Ukrainian singer Jamala’s melancholic tune about Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars was crowned the winner of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest early Sunday, an unusual choice for the kitschy pop fest.
Susana Jamaladinova, a 32-year-old trained opera singer who uses the stage name Jamala, received the highest score of 534 points for her song “1944,” after votes from juries and TV viewers across Europe were tallied following performances Saturday night by the 26 finalists at Stockholm’s Globe Arena.
Australia’s Dami Im was second with 511 points, followed by Russia’s Sergey Lazarev in third with 491.
The show was broadcast live in Europe, China, Kazakhstan, Australia, New Zealand and, for the first time, the United States. Last year’s contest reached nearly 200 million viewers globally.
Amid entries about love and desire, Jamala’s song stood out. With somber lyrics it recalls how Crimean Tatars, including her great-grandmother, were deported in 1944 by Soviet authorities during World War II. Many died during the deportations or starved to death on the barren steppes of central Asia. Decades later some of the survivors were allowed to return to the Crimean Peninsula.
Jamala delivered an emotional performance, her voice soaring as the song built up force from a quiet start.
“I was sure that if you sing, if you talk about truth, it really can touch people,” she told reporters after the competition.
The focus on Crimea, whose annexation by Russia in 2014 was opposed by its Tatar minority, could be considered a swipe at Moscow, but Jamala insisted there was no political subtext, and contest officials agreed.
The rules of the glitzy competition prohibit political statements.
Im, who was born in South Korea and is a former Australian “X Factor” talent show winner, was in the lead following a count of the jury votes, but her song “Sound of Silence” was bumped down to second place when the popular vote was added.
Though Australia is far from Europe, the Eurovision show is hugely popular Down Under where it has been broadcast for more than 30 years. Australia was invited to compete for the second consecutive year.
The annual contest, which started in 1956, is known for its eclectic mix of rock ballads, techno-pop and occasional folkloric tunes. However, in recent years entries have moved away from ethnic influences toward more mainstream dance music.
All but one of the 26 entries in the final were performed entirely or partially in English.
The stage production is also getting increasingly elaborate, with pyrotechnics and computer graphics compensating for bland tunes with cheesy lyrics.
Lazarev’s club anthem “You Are the Only One” had the most striking visual effects. At one point the black-clad Russian scaled a LED display and rode a virtual iceberg through space.
Some Russian fans accused the judges of political bias, noting that Lazarev got the highest score in the popular vote.
“I’m so sad,” said Dennis Kalinkin, a 29-year-old Russian who lives in France. “All of Europe voted for Russia. Russia was first. But the jury voted for other countries.”
Bulgaria placed fourth, ahead of host nation Sweden. Germany’s Jamie-Lee Kriewits, an 18-year-old inspired by Japanese schoolgirl fashion, finished last with just 11 points.
The show was broadcast live in the United States by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender cable TV network Logo. The Eurovision Song Contest has a cult following in the gay community.
It was Ukraine’s second Eurovision win; its first came in 2004 when Ruslana won. The victory means Ukraine gets to host the contest next year.
Asked by a Crimean journalist whether she thought the competition should be held in Crimea, Jamala answered “I hope Eurovision will be in Ukraine.”
The theme of this year’s contest was “Come Together,” a subtle message for Europe to stay united amid a backlash against migration to the continent and rising nationalism.
In a rare serious moment at the beginning of the show co-host Mans Zelmerlow — last year’s winner for Sweden — warned that Europe once again is “facing darker times.”
The director of the TV alliance that produces the Eurovision Song Contest said the show’s message of unity is particularly significant at a time when Europe is seeing its internal borders returning and Britain is holding a referendum on whether to exit from the European Union.
European Broadcasting Union Director-General Ingrid Deltenre told The Associated Press before Saturday’s final that “you have reactions in Europe which are very polarizing … we are sending out a signal. It’s a signal about tolerance, about openness, about diversity.”