ROTTERDAM — The Italian band Maneskin celebrated its 2021 Eurovision win by the rock ’n’ roll playbook, with bare chests covered in tattoos, champagne spraying and the thuds of fireworks exploding.
The win was a close and deeply emotional one, with the band’s song, “Zitti e Buoni,” or “Shut Up and Be Quiet,” edging into first place in an exhilarating vote that was ultimately decided by the public. Maneskin barely beat France’s Barbara Pravi, and her chanson “Voilà.” After the victory, an Italian reporter was sobbing as tears streamed down his face.
Capturing what many felt, he said the victory was a fresh start for Italy. “It was a very difficult year for us,” the reporter, Simone Zani, said, talking about the devastating impact of the coronavirus. Explaining through his tears, he said, “We are from the north of Italy, from Bergamo,” an Italian city with record numbers of Covid-19 deaths. “To be No. 1 now, this is a new start for us, a new beginning.”
Eurovision, the largest music contest in the world, is a campy trifle to some, but it celebrates Europe’s cultural diversity and is a reflection of the times we live in. For many outside Europe, the attraction of Eurovision can be hard to comprehend. But a key reason the 200-million plus audience is watching is that there is no cultural mold for the event. Anything goes, and diversity is highly encouraged. The global entertainment business may be dominated by U.S. pop culture, but at Eurovision, 39 different countries can showcase their ideas of music and pop culture with no industry rules other than a three-minute song limit.
And, a shocker perhaps for a U.S. audience, the three-hour show is completely commercial-free.
So Germany, the political leader of the continent, sent in a song against hate, with the artist Jendrik playing a diamond studded ukulele while being accompanied by a dancing finger. Tix, the singer for Norway, has Tourette’s syndrome. He was dressed in a gigantic fur coat and wearing angel wings, while being chained to four horned demons. “Remember guys, you are not alone,” he said to everyone “suffering” in the world.
The three singers of Serbia’s entry, Hurricane, may have sported the big hair look of American groups of decades past, but despite seeming as if they had bought up most of the hair extensions on the continent, they sang their song, “Loco Loco,” in Serbian.
In fact, four of the top five winning songs of this year were sung in languages other than English. “There is clearly a thirst for more originality and real meaning,” Cornald Maas, a festival commentator for Dutch Public Television for over 15 years, said of the victories for songs presented in their national languages.
Europe, he said, had been looking for a song celebrating newfound life. “The winning song isn’t a restrained ballad as you might expect after corona,” Mr. Maas said, “but instead it’s an exuberant plea for authenticity, a call to ignore meaningless chatter.”
The show on Saturday in the Ahoy Arena in Rotterdam showed a glimpse of life as we knew it before the pandemic, and a future in which the virus might be under some form of control.
Many in the audience were wearing orange outfits, the national color of the Netherlands, singing along, dancing and hugging — and drinking. Alcohol was for sale and it was clear that some of the flag-toting celebrants had indulged. The entire audience of 3,500 was obliged to show a negative coronavirus test, taken under an elaborate testing plan paid for by the government. Members of the different delegations sat in a special zone in the middle of the arena on couches, where they had to keep socially distanced but still got up and danced around.
The shining star among the presenters was Nikkie de Jager, from the Netherlands who has a well-known YouTube makeup channel, Nikkie Tutorials. The crowd went wild every time she came onstage or even walked past the corridors.
In normal times the Eurovision circus attracts tens of thousands of fans who turn the organizing cities upside down, taking over bars and clubs. This year the event was divided into several physical bubbles to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
During the two weeks of rehearsals, artists would meet only in one common room, where several countries had organized a table tennis contest, in which Italy also performed quite well, Samya Hafsaoui, a Dutch official, said.
Two members of the Icelandic act, Dadi og Gagnamagnid, ended up quarantining after contracting the virus, meaning that their song, “10 Years,” about a successful marriage, couldn’t be performed live. The singer Dadi Freyr, and other group members, watched from a hotel room as the results came in. Standing in for the missing performers were dolls wearing the band’s outfit, topped with iPads showing their faces. Despite the recorded performance, Iceland landed fourth place.
Duncan Laurence, who had won for the Netherlands in 2019, also contracted the virus and wasn’t able to perform during this year’s finals as is the tradition. The event was canceled in 2020.
Artists only came out for brief socially distanced news conferences. Ms. Pravi, the French singer-songwriter, held lively conversations in the days before the final, waving hands and arms and mixing French and English. Ms. Pravi said she never makes any concessions, and the same was true of her song, “Voilà.” She said, “My ‘parcours’ shows this,” referring to the French term for career path.
Ms. Pravi comes from an international family of singers and painters. Her maternal grandfather is the famous Iranian painter Hossein Zenderoudi. Her song dusts off the French chanson, recalling singers like Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg.
Some had criticized her, calling her style of singing out of fashion, but Ms. Pravi strongly disagreed. “You don’t need to make concessions in music,” she said. “You can be absolutely yourself, doing the music you like, say the words you want and being the woman you want to be. And now I am here at Eurovision, the biggest contest in the world.”
Early Sunday morning Ms. Pravi was seen in the dimly lit press center speaking to French reporters who couldn’t believe that their country had come so close to victory, after having achieved almost no Eurovision honors since their victory in 1977.
As the Italian rockers of Maneskin took off their shirts to celebrate their victory, the singer James Newman, the United Kingdom’s entrant, was nowhere to be found. His song “Embers” had received zero points from both the national juries and the international audience. “It’s Brexit,” said Meg Perry-Duxbury, a Briton living in Rotterdam, sitting next to me in the arena. “Europe doesn’t want us to win.” She herself was supporting Cyprus (another song featuring devils) anyway, Ms. Perry-Duxbury said. “So whatever.”