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Superficial doesn't cut it for teenagers

Is it true that teenagers right across Europe are superficial and self-centred? Do they crave instant fame while not wanting to lift a finger to work for it? In young people's eyes, it is said, being pretty and popular count for more than being clever and hardworking.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a chance to gauge whether that endless gripe is justified. In an era when Eurovision is no longer dictated by a jury of ageing television executives and scouts looking for the next Abba, but by the popular votes of text-messaging teens, Eurovision more than ever reflects something of the youth Zeitgeist.

Grannies may love the show but they don't text-message much. Artistes, and those who groom them, believe they have to conform to "youth values" to get votes in the earlier heats. Hence long bare legs were the hallmark of this year's contest, just as bare midriffs were last year's, and 16-year-old singers before that. Still, there are brave exceptions.

Bottoms gyrating in the teeniest of hotpants, or monsters with red eyes, broken veins and a blood-spurting chainsaw? Young Europeans were invited to choose, and they did. Finland's dare-to-be-different monster rock band Lordi carried off the Eurovision trophy this year by not conforming to the typical bubblegum pop fare.

Under layers of latex, and waving five-inch black fingernails, Lordi howled and growled their way to victory with "Hard Rock Hallelujah".

"Would you love a monsterman? Could you understand the beauty of the beast?" run the lyrics of one of the group's pre-Eurovision hits. That was the real challenge for the voting teens.

Thousands of miles away, Indian Idol, the Indian version of Pop Idol, also held its finale, having held qualifying heats in many Indian states. And we discover that teens in Asia are not all that different from those in Europe.

Thousands of pretty, sexy hopefuls with decent voices were trumped by Sandeep Acharya, for much the same reason that Lordi won Eurovision.

Sandeep came from a small town in Rajasthan, and just seemed more natural and true to himself than the sophisticated, Bollywood-apeing, big city hopefuls. Young voters saw the difference and voted accordingly.

Far from being hung up on beauty, sexuality and being popular among peers, as marketing wonks like to presume, vote-wielding teens are looking for the outsider trying to get in. A huge European Values Survey a year or so ago found that if there is one thing that unites Europe's youth it is the desire to include outsiders. They stand up for the underdog. The World Values Survey, which builds on it, revealed a similar desire among Asian youth.

Lordi is a group of out-of-town boys from far-off Lapland, in the Arctic circle. Sandeep came from Bikaner, at the edge of the sand dunes of the Thar desert. And the voters liked them better for it. Dr Judith Gibbon, co-author of a just-published international study of youth role models, says that while appearances matter, particularly in the richer, media-driven countries, young people do look beyond the obvious.

"Girls say they like Madonna, but because she is a good businesswoman," she says.

For her book, The Thoughts of Youth, Dr Gibbon researched role models in 20 countries across four continents and found remarkable similarities. Young people are more discerning than they are given credit for. They admire hard work. They recognise the effort involved in going that little bit further, and they applaud it. They like celebrities who are kind and do good deeds.

The brash and the flash may attract attention but not lasting admiration.

Finnish commentators moaned that young Finns were just being rebellious choosing Lordi to represent them at Eurovision. But for all the monster get-up, youngsters felt the members of Lordi were being themselves, and endearingly so. When asked by journalists if they would ever take their masks off, the deadpan response from lead singer Tomi Putaansuu was: "What masks?"

Lordi has another advantage: their looks won't fade with time. To appreciate them, you have to understand the beauty of the beast, just as Eurovision's young voters do.

Yojana Sharma is a journalist

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