American Song Contest is NBC’s attempt to reproduce the Eurovision Song Contest, just with states instead of countries, started its eight-week run Monday with the first 11 performances.
While this is not Eurovision, in either format or style, it managed to retain the spirit and fun of Eurovision: mostly energetic performances bookended by host banter between Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg, who made this feel like a live party rather than a self-important reality competition.
While it’s most definitely not American Idol or The Voice, American Song Contest made sure we know we’re watching an American reality show that’s covered in corporate money: voting on TikTok, containers of M&Ms with scoops, T-Mobile’s 5G logo on the lower third.
And of course, there were the ad breaks. Those are inevitable, of course, but really interrupted the rhythm of the show. With 11 three-minute performances and a two-hour show, there was a lot of time to fill, so compared to commercial-free Eurovision, it felt more bloated and interrupted.
Yet unlike all other American singing competitions, there are no judges. And that is something I never knew I wanted so badly: no commentary after each performance.
We’ve thankfully, mostly left Simon Cowell-era cruelty behind, but in its place on singing competitions is often bland babble that’s meaningless. The kind but still constructive critiques of, say, Top Chef or The Great British Bake-Off. It turns out that is not necessary.
As a person with questionable taste in music, I cannot make an informed assessment of the actual music from American Song Contest’s premiere. The one song I got bored with and fast-forwarded through, “Held On Too Long” by Rhode Island’s Hueston, won the 56-member jury vote and moves on to the semi-finals.
I was a little bored by the wax figure of Michael Bolton singing “Beautiful World,” but my husband suggested that was the most Eurovision-y song yet.
Still, my bad taste and I thought most of the songs were catchy and entertaining, and I’ll re-listen to several of them this week.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear a lot more of some songs. “I think everybody going to be New Boot Goofin’ on TikTok,” Snoop said after the penultimate performance, Ryan Charles’s “New Boot Goofin’.” I’m sure he’s been proven right already. (Atlantic Records already had recordings of the songs on streaming music platforms, YouTube, and TikTok.)
American Song Contest has an artist from each state, plus DC and five territories, but the individual states and territories did not select their songs. Showrunner Audrey Morrissey said they hope to have some kind of actual song contest in each state in the future.
But for now, whoever did that selection—i.e. the casting department and the producers—did an extraordinarily good job.
While the performers may not be household names, they’re established artists, not amateurs.
The bios did a good job of presenting their resume while also giving us glimpses of their personality, but not falling into the pattern that most American singing competitions embrace: Hi, I’m Singer. I got started doing this. Then awful thing happened. But now I’m here. American Song Contest’s bio packages were refreshing, though sometimes a little long, and I missed the stylization of Eurovision’s postcards.
Most of the night-one artists and performances seemed to go against expectations, too. For example, Oklahoma was represented by a K-Pop singer, AleXa, who currently lives and performs in South Korea; Ryan Charles from Wyoming mixed country and rap. Co-host Kelly Clarkson hinted at that in the opening, saying “they’re bringing their hometown sound, but in some surprising ways.”
The performances did leave me wondering about American Song Contest’s actual performance rules. Are backing vocals allowed? Lip syncing? Were the backing vocals just too loud so it looked or sounded like some performers were lip syncing?
Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg were particularly strong as hosts, from Snoop’s dancing to their improvised singing while waiting for the results. Their immediate reactions were enthusiastic and affirming, and even their bits and banter with the performers worked.
For everything to click so immediately in a live show is as impressive as American Song Contest is refreshing, and I look forward to the rest of the season.