In 2018, a quirky dance-pop song called “Toy” from Israeli artist Netta won the annual Eurovision Song Contest, but just a year earlier, a quiet, introspective personal song without pyro or dancers — Salvador Sobral’s “Amar Pelas Dois” — brought the trophy to Portugal for the first time. Other previous winners include “Hard Rock Hallelujah” by Lordi, the group from Finland that looks like a cross between KISS and the Klingons, and “1944,” a dissonant, political song by Jamala from Ukraine. The diversity of winning songs makes it difficult to predict who will triumph at the popular television show that brings artists from Europe and beyond (Australia has participated since 2015) together under one roof for a grand final that will crown the favorite song, as voted by the viewing public and juries of professional musicians.
The Eurovision Song Contest was first staged in 1956 with seven countries participating. The idea was to bring the nations of Europe together after World War II. The contest has been staged every year since, making this year’s contest the 64th annual presentation. This year’s broadcast will feature 41 countries competing with songs chosen either through a national final with public voting or an internal selection where an artist and/or song are chosen by the national television network.
The rules are simple: songs can only run three minutes or less and must be original; artists must be 16 years or older (younger musicians can participate in the annual Junior Eurovision Song Contest) and there can only be a maximum number of six people on stage, including backing vocalists and dancers. All vocals, including background singing, must be live, while music is on tracks (from 1956-1998 music was played by a live orchestra).
Each country’s score is made up of public voting by text and telephone (50 percent) and juries made up of music professionals and others (50 percent). Neither the voting pubic nor the juries can vote for their own country.
This year’s Eurovision Song Contest will begin with two semi-finals on Tuesday (May 14) and Thursday (May 16) at the Expo Tel Aviv in Israel. The top 10 of the 17 participants on Tuesday and the top 10 from the 18 participants on Thursday will go forward into the grand final on Saturday (May 18), along with host country Israel and Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom, the Big Five countries that do not have to go through a qualifying round because their contribution to the show budget is so large, the show could not go on without all six of them in the final.
As difficult as it is to predict the winner, here are the 12 entries that Billboard thinks have the best chance to proclaim victory on Saturday.
12. Czech Republic
“Friend of a Friend,” Lake Malawi
The indie pop band is hoping to give the Czech Republic its first Eurovision win with a poppy, hooky song is that most reminiscent of the 2017 and 2018 entries from Sweden. This will be the eighth Czech song to compete in Eurovision; only two have qualified for the final, including last year’s “Lie to Me” by Mikolas Josef. That song placed sixth, the highest Czech result to date, giving the country a realistic hope of winning the whole thing one day soon.
Why the Czech Republic might win: While diehard Eurovision fans will have heard each of the 41 entries dozens of times, millions of viewers will be hearing these songs for the first time, and “Friend of a Friend” is a serious earworm that gets into the brain on first listen.
11. North Macedonia
“Proud,” Tamara Todevska
This will be the first year that the former state of Yugoslavia will compete under the name North Macedonia. Previously known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the country first participated in Eurovision in 1998. Its best performance was a 12th place finish in 2006 by Elena Risteska’s “Ninanajna.” If Tamara Todevska qualifies for the final with her song, released on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day, it will be North Macedonia’s first appearance in the grand final since 2012.
Why North Macedonia might win: This celebration of women in the time of #MeToo should connect with a lot of voting viewers as well as the professional juries.
“Roi,” Bilal Hassani
The 19-year-old Paris-born singer has been called an icon for French LGBT+ youth. Four years ago, he competed on the French version of The Voice Kids, and in his blind audition sang “Rise Like a Phoenix,” the winning Eurovision song from 2014 by Austria’s Conchita Wurst, the drag queen persona of Thomas Neuwirth. Hassani, a YouTube star in France, wrote “Roi” [“King” in English] with Madame Monsieur, the duo that sang for France in Eurovision 2018. The song is about self-acceptance and would be France’s sixth win and first since 1977.
Why France might win: Because it’s about damn time. And the lyrics will touch the hearts of Eurovision’s core audience as well as their families.
Malta has been participating in Eurovision since 1971 and is still looking for its first win, although the island nation has been the runner-up twice, in 2002 with Ira Losco’s “7th Wonder” and in 2005 with Chiara’s “Angel.” Michela Pace won the first season of The X Factor in Malta this year and her prize included the right to represent her country in Tel Aviv. Her first rehearsal of the upbeat pop song at the venue in Israel won raves and caused an uptick in her odds to win the contest.
Why Malta might win: Because one of the smallest countries (geographically speaking) in Eurovision has been waiting 48 years to walk away with the title, and Michela’s stellar performance could seal the deal.
“Zero Gravity,” Kate Miller-Heidke
Australia is clearly not part of Europe, but Eurovision has long been broadcast Down Under, and there are millions of Aussie fans. For the 60th anniversary of Eurovision in 2015, Australia was invited to participate on a one-time basis and the country has been invited back every year since, with the best performance to date being the No. 2 placing by Dami Im in 2016 with “Sound of Silence.” Carrying the banner this year is Kate Miller-Heidke, a classically trained singer whose operatic background can be detected in her pop entry, inspired by her post-natal depression following the birth of her son.
Why Australia might win: Europe made Australia a welcome guest four years ago and it’s inevitable that the land Down Under will triumph at some point.
“Scream,” Sergey Lazarev
Many Eurovision fans believe that Sergey Lazarev should have won the contest in 2016 with “You Are the Only One,” but political sentiment against Russia hurt his chances and the winner was an anti-Russian song, “1944,” by Jamala from Ukraine. Australia’s Dami Im placed second and Lazarev finished in third place. Russia has been the runner-up four times and was victorious once, in 2008 with Dima Bilan’s “Believe.”
Why Russia might win: While “Scream” is a fine song, it’s not quite up to “You Are the Only One,” but fans may want to reward Lazarev for a perceived unfair loss three years ago.
Azerbaijan first competed in Eurovision in 2008 and placed in the top 10 that year and in the following five years as well, including their first-place finish in 2011 with Ell and Nikki’s “Running Scared.” Moscow-born Chingiz has lived in Azerbaijan since he was six years old. He won the first season of Idol in Azerbaijan and later competed in his country’s version of The Voice. After his first rehearsal in Tel Aviv, oddsmakers are betting he can handle the “Truth” and possibly bring the Eurovision trophy home to Baku for the second time.
Why Azerbaijan might win: “Truth” is one of the few songs in the contest that could be an international hit.
“Spirit in the Sky,” KEiiNO
Blending the sounds of the indigenous Sámi people with a pop melody, KEiiNO’s original song “Spirit in the Sky” owes more to ABBA’s 1974 Eurovision winner “Waterloo” than any other 2019 entry. The trio consists of one Norwegian Idol contestant, one from Norway’s Got Talent and a successful songwriter with many K-pop titles to his credit. The lyrics for “Spirit in the Sky” are about the struggle for equality whether it applies to ethnicity, gender or sexuality. If the song wins this year’s contest, it will be Norway’s fourth win, after 1985’s “La Det Swinge” by Bobbysocks in 1985, “Nocturne” by Secret Garden in 1995 and “Fairytale” by Alexander Rybak in 2009.
Why Norway might win: History repeats. Norway won in 1985 and 10 years later in 1995. Norway won in 2009 and…10 years later in 2019?
Italy was a Eurovision mainstay right from the first contest in 1956. But after placing fourth in 1997 with “Fiumi de Parole” by Jalisse, the Mediterranean nation dropped out and didn’t return until 2008. It’s not that Italy didn’t do well over the years – in 1958, a third-place finish for Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” didn’t stop the song from becoming a worldwide hit that is still popular today, especially in Italian restaurants. Italy won the contest in 1964 with “Non Ho L’età” by Gigliola Cinquetti and in 1990 with “Insieme: 1992” by Toto Cutugno. This year, Italian X Factor season six contestant Mahmood, born in Milan, will represent his country with “Soldi,” sung in Italian.
Why Italy might win: It’s the 2019 entry that most closely sounds like a hit song on contemporary top 40 radio.
“She Got Me,” Luca Hänni
Switzerland won the very first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, with “Refrain” by Lys Assia. The country’s only other victory was in 1988 when a relatively unknown 20-year-old French-Canadian singer named Celine Dion performed “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.” The modern era has been difficult for Switzerland, which has failed to qualify for the grand final 10 out of the last 12 years. But Luca Hänni, who won the German version of Idol in 2012 when he was 17, is getting rave reviews and favorable odds from betting houses — this is Switzerland’s best chance in years to win the whole thing, and “She Got Me” sounds like a hit single. It also sounds like it should be called “Dirty Dancing,” but maybe the writers didn’t want it confused with the famous film.
Why Switzerland might win: They’ve got one of the best songs.
“Too Late for Love,” John Lundvik
If Sweden wins the 2019 contest, it will tie Ireland with seven victories, more than any other country. The run began with ABBA’s “Waterloo” in 1974 and continued with Herreys in 1984, Carola in 1991, Charlotte Nilsson in 1999, Loreen in 2012 and Måns Zelmerlöw in 2015. John Lundvik, signed to Warner Music Sweden, has already topped the singles chart in his own country with “Too Late for Love,” a song he wrote with Anderz Wrethov and Andreas Johansson. Lundvik has two chances to win Eurovision this year – he is also a co-writer of the U.K. entry “Bigger Than Us” by Michael Rice.
Why Sweden might win: Sweden makes the best pop music in the world. And the Swedes take Eurovision very seriously.
1. The Netherlands
“Arcade,” Duncan Laurence
Far out in front of the bookmakers’ odds is singer-songwriter Duncan Laurence with the contemplative “Arcade.” The Netherlands, one of seven charter countries from the first contest in 1956, has won Eurovision four times, but not since 1975, so the excitement of a possible victory is palpable in Holland. The best placing for a Dutch entry since Teach-In took first place in ’75 was the runner-up spot claimed by the Common Linnets with their country-ish “Calm Before the Storm” in 2014. Laurence competed on the fifth season of his country’s version of The Voice, where his coach was Ilse DeLange of the Common Linnets. His songwriting credits include the song “Closer” by K-pop duo TVXQ.
Why the Netherlands might win: The frontrunner often takes the prize.