A Kids' Singing Contest That's a Geopolitical Proxy War for Adults

For the handlers of Junior Eurovision contestants, there's a lot more at stake than music.

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Nurturing aspiring pop stars requires a lot of patience, especially when Hamas is firing rockets over your border. Daniella Gardosh Santo of the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) learned that fact firsthand in recent weeks as she worked with Kids.il, a sextet of 10- to 14-year-olds competing in Israel's name at the 2012 Junior Eurovision Song Contest. The threat of pipe bombs and the roar of sirens forced the group to adjust its rhythm on the eve of the December 1 contest. "We missed a few rehearsals because I didn't want to take responsibility for having the kids in the studio when the alarms sounded," she says. "It's not like you're on the beach. The shelter is very crowded."

Even as the missiles dropped, Gardosh Santo knew the show had to go on. Her team continued to drum up publicity for the group throughout the conflict, and, given the sensitive nature of taking children away from their families during a war, arranged for all of their parents to journey with them to the Netherlands for the week of rehearsals and press conferences that began at the end of November. For Gardosh Santo and the IBA, competing at Junior Eurovision holds significance far beyond giving six kids their 15 minutes of fame. "We want to cultivate and enhance international relationships," she says, "and bring the beautiful face of Israel to the world."

In 2010 Azerbaijan's state broadcaster cut the live transmission once it became apparent that a 12-year old Armenian boy had won.

Now in its 10th year, Junior Eurovision is a spinoff of Eurovision, the wildly popular—and widely mocked—pan-European song contest whose alumni include ABBA, Celine Dion, Jedward, and Olivia Newton-John. Watched by more than 20 million people in Europe, the former Soviet Union and Australia, it remains the world's biggest song contest for children aged 10 to 15. For governments who fund the contestants—and their choreographers, vocal coaches, producers, costume designers, P.R. teams, and chaperones—it's also a massive exercise in soft power, and an opportunity to foment goodwill with kiddy viewers and their parents across the world. The resulting talent show mixes the ambition of pageant moms with the studied reason of policy wonks with the patriotism of the Olympic Games—albeit with far more wind machines and sequins.

Israel's global charm offensive began with a nationwide audition in the spring, which resulted in the selection of six children of Russian, Yemenite, Indian, and Israeli descent. "We have all these colors," says Gardosh Santo triumphantly. "But they are all Jews." The original, three-minute song that the Israelis wrote for the competition—an ode to peace called "Let the Music Win"—took on renewed significance in light of recent events. Speaking ahead of the final, and without a translator, 13-year old Daniel Pruzansky understood the brief: "The music united people, and the music united us."

Not all countries grasp that message, and some wage a proxy battle through the Eurovision franchises. Armenia and Azerbaijan, bitter enemies who fought a bloody war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the early 1990s, have taken their political stalemate to the adult and junior contests for years. Armenia withdrew from Eurovision last year because it was being held in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital. And in 2009 Azeri security officials detained Azerbaijani citizens who had voted for Armenia's contestant. The junior contest isn't immune from the squabbling. In 2010 Azerbaijan's state broadcaster, which aired Junior Eurovision but did not field a contestant, cut the live transmission once it became apparent that a 12-year old Armenian boy had won. His song had no political message: He merely crooned about a schoolyard crush gone wrong.

Given the significance they place on the contest, it's not surprising that Azerbaijan, which debuted at Junior Eurovision this year, went big. Rather than allowing its contestants to write their own song, the oil-rich nation outsourced the task to British songwriters and producers behind acts like the Sugababes and Britney Spears. They also hired Maksim Nedolechko, one of Russia's most famous pop choreographers, and paid a Russian production company that specializes in children's programming to sort out their costumes and staging. In the official program, the biography of Azerbaijan's lead singer said her "greatest wish is to be able to represent Azerbaijan worthily."

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William Lee Adams is a journalist based in London. He has written for TimeNewsweekMonocle, and The Huffington Post.

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