Portugal’s Salvador Sobral won the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday with a gentle romantic ballad that challenged the event’s decades-long reputation for cheesy, glittery excess.
Sobral sang his Amar Pelos Dois (Love For Both) in a high, clear tenor accompanied by quiet strings and a piano. Unlike the 25 other competitors who performed on a wide stage backed by flashing lights, bursts of flames and other effects, Sobral sang from a small elevated circle in the middle of the crowd, an intimate contrast to others’ bombast.
“Music is not fireworks, music is feeling,” he said while accepting the award.
Runner-up Kristian Kostov of Bulgaria wasn’t short on feeling — his power-ballad “Beautiful Mess” was awash in melodrama, the singer appearing almost wrung out by romantic turmoil.
Moldova’s Sunstroke Project finished a surprising third, with a bouncy, jazzy song called “Hey Mama”‘ that featured a clever stage routine in which the female backup singers hid their microphones in bridal bouquets.
Francesco Gabbani of Italy had led bookmakers’ tallies for most of the days leading up to the final, but he ended up placing sixth even though his act seemed the epitome of Eurovision’s cheerfully tacky aesthetics — singing a driving number about spirituality while accompanied by someone in a gorilla suit.
Eurovision, in its 62nd year, is aimed at apolitical entertainment. But the sweet intentions were soured this year when Russia’s participation was scuttled by host Ukraine over the two nations’ diplomatic and military conflict.
Russia is one of Eurovision’s heavy hitters, tied with Sweden for the most top-five finishes this century. But this year’s Russian entrant, Yuliya Samoylova, was blocked from competing by Ukraine because she had toured in Crimea after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula.
In response, Russia’s state-owned Channel 1 television is refusing to broadcast the contest, replacing Saturday’s final with a screening of the film “Alien.”
The Moscow-Kyiv split is a headache for Eurovision’s producer, the European Broadcasting Union, which strives mightily to keep pop and politics separate. Overtly political flags and banners are banned, and lyrics are monitored for provocative content.
In 2009, the EBU nixed the Georgian entry “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” a dig at Russian President Vladimir Putin. The union, however, has been criticized for not barring “1944” last year, allowing Russia-Ukraine tensions to fester.
The acrimony is ironic, since Eurovision was founded in 1956 to bring the recently warring countries of Europe together. It launched a year before the foundation of the European Economic Community, forerunner of the European Union.
From its launch with seven countries, Eurovision has grown to include more than 40, including non-European nations such as Israel and — somewhat controversially — far-off Australia.
The contest helped launch the careers of Sweden’s ABBA — victors in 1974 with “Waterloo” — Canada’s Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988, and Irish high-steppers Riverdance, the halftime entertainment in 1994.