Eurovision 2024, second semi-final review: Israel qualifies for final despite anti-war protests

Eden Golan performing Hurricane
Eden Golan performing Hurricane - GETTY IMAGES
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Despite mass protests, calls for a ban, grumblings about audience censorship and accusations of reputational “pinkwashing”, Israel progressed to the grand final after all. “United by music” might be the 2024 slogan but this has proved the most controversial contest ever.

The 68th edition of the campest show on earth continued with Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final 2 (BBC One). As 16 more nations attempted to qualify for Saturday’s main event, Israeli entrant Eden Golan delivered her first live performance in Malmö Arena. The feared disasters didn’t transpire but it was still a deeply awkward spectacle, not least when she was voted through.

Golan was loudly booed throughout Wednesday’s dress rehearsal but now appeared to meet a muted reception. Auditorium audio was seemingly switched off. Any jeers, boos or slow handclaps were turned right down in the mix. There had been pre-show rumours that producers had even considered piping in canned applause to cover any negative response. At least they managed to avert the predicted stage invasions.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) was keen to keep politics out of the broadcast. Greta Thunberg was among the thousands of protesters outside the venue, demanding Israel’s removal amid the ongoing war in Gaza. Police presence had been stepped up. Security advised Golan to remain in her hotel room for her own safety. Her song “Hurricane” had already been hastily rewritten to be less lyrically provocative. It was originally titled “October Rain”, interpreted as referencing the Hamas attack on 7 October but breaching the EBU’s no-politics rule.

Golan celebrates reaching Saturday's final
Golan celebrates reaching Saturday's final - REUTERS

What began as a plodding power ballad built to a lush crescendo. As Golan walked off-stage to tumbleweed and a token smattering of applause, one almost felt sorry for the 20-year-old from Tel Aviv. Israel has been a strong contender in recent years, winning with Netta’s Toy in 2018 and finishing third last time. Tonight’s qualification means it has failed to reach the final only once in the last nine years. It remains to be seen whether the EBU can ward off a public backlash come Saturday.

Elsewhere it was the usual hyperactive mix of power ballads, dance pumpers and novelty numbers. There was plentiful flesh on show, with shirtless backing dancers and barely-there frocks seemingly de rigueur. We were “treated” to ancient Persian pipes, bizarre folk-rap mash-ups, mixed metaphors and stroppy student goth trimmings.

Much-fancied Switzerland combined risky staging with Freddie Mercury-esque operatic melodrama. Non-binary rapper and singer Nemo Mettler had charisma to burn, more energy than a Lucozade lake and a pink maribou jacket that would make Barbie proud. We might well be finding Nemo at the top of the scoreboard in two nights’ time.

Joost Klein of the Netherlands
Joost Klein of the Netherlands - AP

Tonight’s members of the “Big Five”, automatically through to the final but previewing their performances, were France’s cheeseball balladeer, Spain’s disco strippers and Italy, whose Shakira-like slinky pop was comfortably the pick of the three.

Presenting duo Malin Åkerman and Petra Mede were on wacky form, kicking off proceedings with a cheeky sunbed-based tribute to reigning champion Loreen. They led a sweetly ramshackle interval singalong. Mede made a risqué quip about aficionados being “true homosexu… sorry, Eurovision fans”. UK commentators Scott Mills and Rylan annoyed as much as they amused.

Nutsa Buzaladze representing Georgia
Nutsa Buzaladze representing Georgia - EPA

Of the 16 semi-finalists, the top 10 went through. Left on the sparkly scrapheap were Albania’s Ariana Grande tribute act, Denmark’s sandstorm diva, Malta’s doof-doof mediocrity, Belgium’s Bacofoil bellower, San Marino’s Pepto-Bismol punk brat and, most surprisingly, Czechia’s Billie Eilish-esque foot-stomper. Once again, it all felt like a lot of fuss to knock out just half-a-dozen nations. What used to be one night of musical madness has somehow been strung out into a week-long festival. At least it now enters the home stretch.

Saturday’s grand final looks like a straight fight between Switzerland’s pocket rocket and Croatian crackpot Baby Lasagna, with Italy in contention for a podium finish. There was a shout-out to Britons for being this year’s biggest ticket-buyers this year but UK entrant Olly Alexander will merely be making up the numbers.

Attention also turns towards whether Abba will make a surprise appearance to mark the 50th anniversary year of their victory with Waterloo. With such Eurovision saturation, you couldn’t escape if you wanted to.

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