LOS ANGELES — Backstage at a live broadcast of NBC’s “American Song Contest” last week, crooner Michael Bolton looked relaxed as ever. However, he was well aware that he was the odd one out.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Why would you be on a show like this?'” he said after performing his inspirational ballad “Beautiful World” in the second semifinal. “And my first response 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 unnerving at times,” he added. “I’m definitely not the youngest in the room.”
Bolton is 69, if anyone’s counting, and he’s made it to the final round of this reality competition series, in which representatives from each of the 50 United States — as well as five U.S. 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 takes on those hoping for the title of Best Original Song.
When Bolton takes on 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 age 22; and AleXa, 25, 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 can provide an automatic advantage. Don’t tell that to Jewel (Alaska), Macy Gray (Ohio) and Sisqó (Maryland), who have all been knocked out in previous rounds.
“In some ways it’s harder for the more established artists,” said Audrey Morrissey, an executive producer of “ASC” and “The Voice.” “They are not on competition shows like this. There is more at stake for them than for someone nobody knows.”
Still, it’s not easy for a young artist to perform in front of millions of viewers with so much on the result. Perhaps the question that matters most on the way to the final is simply: who has the best number?
During rehearsals for the May 2 semifinal and backstage during the broadcast, several participants expressed appreciation for the show’s emphasis on original material. Tennessee-based singer-songwriter Tyler Braden had considered entering another TV singing competition earlier in his career, but ultimately decided against it.
Now he’s one of the finalists, it was announced Wednesday, with a song he wrote called “Seventeen.” (The majority of participants had at least a hand writing their own songs.)
“I’ve always believed it’s number 1,” said Braden, 33, in his dressing room before the broadcast, wearing jeans and a ball cap. “You can look good, and your shows can be great, but it comes down to the song, and the lyrics and the melody, the feel — and this competition is all about that.”
Given all the talk of US polarization in 2022, I was curious to see if any tensions between states would be felt off-camera. But everyone I observed seemed genuinely to get along. The word “comradeship” popped up in every conversation.
“I’ve made so many good friends out of this, friends for life,” said Knoche of Texas. “I feel like the whole show brings states and everyone together even more.”
During rehearsals, I saw rootsy Chloe Fredericks (North Dakota), conceptual pop princess Stela Cole (Georgia) and EDM-friendly Broderick Jones (Kansas) sing along to Tenelle’s lilting island-flavored ballad “Full Circle” (American Samoa), then clap enthusiastically. Latin girl group Sweet Taboo (California) and dance R&B diva Enisa (New York) laughed at my nagging about their place in a coastal rivalry (which was called into question when neither made it to the final).
As some of the contestants made their live television debuts, most seemed almost bizarrely calm. The loudest behind the scenes was Tenelle, all cheerful 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 default, but still: She knew she had to kill it on the actual broadcast. (And she did; she’s in the finals Monday night.)
Some of the eliminations were unexpected to say the least. (The cuts are determined by a points system that combines public and jury votes to balance the advantage of larger states.) Charismatic cowboy rapper Ryan Charles (Wyoming), whose song “New Boot Goofin'” is an early was Snoop’s favorite and proved extremely TikTok-able, didn’t make it past the semi-finals. And I was personally disappointed when John Morgan (North Carolina) and his Taylor Swift-esque ballad “Right in the Middle” didn’t make it.
But that’s the reality of competition, and all participants received notes from the creative staff after rehearsal to help them improve their chances. “Everything is charm,” says Christer Bjorkman, one of the Swedish executive producers, all of whom have connections to Eurovision. He and Tenelle were in a windowless viewing room, watching the third pass of “Full Circle,” which involved a non-negligible amount of fireworks.
“It’s all about contact,” he told Bjorkman. It was about connecting with the camera and therefore with the audience.
For Allen Stone (Washington), producers suggested he slow down for his blue-eyed soul entry, “A Bit of Both”. “I tried to put some extra mustard on my voice,” he said, but was told, “It’s a really good song; don’t sing too much” — advice that may have never been uttered in the history of “American Idol.” ” or “The Voice”.
Whatever Stone did, it worked; his performance on April 25 got him through to the final.
Despite the good songs and high production values, the show’s ratings were disappointing. I asked Morrissey why she thought they weren’t better.
“I know everyone is disappointed,” she said, visibly shivering under her mask. “But it’s a big, new brand. It’s a very different kind of mechanism – there’s no other show where the performance takes place and there’s no critique right after.” No Simon Cowell guts. No Adam Levine bromanced hugs.
The emphasis on singing may have contributed to the growing pains. “That’s been a big question for us all along: if someone makes it to the final, they’re going to play the same song the same way three times,” Morrissey said. “Will our American public understand that?”
European viewers certainly have, though it wouldn’t be the first time transatlantic tastes have differed. Since 1956, Eurovision, in which artists from different countries compete, has been an institution that makes international stars of acts such as ABBA (Sweden, 1974) and Maneskin (Italy, 2021). Given the uncertainty, “ASC” producers have “made a very deliberate decision to come out of the gate with big gigs,” Morrissey said, referring to the show’s lavish production — very much in the Eurovision tradition, though far from it. near the camp outrages of that match .
Two people who didn’t need to be convinced were the “ASC” hosts, who have decades of combined songwriting experience: Clarkson, who rose to fame after winning the first “American Idol” in 2002, even exclaimed, “I want do this one!” after a few digits.
“I didn’t realize how amazing those songs would be,” she said as she prepared for the live broadcast. “You’ve got these wonderful ballads from Hueston or Michael,” she added, referring to the mononymous Rhode Island artist and Bolton. “And you have this fast one like AleXa – from Oklahoma!”
Finding viable participants from some states wasn’t easy, but the search turned up some gems. Fredericks, of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, was spotted by some scouts in Hollywood. They were happy to hear that she was from North Dakota.
“They said, ‘Well, we don’t have anyone there,'” said Fredericks, 24, with a booming laugh that may explain why she seemed to be everyone else’s new best friend.
“I was really surprised to get through the first round because I’m a small performer and some of us have bigger following here,” she added. She did that and more: Monday she’s in the finals.
Whatever the show’s chances are for a season 2, the concept of “ASC” seems to have pleased the hosts, who separately stated that they loved being free to just cheerlead.
“That’s the beauty of it: that I don’t have to be the judge, that I don’t have to decide who goes next,” Snoop said during a commercial break. “I can be open and just enjoy the performances,” he added. “I don’t have a dog in this fight.”