In ‘American Song Contest,’ It’s About the Songs, Not Just the Lungs

LOS ANGELES — Backstage at a live broadcast of NBC’s “American Song Contest” last week, the crooner Michael Bolton looked relaxed as ever. He was well aware, though, that he was the odd contestant out.

“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-racking 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 United States — 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 on 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 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.

“In some ways it’s harder for the more established artists,” said Audrey Morrissey, an executive producer of “ASC” 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. The 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, from Texas, said. “I feel like the whole show just brings states and everyone together even more.”

In rehearsals, I watched the rootsy Chloe Fredericks (North Dakota), the conceptual-pop princess Stela Cole (Georgia) and the EDM-friendly Broderick Jones (Kansas) groove along to the lilting, island-flavored ballad “Full Circle” by Tenelle (American Samoa), then clap enthusiastically. The Latina girl group Sweet Taboo (California) and the dance-R&B diva Enisa (New York) laughed off my wheedling about their place in any costal 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 the final Monday night.)

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Some eliminations have been unexpected, to say the least. (Cuts are determined by a points system that combines audience and jury votes to balance the advantage of bigger states.) The charismatic cowboy rapper Ryan Charles (Wyoming), whose song “New Boot Goofin’” was an early favorite of Snoop’s and proved extremely TikTok-able, did not make it past the semifinal. And I was personally disappointed when John Morgan (North Carolina) and his Taylor Swift-like ballad “Right in the Middle” didn’t make the cut.

But such are the realities of competition, and all the contestants received notes from the creative staff after rehearsal to help them improve their chances. “Charm is all,” said Christer Bjorkman, one of several Swedish executive producers, all of whom have connections to Eurovision. He and Tenelle were in a windowless viewing room, scrutinizing the third run-through of “Full Circle,” which involved a not-negligible amount of pyrotechnics.

“It’s all about contact,” Bjorkman he told her. It was about connecting with the camera and, thus, the audience.

For Allen Stone (Washington), producers suggested that he tone things down for his blue-eyed soul entry, “A Bit of Both.” “I was trying to put some extra mustard on my vocal,” he said, only to be told, “It’s a really good song; don’t over-sing’” — advice possibly never uttered in the history of “American Idol” or “The Voice.”

Whatever Stone did worked; his performance his on April 25 put him through to the 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 song craft 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, though 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, “ASC” 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 .

Two people who did not need convincing were the “ASC” hosts, who have decades of combined songwriting experience: Clarkson, who catapulted to fame after winning the first “American Idol” in 2002, has even blurted out, “I want to do this one!” after some numbers.

“I didn’t realize how amazing those songs were going to be,” she said while getting made up for the live broadcast. “You have these beautiful ballads from Hueston or Michael,” she added, referring to the mononymic artist from Rhode Island and to Bolton. “And you have these fast ones like AleXa — from fricking Oklahoma!”

Finding viable contestants from some states wasn’t easy, but the search turned up some gems. Fredericks, of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, was spotted playing in Hollywood by some scouts. They were happy to learn she was from North Dakota.

“They said ‘Well, we don’t have anybody from there,’” Fredericks, 24, said with a booming laugh that may help explain why she seemed to be all of the other contestants’ new best friend.

“I was very surprised that I went through the first round because I’m a small artist and some of us here have bigger followings,” she added. She did that and more: On Monday, she’ll be in the finals.

Whatever the show’s chances for a Season 2, the concept of “ASC” 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,” he added. “I don’t have no dog in this fight.”

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