In a move that took Eurovision fans by surprise, Israeli broadcaster KAN unveiled Noa Kirel as the country’s 2023 representative, just 59 days after this year’s contest concluded.
Putting aside the incredible efficiency of KAN to get its representation sorted this early in the Eurovision cycle, the broadcaster has selected Israel’s biggest, most popular and most successful artist to represent the country on the world’s biggest stage. But does fame guarantee Eurovision fortune?
A broadcaster selecting a famous and established artist isn’t a new phenomenon, so what KAN is trying is hardly groundbreaking. Throughout the history of Eurovision the idea has played out with varying levels of success.
Finland’s famous flops
In late 2017 Finland’s broadcaster YLE chose to do away with the typical format for its selection show UMK in favour of inviting just one artist to perform. That artist was Saara Aalto. UMK typically sees multiple artists vying for a ticket to represent Finland at Eurovision but YLE’s decision to specifically choose Aalto – and Aalto alone – to sing three different songs at UMK was a strategic one.
“We believe strongly that the luminous Saara Aalto, who is building an international music career, is our secret weapon to success,” UMK Producer Anssi Autio said at the time. Autio was right. Aalto was building an international career having made a name for herself in the UK when she finished runner-up on The X Factor 12 months prior to being unveiled as Finland’s Eurovision representative.
UMK came and went and Aalto headed to Lisbon, Portugal representing Finland with the song Monsters. It was a catchy and well-produced pop song that had everything including the kitchen sink, bathroom sink and a broken sink thrown at the live performance which ultimately created a poor package. Aalto secured 25th place in the Grand Final.
YLE didn’t learn its lesson in 2019. It decided the best antidote to its miserable run of performances was to invite Darude from Sandstorm fame to partake in the same selection process that Aalto endured. Teamed up with singer(?) Sebastian Rejman, Darude presented three songs of varying quality to the Finnish public and international juries who ultimately selected the poorest of the three. The staging for Look Away at Eurovision in Tel Aviv, Israel did nothing to captivate an audience visibly bored by an underwhelming song and it languished in the first Semi-Final.
Having reverted back to a multi-competitor UMK show after two dismal Eurovision results, 2022’s edition saw rock music stalwarts The Rasmus succeed with their anthemic contribution Jezebel. Written by the band’s frontman Lauri Ylönen and galactically successful music producer Desmond Child with the sole aim of winning Eurovision, the song won UMK decisively but failed to make an impact at the contest in Turin, Italy. The ambitious staging was let down slightly by the infamous ‘broken’ stage and – despite being the ultimate showman – Ylönen’s vocals certainly weren’t up to scratch. It was a package that did seem like it had the right qualities to succeed more than it ultimately did, yet it was another case of fame not leading to fortune for Finland.
The UK’s mixed fortunes
One of the contest’s most successful countries was – for a period – fixated on sending famous hasbeens to Eurovision desperately clinging to the thought of further glory. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 the BBC opted for internal selections following the UK’s most dismal run of results garnered through televised national selections since the turn of the century.
Following a hiatus that lasted six years, boyband Blue were the first to give it a go and they weren’t half bad. That shouldn’t have been a surprise considering their pre-hiatus success. The foursome had three UK No.1 albums – which charted across Europe and beyond – as well as a string of hits that can be consumed guilt free today. Their Eurovision song I Can was an empowering and uplifting contribution which gave the UK a commendable 11th place finish in the Grand Final.
Results went downhill 12 months later when Engelbert Humperdinck represented his country. The crooner’s fame had dwindled significantly since the peak of his career 40 years prior to his Eurovision participation. The man should not have been anywhere near Eurovision with his song Love Will Set You Free. It was like watching a B-rate Eurovision entry from the 1960s colourised. It deserved its 25th place in the Grand Final.
The BBC should have known to change tack but – just like YLE more recently – it carried on trodding its own path. What came next was Bonnie Tyler with an inherently skippable album track of an entry called Believe In Me. Written by Desmond Child, believe it or not, the song was not indicative of Tyler’s remarkable musical career.
Sixteen years prior to Tyler’s participation, the UK was represented by another act which saw the peak of their career in the 1980s. Katrina and the Waves – most well known for the song Walking on Sunshine – resurrected their career with Eurovision participation. The Kimberley Rew-penned track Love Shine a Light gave the UK its fifth, most recent and perhaps most deserved victory.
The country’s most recent example of trying fame at Eurovision came this year. Sam Ryder is – and was at the time of his participation – a household name on TikTok having carved out fame and following of his own having uploaded cover versions of some of the world’s biggest and most difficult to sing tracks. Admittedly, he wasn’t a household name in the UK’s music scene when he took his song Space Man to second place at the contest earlier this year but fame comes in many different guises.
The earlier editions of the Eurovision Song Contest were often characterised by household names representing their nations. Cliff Richard – although a little beyond his peak – was still churning out hit singles that made waves in the British and overseas charts when he bagged top three placings for the UK in 1968 and 1973.
British singer Lulu had released a string of hits to great acclaim throughout the mid to late 1960s before she triumphed at Eurovision in 1969 with the song Boom Bang-a-Bang.
Julio Iglesias too was enormous in his homeland of Spain when he secured fourth place at the 1970 edition won by Ireland.
Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, Russian duo t.A.T.u were at the height of their fame at home and abroad when they took to the stage in Riga, Latvia to represent their country in 2003. Despite their participation being seen by some as a way of showing Russia to be more culturally liberal than what was generally believed in Europe, t.A.T.u came within three points of winning Eurovision with their song Ne ver’, ne boysia.
Westlife founding member Nicky Byrne tried his hand at Eurovision in 2016, five years after his group had split. His fame through the group is unquestionable but representing his country as a solo artist was to be a true test. He launched his solo career with the song he took to Eurovision, Sunlight, but things didn’t go his way on the stage in Stockholm, Sweden. Bagging just 46 points in his Semi-Final, Byrne missed out on qualification to the Grand Final by a whopping 60 points. Apart from an impressive and immersive display of stars on the LED floor, Byrne’s on-stage package had little going for it. Relying on fame alone didn’t work.
Another recent example of a Eurovision contribution relying on the fame of a performer was the collaboration between Senhit and Flo Rida. Despite Adrenalina being written by eight talented Swedes, despite it representing one of the most meme-worthy Eurovision countries, despite it being a Senhit song, Flo Rida was the main attraction here. There were weeks and weeks of anticipation about whether he would show up to Rotterdam, Netherlands to perform alongside Senhit but he eventually did. His name was all over social media, international media and ultimately the stage. He was the entry…and it flopped. For all its fanfare and anticipation the song picked up 50 points in the Grand Final and it sat in 22nd place just ahead of the four songs that picked up zero televote points.
The appearances of famous singers in recent editions of Eurovision haven’t borne much fruit and it is easy to say that famous performers in further bygone contests did tend to be more successful.
Noa Kirel’s surprise announcement on Monday sent Eurovision Twitter into consecutive states of surprise, calendar checking and excitement. Kirel is massive in Israel and has a fanbase like no other artist in the Middle Eastern country. If KAN wanted to make a statement of intent with its early artist announcement it couldn’t have picked anyone better.
The 21-year-old singer has already secured four No.1 singles in her fledgling career and posts updates on social media to a following of 1.2 million people.
Kirel is managed by WME, a company with a roster of music talent so vast that it becomes finger-achingly difficult to scroll to the bottom of the website they all hold a profile on. WME is a huge company with the likes of Adele, Barry Manilow and Miley Cyrus among its talent. As an interesting caveat and an interesting caveat alone, HYYTS – a pop duo who were a hair’s breadth away from representing the UK at Eurovision this year – find themselves under WME’s wings.
In 2020 Kirel signed a multimillion dollar record deal with American label Atlantic Records, the largest ever for an Israeli artist.
All of these stats, numbers and achievements do look fantastic on paper but they won’t amount to much by themselves when it comes to standing on a stage and singing live in front of 200 million people. Despite being a hypnotic performer, evidence of Kirel singing live is lacking. One of Kirel’s biggest television appearances in 2021 was a performance during Miss Universe which was one of the most obvious and embarrassing displays of myming over playback. Kirel’s performance on Israel’s version of Dancing with the Stars in March wasn’t much better either. There’s no doubt that Kirel is a fantastic singer on a record and in an intimate live environment, but she needs to lose her over-reliance on playback and begin to perform fully live on bigger stages ahead of what will be the biggest performance of her career so far at Eurovision next year.
Although there are some doubts about Kirel actually appearing at Eurovision after she distanced herself slightly from KAN’s announcement in a recent radio interview, it probably is still worth getting excited at the thought of an artist with hefty musical clout and an impressive back catalogue performing at Eurovision. If she puts pen to paper and agrees to represent Israel at Eurovision it would be a ringing endorsement for the contest to have someone operating at – or at least very close to – the peak of their career performing on its stage.
Only time will tell if KAN’s decision to put fame at the head of its Eurovision plan will pay off.