On Sunday 29th November Valentina won the 2020 Junior Eurovision Song Contest. Her song, ‘J’ imagine‘ was a cute ditty of pastel colours, handclaps and dancing Eiffel Towers.
It was also completely in the French language.
France’s win can be seen as a success for Junior Eurovision rule that each country must sing in their native language. France managed to finish top with both juries and online voting, winning the competition by a comfortable 48 points. The only other country that did not perform with any English, ‘Palante‘ from Spain, finished 3rd.
It would be easy of me to use these stats to argue that kids performing in their native language works better. I could argue that Junior Eurovision’s language rule, requiring most of the performance to be in the native language of a broadcaster, should be kept, or even extended.
However I believe the opposite. I believe the language rule should be completely scrapped, and our young performers should be allowed to perform in any language they wish to. Let me tell you why.
What Are The Rules We Are Talking About?
Since its beginnings in 2003 Junior Eurovision has always had a native language rule. The exact definition has varied, but currently the rule lies that up to 40 percent of each competing entry can be performed in a different language, of which English is most used.
This opportunity to sing in English is one that few miss. This year 10 of the 12 entries featured some English lyrics, with Malta choosing to sing all of ‘Chasing Sunsets‘ in the English language. Spain and France stood out from the crowd with their use of Spanish and French respectively.
This is not unusual, last year 14 of the 19 entries included some English lyrics in their performance. A staggering stat, especially when you realise 2019 included broadcasters such as S4C and TG4 representing Wales and Ireland respectively, with their own public broadcasting goals to celebrate the native Welsh and Irish languages.
The successes of France and Spain are likely not going to be enough to stop this trend. I foresee that Junior Eurovision will likely continue down this path where the majority of songs include as much English as they can get away with. These language switches are unnatural and arbitrary, and are creating an artificial sort of bilingualism.
The Wrong Type of Bilingualism
An ever growing number of young people are gaining mastery of the English language, be it through media sources or school education, and with each passing year the level of English proficiency of the artists increases. There are also an increasing number of artists who have an international background far beyond their country’s borders. An obvious example is Viki Gabor, last year’s winner, who spent much of her education in the United Kingdom. Others include Daniel Yastremski, the Belarussian singer from 2018, born in Cincinnati, and Kazakhstan’s debutant from the same year, Danielya Tuleshova, who has not only competed around Eastern Europe and the United States but has also studied in Switzerland.
Not every child has these global backgrounds, but increasing numbers do. Linked to this is the fact that many of our young people are using Junior Eurovision as a platform for sending out a message to the world. Last year climate change was a huge theme, and this year many tracks were influence by lockdown’s around Europe and how we can all support each other. Using English only seems natural for many of our performers to send these messages out beyond their borders.
It is therefore a shame how the rules we have limit the natural desires of our young people. We now are left in a weird dystopia where most of our performances on Sunday will be unnaturally bilingual, a real oddity compared to the rest of the music industry. One of the frustrating things as listeners is that we start comparing two sections of music, and finding fault with one side or the other, when I assume in an ideal world our artists would choose one language or the other. In fact by having a rule with an upper limit on the amount of English, the language rule dangles in front of songwriters’ eyes like a tantalising carrot that should be maximised.
And don’t expect that removing the language rule will just mean a complete anglicisation of Junior Eurovision. France and Spain would likely stick to French and Spanish, and should Wales and Ireland return post-pandemic then national identity and language are highly intertwined for those broadcasters. Plus, the modern day Eurovision Song Contest has proved how large of a folly the bias towards the English language is – take a look at how tracks like ‘Soldi’ and ‘Origo’ won hearts across the continent. By a comfortable margin, the 2017 winner ‘Amor Pelois Dois’ that is the highest scoring Eurovision entry in history. Indeed I’d actually argue that without a language rule we’d also be more likely to have genuine Junior Eurovision entries solely in national language, and all the better for that.
There’s even a far more natural, beautiful and effective use of bilingualism in many of the recent successful Eurovision songs – take ‘Spirit in the Sky’ and ‘Toy’ as examples where even just the tiniest phrase from your own culture adds to the wonder and spectacle – feeling natural rather than forced. We have a recent bilingual winner too, ‘1944’, where the delectable Crimean Tatar chorus goes deeper into Jamala’s soul, in contrast to the harsh and cold English verses. These are all more impactful and genuine than the Junior Eurovision trait of flipping language halfway to fill an man-made quota.
Bilingualism can work, and putting your culture and your vocabulary into music for the Eurovision stage is a great thing that should be encouraged. But it doesn’t work by having any kind of quota on it. Music is a cultural art and the best pieces of art are those that spring up organically, rather than trying to push rules and regulations to their limit.
Kids From Around The Globe
Further up this article I pointed out that the young people that perform in Junior Eurovision are having increasingly global backgrounds, both in where they come from and their education. Stats suggest that is growing, 7 percent of children in the EU now live in a different country than their nationality.
The language rule is limiting the natural creativity and natural diversity of these artists, and there are many more. Lidia Ganeva, representing Bulgaria in 2015, sang in Bulgarian. She’s fluent in Bulgarian, but had no option to use Armenian, the language of her schooling in Plovdiv. Stefania, a member of Dutch girl group Kisses in 2016, has Greek family and is the Greek representative in the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest. If she had sang her lines in Greek the group would have crossed over the 40 % limit.
There’s also the fate that happened to Kamilla Ismailova, the Russian-born San Marinese entrant in 2015. Kamilla was not a native Italian speaker (and not even particularly fluent), but, because the rules meant it was the country’s official language had to be performed in Italian. One key argument for having a language rule at Junior Eurovision is to make it less stressful and more supportive for the artists. Here we have an example where that rule completely failed an artist, who visibly struggled with the pressure.
The worst bit about that saga was how, after the song was recorded and submitted, the EBU deemed that the song had too much English in the mix. Sadly, backing vocals were on tape, and, with not enough time to record new ones, Kamilla had to sing Italian lyrics over an English backing tape. That situation should never have happened.
A similar issue happened with Kazakhstan’s debut in 2018, with the final chorus featuring newly inserted Kazakh phrases surrounded by English on the backing vocals. We almost had a repeat performance this year, the original version of the Polish song ‘I’ll Be Standing’ weighed slightly more on the English side than Polish, and a new version had to be hastily written.
These mistakes are putting the welfare and comfort of our artists at jeopardy. Most of the songs in Junior Eurovision are now written by adults, and the children are the ones who have to bear the brunt of their mistakes. It’s an embarrassment too far, caused by composers trying to push unclear boundaries – are we for example talking 40 percent of the lyrics, or the time singing, or two-fifths of the different musical movements? These are the tedious discussions that happen when one tries to make art fit inside of boxes.
Freedom For Any Music You Want
In the past two years in the run up to Junior Eurovision I’ve been fascinated by the musical tastes of our young performers. Last year in Poland I interviewed as many as I could with just one short question. “If you could have chosen any song in the entire world to perform at Junior Eurovision, what song would you have chosen?”
The answers to that question showed some acts proud of their own culture, and their own musical stories, but nevertheless a big domination of western pop and Beyoncé as the most name dropped artist.
While we couldn’t meet on the ground in Poland again this year, I still wondered how the class of 2020 thought on this matter. The EBU had asked each participant to name what songs would be on their playlist, and a similar trend was seen. Yes that playlist had plenty of global diversity, but the English language penetrated throughout and this time Ariana Grande was the power pop superstar in pole position.
In comparison to our Junior Eurovision songs the 2020 artists have playlists a world apart. If we want to have our performers embracing their art they should have the freedom to choose what that art is. Language is a part of that. It would have been unnatural for ‘Palante‘ to have been in any other langauge than Spanish, but I’d argue ‘Vidkryvai‘, the Ukrainan entry, borrowed plenty of influence from music across the globe and could have seamlessly switched to English. And his English appears to be plenty good enough for this to be just fine.
A Global Outlook For A Global Generation
There is a key argument for a native language rule, to guarantee that the artist is singing in a language they are comfortable with. However as an increasing number of artists have global backgrounds or take global inspiration perhaps this language is their second, third or fourth. If a native language rule truly is about reducing the pressure welfare and ease of the performers on stage then our rule should be written to be about the languages the singer is fluent in – either through studying or the language they speak at home.
For those not aware, I live far away from home in the multicultural suburbs of Stockholm, where in some parts more than half of the population come from a non-Swedish background. Sweden is of course home to Melodifestivalen, the most watched TV show in the country and our national selection for the Eurovision Song Contest. Melodifestivalen has plenty of songs in English and Swedish but in recent years lyrics in Spanish, Greek, Bosnian, Sami, Arabic and others have joined in, all performed by singers who have these languages as their mother tongue and they have all been delivered authentically.
Artists and songwriters are not forced to switch language part way through the song, one can submit songs to the Swedish broadcaster SVT in whatever language they feel is appropriate, maybe even multiple versions in differnt languages. Language and its storytelling is a part of the art that SVT choose for the competition.
It would be so powerful for our next generation to feel they can sing in any language that they choose. This is a generation growing up more than ever before across borders which cultural influences spanning continental boundaries. We shouldn’t have a rule that limits individual expression, and certainly not at an EBU level.
And yes the eagle-eyed would have spotted that I even put Sami on the list above. Sami is classified as a minority language of Sweden, and Swedish is the only official language. It’s a great example of the absurdity the EBU’s language rule can create that even stifles cultural expression from within a country.
All Diversity Not Just National Diversity
Stockholm isn’t the only multicultural city in Europe where the population comes from all four corners of the planet. Around the continent more and more children speak and sing daily in multiple languages – and the EBU shouldn’t be encouraging that expression not limiting it. After all Junior Eurovision should be a place to celebrate all diversity, not just national diversity.
Sure, broadcasters may want to sing in certain languages, and they have that right to do so – but the rules of Junior Eurovision are creating an unnatural bubble of music resulting in awkward and non emotive language switches mid-song, and limiting this ever more global generation from performing in the languages they are most comfortable with.
There is a fear that, if the rulebook on languages is ripped-up, that we will see a huge swing to artists singing English who don’t really understand what they are singing. I don’t see that happening. The victory of France is a victory for a genuine performance, one that translates over any language. We may get more English in Junior Eurovision without a language rule, but will also get more Valentinas who are at one with their art.