In late April, competitors from 42 countries descend on Kiev for the first Eurovision rehearsals, amid extra-tight security prompted by ongoing terrorist activity in Europe. (Weeks earlier, an ISIS recruit had driven a hijacked truck into a crowd at a Stockholm department store, killing five.) “There is always a risk that someone with a different agenda is taking aim at the song contest,” Freiling tells me. Inside, we watch rehearsals as security guards prowl, carrying clubs.
In the end, neither security issues nor the Ukraine-Russia standoff dampen the spectacle. At the first semifinal on May 9, contestants ranging from Sweden’s Robin Bengtsson (who sings while dancing on a treadmill) to Azerbaijan’s Dihaj (joined onstage by a man wearing a horse head, voguing on a ladder) shimmy onto the mammoth stage, with its 11,000 square feet of LED screens. Twenty-six acts ultimately advance to the final, including one of the bookies’ favorites — bohemian Portuguese singer Salvador Sobral. Four days later, the grand finale unfurls in predictably dazzling form. During the voting interval, Jamala performs her new single, “I Believe in U” (“The ‘U’ is for Ukraine,” she tells me); during the opening bars, a Ukrainian streaker mounts the stage and flashes the audience.
Ultimately, it’s the quietest competitor who takes the prize: Portugal’s Sobral, singing a delicate, jazz-inflected tune called “Amar Pelos Dois” (Love for Two). Sobral, like Samoylova, came equipped with a sympathetic back story: His sister, Luísa, wrote “Amar Pelos Dois” for him, and he had had to skip rehearsals owing to a serious heart condition. In a year when cynicism nearly overwhelmed Eurovision, his minimalist performance — he sings softly, alone on a bare stage — feels like a throwback to the Eurovision of old, when music mattered more than machinations.
But political intrigue has a way of resurfacing after the contest. Two days after Sobral’s win, speaking at an economic summit in Beijing, Vladimir Putin defended his country’s decision to stay out of the competition. “I believe that our agencies involved in that process did the right thing,” he says. “From my point of view, the current authorities in Kiev are unable to host events of this kind.”
Eurovision has but one line of defense where its integrity is concerned: the EBU’s Reference Group, which on June 12 will meet to decide whether it will punish the Ukrainian and Russian broadcasters. “We want to make sure no one is using the song contest for their own political interests,” says Freiling, adding that this year turned into a “propaganda war on both sides.”
Though she didn’t perform, Samoylova may still be a winner: Thanks to the publicity, she has won scores of new fans and boosted the visibility of physically challenged performers — all while representing a country that Human Rights Watch has cited for mistreatment of disabled children. “The news that I could not come to the contest hurt me, but I never give up, never,” she tells me. “I would like to say to all the people — with physical challenges or without them — believe in yourselves, never give up and make your dream come true.”