Empowerment at Eurovision
In the weeks leading up to Eurovision, Europe’s incredibly popular annual international songwriting competition, I listened to Israel’s entry, “Unicorn” by Noa Kirel, on repeat. My Israeli friends and extended family have been following the Eurovision process with great excitement—from when Noa Kirel was selected, to when the song came out, to the finals. Although Eurovision is always a big deal, this year’s song is particularly meaningful to me. With feminist lyrics and a catchy beat, it’s easily become one of my favorite songs.
I love listening to music. I almost always put music on while studying and the fun of it motivates me to do my work. Whenever I go to a celebration and there’s music playing, I tap my foot and hum along. But I don’t always pay close attention to the lyrics of the song or think about what they are actually saying. It’s better that way. I want to enjoy the rhythms and melodies without feeling let down by cliché lyrics that don’t really resonate and strike me as borderline offensive from a feminist perspective. Many pop song lyrics repeat the same stereotypes, so when I find a song whose lyrics are inspiring and powerful, I can enjoy it on so many more levels.
Pop music’s global reach makes it an effective way to get people to hear and internalize particular messages. Because people listen to pop songs for the music in addition to the lyrics, it can bring ideas to the forefront of people’s minds even if they may not have been originally looking to reflect on those ideas. Both “Unicorn” and Israel’s 2018 Eurovision entry “Toy” by Netta Barzilai (which won the competition that year) use this opportunity to share Jewish feminist ideas and empower their listeners.
“Toy” is all about empowering women to realize their self worth. With lyrics like “Wonder woman don’t you ever forget you’re divine,” Barzilai teaches us that no matter what people tell us, we should always know in our hearts who we are and what we are capable of. Ultimately, the song builds to the chorus “I’m not your toy,” announcing to the world that we decide how to live our lives and no one else can control us.
“Unicorn” picks up where “Toy” left off, with messages of self-empowerment in the face of someone criticizing you (“Hey, you don’t like the way I’m talking”) and builds on that with how we can bring change to fix our world, declaring that the future will be both “phenomenal” and “feminine.” The lyrics inspire us to stand up for the vision we believe in and not give up. The chorus, which says “I’m gonna stand here like a unicorn/Out here on my own,” is a proclamation that even if we’re alone, we can make a difference. If we are the first to speak out, we shouldn’t back down but instead should make it a first step that can inspire others.
While both songs explicitly focus on feminism, their messages of being proud of who you are apply in many other contexts, including to Jewish identities. For example this Tablet article discusses the Zionist messages in “Toy.” “I’m not your toy” could be interpreted as stating that Israel is not for the world to patronize but is a complex country with a right to make its own decisions.
To me, the songs also relate to the Jewish experience in America. “Unicorn” talks about “history caught in a loop/Don’t you want to change it?” It sometimes feels like, throughout history, Jews have been stuck in an endless loop of antisemitism but it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean we should accept it as our destiny. If we continue fighting to change the way we are viewed, we can make a difference and one day will break free of this cycle. Judaism teaches us the idea of tikkun olam, repairing the world, and the proverb “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it” suggests that even if it seems impossible to fix the world’s problems, it is up to us to persevere and do our part. When others do so as well, together we can make an even bigger difference. As “Unicorn” says, “you and me can write a new book” If we just put our fear aside and put in the effort we can create a better future.
Yet, as important as it is to think about these messages of changing the world, I also love these songs because they inspire me in my day-to-day life. No matter how silly the school tests and projects that stress me out are, listening to music that tells me that I have “all the power of a unicorn” makes me feel empowered. In my daily life, it makes me feel capable of dealing with all the tasks I have to do. More broadly as a person and Jewish feminist, it makes me feel like I can make a difference to the way Jews and women are treated, by engaging in social justice work or just having meaningful conversations with the people around me. With the power to make people feel this way, the songs themselves, and others like them, play an important role in society. They too have “the power of a unicorn,” the power to inspire others and make change.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.