It’s been described as a cultural Chernobyl and a freak show fantasy, where music frequently takes a backseat to camp tomfoolery. And at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev, Ukraine, a series of outré acts once again shimmied onto the stage with their original songs — all in a bid for pan-European stardom.
Greece’s songstress Demy performed an electro-banger alongside two well-oiled men pretending to be swans and Moldova’s Sunstroke Project had unhinged bridesmaids thrusting in unison with a saxophone player. But ultimately the quietest performance resonated the loudest, and Europeans handed victory to Portugal’s Salvador Sobral, a 27-year-old jazz performer with a humble song about love.
“We live in a world of disposable music — fast-food music without any content,” Sobral said on stage in front of 15,000 spectators and a televised audience of roughly 200 million just moments after winning. “I think this could be a victory for music that actually means something. Music is not fireworks. Music is feeling.”
Unlike the 25 other acts he faced in the final, Sobral turned down the lights and unplugged the wind machines. Singing “Amar pelos dois” (Love for two), a song penned by his sister, he gave melancholy rhythm as he swayed to piano and strings. Eyes shut and lost in a world of his own, he managed to connect with the audience — despite the fact only a fraction could understand the Portuguese lyrics. “If one day someone asks about me, tell them I lived to love you,” he sang. “Before you, I only existed, tired and with nothing to give.”
His victory upends the traditional Eurovision formula of more-is-more, and marks a step away from the plastic, radio-friendly pop that has come to dominate the contest, whose past winners include ABBA and Celine Dion. He’s unfazed by the suggestion his classical song won’t get much airtime across the continent. “I never wrote a song to play on the radio stations,” he said at his press conference afterwards. “My album came out in 2016 and nobody gave a shit. It’s the way jazz is.”
Yet by Sunday afternoon (May 14) — the morning after his landslide victory — the song had gained traction, topping the iTunes charts in 14 countries, including Sweden and the Netherlands, but also Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. Strangely its cross-cultural appeal may stem from the Portuguese language, whose soft tones and nasal sound work so well with themes of nostalgia and loss. “I could have given him happy birthday and he would have won,” his sister and the song’s composer Luísa Sobral said. “With this performance I could see in his eyes every word.”
His victory ends Portugal’s 50-year drought at the contest and marks the first time a song sung entirely in a language other than English has won since 2007. It came under unprecedented circumstances. During Festival da Canção — Portugal’s three-week domestic contest to choose its Eurovision singer in March — Sobral underwent a hernia procedure. And in April he revealed that he would arrive at Eurovision rehearsals a week later than the 41 other contestants owing to doctor’s concerns over a serious and ongoing heart condition.
“I really thought I couldn’t get away at all,” he tells Billboard. “I guess the doctors also got a little excited about all this and said, ‘Let’s try to do this and find a middle ground, if you can go for just a week.’” The European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the contest, gave him special dispensation and his sister stood in for him during the first week of run-throughs.
Ahead of the contest, bookies and Eurovision pundits had assumed that Italy’s Francesco Gabbani — a well-known artist signed to BMG — would walk the contest. His song “Occidentali’s Karma” — a clever takedown on haughty Westerners who preach Eastern philosophy — had a slick music video that had been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube and his stage show featured a man dancing in a gorilla costume.
But like a dark horse on caffeine, Sobral completely upended Gabbani’s momentum even after missing his first rehearsals. Seeing himself as an artist rather than a pop star, he at times seemed blasé about the hype building around him and chose not to push his album as so many other artists did.
Instead, he wore an “SOS Refugees” sweatshirt to his press conferences and spoke at length about the plight of asylum seekers arriving on Europe’s shores. “Make no mistake,” he said after advancing from the first semi-final on Tuesday. “These people are not immigrants — they are refugees, running away from death.” His actions prompted a rebuke from the EBU, who said he was promoting a political message.
After his victory the scruffy singer, who appeared on stage in all black and scraped his long hair back and away from his face, said his life won’t change and refused to call himself a national hero. But on Sunday afternoon a braying mob of fans greeted him at Lisbon’s Airport anyway, and four policeman had to escort him to an ad-hoc press conference on site.
“I have the feeling that there will be a degree of madness at first, but I know that these things are ephemeral,” he said as flash bulbs popped and selfie sticks shot up from the crowd. “In two or three months nobody will remember.”