Madonna Helped Save Eurovision 2019 from Irrelevance

She was out of tune and Auto-Tuned, but her rebel heart still has a cause.

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Madonna performs at Eurovision 2019 (Photo: YouTube)

What would the arrival of a new Madonna album be without a bit of controversy on the side. Madame X, the 60-year-old singer’s 14th studio album and first since 2015’s Rebel Heart, arrives on June 14, and on Saturday, she finally inspired the pre-release outrage for which we’ve come to know and love or loathe her.

To be fair, the furor had been bubbling under ever since it was announced that she’d be performing at the 64th Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, Israel. Some deemed the location itself problematic, considering the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict over decades of what is essentially Israeli-fueled apartheid in the Holy Land. Much like Gladys Knight at the Super Bowl in February, Madonna placed herself in the firing squad of critics who accused her of essentially crossing the picket line.

Whether those accusations are warranted, it feels disingenuous to blast pop stars for ignoring P.C. considerations when we’re always telling them to stay out of politics and just shut up and sing. Madonna, true to rabble-rousing form, didn’t just shut up and sing during her performance of her old hit “Like a Prayer” and the new Madame X single “Future.”

As “Like a Prayer” segued into her collaboration with Migos rapper Quavo (a curious duet partner for a gay icon, considering his past homophobic comments), the words “WAKE UP” appeared on a big-screen display. Later, two dancers embraced while walking onstage, one wearing the Israeli flag on his back and the other wearing the Palestinian flag on her back.

Of course, the European Broadcasting Union, which co-produced Eurovision 2019 and apparently takes great pride in the event being apolitical, wasn’t thrilled. (Members of the band Hatari, who represented Iceland at Eurovision 2019, also fielded criticism for waving the Palestinian flag while receiving their score.)

“The Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political event, and Madonna had been made aware of this,” the organization announced in a statement.

A “non-political event”? Really? Has the EBU been hiding out under a rock since the 1940s. How can you set a global sing-off featuring performers from competing countries in a place as controversial as Israel, and then say politics is a non-issue? It’s like going back in time 35 years and hosting the 1984 Olympics in Cape Town instead of L.A., at the height of South African apartheid, and saying it was just a sporting event.

Even if Eurovision 2019 had been held in a more neutral city, its inherently political nature would have been impossible to dismiss. Countries are competing against each other for the grand prize, sparking the sort of nationalist impulse that pretty much defines “political.”

I’ve never really understood the appeal of Eurovision and why gay men in Europe and Australia are so obsessed with it. I suspect it has less to do with national pride than the spectacle of it all. Fair enough, but it’s such self-conscious camp. Sure it gave the world ABBA in the 1970s, but Eurovision has since become all about camp for the sake of “camp” — not genuinely great music.

When I mentioned my issues with the almost-meta campiness that renders artistry a Eurovision afterthought, if one thinks about it at all, a Melburnian friend offered a surprisingly philosophical take. In trying to give it sociopolitical context, he made Eurovision sound too strategic to be the mindless fun that the EBU seems to want it to be.

The voting is so political and barely factors in the talent. People are mildly being swayed by the spectacle. If you can make a spectacle at Eurovision and not look like you’re ripping off another country from a previous year, that is a SERIOUS accomplishment.

In other words, it’s not about politics, and it’s all about politics. At least Madonna was conscious enough not to ignore the elephant in the room by pretending that outside of it, pro-Palestinian protesters weren’t, to quote one of her ’80s hits, causing a commotion.

Unfortunately for Madonna, the backlash also targeted her singing. Social media soundly mocked her out-of-tune rendition of “Like a Prayer” for being as tone deaf as Eurovision’s location. Bless her for still trying at 60, but Madonna sounded as if she were too busy focusing on catching her breath to remember the melody.

She fared better on “Future,” thanks to a major assist from Auto-Tune, but from a performance standpoint, the star was just handing her detractors another nail to pound into her coffin.

Oh, well. If, as Aussie gays keep telling me, Eurovision is about the spectacle and not music for dummies, then Madonna still did what she’s always done best. She served up a feast of visuals and gave us all something to talk about.

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