John Legend sits with “Songland” ’s panel of songwriters and producers, Ester Dean, Ryan Tedder, and Shane McAnally, who attempt to transmute the art of songwriting into mainstream entertainment.
Is there a more beleaguered group in the world of pop music than songwriters? Behind the scenes, they generate the raw material that performers mine for personal glory. They create music that is passed from fickle pop star to fickle pop star. They wait for months, or years, to see if a performer will choose a song—or if that performer will cherry-pick a hook and discard the rest. The work is hard; it is also thankless. For most of us, the songwriters that stars rely on are a given. They are cogs in the well-oiled pop machine.
This is a simplistic narrative, but it’s one that “Songland,” NBC’s new music-competition show, wishes to upend. Rather than treating the role of songwriters as an unpleasant secret, “Songland” attempts to celebrate them as the magic ingredient in music. Other music-competition shows, such as “The Voice” and “American Idol,” have sought, mostly unsuccessfully, to find America’s next great pop star, fashioning the TV set as a stage and the judges as an eager audience. “Songland,” however, is filmed inside a makeshift recording studio, and it thrusts songwriters into the foreground. Each episode sees four contestants pitch songs to a superstar musician, who is surrounded by a panel of songwriters and producers (Ester Dean, Ryan Tedder, and Shane McAnally). The contestants perform their songs for the panel, and, once they’ve received feedback—perhaps a chorus is too on the nose or a melody too slack—the pop star invites three of them to pair off with producers and hone their work. At the episode’s end, the star selects one song to release under his or her own name. For the audience, a hit is created in the span of about forty-five minutes.
In short, the show is trying to transmute the art of songwriting into mainstream entertainment. Drama, to the extent that it exists, is culled not from teary montages but from directions like “Let’s change the progression in the pre-chorus.” “You’re crossing the line into cheesy a little too often,” John Legend tells a young contestant named Tebby Burrows, who has written “We Need Love,” a Caribbean-lite pop song with a vague spirit of social justice. “We always have to be careful that it still has some edge, a little darkness,” he says. “Make it sound a little more mournful, like crying for the world.” (This is a vexing observation, given that “cheesy” constitutes a significant part of Legend’s wheelhouse, and the core of much successful pop music.) When Burrows returns, the song has been transformed: “We Need Love” is now a stripped-down acoustic cry for change. It’s radically different, but it strives for seriousness in such a heavy-handed way that it has become cheesier than its original form. Still, it was the episode’s winning song, and after the broadcast Legend’s version was available for download and streaming. In “Songland,” the aspects of pop music that seem the most questionable—the impersonal nature of songs, the bald desire for hit-making over expression—are framed as triumphant populism.
In some ways, this is merely a sign of our hyper-public times. Songwriters, though still obscured, are perhaps more visible today than ever before. Young women like Tayla Parx and Bibi Bourelly, who have written some of Ariana Grande’s and Rihanna’s biggest hits, respectively, have flourished in their solo careers. Benny Blanco, a songwriter and producer who’s been cranking out hits for years, released a successful solo record (albeit one featuring A-list stars), late last year. “Songland” recognizes that these writers are underdogs, but it still ends up undermining them. The show’s format presents songwriters as tertiary to the pop stars and producers who will record the songs; everything is done in ruthless service of the star and the hit. Indeed, once an episode is over, the songwriters are whisked out of view. In the second episode, the Black Eyed Peas frontman, will.i.am, notes this dynamic when a teen-age songwriter presents a heartfelt ballad about the state of the country. “I’m not a vampire,” will.i.am says. “I’m not gonna freakin’ suck the blood of an eighteen-year-old who wrote a freakin’ amazing song.” Instead, he offers to appear as a featured artist once the songwriter records the song under his own name.
“Songland” may be a weak platform for songwriters, but it’s an unwitting exemplar of the industry. The age of the album has passed, with many burgeoning artists deciding to shorten or forego the format altogether. Even the pop star is a diminishing force; in the churn of online virality, enduring icons are few and far between. The song is now music’s central currency, but its value can be unpredictable—the qualities that propel a track from obscurity to ubiquity are varied and haphazard. “Songland” aspires to locate and honor these qualities, but, by reducing songwriting to a polished, almost mechanized process, the show ignores the fact that an amateur experimentalist can mint a hit just as easily as a room full of professionals can.
One arena that “Songland” hasn’t yet touched is hip-hop, which produces a substantial portion of today’s hits. (The mawkish, activism-minded rapper Macklemore is scheduled to appear on the show, but his music hardly resembles rap anymore.) That’s because hip-hop is the one realm in which the use of songwriters is still, by and large, considered sacrilege. For many hip-hop fans, Drake’s reputation was forever tarnished after it was alleged, in 2015, that some of his lyrics had come from a songwriter. For a rapper to appear on a TV show and accept prefabricated verses would be tantamount to a rhetorically gifted politician inviting his speechwriters onstage at a convention. But, paradoxically, it’s hip-hop that best understands the pace and the rhythms of the hit-making process. The genre has virality imprinted in its DNA, which is demonstrated on a weekly basis by a flood of memes that buoy songs to relevance. The creation of a rap hit feels like a tangle of mysticism, talent, hustle, and algorithm-gaming—something either too complex or too simple to be captured by a reality show.