In ‘American Song Contest,’ it’s about the songs, not just the lungs

Musicians for Tenelle, who represents American Samoa, during a dress rehearsal for American Song Contest, at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, on May 2, 2022. (Photos: NYTimes)
LOS ANGELES, United States — Backstage at a live broadcast of NBC’s “American Song Contest” last week, crooner Michael Bolton looked relaxed as ever. He was well aware, though, that he was the odd contestant out.اضافة اعلان

“I’ve been asked, ‘Why would you get involved with a show like this?’” he said after performing his inspirational ballad “Beautiful World” in the second semifinal. “And my first answer is my instinct, which is that my love for writing music is such an indelible, permanent love and passion of mine that it makes perfect sense.”

“It’s a little nerve-wracking at times,” he added. “I’m definitely not the youngest person in the room.”

Bolton is 69, if anybody’s counting, and he did make it to the final round of this reality competition series, in which representatives from each of the 50 US — as well as five US territories and the District of Columbia — have competed every Monday night since March 21. (Bolton represents Connecticut.) Inspired by the Eurovision Song Contest and hosted by Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg, the show pits stars against hopefuls for the title of Best Original Song.

When Bolton goes up against the other nine finalists Monday night, most of the competition will be less than half his age, including: Grant Knoche, a 19-year old Texan who toured with Kidz Bop; Jordan Smith, who won the 2015 edition of “The Voice” at 22; and AleXa, 25, who was born and raised in Oklahoma but moved to Seoul, South Korea, to pursue a career in K-pop.

In many circumstances, Bolton’s experience and star power might confer an automatic advantage. Just don’t tell that to Jewel (Alaska), Macy Gray (Ohio) and Sisqó (Maryland), all of whom were eliminated in earlier rounds.

Audience members wave glow stick during a taping for American Song Contest, at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, on May 2, 2022.

“In some ways, it’s harder for the more established artists,” said Audrey Morrissey, an executive producer of “American Song Contest” and “The Voice.” “They’re not on competition shows like this. There’s more at stake for them than for someone that no one knows.”

Still, it’s not easy for a young artist to perform for millions of viewers with so much riding on the outcome. Perhaps the question that counts most heading into the final is simply: Who has the best song?

Amid rehearsals for the May 2 semifinal, and backstage during the broadcast, several contestants talked about their appreciation for the show’s emphasis on original material. Tennessee-based singer-songwriter Tyler Braden had considered trying out for another TV singing competition earlier in his career, but he ultimately decided against it.

Now he is among the finalists, announced Wednesday, with a song he wrote called “Seventeen.” (The majority of contestants had at least a hand in writing their own songs.)

“I’ve always believed that the song is No. 1,” Braden, 33, said in his dressing room before the broadcast, wearing jeans and a ball cap. “You can look the part, and your shows can be amazing, but it comes down to the song, and the lyrics and the melody, the feel — and this contest is all about that.”

Given all the talk of American polarization in 2022, I was curious whether any interstate tensions would be palpable off-camera. But everybody I observed appeared genuinely to get along. The word “camaraderie” popped up in every conversation.

“I’ve made so many great friends out of this, lifelong friends,” Knoche said. “I feel like the whole show just brings states and everyone together even more.”

In rehearsals, I watched rootsy Chloe Fredericks (North Dakota), conceptual-pop princess Stela Cole (Georgia) and EDM-friendly Broderick Jones (Kansas) groove along to the lilting, island-flavored ballad “Full Circle” by Tenelle (American Samoa), then clap enthusiastically. Latina girl group Sweet Taboo (California) and dance-R&B diva Enisa (New York) laughed off my wheedling about their place in any coastal rivalry (made moot when neither made it to the final).

Considering several of the contestants were making their live-television debut, most appeared almost freakishly calm. The most vocal behind the scenes was Tenelle, all revved up after rehearsal. “I don’t want this to be over,” she said. “But I want to win this mother!”

Exuberance seemed to be Tenelle’s factory setting but still: She knew she had to kill it on the actual broadcast. (And she did — she’ll be in Monday's final.)

Despite the good songs and high production values, the show’s ratings have been underwhelming. I asked Morrissey why she thought they weren’t better.

“I know that everybody’s disappointed,” she said, visibly wincing under her mask. “But it is a big, new brand. It is a very different sort of mechanism — there isn’t another show where performance happens and there isn’t a critique right after.” No evisceration from Simon Cowell. No bromantic hugs from Adam Levine.

The emphasis on songcraft may have added to the growing pains. “That has been a big question for us this whole time: If someone makes it to the final, they’re going to perform the same song the same way three times,” Morrissey said. “Is our American audience going to get that?”

European viewers certainly have, although it wouldn’t be the first time trans-Atlantic tastes differed. Since 1956, Eurovision, in which artists from different countries compete, has been an institution, making international stars out of acts like ABBA (Sweden, 1974), and Maneskin (Italy, 2021). Given the uncertainty, “American Song Contest” producers “made a very purposeful decision to come out of the gate with big performances,” Morrissey said, referring to the show’s lavish production — very much in the Eurovision tradition, though still nowhere near that contest’s camp excesses.

Whatever the show’s chances for a Season 2, the concept of “American Song Contest” seems to have pleased the hosts, who volunteered separately that they loved being free just to cheerlead.

“That’s the beauty — that I don’t have to be the judge, that I don’t have to put my decision-making on who moves on,” Snoop said during a commercial break. “I can be open and just enjoy the performances. I don’t have no dog in this fight.”

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