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Across the United States on Monday evening, many Americans asked a simple question: what is the American Song Contest? The all-live NBC music competition, which aired its two-hour premiere last night, attempts to bring Eurovision to the US. That’s not necessarily an easy task; despite its track record of success overseas – you can thank Eurovision for Abba and Celine Dion – the 65-year-old annual song tournament is not widely understood in the US.
Whereas Eurovision showcases one artist per country and offers a web of political intrigue and often untranslatable local culture, the American version, somehow not called “Amerivision,” pits original songs by 56 artists from all 50 US states, five territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, US Virgin Islands and Northern Mariana Islands) and the nation’s capital in a bracket-style showdown. The multi-step competition will air over the course of six weeks.
American Song Contest, hosted by Kelly Clarkson (the first-ever winner of American Idol) and Snoop Dogg, has the backing of the European competition’s producers and a showrunner, Audrey Morrissey, who has executive-produced NBC’s highly successful singing competition The Voice. It has legions of Eurovision fans curious as to what, exactly, differentiates the US states and territories. It has a process that combines the votes of an expert jury panel with fan votes on NBC’s website and on TikTok. (According to Variety, the 56 jury members – one from each state/territory, including a former member of the band The Fray and the president of iHeartMedia – are supposed to evaluate each performance based on “artistic expression, hit potential, originality and visual impression.”)
And it has a March Madness-style series of rounds pitting artists with various levels of name recognition and professional experience against each other. Established stars such as Michael Bolton (Connecticut) and Jewel (Alaska) will compete against amateurs (Michigan is sending is 16-year-old high-schooler, for example).
So how did the games begin? The premiere packed a lot of enthusiasm and ginned-up state rivalries into a chaotic two hours. (Full disclosure: I’m from Ohio – shout-out to Macy Gray, the Grammy-winning R&B singer representing the Buckeye State – and the only Eurovision performance I’d seen before this was the unbeatable Latvian pirate group, so I entered pretty confused on the concept.) Clarkson and Snoop applied their signature energies – irresistible, maternal bubbliness for her, slightly stoned vibing for him – to short interstitials between the 11 performances. The (almost entirely upbeat) performances themselves reached for a full cornucopia of genres, from hip-hop to Latin pop to a country-rap earworm called New Boot Goofin’, courtesy of Wyoming’s Ryan Charles, that was seemingly designed for TikTok (it was the night’s clear social media winner.)
The hosts only loosely explained the formula, so here are the logistics: the first five episodes will contain 11 performances each (one will have 12), from which one act will automatically advance based on the jury vote, announced at the night’s end. Fan votes will determine the other three acts to advance per episode, announced the following week. The two semi-final rounds will feature 22 acts total offering “slightly elevated” performances of their original songs, according to NBC. Ten artists will make the grand final, where a combination of jury and fan votes will determine the winner.
Back to the initial crop of competitors, representing areas of the country as geographically different as tropical Puerto Rico and frozen Wisconsin. Overall, the evening was a mixed bag of quality – to be fair, it is very difficult to sing live in a studio, especially when some of the artists hadn’t performed for more than a couple of thousand people – though Clarkson was uniformly excited and Snoop bopped to every song. Several of the artists explained their styles through mashups of famous stars. Pink-haried Alisabeth Von Presley of Iowa described herself as if Lady Gaga and Pat Benatar 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;” Wisconsin’s Jake’O, black hair slicked back like Elvis, coined his style “nuvo-retro.”
Some played to the expectations from their state: Minnesota’s entry, the pop-boy band Yam Haus, consisted of four very earnest white guys embodying “Minnesota nice” (“Ope!”). Mississippi’s Keyone Starr, who has recorded with Mark Ronson, paid homage to her state’s rich history of black musical traditions – delta blues, gospel, rock’n’roll – with a fiery performance heavy on belting and guitar. Arkansas’s Kelsey Lamb sang a pretty conventional country ballad in a wide-brimmed hat. Michael Bolton, very sincerely of Connecticut, sang an earnest Michael Bolton song called Beautiful World.
But there were also several conscious efforts to surprise and complicate the image of different regions 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 could 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 choreography-intense performance of Wonderland was the highlight of the evening. Indiana’s UG Skywalkin’, real name Josh Kimbowa, is an immigrant (the UG represents Uganda) openly striving to put Indianapolis’s hip-hop scene on the map. Puerto Rico’s entry, Christian Pagán, sang in English and Spanish in a leather pop-punk outfit. The night’s jury winner, Rhode Island’s Hueston, pushed against the state’s image of sun-soaked beaches and tourism by speaking about his tough blue-collar upbringing and the loss of friends to addiction.
That intentional steering of the spotlight is perhaps the best argument for American Song Contest. The performances were almost secondary to the three-to-five-minute intro videos, which offered lesser-publicized slices and experiences of the country a moment to connect and expound. This is particularly exciting for the territories, which many Americans know very little about, if they even know they exist as part of the US at all. As chaotic and haphazard as American Song Contest was last night and is likely to be, that opportunity for low-stakes exposure is a worthwhile one.
That exposure may be more limited than NBC hoped. The premiere garnered just under 3m viewers, less than the new episode of ABC’s long-running American Idol, broadcast at the same time. So, Eurovision fans probably want Americans to want this. Several NBC executives and a 56-member panel of music industry figures want Americans to want this. But do Americans want their own Eurovision? We’ve got six more weeks to see.