KIEV, Ukraine (AP)—A gentle romantic ballad challenged the Eurovision Song Contest’s decades-long reputation for cheesy, glittery, unbridled excess — and won easily.
Portugal’s Salvador Sobral sang his Amar Pelos Dois (Love For Both) in a high, clear tenor accompanied by quiet strings and a piano in Saturday night’s extravaganza, which was watched by millions around the world.
Unlike the 25 other competitors who performed on a wide stage backed by flashing lights, bursts of flames and other special effects, Sobral sang from a small elevated circle in the middle of the crowd, an intimate contrast to others’ bombast.
“Music is not fireworks, music is feeling,” he said while accepting the award.
Sobral won in a landslide, capturing 758 points, 143 more than second place.
Runner-up Kristian Kostov of Bulgaria wasn’t short on feeling—his powerful song “Beautiful Mess” was awash in melodrama, the singer appearing almost wrung out by romantic turmoil.
Moldova’s Sunstroke Project finished a surprising third in the 2017 contest with a bouncy, jazzy song called “Hey Mama” in which the female backup singers hid their microphones in bridal bouquets.
Francesco Gabbani of Italy had led bookmakers’ tallies for many days leading up to the final, but he ended up placing sixth even though his act seemed the epitome of Eurovision’s cheerfully tacky aesthetics—singing a driving number about spirituality while accompanied by someone in a gorilla suit.
Eurovision, in its 62nd year, is aimed at apolitical entertainment. But those sweet intentions were soured this year when Russia’s participation was scuttled by host Ukraine over the two nations’ diplomatic and military conflict.
Russia is one of Eurovision’s heavy hitters, tied with Sweden for the most top-five finishes this century. But this year’s Russian entrant, Yuliya Samoylova, was blocked from competing by Ukraine because she had toured in Crimea after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula.
In response, Russia’s state-owned Channel 1 television refused to broadcast the contest, replacing Saturday’s final with a screening of the film “Alien.” Samoylova has already been announced as Russia’s Eurovision candidate for 2018.
The Moscow-Kiev split was a headache for Eurovision’s producer, the European Broadcasting Union, which strives to keep pop and politics separate. Overtly political flags and banners are banned, and lyrics are monitored for provocative content.
In 2009, the EBU nixed the Georgian entry “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” a dig at Russian President Vladimir Putin after Russia and neighboring Georgia fought a brief war.
The union, however, has been criticized for not barring “1944” by last year’s winner Jamala of Ukraine, which focused on the 1944 forced relocation of Crimean Tatars by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The move allowed Russia-Ukraine tensions over Eurovision to fester.
Eurovision was founded in 1956 to bring the recently warring countries of Europe together. From its launch with seven countries, Eurovision has grown to include more than 40, including non-European nations such as Israel and—somewhat controversially—far-off Australia.
The contest helped launch the careers of Sweden’s ABBA—victors in 1974 with “Waterloo”—Canada’s Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988, and Irish high-steppers Riverdance, the halftime entertainment in 1994.