Idol Worship

'Dead Man Writing': The Real Story Behind the 'American Idol' Hit Factory (Guest Column)

Sam Hollander
Ozone Entertainment

Sam Hollander

When American Idol premiered in the summer of ’02, I was one of the 9.5 million folks who immediately got hooked. Kelly vs. Justin; Ruben vs. Clay; Carrie vs. Bo; Fantasia vs. Gershwin. For the first five seasons, I watched it with the same mystified enthusiasm as Survivor on CBS. This musical pageantry seemed light-years away from my day job writing and producing slightly left-field-leaning pop punk songs with kooky band kids. I was just a snarky superfan spectating from 2,797 miles away in New York.

One day, during the finale week of season 6, two of my songs snuck their way into the pop radio consciousness and my personal Idol odyssey took shape. In a surreal 24 hours, I received requests from the show’s production company 19 Entertainment to head west to discuss collaborating with the show winners. This was Fellini-level crazy. I had spent the first five seasons watching the show from the cheap seats, me and my color commentary blissfully afar. Now, with next to no knowledge of the world of televised singing competitions, I was being actively courted for the fun. I was all in.

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I quickly learned that the American Idol record-making process was madness -- a panicked time crunch that kicked in the second the confetti was swept up and the cameras went black. The victor and runner-up were immediately shuttled around Hollywood to collaborate with hitmakers from that specific chart year in a three-week speed-dating round of musical mayhem. The immediate goal was a handful of songs that would set the template for the musical direction of the finalist’s forthcoming debut record. Then, the singers would begin intensive tour rehearsals, followed by a 50-date, summer-long, cross-country jaunt. At this point, with the artist’s exhaustion level nearing hospital status, they were jettisoned back west immediately after the tour wrapped and were forced to track the rest of their entire albums within a solid six-week window. The records in question usually dropped around Black Friday while the cast was still fresh in the public’s appetite. In the early years, they shipped gold. For the hungry writer, this was that next-level mortgage shit. This meant utter chaos. Every writer in the mix was whipped into a state of paranoid frenzy as we battled each other and the gruesome clock. What a competitive mindf---.

I was first thrown into this raging fire with season 6’s quirky runner-up Blake Lewis. Blake was awesome. Totally my kind of weird. He wanted to make a U.K. drum-n-bass record. The label wanted him to make a Justin Timberlake record. You know how this movie ends. We wrote three songs together, and to my surprise, two of them actually made the CD. I couldn't believe my luck! Even more exciting news followed. One was slated to be the second single! Damn, this dash seemed so easy. Nope. Sadly, I tore a hamstring before my victory lap when I learned that if the first single didn’t explode on Idol, there would be no follow-up. Blake’s first single didn’t make it to the podium. It didn’t deter me though. I was excited to toss more proverbial needles into these potentially fleeting haystacks. I had my head held high and a freshly gifted Sanjaya Malakar T-shirt. Dorothy was no longer in Kansas.

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As season 7 wrapped, I remained on the radio, so I received the same frantic calls again. This time, I was paired with the funny and earnest David Cook. The label thought he was the next Daughtry. He wanted to be the next Our Lady Peace. Uh-oh. We spent six impassioned hours together. Wrote a pretty solid uptempo. The label told us that we had a “huge hit on our hands.” As they say in football, never spike the ball before the end zone. It's always an omen. When I checked my inbox a few days later, one of my peers had forwarded me an email sent wide from the record label to the rest of the prospective writers with my track attached as a "template.” That was the moment I learned another valuable Idol lesson: Never deliver a song prematurely. Timing was everything. Within days, many similar, stronger numbers were written by my peers. Our once “hit” ended up buried at the bottom of Cook’s debut as the Target bonus track. Game over.

But I wasn't done. Season 8, I spent a brief afternoon with the sweet and slightly disinterested Kris Allen. The label directive was to drum up something in the vein of the band The Script. As these things happen, his single ended up being an unreleased Script track. Our song was closer to “The Suck” anyway. Needless to say, it also died on the vine. Speaking of sucking, the powers that be also set me up on a 20-minute telephone introductory meeting with a fiery Kelly Clarkson, who told me under the most specific of terms that she “did NOT want another ‘Since U Been Gone.’” Three months later, her single “My Life Would Suck Without You" was released: co-written by Max Martin and Dr. Luke of “Since U Been Gone” fame, which obviously featured similarities to the former. I was beginning to feel like I was stuck in a fish-out-of-water comedy, but I reminded myself, as the Scottish actor Peter Capaldi put it, that “a little showbiz never hurt anyone.” Soon after, Adam Lambert was strong-armed into recording one of my pitch songs that I was quite excited about. Yes! Unfortunately, upon listening to the final mix, everyone on Team Adam agreed that his vocal performance was a dreadful fit for the song, and that dream died as well.

Looking back, this was that broken moment when I was officially sucked out of Idol world. That dark day my cell number was entered into the Idol do-not-disturb registry. I received zero winner calls for seasons 9, 10 or 11. Sure, I shared three hours with the talented-yet-weary third-placer Haley Reinhart, which resulted in yet another tune for the scrap heap, but that was just a token. Can’t forget to mention season 9’s Crystal Bowersox, who sang a duet on a Blues Traveler record I produced. Why didn’t this mean anything to these damn people?! Season 12? The crickets continued. There would be no Lee DeWyze. No Scotty McCreery. No Candice Glover. No Phillip Phillips. As far as the Idol powers were concerned, I was officially Dead Man Writing. But wait! Shouldn’t I have received a stay of execution in the Kingdom of Cowell? I mean, I did write the first single on the Boy Wonder David Archuleta’s long-awaited follow-up! Sadly, it was only a smash in the Philippines. Oh, and lest we forget, I produced season 3’s own Jennifer Hudson and season 5’s Katharine McPhee, who both crooned covers for NBC’s Smash, but we all know how that ended as well.

Then it happened.

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I wrote a Daughtry hit. The holy grail. Finally, my one shining light of Idol glory. Officially exiting pariah status, this success resulted in a hectic eleventh-hour plea for me to write with season 13 winner Caleb Johnson. I hopped in the car and raced over to the Venice Beach studio. I liked Caleb. He was a wide-eyed enthusiastic kid. I dug his soulful rock thing, but I was even more thrilled to have another shot at reversing my dubious Idol legacy. But something inexplicable happened between the small talk that preceded the session and the song itself. I had nothing left. I spit some of my hackiest lyrics to date and we parted ways with a tune that was, of all things, depressingly, soulless. I beat myself up the entire weekend that followed, as I wondered if all these Idol exercises in futility had finally taken their creative toll. A month later, the Batphone rang: Our song was chosen to be Caleb Johnson’s first single. This would be my only Idol champion first single. I couldn’t believe my shitty luck, or Caleb’s, for that matter. He deserved better. I was gutted. I knew nothing good would follow. I was correct. Sadly, if you Google it, you’ll probably find that it was the fastest-disappearing single in the Idol era. In the early years, a song like this wouldn’t cut the mustard as a Taylor Hicks Japanese B-side. By season 13, it was the Hail Mary. Why, you ask? Because for all intents and purposes, the show was over. The Voice had stolen the proverbial thunder and the industry had moved on. And so had I.

As I type this two years later, I doubt that I’ll be receiving any tickets in the mail to the finale. Sure, my fragile ego secretly hoped that I might make the guest-list cut on Mr. Congeniality points alone, but alas. No sour grapes though. I think it’s significantly more fitting that I view the swan song from the very same couch where it all began anyway. So as I bid farewell to the bizarre-est of roller coasters, where even the humbling lows were transcendent, everything feels weirdly perfect. For a brief, shining moment in time, this American footnote was an outsider crashing Fox’s Camelot, and trust me, it was pretty f’n awesome.

Sam Hollander has written 13 songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, working with acts including One Direction, Train, Daughtry, Fitz and the Tantrums, Katy Perry, Panic! at the Disco, The Fray, Carole King, Neon Trees and Gym Class Heroes, among others. Recently, Hollander has been developing artists like Boys Like Girls, Cash Cash, Bebe Rexha, Cassadee Pope and We the Kings. He is currently credited on the new Fitz and the Tantrums single “Hand Clap” and wrote on the newest Daughtry and Karmin singles (“Waiting for Superman” and “Acapella,” respectively).