Jewish Sabbath. And earlier this week, the Israeli live webcast of the first semi-final was hacked and viewers saw false images of bombings in Tel Aviv. Israel’s national broadcaster, KAN, blamed Hamas.
The final itself was also political. Iceland’s contestants, punk rock band Hatari, displayed Palestinian flags during the live broadcast of the results. And Madonna, whose guest performance during the final had been the subject of feverish rumors for days, put on an unexpectedly political show, too.
The singer performed her 1989 hit “Like a Prayer” and her new single “Future.” While she and rapper Quavo were singing the lyrics, “Not everyone is coming to the future/ Not everyone is learning from the past,” two backup dancers walked up the stage, linking arms, with Israeli and Palestinian flags on their backs. The performance ended when the words “Wake up” flashed across a massive screen. Representatives of Eurovision and of the European Broadcasting Union said they weren’t aware of this part of Madonna’s act and stated: “The Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political event and Madonna had been made aware of this.”
In a statement earlier this week, Madonna responded to calls to boycott the contest by saying: “I’ll never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda, nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be.”