The Snoot Letter
Issue #18 – May 25, 2020
I started watching Songland on Hulu, and I love it. It’s a reality show about songwriting. Each episode has a guest artist, who is looking for a new song. The hosts are three hugely successful songwriter/producers: Ryan Tedder, Shane McAnally, and Ester Dean. Four upcoming songwriters perform songs that they’ve written, and the artist narrows it down to three who are then each paired with one of the mega-producers. The three songwriters rework their songs, and then the artist picks which song they want to record. Each episode ends with the final recording of the song by the guest artist.
Even though Songland follows a competition reality show format, it lacks a lot of the negativity that is usually inherent in the format. The judges and artists are almost always positive and helpful. Their criticism usually comes in the form of collaborative brainstorming. Could the hook be stronger with a lyric like this? Does the melody of the guitar conflict with the melody of the vocals in the pre-chorus? What if this part were played on a synth instead of a guitar?
Songland also avoids the other trap of modern reality competition television: the show becoming a victory-lap for established celebrities rather than helping launch new careers. This is why I find The Voice to be such a hollow experience, even though it can be entertaining escapism. Early American Idol may have had a lot of negativity, but at least it was a legitimate launching pad for becoming a big recording artist. But the format of The Voice always keeps the contestant in a subordinate position to the famous judges. Even though the judges are generally supportive and positive, the format of the show itself is constantly sending the subconscious signal that the contestant is not the star. On The Voice, the judges are the stars, and the show has been a rocket ship for their careers.
This is a trap that Songland could fall into, but it manages to avoid through a collection of format decisions that realign the balance.
Firstly, there are new upcoming songwriters every episode. The concept of the show isn’t that an entire season will be used to find and launch a singular talent. It’s promising that each episode will give four songwriters an opportunity to have their work heard, to work with a strong creative collaborator, and for one of them to have their song recorded by a major artist. This keeps the focus on the songs, and isn’t making a promise that it can’t deliver (using a competition format that feels like hazing to find and launch a singular talent once a season).
Secondly, the judges aren’t put in a position where they are the final decision-making arbiter. The guest artist each week gets to decide which song they want to perform! This is refreshing, because it doesn’t accumulate power in the various hosts/judges of the show.
Thirdly, the judges legitimately roll up their sleeves and do the work! They brainstorm lyric and melody ideas with the upcoming songwriters. And at the end of each episode, when the guest artist chooses one song to record, it also means that they are rejecting two songs that include the creative labor of two of the mega-successful judges/hosts! Every episode, two out of three of the judges face the ego-hit of rejection. This is incredibly refreshing and unusual for any reality show that includes a celebrity component (with the exception of the worst kind of reality show where a set of minor-celebrities are hazed and judged by a mega-celebrity, such as with The Celebrity Apprentice). Can you imagine what the world would be like if audiences actually had to see Donald Trump try to do any of the tasks assigned to the contestants on The Apprentice? I suspect we’d be living in a very different world right now. But I’m gettin way off track here…
For me, the most magical aspect of Songland is getting to see glimpses of the process of creative collaboration between an upcoming songwriter and an established songwriter/producer. It feels like you’re being let into the proverbial “room where it happens.” A glimpse at the way that a small group of talented, focused, and collaborative artists can layer ideas to improve upon an initial creative work.
This is the heart of the true creative process in entertainment, and it’s something you rarely get to see on television, either in fiction or non-fiction. Songwriting is the perfect vehicle to explore this process, as each song is a relatively small work and can go from concept to final execution in a single episode of television. And a song can be performed at almost any stage of its development process. It’s much harder to capture the process of making a movie or a stage show, but it feels like you can capture the creation of a song.
Unfortunately I am only watching season two of Songland, as I can’t figure out how to watch Season One anywhere. This is unusual in the day of always-available streaming content. AppleTV search is convinced that season one is available in Hulu, but the Hulu app itself only lists the second season.
Please let me know if you have any suggestions on how I can watch season one of Songland!
~ Keith Calder
This Week’s Recommendations
📺 The quarantine special of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (on Apple TV+) is wonderful. The first season had some rough spots, but on the whole I’m on board and eager for an eventual season two.
🎮 Shaun Inman made a board book for his kid. And it’s a photo collection of classic gaming consoles!
📖 Yesterday morning I read the sublimely strange Eugie Foster novelette “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast, which is available to read at Apex Magazie. It’s about a society where people’s personalities are defined by what mask they choose to wear each day.
And it got me thinking about masks…
…a lot about masks…
…and how it seems like every culture knows the power of a mask to bewilder…
…and how even an innocent seeming mask can still hold the capacity to horrify…