Brow Beat

Madonna’s Eurovision Performance Somehow Fails to Solve Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Madonna performs onstage with a dancer wearing a dress, flowers in her hair, and a vintage gas mask.
The message was clear. Michael Campanella/Getty Images

The finals of the 2019 Eurovision song contest took place in Tel Aviv on Saturday, and the big winners of the venerable pop music competition were the Netherlands, Italy, Russia, and ineffectual celebrity activism. When the contest’s votes were tallied, Dutch pop star Duncan Laurence won for the song “Arcade,” which was the outcome bookkeepers had been predicting. Here’s the official video for his song:

Laurence’s victory represents both a long-awaited Eurovision resurgence for his home country and a considerably bleaker national songwriting vision: the Netherlands last won in 1975 with Teach-In’s “Ding-a-Dong,” which contains the lyrics, “There will be no sorrow / When you sing tomorrow / And you walk along with your ding-dang-dong.” Italy came in second place this year with “Soldi,” by Mahmood; Russia came in third with “Scream,” by Sergey Lazarev. But this year’s contest was overshadowed by political controversy stemming from holding it in Israel, a nation whose recent record of human rights abuses makes a better backdrop for protest anthems than glitzy pop. Israel earned the right to host last year by winning the 2018 contest with Netta’s “Toy,” but supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement urged musicians and fans alike to boycott the competition, which was not televised in the United States.

Enter Canadian-Israeli real-estate billionaire Sylvan Adams, who saw an opportunity in the Eurovision contest to build goodwill for Israel among people who were not paying much attention to what Israel had been up to recently, as he explained to the Jerusalem Post:

I believe that doing these types of events is speaking to a massive majority out there in the world who don’t have a dog in the fight. They’re not political, but they generally have a negative impression of this country, due to the steady drumbeat of negative news coming from here.

So Adams reportedly paid pop star Madonna a cool million dollars to perform at Eurovision and add some “glitz, glamour, sizzle, and sparkle,” while countering the message of, in his words, “the lunatics from the BDS world.” Madonna, who previously performed in Israel on her 2009 and 2012 world tours, took the money; on Tuesday, she issued a statement to Reuters saying that she would “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda,” nor “stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever they may be.” On Saturday, however, she went ahead and played music to suit someone’s political agenda, taking the stage at Eurovision to perform her 1989 hit “Like a Prayer,” accompanied by the hooded monks from her 2018 Met Gala performance. Here’s how that went:

Madonna was then joined onstage by Quavo to perform “Future,” from her upcoming album Madame X. Things got unexpectedly political (or “political”) at the end of the song, as two of Madonna’s background dancers revealed they had Israeli and Palestinian flags on the backs of their costumes, then walked up a staircase with their arms around each other. If you squint you can kind of make it out:

Dancers for Madonna display the flags of Israel and Palestine on their backs during Madonnas performance live on stage during the 64th annual Eurovision Song Contest held at Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on May 17, 2019 in Tel Aviv, Israel.
A bold statement. Michael Campanella/Getty Images

It was the most toothless gesture of unity imaginable, but it was too much for Eurovision officials, who released a statement distancing themselves:

In the live broadcast of the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final, two of Madonna’s dancers briefly displayed the Israeli and Palestinian flags on the back of their outfits. This element of the performance was not part of the rehearsals which had been cleared with the EBU and the Host Broadcaster, KAN. The Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political event and Madonna had been made aware of this.

Eurovision has longstanding reasons to pull back from explicit political statements: The festival’s original mission was to promote pan-European unity in the aftermath of World War II. But two backup dancers with flags taped to their backs are not politics in any meaningful sense of the word. What policy or path forward do they suggest? Madonna elaborated a little on what she was trying to do with her performance in Tel Aviv, telling presenter Assi Azar, “Let’s never underestimate the power of music to bring people together.”

This is good advice! History is full of examples of music that brought people together, from “Maryland, My Maryland” to the Horst Wessel Song, and we should never underestimate its power. But it matters what that music brings people together to do. The idea that art is an unalloyed good that can’t be coopted for political purposes is always laughable, but it’s especially laughable from a person who is accepting a large check from another person who explicitly says his plan is to co-opt her art for political purposes. Like Barack Obama’s Cantor Fitzgerald speech, Madonna’s performance is a classic example of working backwards to find a reason it’s okay to take the money. Sometimes it’s not.