Kate Miller-Heidke soars at 64th Eurovision Song Contest to deliver Australia ninth place
After stunning performances in the rehearsal and semi-final phases of the competition, Australia had firmed as one of the favourites – along with The Netherlands and Sweden – with many observers confident the performance had the substance and style to win the competition.
Alas, it was not to be. As is often the case with Eurovision, the contest finished in a shambolic explosion of points in which, at times, North Macedonia, Sweden and Italy looked within reach of victory.
For many, the close brush with victory will bring a measure of relief; had Australia won it would have opened a Pandora’s Box of pop and politics, an unprecedented capture of Europe’s oldest and most lauded musical crown by a country outside the northern hemisphere.
Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age backstage after the grand final, Miller-Heidke said it was one of the most intense experiences of her career.
“It is really, really surreal,” she said. “I means a lot to these artists, it means a lot to all of us. It’s a supremely vulnerable position to get up there and sing a song and allow yourself to be ranked. It’s an experience familiar to anyone who has been on a talent show, but for me, I haven’t been in anything like this before.”
Listening to the slow roll out of the votes, surrounded by countries for whom victory or loss at Eurovision has been a life or death cultural moment for decades, Miller-Heidke said she found a calm headspace as Australia locked into ninth position from a starting field of 41.
“It was uncomfortable,” she said, laughing. “I joked that it was like an artist’s torture device. But that’s it, that’s the competition. It’s funny but I did find myself feeling strangely calm.”
Among the highlights of the grand final was a performance by pop icon Madonna; the 60-year-old legend performed her 1989 hit Like A Prayer, accompanied by a 35-voice choir, and the single Future from her new album, which she performed with the American rapper Quavo.
“Everybody here is from around the world and the one things that brings all of the people here tonight is music,” Madonna told the telecast’s estimated 200 million viewers. “Let’s never underestimate the power of music to bring people together.”
The grand final caps off a week in which delegations representing 41 competing countries converged on the Israeli city of Tel Aviv-Yafo in pursuit of Eurovision glory.
15 countries – Montenegro, Finland, Poland, Hungary, Belgium, Georgia, Portugal, Armenia, Ireland, Moldova, Latvia, Romania, Austria, Croatia and Lithuania – were culled in two intensely-fought semi-final heats.
That left 26 countries, from Albania to the United Kingdom, performing in the grand final, including Australia, the host country, Israel, and the so-called “big five”, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.
The “big five” countries automatically book their berths in the grand final by virtue of being the five biggest contributors to the Eurovision Song Contest’s organising body, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
The final score is calculated by merging scores from a five-member professional jury and audience “televoting” during the live broadcast; both groups each assign scores of 1-8, 10 and 12 points to any country except their own.
Those numbers have given the competition two of its most famous phrases douze points and nul points – pronounced dooze pwa and nul pwa – which translate respecively as 12 points and no points, the best and worst scores possible.
Australia’s delegation landed in Tel Aviv almost two weeks ago, competing in the first semi-final of the competition to secure our berth in the grand final.
Miller-Heidke has now performed Zero Gravity on the Eurovision stage twice in full rehearsal and eight times in competition. The Eurovision machine requires four stagings each of the two semi-finals and the grand final.
Australia has a strong track record at Eurovision, ranking fifth, second, ninth and 20th in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. This year’s result represents a significant lift on last year’s, from 20th position back to ninth.
Though it is officially discouraged, clusters of European countries often vote in blocs, giving each other their highest scores, such as Cyprus/Greece, Denmark/Finland/Iceland/Norway/Sweden, Estonia/Latvia/Lithuania and so on.
One key takeout is that Australia, aside from the loyalty of some Scandinavian countries, does have an obstacle in the competition because it does not more formally belong to a voting bloc of countries who consistently score each other highly.
“We were hoping that because of the beauty and the magic that we presented that it would attract other voters,” Australia’s head of delegation Paul Clarke said.
Significantly, however, Australia was bolstered a strong vote from the “televoting” audience.
“In the previous two years [the audience vote for Australia] has been really low,” Clarke said. “I was happy to see that the public vote came back to us this year.”
This year’s competition has been staged amid the complex political tensions between Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
The activist group Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) led a vocal campaign to boycott the event, while the artists, with the exception of Iceland’s Hatari, have largely refrained from making overt political statements.
Speaking on the eve of the grand final, Australian entrant Kate Miller-Heidke said all of the artists had “conflicting feelings” about the politics. “Who is it going to serve to deprive people of music, and art, and culture and learning?” she said.
The sentiment was echoed by the pop superstar Madonna, who released a statement to media saying she would “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be.”
Despite a number of threats, both implicit and explicit, the two-week Eurovision festival ended without major incident, aside from the hacking of the Israeli broadcaster KAN’s webcast of the first semi-final with threatening images.
Organisers said the interruption to the KAN webcast lasted only “a few minutes”; the main telecast of the Eurovision Song Contest and the official Eurovision web stream were unaffected.
The six-decade-old song competition has served as the launchpad for a string of high-profile artists, notably ABBA, who won in 1974 with Waterloo, Celine Dion, who won with Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi in 1988 and Brotherhood of Man, who won in 1976 with Save All Your Kisses For Me.
The grand final of the 64th Eurovision Song Contest will air on SBS at 8.30pm Sunday; the two semi-finals and grand final can be replayed via SBS On Demand.
Michael Idato travelled to Tel Aviv courtesy of SBS.
Michael Idato is entertainment editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.