After A Fraught Year, Eurovision Crowns Portugal's Salvador Sobral

May 14, 2017
Originally published on May 15, 2017 5:40 pm

Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev, Ukraine on Saturday, marking the first time that country has won the contest since 1964. The winning song, "Amar Pelos Dois," had been a favorite through last week's semifinals.

In his acceptance speech, singer Salvador Sobral railed against what he called "disposable music," saying he thought his win was "a victory for music with people who make music that actually means something." After his win, Sobral reprised the winning song as a duet with his sister Luísa, who wrote and composed it.

Sobral first performed his winning ballad bare-bones, stripped of many of the larger-than-life on-stage (and off-stage) treatments associated with Eurovision. There were no backup dancers or pyrotechnics; a stage manager urged audience members in the arena not to cheer as Sobral's quieted performance began. Another relatively rare feature of this year's winner was that Sobral sung in Portuguese, not English, which often hampers a country's shot at winning. The last non-English winner was in 2007, when Serbia's Marija Šerifović won with "Molitva."

Kristian Kostov, of Bulgaria, came in second with "Beautiful Mess."

Eurovision began 1956, with seven countries from continental Europe competing. The contest has since grown to into a mega-production; this year's show featured acts from 42 countries, including non-European countries like Israel and Australia.

The winner is determined through a mix of voting from viewers at home and the opinions of music industry professionals from each represented country, through a complex format intended to maximize the chances for a dramatic reveal of the winner. The competition's rules, like finding the baby in a king cake, have the winning country host the following year's contest.

This year's contest was in danger of being overshadowed by politics, however, despite the rules generally discouraging political overtures.

Ukraine, the winner of last year's competition with a song that referenced the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars during World War II, was viewed as thinly-veiled criticism of the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Ukraine and Russia have publicly sparred over the win since.

Julia Samoylova, intended to be Russia's Eurovision envoy this year, was banned by Ukrainian authorities from entering the country after the host country learned she'd performed in Crimea without permission from Ukrainian authorities following the territory's annexation in 2014. After failing to convince Ukraine to reverse its decision to bar Samoylova, Eurovision organizers gave Russia the option to have her perform remotely or for Russia to choose a different artist, an offer rejected by the Russian channels which selected her. In a statement quoted by the Tass news agency, Russian representatives said the offer "clearly runs counter to the very essence of the event."

The detente wasn't Russia's only Eurovision controversy in recent years; 2014's contest saw the country's entry booed, a reaction to Russia's laws around LGBT rights. That booing continued, to varying degrees, through subsequent years.

Aside from the political imbroglios, Eurovision has for most of its existence been known for its oddball performances — and this year was no exception.

Romania's entry, "Yodel It!" by Illinca and Alex Florea, indeed had, as the title suggests, a fair bit of yodeling, which also featured rap as well as regular singing.

Jacques Houdek's "My Friend," from Croatia, was a duet, fairly common in Eurovision. But here, Houdek's partner was himself, with Houdek dramatically pivoting each time he switched voices. Not to mention the fact that he did all this in two languages — and neither Croatian.

Italy, a favorite to win this year, ended in sixth place. Francesco Gabbani's "Occidentali's Karma" was staged featuring a man in a gorilla costume dancing on the stage — a nod, the singer said, to anthropologist Desmond Morris' book The Naked Ape, which helped inspire the song.

Moldova entered "Hey Mama," by the Sunstroke Project, a band whose exuberant saxophonist became the "Epic Sax Guy" meme when the group first brought it to Eurovision in 2010. Moldova's entry this year was about an overprotective mother-in-law. The band is, no doubt, hoping "Hey Mama" will manage to go viral as well.

For its part, the diminutive Balkan nation of Montenegro brought "Space," by Slavko Kalezić, who donned a mesh shirt, sparkly pants, and danced around the stage waving his unnaturally long pony tail in a circle. He did not make it to the final.

Next year's contest is scheduled for May, in Portugal.

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The Eurovision Song Contest delivered a surprise ending over the weekend. Hundreds of millions of people watch this international music competition every year. It's known for pyrotechnics and ridiculous spectacle. This year's acts included yodel pop and a dancing man in an ape suit, so it was kind of a shock when the judges crowned this year's winner a young man from Portugal who sang alone on stage without any glitz or flash. Here's some of his performance.


SALVADOR SOBRAL: (Singing in Portuguese).


S. SOBRAL: (Singing in Portuguese).

SHAPIRO: Anastasia Tsioulcas of NPR Music is with us now. And Anastasia, tell us about who this guy is.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: So his name is Salvador Sobral. He's a 27-year-old from Lisbon, Portugal - very unassuming guy singing this very sweet and tender song. It's called "Amar Pelos Dois," which means love for the both of us, love for the two of us. And it's this very melancholic song about lost love. And his stage presence is just as unassuming. He's sort of wearing these ill-fitting suit jackets and looks a little bit like he's sort of just ambled up on stage to sing a little song. And it's a real contrast to sort of the Eurovision trope of big and glitzy and flashy and all of the over-the-top-ness (ph) that has come to define Eurovision for so long.


S. SOBRAL: (Singing in Portuguese).

SHAPIRO: When I watched him sing this song, it made me think of, like, Etta James or Edith Piaf or these great interpreters of sort of jazz music, which could not be farther from the acts like ABBA and Celine Dion that we associate with Eurovision.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah, for sure. I mean there's a certain timelessness to it. It's this very wistful song. I was thinking about 1970s love songs and, you know, film soundtracks. And it's just - it's a very different mood. And it's of course sung in Portuguese, which a lot of Eurovision winners and finalists are these big songs in English to reach as much of a mass market worldwide as possible. And here, this is a very regional song that reaches back to a Portuguese folk song tradition.

SHAPIRO: After he won, Sobral took the microphone and gave some pretty pointed criticism about the kind of music that Eurovision is known for. Let's listen.


S. SOBRAL: I want to say that we live in a world of disposable music, fast food music without any content. And I think this could be a victory for music with people that make music that actually means something. Music is not fireworks. Music is feeling. So let's to do - change this and bring music back, which is really what matters.

SHAPIRO: So Anastasia, how do you explain this hard pivot for the Eurovision Song Contest?

TSIOULCAS: Well, I really can't except to say, wow, it's a really big pivot. You know, instead of being assembled by a team of hit makers, it's a song written by his sister. You can't get any more intimate or warm than that. You know, this guy, Salvador Sobral - he was a finalist on the Portuguese version of "Idol" like "American Idol." And there's this very tender feeling to it, very warm and very sweet and very wistful.

SHAPIRO: And at the end, he took the stage once again with his sister, Luisa, who wrote this song, and they performed it as a duet. Let's go out on this. Anastasia Tsioulcas, thanks as always.

TSIOULCAS: My pleasure, Ari. Thanks for having me.


LUISA SOBRAL: (Singing in Portuguese).


L. SOBRAL: (Singing in Portuguese). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.