Adam Levine might have peaced-out of The Voice after 16 seasons, but that doesn’t mean he’s done raking in cash from the small screen just yet. Tuesday (May 18) night saw the premiere of Songland, a spanking new NBC series executive-produced by such music industry vets as Levine and Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics).
Unlike The Voice and American Idol, Songland aims to shine the spotlight on budding songwriters, who compete each week for the chance to have a different pop luminary record the song they present to a panel of hit-making producers. (And since we’re all just trucking along in a lightning fast world, said song is already recorded and slapped on iTunes by the time the episode winds to a close.) Also unlike The Voice and Idol, no indication is given that there’ll be any bigger, season-long competition component, which means it’s unclear if we’ll see this week’s winner on the show again after this episode wraps.
On this first episode, EGOT winner John Legend is hoping to hear his next smash-a-roo, while seated next to recent Grammy winner Shane McAnally (Kasey Musgraves, Sam Hunt), “Firework” and “Super Bass” writer Ester Dean, and Ryan Tedder, the OneRepublic songwriter/producer currently riding the airwaves with his Jonas Brothers composition “Sucker.” They’re all presented with with a succession of four aspiring songwriters who belt out their individual offerings, backed by the Songland house band, in the hopes of hooking Legend’s ear. When and how did producers find these hopeful wordsmiths? It’s never really explained, and so we just roll with it.
At a quick pace, we meet: Max Embers, a German who comes in packing his whimsical mid-tempo pop number “Back Home”; Tebby Burrows, who hails from the Bahamas by way of Miami, and lights up the room with her inspiring, island-influenced cut “We Need Love”; Sam James, a gent from Nashville who unsurprisingly has a pretty solid country tune, “Shinedown,” up for grabs; and Louisiana crooner Ollie Gabriel, an old soul with an 1960s-influenced R&B ballad called “Something New.”
What proceeds to happen after each song is laid out in front of the panel is Legend, McAnally, Dean and Tedder jumping in and seemingly one-upping each other — and, at times, talking over each other — with how they would rearrange the melody, rewrite certain lines in the chorus, and/or change the pacing altogether. It’s cat-nip fodder for pop nerds, perhaps, but questionable content of interest, one would think, for the average television viewer.
Before bells and whistles can be added to each tune, John has his first decision to make. He’s got four songwriters to choose from, but only three sitting producers to pair them up with. And since John Legend isn’t even a little bit country, it’s sayonara to Sam James.
From there, Shane and Tebby hit the studio to rework the latter’s bright and slightly-preachy “We Need Love” into a stunning acoustic ballad. The song is unrecognizable once Tebby presents it once more to John, but it’s all the more radio-friendly for the made changes. My first thought upon this one listen: I would play the hell out of this.
Meanwhile, Ryan slices and dices Max’s “Back Home” by switching the title to “Lookin’ Up” and speeding the tempo so as to stand out more, as their competition consists of two ballads. It’s a risky move. The resulting track sounds like a straight-up pop hit, but John Legend isn’t a straight-up pop kinda guy. Maybe stick that one in the hopper for OneRepublic, Ryan.
Ollie’s “Something New” came in the door already sounding like a John Legend-ready track, so Ester doesn’t do too much in the way of rearrangement in the studio. Honestly, this seems like the obvious choice. But when has any reality competition series worth its salt done the obvious?
John ultimately decides to pick the song that’s made “the biggest journey from where it was to where it is now.” That means Tebby’s “We Need Love” is the first night’s winner.
And just like magic, as the end credits begin to roll, “We Need Love” is up for grabs on iTunes. Bravo for instant gratification, Songland.