Ukraine’s rap and folk group Kalush Orchestra, riding a record number of votes from the public and a kinetic song that became an anthem for suffering mothers, overtook the United Kingdom, Sweden and Spain to capture the 66th Eurovision Song Contest in a nail-biter in Turin, Italy.
While the oddsmakers, pundits and fans pegged Ukraine as the clear favorite to win going into Saturday’s final, it didn’t look good after the jury vote, when Ukraine was in fourth place with 192 points and the U.K. was in first with 283.
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The juries were not especially kind to Ukraine, with some countries, like the Netherlands, giving them no points at all. Poland, Moldova, Latvia, Romania and Lithuania — all countries that are concerned about possible Russian military incursions on their territory — each gave Ukraine 12 points. (Votes from small juries of music professionals in each country make up 50% of a country’s score. The public also votes during the live broadcast, making up the other half of the totals.)
Ukraine’s victory wasn’t assured until a short time later, when the public’s tele-votes were added in. With a record-setting 438 points from the public, Ukraine blew past the United Kingdom. With 40 countries voting, the top possible score from the public was 480, so a score of 438 meant that Ukraine received the top mark of 12 from almost every country.
The public votes gave Ukraine a combined total of 631 to the United Kingdom’s 466. Ukraine’s total score was the second-highest point total in Eurovision history, topped only by Portugal’s Salvador Sobral, who earned 758 combined points in 2017 with his simply stated, “Amar Pelos Dois,” sung quietly in Portuguese.
It was a victory for Kalush Orchestra, which is signed to Sony Music’s Columbia Germany imprint, just to show up at the contest in Turin given the brutal invasion of their country by Russia in February — a war that continues to grind on. On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video statement that a win for Ukraine would be symbolic for his country winning the war against Russia.
Ukraine’s deadly conflict with Russia was front and center during this year’s Eurovision. The show opened with the Rockin’ 1000, an assemblage of rock musicians who are mostly from Italy, singing John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” in Piazza San Carlo, one of the main public squares in Turin. At the end of their performance, Iceland’s trio Systur said, “Peace for Ukraine.” And after Kalush was announced as the winner, host Laura Pausini said, “Everyone wants peace. And music is peace.”
Although it is European Broadcasting Union policy to avoid politics during Eurovision, many artists wore bands displaying the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine or waved small replicas of the country’s flag. And this year, the EBU banned Russia, one of Ukraine’s traditional rivals, from the song contest after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded on Feb. 24.
At the winner’s press conference following the live broadcast, Kalush Orchestra’s founder/rapper, Oleh Psyuk, was asked if Ukraine would be able to host the contest in 2023, as is tradition for the winning country. “Next year, Ukraine will be happy to host Europe in the new integrated and happy Ukraine,” he replied. He said that his personal favorite songs this year were “Italy, the United Kingdom, Poland and Moldova.”
Before Saturday’s final, the European oddsmakers who take bets on the outcome of the contest had Ukraine in first place and the U.K. in second, and that is exactly how things played out.
Whether it was a vote of sympathy or just a love of the song, “Stefania,” in the end Ukraine scored the country’s third win following triumphs by Ruslana in 2004 with “Wild Dances” and by Jamala with “1944” in 2016. After their second victory, Ukraine had already claimed the record for the most wins by a country in Eastern Europe, so this new win extends that record.
“Stefania” was meant to be an ode to Psyuk’s mother, but by the time he took the Eurovision stage, the song had taken on new meaning, honoring all of the mothers in Ukraine as they live through the missile attacks and death and destruction in schools, hospitals and residential buildings as well as Mother Ukraine’s love for all of her children.
The six members of Kalush Orchestra were dressed in authentic outfits from the Bukovyna region of Ukraine, although Psyuk added the striking bubblegum pink bucket hat he often wears. Tima Muzychuk, another group member, was captivating as he played the traditional woodwind Ukranian folk instrument known as the telenka, and the six-man outfit was in constant motion, generating a kinetic display of energy.
Sam Ryder’s performance of “Space Man” held on for second place, bringing redemption for the U.K. after years of low scores. The U.K. finished with zero points from the jury and the public last year, which stands as one of five last place finishes in this millennium (on Saturday Germany finished last with six points).
The U.K. has won Eurovision five times, but not since 1997 when Katrina & the Waves came out on top with “Love Shine a Light.” The U.K. has placed second a record 16 times, but not since 1998, when Imaani made a last-minute move into the runner-up spot with “Where Are You.”
Ryder’s performance was enhanced by stage designers Dan Shipton and Marvin Deetman, who surrounded the singer with a sculpture of lights, inspired by the stage work of Queen and David Bowie, to make it feel like Ryder was floating in space. While Ryder didn’t stand still, he didn’t move very much from his mark, letting the light put him in motion.
The 2022 contest featured the usual mix of camp, outrageous costumes and unique production values. Spain’s Chanel sizzled on stage while performing “Slo Mo,” with a costume that barely covered her behind (emphasis on bare). Her male dancers also wore revealing outfits and the number was one of the sexiest performances in the history of Eurovision. It was Spain’s best showing since Anabel Conde placed second in 1995 with “Vuelve Conmigo.”
Sweden’s Cornelia Jakobs won votes with a performance of “Hold Me Close” that was low-key at first but built to a smashing crescendo. She first performed the song in February for the Swedish national final, Melodifestivalen. Her stage routine has been locked in ever since. “She’s a pro,” co-writer Isa Molin tells Billboard. “Why change a winning performance?”
Serbia’s Konstrakta drew 225 votes from the public with a creative performance laden with messaging. She sat with a basin in front of her as she washed her hands several times while singing “In Corpore Sano” (Latin for “in a healthy body”), which some have interpreted as a satirical commentary on health care systems and beauty standards. “What could be the secret of Meghan Markle’s healthy hair?” the song begins. “What could it be? I think it’s all about the deep hydration.”
Monika Liu from Lithuania channeled Sally Bowles from Cabaret, singing the jazzy “Sentimentai” in a slinky, sexy gown with her hair cut in a bob. The performance was reminiscent of France’s second place win in 2021 but Lithuania did not duplicate the result, finishing 14th.
Norway’s Subwoolfer came closest to parodying a Eurovision song, dressed in yellow paper wolf masks — suggesting that to distract a wolf from eating your grandma, you should give him a banana. And if viewers weren’t sure what the song was about, they added on-screen captions to clarify.
Italy’s Mahmood & Blanco looked like they were going to share a kiss on stage by the end of their song, “Brividi,” but they settled for a warm embrace.
Australia’s Sheldon Riley poured out his emotions in “Not the Same,” a song about growing up with Asperger’s and being secretly gay and not being like the other kids. He wore a mask composed of strings of jewels which he removed near the conclusion of his performance, finally revealing his face. But the public did not reward him; he received only two points from tele-voting.
Poland’s Ochman gave a powerful performance of “River,” without any extra bells and whistles. If his English sounded perfect, it’s because he was born in Massachusetts.
Portugal’s MARO (“Saudade, Saudade”) and Switzerland’s Marius Bear (“Boys Do Cry”) both sang understated ballads with no dancing, pyro or glitzy costumes.
Between the performances and the reporting of the votes, last year’s winner Måneskin surprised with a cover of Elvis Presley’s 1969 hit “If I Can Dream,” which contains a lyric relevant in 2022: “There must be peace and understanding sometime.” The Italian group has recorded the song for the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming biopic Elvis.
Måneskin has not shied away from cover versions before, as their remake of The Four Seasons’ ‘Beggin’” has been a global hit. But the fact that the 2021 Eurovision champions are singing an Elvis song in a Luhrmann film at the director’s request illustrates how winning the contest can translate into worldwide fame.
Additional Reporting By Silvia Danielli of Billboard Italia.
Here is how the 25 countries competing in the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest ranked after jury and public votes were combined for the final score:
1. Ukraine 631 points
2. United Kingdom 466
3. Spain 459
4. Sweden 438
5. Serbia 312
6. Italy 268
7. Moldova 253
8. Greece 215
9. Portugal 207
10. Norway 182
11. Netherlands 171
12. Poland 151
13. Estonia 141
14. Lithuania 128
15. Australia 125
16. Azerbaijan 106
17. Switzerland 78
18. Romania 65
19. Belgium 64
20. Armenia 61
21. Finland 38
22. Czech Republic 38
23. Iceland 20
24. France 17
25. Germany 6