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 Beyonc. 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. 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.