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What Eurovision Teaches Us About Israel

Do the fluctuations of a country's social climate shape the contours of their pop music? Certainly the history of rock makes that argument–the folk rock of the 60s, the punk rock of the Thatcher and Reagan eras, the political fervent of Hoobastank (well, maybe not that last one). When Israel voted to send sweet-voiced pop singer Boaz Mauda to the international song contest Eurovision this year, it was such a 180 from last year's outspokenly punk Teapacks that it seemed downright symbolic.

Eurovision is the EU’s answer to “American Idol,” only the music is even poppier and the costumes are significantly more ridiculous. Israel joined the competition in its seventeenth year, in 1973, ushering in the first of three distinct eras in Holy Land pop. The first was an era of naïve, innocent folksongs that lasted through the early 80s. The late 80s and the 90s saw an era of pop decadence culminating in the 1997 charedi stand-off against transsexual singer Dana International and the realization that Israel had become socially fractured and contentious. Finally, in the 00’s, politics took over, with bands like Teapacks and Ping Pong representing an overt political aesthetic in music.

So why in this era of songs that reflect current events are we seeing a throwback to the naïveté of the 70s? Maybe Boaz Mauda is more like Hoobastank than Bob Dylan after all–not a consequence of the political spectrum but a response to it: pop culture as counter-culture. In the midst of political upheaval, daily controversies, bombings around Gaza and visits from the President of the United States, what could be more dangerous than a love song that refuses to acknowledge any of it? It's not just escapism as escapism, but escapism as rebellion. We're tired of the BBC, how about some Kokhav Nolad instead?

Mauda didn’t win in Belgrade this May—that honor went to Russia’s Dima Bilan. But he made a strong showing with a song written by Dana International titled “Ke’ilu Kan” (“As If You Were Here”). The song itself is pretty bare: Mauda’s gorgeous voice laid over an acoustic guitar, with a slightly buffered chorus. The lyrics are vague and hopeful, and the music’s brief foray into Mizrachi territory near the end compliments Mauda’s ethnicity. “Come along, come along, see the fire in your eyes and you come with me,” he sings in the brief and accented English segment. It’s both exotic and accessible, inviting and moving.

Compare this with the Eurovision entries of the past few years. 2000’s entry PingPong’s “Sameach” dissected the relationship between a Damascus boy and an Israeli girl via absurdist post-Village People disco. The quartet had grating voices, and they waved a Syrian flag at the end of their performance.

2002’s entry, Sarit Hadad’s “Light a Candle” addressed politics with trite Broadway lyrics: “Light a candle with me. A thousand candles in the dark will open up our hearts.” In 2006, Eddie Butler’s “Together We Are One” reprised Hadad’s “We Are The World” aesthetics, this time with back-up singers in matching white suits and a faux-R&B tune.

Last year saw the most egregious example of Israel pop music’s obsession with international contention: Teapacks’ song “Push the Button.” On their own, Teapacks are a fabulous ska-inflected mod group who sprinkle their performances with broad aesthetic winks at the audience. But the song, a sarcastic melodrama about fearing atomic annihilation (“I don’t want to die / I want to see the flowers bloom / Don’t want to go kaboot-kaboom.”) alienated voters who thought the band was mocking regional conflict. Musically and aesthetically, Mauda’s song reaches past these international worries, back to Israel’s Eurovision 1970s heyday, when the entries were far more folk-inflected and youthful. The first artist to rep Israel, Ilanit, wore a Technicolor dream coat and long blond hair to the contest, looking something like a flower child (a look she reprised when she returned a second time in 1977).

Even prog-rock Kaveret (then going by the ridiculous name ‘Poogy’) played one of their straightest songs at the 1974 contest. Their just-released “Poogy in a Pita” album featured sonically adventurous tracks like the Dylan-esque “Protest Song,” the dirge-like “Ballad of Arivederchi,” and the ska-influenced “Blackout,” but they ended up playing a simplistic, straightforward guitar rock song, “Natati la Khaiai.”

This lack of sophistication worked for Izhar Cohen & the Alphabeta, who brought home Israel’s first Eurovisio win in 1978 with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.” The eponymous chorus comes from the words “Ani Ohav Otah” (“I Love You”) spoken in Bet Language – which is the Israeli equivalent of Pig Latin or Gibberish. The song isn’t just musically naïve; it’s literally childish as it narrates the love between two young kids.

The 1979 contest gave Israel its second win for Gali Atari and Milk & Honey’s “Hallelujah,” which quickly became a classic and Israeli standard. While “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” was lyrically childish, “Hallelujah” was nationally young – it’s a gorgeous and openly religious song praising God for everything in the world.

In 1980, due to a conflict with Yom Hazikaron, Israel didn’t participate, and in 1983, Ofra Haza performed the last song of Israel’s first decade of Eurovision. Her performance was symbolically rich. Israel’s first entry ever in 1973 was only a year after the Munich massacre. In Eurovision – The Official History, historian John Kennedy O’Conner describes how in 1973, due to fears of a Munich replication, contestants were asked to remain seated while applauding. In 1983, Eurovision was actually held in Munich, and Ofra Haza performed “Am Yisrael Chai,” making it something of a symbolic victory if not an actual one (Haza came in second place overall).

Starting in 1984, Israel’s contestants became much more poppy – more disco, more ridiculous haircuts (look at Izhar Cohen’s haircut when he sang “Ole, Ole!” It didn’t look quite so greasy and floppy in 1978). Maybe Israel’s more confident position on the world stage let to a more poppy, disco influence, or maybe the only possible response to the previous decade’s sincerity was irony.

In 1990, Rita sang Streisand/Bette Midler diva style pop on “Shara Barkhovot,” and Dafna Dekel in 1992 was more of a sex icon than a singer (she had already lost a lot of weight and gotten a nose job before taking on the competition). Shiru Group’s 1993 performance of “Shiru” is practically an evocation of ABBA on stage.

When Dana International sang “Diva” in 1998, it was a summation of the kind of decadent, bubblegum pop that had defined Israeli pop music in recent Eurovision. It was also the most contentious Israeli submission to the contest in the country’s history. International won Israel’s first number one since Gali Atari, but she also earned the ire of many Orthodox Israeli Rabbis as a sequin-clad transsexual. Shas MK Shlomo Benizri demanded that she be removed from the contest. “The Eurovision Song Contest interests me about as much as the weather in Antarctica,” he said on Israel public radio, “but as a son of the Jewish people it offends me.”

The controversy Dana International sparked may have indicated deep-running disagreements between Orthodox and secular Israelis about transsexuals, but it also illustrated a fragmented interest in Eurovision during the 90s. Unlike “Hallelujah,” or “Am Yisrael Chai,” 90s Israeli Eurovision music had sacrificed something naïve and nationalist in favor of more radio-friendly pop.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that the past decade has responded to the worldly but empty glitz of the 90s with such politically charged songs—by appealing to gritty reality, bands like Teapacks hoped to bring national and political attention back to the contest. In which case Mauda’s “Ke’ilu Kan” might represent a further swing of the pendulum: A sweet song, sung sweetly, written by the controversial Dana International but unlikely to upset anyone. It didn’t win at Belgrade, but it did offer Israelis a moment of nostalgia and escape, and maybe that’s enough.

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