EDITORIAL: The Kids Are Alright: Why I’m buzzing to see the UK return to Junior Eurovision

I joined ESCBubble in October last year, off the back of James Newman getting wall-to-wall doughnuts in Rotterdam. I was hankering a massive bone, which I was ready to pick with my country and its people’s lazy, casually xenophobic attitude to both continental Europe and Eurovision itself, the only thing, in my view, to blame for its poor results.

Now, while I don’t hold myself fully responsible for what happened next, it’s fair to say that bone took far less time to bury than I’d predicted. A nervous pre-Contest optimism about an “Anouk moment” for the UK turned to overwhelming euphoria when Sam Ryder romped into second place in Turin with his golden retriever energy and Mercury-esque stage presence for Space Man. And now the UK has the honour of hosting the show next year and doing Ukraine proud. While last year’s OGAE UK AGM had the air of a glum, post-penalties wound-licking in a pub loft in Waterloo, they might need to book out an arena for this year’s, just to be on the safe side.

Accompanying this great excitement, exemplified by the buzz at events like the recent Eurostarz in Concert in King’s Cross, was a surprise announcement on the BBC’s Instagram, in collaboration with CBBC, that the UK, after a 17-year hiatus, will return to the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, a move that possibly surprised even them.

 

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Amid the utter glee of explaining Hacker T. Dog to my non-British Eurofan friends, I, once again, got a minor patriotic twinge, and not just for comical purposes. The sort I get when my non-Eurofan British friends, who once complained about how much of my personality comprised of Eurovision, now ask me about nothing but Eurovision, where it will be, and how I can help them get tickets. A patriotic twinge that has also given me both an ironic urge to actually talk to them about anything other than Eurovision, and a sense of confusion and intimidation that the entire country now seems to think I’m Martin Österdahl.

A lot of my excitement comes from the fact that I am one of about four Eurofans who discovered Junior Eurovision before the main event. I must not have acknowledged what it was all about in the way I did watching Javine at ESC in 2005, possibly because I was six years old, but I distinctly remember watching the show, and enjoying the Belgian Busted tribute band and the ‘boy with the wobbly head’ (Croatian winner-turned-rockstar Dino Jelusić).

It’s not unheard of for a country to, after having just done well at Eurovision, try their hand at Junior, such is their new-found ease to get the idea past the channel execs buoyed by competitive momentum. Portugal awoke from their 10-year hiatus in 2017, as did Israel the following year. But neither of them had been absent for 17 years. That isn’t living memory for the kids of today.

Also, what makes it so bold is that JESC virtually doesn’t exist in the UK, as in, it’s not in our bank of references. Eurovision has been referenced in sitcoms, light entertainment shows and films, in both loving and disparaging ways. As we’ve seen, either because they know I love it or because they want inside goss on what Sam Ryder is actually like, my friends are always joshing me about the show (for the record: he’s lovely, and has hugged some of the best people in the world at his press conferences *wink to camera*).

The last thing I would ever expect to hear from them is anything about Junior Eurovision. That would be ridiculous, it’s just not something anyone knows about, at least, if you’re not a diehard Eurofan. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing!” were the words of actual music industry boss Simon Cowell when Britain’s Got Talent auditionee Destiny Chukunyere informed him she’d won the 2015 edition.

Seventeen years is a long time. In December 2005, the last time the UK went to JESC, I was 8 years old, and social media was in its very nascent days. Both YouTube and Facebook launched that year, and the first iPhone was still two years away. Half the country still had only five analogue TV channels, and/or dial-up, screechy, slow-as-a-snail Internet, both concepts that will be totally alien to any talented 14-and-unders hoping to compete for the UK this year. All of my media consumption came from linear children’s TV, films on DVD and the Saturday night gameshows my parents watched.

It is far easier for kids to find like-minded individuals and broadcast their talents these days, through highly accessible creative media platforms like Instagram and TikTok that they’ve had for all of their living memory, some literally since birth. And yet, Junior Eurovision, a barely primetime linear TV show, has stood the test of time, despite nearly being cancelled around about 2012.

I only really acknowledged why this was when I visited Paris last year to cover the 2021 edition at La Seine Musicale. I’d always looked at it from a purely cynical point of view, that it gives Eurofans an extra hit of dopamine in the cold wintry months when we’re away from our friends. Like the Commonwealth Games, it’s a smaller Olympics, nestled in the middle to keep us satisfied. But this ‘Commonwealth-Olympic Games’ analogy is accurate in another sense: JESC is the “friendly Eurovision”, a pure celebration of music, and kids nurturing their love of it, away from the (for better or worse) hyper-competitive, ego-fuelled grown-up equivalent.

There is never a shortage of young talent wanting to test the waters, showcasing their love of performing under the highly respected and well-loved Eurovision banner to improve their future opportunities, or see how much it really pleases them, knowing that, if it doesn’t go well, they’ll still come away with some really strong, like-minded connections, and they can brag to their school peers that they’ve got mates in 18 different countries. At least, that’s what I’d do. I draw your attention to the hundreds of comments on CBBC’s corresponding Newsround article from kids who want to sign up to compete.

While many kids you see at JESC will go on to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, systems analysts, chartered quantity surveyors etc., as someone who played music from an early age, I can tell you that it is something you carry with you your whole life, a truly connecting hobby rivalled perhaps only by sport.

And then there’s the ones for whom music is no longer just a hobby. Destiny, Stefania, Nevena Božović, O’G3NE and more have gone on to represent their countries at Eurovision. Meanwhile, Poland’s Sara James has just reached the final of America’s Got Talent, Cyprus’ George Michaelides is currently fronting the West End run of Here Come The Boys alongside Graziano and Pasha from Strictly Come Dancing, and Ukraine’s Oleksandr Balabanov is currently taking to the streets of London, broadcasting his country’s musical heritage to the nation amid the crisis in his homeland.

Goodness knows where the 2021 crop will go. While some, like Albania’s Anna Gjebrea and Ukraine’s Ellen Usenko, told me of their desire to compete at Eurovision, there were others with different lofty ambitions, like Italy’s Elisabetta Lizza, who sees herself as a swimmer, and my personal favourite, Georgia’s ode to wholesome Niko Kajaia, who said he wanted to be “either a singer or the President”. I know I’d vote for him, as I did on the night.

Really, Junior Eurovision is successful because it’s not saccharine, in that it doesn’t talk down to kids, and celebrates them, in all their relative naivety, as talented equals. Come to think of it, the fact I was out in Paris on my first job made for the most hilarious, wistful-thinking interviews of the season, given I was probably even less tested on camera than most of the kids.

Maybe that’s where the unease for Junior Eurovision among many Eurofans comes from. What began as, unambiguously, a children’s show, inspired by the junior editions of Nordic national finals that sprung up in the late 90s, has been shaped by the production capabilities of broadcasters and the tastes and expectations of its target audience, as well as the target audience itself. Junior Eurovision is now a family show, just like ESC, and perhaps in the vein of a new format that began in 2012 called The Voice Kids. Malta’s Gaia Cauchi winning with the Houston-esque power ballad The Start in 2013, for me, marked a massive tonal shift in the kinds of voices and styles you were hearing at the Contest.

Suddenly, fans were divided, with traditionalists saying that JESC is now “boring”, or even “inappropriate”. However, this argument misses the point of why the change happened. It’s not something that was imposed from the top down.

The best kids’ TV, be it Dick & Dom in da Bungalow, Horrible Histories, La Bola de Cristal, Melevisione or whatever your nation’s equivalent is, has been founded on the idea of ‘family viewing’, treating kids as intellectual equals, or at least highly curious, more likely to Google something they don’t understand than sit there in defeat. It prioritises the enjoyment of all ages, for different reasons.

Perhaps the best example of this is the winning song from 2004, which, to the chagrin of the traditionalists, was a hyper-pop song with a popular LGBTQ+ slogan as a title, about a young woman who needs “a bit of liberty” getting ready for a night out, with many references to popular make-up brands. That, plus its flamenco undertones, meant it was popular with kids and adults alike: it charted in six countries and it’s still played at ferias in Spain today.

Part of the reason that early JESC was filled with tinny kid-friendly Europop was because that was what was in the charts at the time. The rule was that kids had to write the lyrics and melody of their songs, and it just so happened that the kinds of heroes kids wanted to emulate on stage were the likes of Steps, Girls Aloud, S Club 7, Destiny’s Child etc. who were in the charts.

At the barmier end of the scale, in 2003, such classics as The Ketchup Song and Fast Food Song made it to No.1 worldwide. It was a simpler time, our music was tinny, and our fast food was all over kids’ TV and pop music. It literally was, to channel Salvador Sobral’s words, “fast food music”. Also, like María Isabel, the content was the same, it just sounded different. It’s not like Aqua’s Barbie Girl was entirely PG. Boy, did I get a shock when I read the lyrics to that song recently.

Today, if my 8-year-old nephew is anything to go by, kids are obsessed with Harry Styles, Ed Sheeran, Olivia Rodrigo, and other artists who sing about universal, perhaps fairly grown-up, themes, with not always up-tempo tracks. Whatever the era, when kids write and perform music, they look to their heroes for inspiration. Last year’s winner, Qami Qami by Maléna, was practically a Dua Lipa club banger, because that’s the kind of music she, and her peers, are listening to and enjoying. It’s relevant, so it resonated with viewers of all ages.

Destiny was singing soul because her idols are Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé. Mariam Mamadashvili gave us her take on Lady Gaga. Simão Oliveria paid tribute to his country’s rich history of Fado. Armenian boyband Compass served a true Beatles aesthetic. And then there’s the endless amount of rock, rap, folk, jazz, musical theatre, opera, flamenco and virtually every other genre to exist, which shows that, like Eurovision, JESC is not a Europop monolith.

JESC’s ongoing relevancy can also be found in the data. The 2021 Contest brought the highest viewing figures since 2011, when the show was in a primetime slot, and found huge success on social media, especially TikTok, a trend reflexive of young people’s changing viewing habits, and one that the BBC will need to acknowledge if they want success.

Now, judging by the wording of the Instagram post, the BBC may already know who is representing the UK, and have a song ready to reveal. My one hope for our return is to build a standard and a legacy, like we did in the early days. While Jemini were floundering in 2003, Sam Ryder has given us a high benchmark, so we need to take it seriously, god forbid we end up transposing the whole “it’s all political” rubbish to Junior Eurovision as well. The nations that have done well at JESC, like Georgia, Armenia and Spain, have followed the mantra of putting the kid in the driver’s seat.

A “we are the world”, by-the-numbers empowering school assembly song from a kid with an angel’s voice might get a few of the juries’ attention, but it doesn’t really enrich the Contest, and it doesn’t reflect what kids like. Just look at Germany’s two efforts. Kids can write their own music, so let them. They could write about anything, from their grandparents to their favourite football team to…chocolate?

Anyway, I’m absolutely buzzing to see the UK back at JESC. To my British friends who’ve just found out about Junior Eurovision, and sceptical Eurofans alike: if you ever get the chance to go to JESC, take it. It will be a wonderful afternoon out that will reaffirm your hope for the future, and you don’t have to plan months in advance. I booked a standing ticket on the day of the final in 2021 and got a cracking spot near the front of the stage. Thanks Martin.

The Junior Eurovision Song Contest 2022 will take place in Yerevan, Armenia, on 11th December 2022. Follow ESCBubble on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter for more exclusive Eurovision content!

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