Last October in a hotel suite in Cannes, Dave Stewart wore smoke-tinted glasses under a brown trilby and strummed a guitar as he talked with a sprinkle of mid-Atlantic in his native Sunderland burr. “I’ve written songs with Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry,” he said, “and I lived with Annie [Lennox, his co-star in Eurythmics] as a couple and we never wrote a song together. But then we broke up and wrote 120 songs about breaking up – so there’s all sorts of ways you can collaborate with someone.” Stewart is talking about music but he’s also talking TV. Cannes in October hosts the Mipcom television festival and Stewart was in France to talk about Songland, a new talent-show format that will play on nbc from late May. He is a co-executive producer along with the singers Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Ryan Tedder of One Republic, and Audrey Morrissey, executive producer of The Voice in the US. “I’m very collaborative generally,” said Stewart with a smile that hinted at previous untold, non-collaborative mischief.
Where other music-based talent formats, from American Idol to Morrissey’s The Voice, have tended toward straight karaoke-style singing competitions, Songland’s niche is that it aims to pair aspirant songwriters with established performers. This happens via the all-important live audition with which viewers have been familiar since ITV's Popstars launched in the UK in 2001. But Songland’s pay-off is more subtle than The Voice’s spinning chairs. It’s more of a vibe thing: when the featured guest star starts nodding along to a song they’re hearing for the first time, when the performing songwriter can feel the love (or the like, at least) and when viewers are allowed to wonder if a songwriting genius is being revealed in front of their very eyes.
The format’s secondary break from the norm is its trio of music-producer panellists who then discuss how they might turn that song into a hit by changing its chorus, its lyrics, even its genre, to make it sing commercially. “The show mimics real life,” says Morrissey. “In the music industry artists get pitched songs all the time and they listen to them and consider whether they want to take that song, and whether they want it tailored to them or not.”
The jeopardy, that vital TV show ingredient, is in the liking or the not-liking of the song but also in the arena in which that potentially personal gem is being judged – after all, singers want to be performers but songwriters don’t always want to be stars. “People – including my fellow rock-star producers – have commented that it’s a very unusual way to pitch your songs; that they’d be pretty nervous,” says Morrissey. “But it’s a very warm, welcoming atmosphere and it’s a very safe place; the feedback is very clear and very honest. It’s not mean-spirited and it’s done with love and kindness.”
A decade and more ago, in a world of TV talent shows controlled by Simon Cowell, things were very different. For the woman who was likened to “the Incredible Hulk’s wife” to the singer who was told, “If you’d lived 2,000 years and sung like that they’d have stoned you,” love and kindness were in short supply. For the various series of Idol, X Factor and …Got Talent in the US and the UK, Simon Cowell defined the genre as executive producer, format-owner, ringmaster and pantomime villain. When singers triumphed on a show produced by Cowell’s Syco Entertainment they reached number one with songs and albums released by his Syco Music label.
Cowell really could make or break wannabe stars and ratings were huge because the formats were fresh, the good performances were inspiring and the bad ones were addictively awful. Also importantly, this golden age of talent shows, broadcast by traditional channels, came before the rise of Netflix and Amazon who have commissioned talent shows sparingly and stuck to their own new formats.
So can Songland and other high-end talent shows prosper worldwide on a changed TV landscape? “Really, it will be interesting to see whether Songland can travel around the world in the same way as X Factor and The Voice,” says Peter White, international TV editor at Deadline Hollywood. “Channel 4 is developing a UK version but genuine success will only come if it can be remade in upwards of 20 international markets.”
As for the lure of Cowell’s catty put-downs, the time for those may also be past. Morrissey’s “safe space” comment is more du jour and anyway, in an age in which Ru Paul’s Drag Race is in its 11th season, there are way better bitches out there than in the talent-show arena. “I’d like to hope that we’re heading towards a kinder and fairer form of judging,” says Scott Bryan, co-presenter of the BBC's Must Watch podcast. “We’ve seen that in The Voice but trends will always change. At the end of the day, we love a villain.”
Away from the white heat of the musical talent show, Strictly Come Dancing (a big international hit), The Great British Bake-Off (and its many global iterations), Masterchef and even Glow Up – a make-up challenge show on the BBC’s online-only BBC3 – all do very good business by being friendly, cosy and about people learning how to perform a rhumba or bake a rum baba better than they did in the last episode. Talent shows are morphing into trying-their-best shows: while news bulletins show more anguish, entertainment formats show more empathy.
Elsewhere, talent shows have not been hung out to dry just yet. La Chanson Secrète, first seen on TFI in France, sees a group of celebrities watch as other artists and friends surprise them with their take on one of their own songs. Pitched show Serenade, from Malaysia, consists of fans trying to win the hearts of their celebrity crush by singing and dancing in a competition format inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Songland may just have the format device, the perfect pop songs and enough of that wholesome new normal of witnessing inspirational personal development to make it a smash and an international sales sensation. We shall see.
“It will be interesting, particularly given that Songland’s tackling the notoriously tough area of songwriting,” says White. “As many musicians note, writing a song can be a strange and insular experience that doesn’t necessarily make for engaging primetime viewing.” But then who thought making a cake would be worth starting a fight over either? The proof of the pudding, as ever, is in judging the cook’s hairstyle. Is that right?
Be it by happy accident or a producer’s dastardly intervention, talent shows have a habit of attracting a curiously similar crowd.
Like his namesake, Bruce has come from nowhere and nothing, and doesn’t have much style. But he has lots of good old-fashioned can-do attitude, which is great in a metal worker and surprisingly useful in a singer too.
Wanda’s copied the visual and vocal style of her heroine, Janet Jackson, to a scary degree. She has the look, the moves and some of the vocals too. Trouble is she can’t seem to do anything else, let alone get along with any of the other contestants or judges.
Peter’s emotional baggage sometimes comes out by simply crying a lot – but other times, miraculously, through the medium of song! There will be a gravely ill not-that-close relative who this performer is “doing it for”.
Blaise has little talent but she makes it go a long way. Can Blaise sing? Dance? Be the charming scamp of the group? It’s a no, no and no from me. But can Blaise flirt with all of the judges irrespective of gender, persuasion, age or inclination? Oh, hell yeah.
Tamara tried performing well to win and it wasn’t quite enough so she’s going to bitch out all the others and see if she can emerge victorious that way. It’s an often latent characteristic that can be seen in the latter stages of group contests.
Ryan just turned up and was just very good. Maybe he was a bit rough around the edges but essentially he’s already the wholesome amateur version of the monstrous professional person he will soon become.