Illuminated by pyrotechnic lighting and oversized LCD screens, a parade of aspiring teenage pop stars took to the stage at Kiev's Palace of Sport on Saturday night hoping to win European hearts and televotes. A 13-year-old from Belarus rapped about a rabbit, backed by Gregorian chants. A troupe of Dutch teenagers tap-danced while wearing garish blue-and-pink, cheetah-print dinner jackets. And, much to the delight of the 7,000-strong audience, a Ukrainian schoolboy was wheeled out on a wagon filled with hay and back-up vocalists as his female dancers did back-flips. In folk dresses.
Now in its seventh year, the Junior Eurovision Song Contest is a miniaturized version of Eurovision, the massively popular, continent-wide singing competition that has launched the careers of performers like Celine Dion, Julio Iglesias and ABBA. Every year, some 14,000 children aged 10 to 15 compete for a chance to represent their country in the final and become the next Beyoncé. But while there is real singing talent on display, the competition is also a reminder doused in glitter of the everyday struggles of growing up. "The kids have to write their own lyrics, so it offers a really good window into childhood," says filmmaker Jamie Jay Johnson, who chronicled the 2007 contest in his documentary Sounds Like Teen Spirit. "The songs have been about everything from romance to pimples to period pain."
Whether the singers hail from Cyprus, Macedonia or Sweden, unrequited puppy love is the dominant theme. During Saturday's competition, 12-year-old Ekaterina Ryabova from Russia stomped on a desk and pined for her absent prince: "I've got questions in my head. They are like wasps. What a mess!" And 10-year-old Laura Omloop from Belgium waxed poetic about her schoolyard crush wearing lederhosen and yodeling, "I gaze deep into his eyes, and a thousand rainbows fill the skies, and I feel so yodel-e yodel-e yodel-o."
The songs may be juvenile, but those yodels translate into big business. In Belgium, where nearly 1,000 children competed for the national title this year, the broadcaster VRT selected 12 finalists and aired the competition in primetime over four weeks. (Think American Idol for the pre-pubescent set.) The September finale earned a 30% audience share for the night in Belgium, and the CD compilation of the finalists' performances along with karaoke versions went platinum.
And in the former Soviet bloc countries, the children take Junior Eurovision seriously. Very seriously. Eastern European nations have won four out of the past five competitions, which isn't particularly hard when the vast majority of the performers come from that part of the world. Steve De Coninck-De Boeck, the founder of Belgium's Junior Eurovision program, believes the show is a barometer of the east's promise. "A lot of people don't see the evolution in Eastern Europe," he says. "When you're within Junior Eurovision, you see it every year. Their self-confidence is growing. They're becoming richer. And they usually do a better job than us."
Last year, Georgia stormed to victory with three children singing in an imaginary bee language. Eager to defend its title, Georgia put this year's act through four months of training and arrived in Kiev with an entourage of 21 people, including two vocal coaches, a stage producer, a choreographer and a psychologist. Maia Baratashvili, head of Georgia's delegation, sees Junior Eurovision not as a mere variety show, but as a glimpse into the region's collective psyche. "The West is leading today, so the countries of the former Soviet Union want to see themselves as a part of Europe," she says. "We can compete. We have a talent, and we also have an aspiration."
In Ukraine, where the media provide breathless daily updates during the weeklong competition to select the country's finalist, politicians have tapped into that symbolism, too. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko banned all public gatherings for several weeks, supposedly to slow the spread of swine flu. But when it came to Junior Eurovision, she decided that the show had to go on if only so she could be photographed with the children ahead of January's presidential election. During the final on Saturday night, Tymoshenko took to the stage to thank all of the children for putting on "a beautiful festival in Ukraine." Not to be outdone, her rival, current President Viktor Yushchenko, delivered his own message from the opposite side of the stage. "Don't shed any tears children," he said. "You're all winners tonight."
But not all countries have such a healthy appetite for it all. In 2004, after 10-year old María Isabel of Spain won with her ode to materialism called, I'd Rather Be Dead Than Plain, French broadcasters dismissed the show as "vulgar" and withdrew from all future contests. In 2006, Denmark and Norway followed suit, claiming that the high-profile event puts too much pressure on young children. With that in mind, the producers of the competition have taken steps to let children be children and slow their maturation into the scantily clad stars common in the adult version of Eurovision. This year's delegate handbook discouraged children from revealing their midriffs or wearing "mini-skirts or netted tights." And most national selection contests now require applicants and their parents to undergo psychological screening to make sure performing is the child's dream and not the parents'.
Good thing. This year's trophy went to Ralf Mackenbach, a tap dancer from the Netherlands, who was asked by a German journalist at the winner's press conference if he would have time to perform on German variety shows in the coming months. The 14-year-old didn't miss a beat: "We'll make time."
At Junior Eurovision, it looks like another star has been born.