The Week In Pop

Songland Is The Voice For Music Nerds

Here is the genius of Songland: It’s every music reality show you’ve ever seen, but it’s also every makeover show you’ve ever seen. Like the best minds in the songwriting industry it spotlights, the NBC series — airing Tuesdays at 10PM ET — has managed to distill lots of familiar ingredients into something fresh. There’s no guarantee you’ll love any of the music you encounter on the show, but if you’ve ever wanted to peek behind the curtain of the mainstream machine, you will probably be entertained in a different way.

Songland’s premise is simple. Instead of searching for great performers like so many shows before it, the series is on the hunt for great songwriters. In practice, it’s a nuanced remix of familiar beats. There are some of the same foundational elements that have been endlessly recycled since American Idol, including brief talking-head biographical segments to introduce our contestants and friendly banter between the panel of experts who offer them feedback. Taking a page from The Voice, each panelist eventually pairs up with one of the songwriters to edit their rough draft into a final product. The contestants then return to perform a revised version of their song, and it’s like that moment in every makeover series when we behold the new and improved person/car/home/whatever.

In contrast to Bravo’s short-lived 2011 songwriter competition Platinum Hit starring Jewel and Idol’s Kara DioGuardi — which made its contestants complete various tasks a la other Bravo series like Top Chef and Project Runway — each episode of Songland finds a new crop of songwriters attempting to sell their tune to a different pop star, who joins the panel to critique the music and ultimately chooses one song to release. Because Songland’s first season has already been filmed, at the end of the episode the artist’s version of the winning song is instantly available to be purchased and streamed. Or at least that’s how it worked on Tuesday’s series premiere, when John Legend ended the episode by unveiling his version of “We Need Love” by Bahaman-born Miami marketing professional Tebby Burrows.

Hearing some anonymous songwriter’s work transformed into a famous artist’s big-budget single functions as the bow on a neat little package that, if you’re put off by the hokey artificiality of most reality shows, will likely strike you as a little too neat. Both the show and its songs remain faithful to that high-fructose, hyper-positive aesthetic native to most musical reality competitions — that sentimental filter that turns every story into a feel-good story. To help ensure this lite, gooey vibe, Songland’s array of pop stars errs on the adult contemporary side, with names including Jonas Brothers, Meghan Trainor, Macklemore, Aloe Blacc, and Kelsea Ballerini. Probably the least self-aware moment in the premiere was when Legend instructed a contestant to give their overly cheery song some edge.

What makes all the Hallmark fluff tolerable is the ample discussion of musical nuts and bolts. The panel comprises three established pros, all of whom get to demonstrate their well-honed intuition. The apparent alpha dog is OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, who has worked with just about every big name in pop including Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Adele, Ed Sheeran, and Ariana Grande. Rounding out the team are Ester Dean, who cowrote Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” and plentiful Rihanna hits, and Shane McAnally, a country specialist with credits all over the Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt discographies. These people understand the subtleties that can elevate a song from good to great — or in some cases, from mediocre to half-decent — and on Songland they get to show off that expertise.

I have never been a fan of Tedder’s band, much to his chagrin, but that has more to do with aesthetic preferences than his songwriting chops. His work for other artists is often impressive, and on Songland it continues to be. In the premiere he told Max Embers, a Penn Badgley lookalike from West Germany, that his song “Back Home” has too much going on melodically. “The verse was giving away the first note of the chorus melody,” Tedder elaborated. “Don’t hit that note in the verse. Save that note for the chorus, and you’re gonna get that goosebumps moment.” Later, as Ember’s mentor, Tedder sped up the song and alters its title and central metaphor, resulting in a superior track called “Lookin’ Up.” The song itself is not going to change your life, but watching it come together is fascinating.

Legend, the episode’s spotlight artist, got some good tweaks in himself, including some savvy adjustments to “Shine Down,” a country love song from Nashville songwriter Sam James ultimately rejected because it wasn’t a good fit for Legend. Beyond some minor wordplay suggestions, there wasn’t much to change about newlywed Louisiana military veteran Ollie Gabriel’s retro soul jam “Something New,” which arrived with a compelling metaphor (about how old-fashioned love feels fresh and unique in today’s romantic hellscape) and a hell of a hook. That one was almost certainly the best song of Tuesday’s bunch, but Legend must have decided it was a little too on-brand.

The biggest transformation befell the eventual winner, “We Need Love.” Burrows’ original version featured upbeat Caribbean-inflected production McAnally unflatteringly compared to The Lion King. By the time everyone had their say, it was transposed to acoustic guitar, its heavy-handed social messaging tempered by a melancholy smolder. The transformation was impressive, with Tedder approvingly concluding, “This is just a vibe now.” (That appears to be his terminology of choice; it’s also how he described Ember’s reworked “Lookin’ Up.”) I actually like Burrows’ own performance of the revised “We Need Love” way better than the relatively stilted track Legend ended up releasing.

You’ll almost certainly come away from Songland with a deeper appreciation for what songwriters do, which is largely the point. As Tedder told NPR, “Not only are we on the bottom of the food chain, the way the payment structure is set up, we get paid the least. And with streaming, that income has dropped drastically.” He further explained that renewed emphasis on streaming and the current practice of crediting up to double-digit songwriters on a track has made life much more difficult for people in his line of work: “Back in the day, you could make millions from album cuts, and then just retire to the Bahamas. You could have the fourth or fifth single on a Maroon 5 record. These days, if you don’t have the next single, with a release date in writing, you have nothing. All that to say, it’s not an easy time to be a songwriter.”

Tedder is all set financially — upcoming Songland participant Charlie Puth famously coveted his home studio and his candles — but most of his peers aren’t living such a cushy lifestyle. So Songland partially exists to prove how valuable songwriters really are, in the hopes that across the board they might enjoy better compensation. It seems unlikely that one TV show would wield that kind of leverage, but more power to them for trying. Regardless of whether Songland reverberates outside of NBC primetime, I’m happy to see a music-focused reality show take a brainy turn in the age of Idiocracy-worthy spectacles like Lip Sync Battle and The Masked Singer. While other shows pile on the garish artifice, it’s refreshing to get a look beneath the surface.

CREDIT: Brian Ach/Getty Images for Something in the Water

CHART WATCH

Tyler, The Creator has his first #1 album! Or at least he probably does? Billboard usually posts an article about the new week’s Billboard 200 albums chart on Sunday, Monday at the latest. Then they update the chart itself on Tuesdays. But it’s Thursday afternoon and there’s still no article, nor has last week’s chart been updated. I inquired with Billboard for clarification but haven’t heard back.

Anyway, let’s assume the widely reported figures are accurate. As the New York Times indicates, Tyler’s Igor debuts atop the Billboard 200 this week with 165,000 equivalent album units and 74,000 in sales. Debuting at #2 with 136,000 units/34,000 in sales is DJ Khaled’s Father Of Asahd. Both albums deployed the ever-popular bundling strategy to goose sales figures; Tyler packaged copies of Igor with T-shirts and faux political signage, while Khaled sold Father Of Asahd alongside an energy drink. (What a time.) After mainstays Billie Eilish and Khalid comes a #5 debut for the National’s I Am Easy To Find.

Over on the Hot 100, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” remains at #1 for an eighth straight week. Per Billboard, that ties Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” for the longest stay at #1 so far this year. The release of the song’s video fueled a resurgence in streaming for a song that was not exactly lagging in that department, resulting in the second biggest streaming week of all time: 130.7 million on-demand streams. “Old Town Road” now boasts seven of the nine biggest streaming weeks ever, including the three best.

Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” remains at #2, followed by Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” at a new #3 peak. After Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” comes Khalid’s “Talk” at #5, also a new peak. Two Post Malone songs remain glommed together, with “Wow.” at #6 and the Swae Lee collab “Sunflower” at #7. Two more duets are at #8 and #9: Sam Smith and Normai’s “Dancing With A Stranger” and Taylor Swift and Brendon Urie’s “ME!” And reaching a new peak at #10 is Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho,” which becomes her first top 10 single.

POP FIVE

Mark Ronson – “Find U Again” (Feat. Camila Cabello)
A breakup bop! With an assist from Kevin Parker! I’d love to see this one hit #1.

Ed Sheeran – “Cross Me” (Feat. Chance The Rapper & PnB Rock)
We can debate about whether Chance The Rapper has jumped the shark, but future historians exploring the question may well pinpoint this moment. (I reserve the right to take this back if the new Chance album is good.)

PRETTYMUCH – “Gone 2 Long”
This is exactly how a boy band song should sound in 2019. I dig it.

Kim Petras – “Do Me”
Now that’s the kind of chorus I’ve been missing from these new Kim Petras tracks.

Herve Pagez & Diplo – “Spicy” (Feat. Charli XCX)
Charli XCX covering the Spice Girls is a perfectly fine concept, but I cannot tell you how much I hate it when the obscenely fun rap bridge is supposed to come in and there’s a shitty wordless tropical house hook instead. What I want, what I really really want, is to never speak of this again.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Katy Perry’s latest comeback single “Never Really Over” drops tonight. [EW]
  • Adam Levine is leaving NBC’s The Voice after 16 seasons. [Variety]
  • Jack Antonoff duetted with Oscar The Grouch on “I Love Trash.” [Twitter]
  • Diplo showed evidence of Travis Scott ghosting him for the last five years. [Instagram]
  • Iggy Azalea deactivated her social accounts and threatened criminal charges after topless outtakes from a GQ Australia photoshoot leaked. [Rap-Up]
  • Ariana Grande poked fun at her questionable new Madame Tussauds wax figure. [People]
  • Britney Spears’ restraining order against her former manager Sam Lufti has been extended. [ABC]
  • Harry Styles dueted with Stevie Nicks at the Gucci Cruise 2020 afterparty in Rome. [Harpers Bazaar]
  • Styles is also the new face of Gucci’s genderless fragrance Mémoire d’une Odeur. [Hypebeast]
  • Jonas Brothers’ memoir Blood is coming in November. [AP]
  • Ty Dolla $ign shared a video for his J. Cole collab “Purple Emoji.” [YouTube]
  • The CMT Awards will host onstage collabs between Brandi Carlile and Tanya Tucker, Sheryl Crow and Maren Morris, Brett Young and Boyz II Men, and show hosts Little Big Town with Thomas Rhett and Trombone Shorty. [CMT]
  • Jennifer Lopez left Epic to join Hitco, the new label formed by LA Reid in the wake of a sexual harassment claim made against him. [Billboard]
  • “No Roots” singer Alice Merton covered M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
  • Bastille released a video for “Joy.” [YouTube]
  • Taylor Swift did “ME!” on The Graham Norton Show. [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME