Acrossing the United States on Monday evening, many Americans asked themselves a simple question: what is the American Song Contest? The NBC Live Music Competition, which aired its two-hour premiere last night, is trying to bring Eurovision to the United States. This is not necessarily an easy task; despite its track record of success abroad – you can thank Eurovision for Abba and Celine Dion – the 65-year-old annual song tournament is not widely understood in the United States.
While Eurovision features one artist per country and offers an often untranslatable web of political intrigue and local culture, the US version, somehow not called “Amerivision”, pits original songs by 56 artists from all 50 US states, five territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands) and the nation’s capital in a parenthesis-style showdown. The multi-stage competition will air over a six-week period.
American Song Contest, organized by Kelly Clarkson (American Idol’s first-ever winner) and Snoop Dogg, has the support of the competition’s European producers and a showrunner, Audrey Morrissey, who produced the highly successful song contest of NBC, The Voice. It has legions of Eurovision fans curious about what exactly differentiates between US states and territories. It has a process that combines votes from an expert jury with votes from fans on NBC’s website and on TikTok. (According to Variety, the 56 members of the judging panel — one from each state/territory, including a former member of The Fray and the president of iHeartMedia — are supposed to rate each performance based on “artistic expression, potential for success , originality and visual impression.”)
And it has a series of March Madness-style rounds pitting artists with varying levels of name recognition and professional experience against each other. Established stars such as Michael Bolton (Connecticut) and Jewel (Alaska) will face amateurs (Michigan, for example, sends a 16-year-old high school student).
So how did the games start? The premiere generated a lot of excitement and stirred up state rivalries in two chaotic hours. (Full disclosure: I’m from Ohio — kudos to Macy Gray, the Grammy-winning R&B singer representing Buckeye State — and the only Eurovision performance I’d seen before was the unbeatable band of Latvian pirates, so I came in pretty confused about the concept.) Clarkson and Snoop applied their signature energies — irresistible, motherly bubbly for her, slightly stoned vibe for him — to short interstitials between the 11 performances. The (almost entirely upbeat) performances themselves hit a cornucopia of genres, from hip-hop to Latin pop to a country-rap earworm called New Boot Goofin’, courtesy of Ryan Charles of the Wyoming, which was apparently designed for TikTok (it was the clear social media winner of the evening.)
The animators only vaguely explained the formula, so here are the logistics: the first five episodes will contain 11 performances each (one will have 12), of which an act will automatically advance according to the jury’s vote, announced at the end of the evening. Fan votes will determine the other three acts to advance per episode, announced the following week. Both semi-finals will feature 22 total acts delivering “slightly elevated” performances of their original songs, according to NBC. Ten artists will compete in the grand finale, where a combination of jury and fan votes will determine the winner.
Back to the original crop of competitors, representing parts of the country as geographically diverse as tropical Puerto Rico and frozen Wisconsin. Overall the evening was a mix of quality – to be fair, it’s very difficult to sing live in a studio, especially when some of the artists hadn’t performed in front of more than a few thousand people – even though Clarkson was uniformly excited and Snoop was jumping on every song. Several of the artists explained their styles through mashups of famous stars. Alisabeth Von Presley of Iowa, with pink hair, described herself as if Lady Gaga and Pat Benatar had collided and exploded into a pile of glitter; Rhode Island’s Hueston said he was Chris Stapleton mixed with Adele and Sons of Anarchy, “but in a good way”; Jake’O from Wisconsin, black hair slicked back like Elvis, invented his “nuvo-retro” style.
Some lived up to their state’s expectations: Minnesota’s entry, pop-boy group Yam Haus, consisted of four very serious white guys playing “Minnesota nice” (“Ope!”). Mississippi’s Keyone Starr, who recorded with Mark Ronson, paid homage to his state’s rich history of black musical traditions – delta blues, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll – with a fiery performance heavy on belt and guitar. Arkansas’ Kelsey Lamb sang a fairly conventional country ballad in a wide-brimmed hat. Michael Bolton, very sincerely from Connecticut, sang a heartfelt Michael Bolton song called Beautiful World.
But there were also several conscious efforts to surprise and complicate the image of different parts of the country, and to highlight the diversity of American musical talent. AleXa, an established K-pop artist used to performing to large crowds in South Korea (you can tell – she owned the stage and the hosts knew it), said that because she’s from Tulsa, Oklahoma, people expected her to wear a cowboy hat and sing country music. Her intense choreographic performance of Wonderland was the highlight of the evening. Indiana’s UG Skywalkin’, real name Josh Kimbowa, is an immigrant (UG represents Uganda) who openly strives to raise awareness of the Indianapolis hip-hop scene. Puerto Rico entry Christian Pagán sang in English and Spanish in a leather pop-punk outfit. The evening’s jury winner, Hueston of Rhode Island, pushed back against the state’s image of sunny beaches and tourism as he spoke of his difficult blue-collar upbringing and the loss of friends to addiction.
This intentional directing of the spotlight is perhaps the best argument for American Song Contest. The performances were almost secondary to the three- to five-minute introductory videos, which offered less-hyped slices and experiences of the country a moment to connect and expound. It’s especially exciting for the territories, which many Americans know very little about, if they even know they exist as part of the United States. As chaotic and random as the American Song Contest was last night and likely will be, this low-stakes exposure opportunity is well worth it.
This exposure may be more limited than NBC hoped. The premiere drew just under 3 million viewers, less than the new episode of ABC’s long-running American Idol series, which aired at the same time. So Eurovision fans probably want Americans to. Several NBC executives and a 56-member panel of music industry figures want Americans to want it. But do Americans want their own Eurovision? We still have six weeks to see.