‘American Song Contest’ puts a stateside spin on Eurovision
By Elisabeth Vincentelli
Hosted by Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg, the eight-week reality competition “American Song Contest,” which premiered this week on NBC, is totally new.
Its format, however, will be familiar to millions of people across the Atlantic: The show emulates the Eurovision Song Contest, in which countries duke it out in a singing battle for pop supremacy. Eurovision catapulted ABBA’s career in 1974, and the most recent winner, Italian glam-rock band Maneskin, has gone on to achieve global fame, appearing in January as a musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.”
The American version will largely follow the Eurovision template, including the live broadcasts. “We are very literal,” executive producer Ben Silverman, who helped translate “The Office” into American and pursued the Eurovision rights for years, said last week by phone.
Fine, but that does not help NBC viewers much since Americans are largely unaware of Eurovision’s intricacies. The headline? “American Song Contest” is not “American Idol” or “The Voice.” It is, in many ways, more layered than those shows — and more combustible: a state-versus-state, stars-versus-hopefuls showdown in which group and solo artists compete for the title of Best Original Song.
So those are the basics. But in this time of Red State/Blue State polarization, can America handle Jewel (Alaska) squaring off against Michael Bolton (Connecticut)? Sisqó (Maryland) against … Jake’O (Wisconsin)? Let’s dive into the fun stuff.
Where are the contestants from?
With 56 entries encompassing 50 states plus five territories and the District of Columbia, “American Song Contest” has even more contestants than Eurovision, whose 2022 edition, in May, will feature 40 countries ranging from tiny San Marino (population around 34,000) to the much larger Germany (83 million). The scope is similar here: Sabyu, from the Northern Mariana Islands (pop. 47,000), will rub elbows with Sweet Taboo, representing California (nearly 40 million people).
Whereas each European country independently selects its entry, the American show’s team relied on a network of music-industry insiders. “We went through the professional community to spread the news; we spent a lot of time having conversations, making sure people really understood what this was,” executive producer and showrunner Audrey Morrissey (a veteran of “The Voice”) said by phone. “We had a big submission process that lasted for months, with several rounds of review.”
Will I know any of the songs?
No, because they have to be new. Contestants don’t have to write their own material, though — this is not a singer-songwriter contest.
A key criterion is that the songs cannot be longer than 2 minutes, 45 seconds, which is shorter than Eurovision’s three minutes. “It’s right to the point, pow!” said Christer Björkman, one of four Swedish Eurovision experts brought in as executive producers and a former Eurovision competitor, from 1992. “The contestants really need to nail it from the beginning with energy and everything.”
Wait, what are Jewel and Michael Bolton doing there?
“All those people wanted to be on the show,” Silverman said of the American celebrities. “They wanted to represent their state. And they earned it with their songs,” he added, pointing out that it will be fun to watch famous people go head-to-head with up-and-comers such as Brooklyn singer-songwriter Enisa, who represents New York. Once again, this is true to the Eurovision format.
Celebrities and hopefuls alike must have a strong connection to their state or territory. Bolton, for example, was born and has spent most of his life in Connecticut; Jewel grew up in famously tough conditions in Alaska. And if Oklahoma is represented by a K-pop singer, AleXa, well, that’s because she is from there.
“It is different to say, ‘I’m not here to get a record contract or become a star — I’m here to represent my home, and I’m proud to do that,’” Anders Lenhoff, another member of the Swedish special-ops executive producing team, said in a joint video interview with Björkman. “We see it in Eurovision all the time, but there are no shows like that in the U.S.”
How does the elimination process work?
The first five episodes, referred to as “qualifiers,” introduce 11 of the songs per show (one busy week will have 12). Through those early rounds, the 56 entries will be progressively winnowed down to 22, which are then split into two semifinals of 11 each. Another vote sends five performers from each semi to the grand finale, on May 9.
Viewers will be invited to vote, and the results will be balanced against the votes of a 56-person jury representing all the participating constituencies. Jurors are not permitted to vote for their own states or territories.
Do bigger states have an advantage?
“The great thing about this format,” Morrissey said, “which we remained faithful to from Eurovision, is that there is no advantage for an artist and a song coming from a more populous state.” Eliminations are made based on a complex points system in which, according to NBC, “every state and territory votes with equal power, regardless of population.”
Anyway, as Morrissey noted, “There might be more people voting that know people from Texas than they do Guam, but they haven’t heard that song from Guam yet — it might steal their hearts.”
The history of Eurovision — for which, admittedly, the voting rules have changed many times over the years — tends to confirm that the votes seem relatively fair: Ireland has won the contest a record seven times, while France, with roughly 13 times Ireland’s population, has only five wins.
Which is to say: Don’t yet rule out Wyoming.
Will there be outlandish contestants?
Eurovision is famous for some, er, eccentric entries — this year’s competition will include such numbers as “Give That Wolf a Banana” and “Eat Your Salad,” which live up to their titles. It is natural to wonder whether “American Song Contest” will honor that tradition as well. “We have the diversity of America and the diversity of American music represented,” Silverman said. “One person’s cliche is another person’s truth. Some of them are self-aware; some of them aren’t.”
We’ll take that as a yes.