“The Voice,” NBC’s durably low-pressure hang with four music superstars, airs in the spring and fall, but Blake Shelton needs at least some time away from his revolving chair. Enter “Songland,” produced by former “Voice” judge Adam Levine — a series that applies “The Voice’s” attitude of cheerful bonhomie between industry A-listers to the songwriting process. On “The Voice,” it’s singers who compete for the affections, and the notional mentorship, of stars; here, it’s scribes aiming to convince the stars to record their tracks.
“Songland’s” first episode features John Legend (a panelist on the most recent season of “The Voice”), deciding which of a series of aspirants’ songs he’ll pick. The contestants perform their songs for Legend and for a panel of three professional songwriters before getting feedback and workshopping their songs to something Legend might actually want to record. Given only an hour with Legend (future episodes, we’re informed in an eye-popping scroll at the top of the episode, are to include everyone from Leona Lewis to the Jonas Brothers), the show opts not to dwell in negativity. The only writer who’s outright let go leaves because of simple genre incompatibility, not lack of talent. Neither does the show concern itself, consistently, with actionable or even meaningful advice. Legend tells one writer: “If I were writing a verse for it, I would think about melodies first, and then I would find words that told a story that I felt was both personal and universal at the same time.” Thanks, John!
To his credit, judge Ryan Tedder, a successful writer and producer, goes on to delineate exactly where the notes in the verses ought to fall for maximum impact. But there’s a certain dispiriting nature to that guidance, as there is when the other two judges, Ester Dean and Shane McAnally, beam over the vastly-revised, unrecognizable songs that the aspirant songwriters bring forth near the episode’s end. One songwriter says she hopes that the mentors can help make her “rough draft” better, but this is less revision than gut renovation. The revamped songs, near episode’s end, feel a bit like patients on that old plastic-surgery reality show “The Swan.” Sure, they fit into the marketplace better, but the bumps and oddities were what made them human.
Insisting on a market-tested sort of perfection, the show runs up against the difficulty that there is no market niche it can fill, or that it cares to. Unlike on “The Voice,” where singers’ peculiarities are cherished and nurtured (these, putatively, are what might make them stars, though the show’s success rate is vanishingly low), “Songland” embraces the sublimation of whatever makes its writers themselves. It’s likely a very accurate depiction of what it takes not merely to break into a risk-averse industry but also to write songs for an artist with a clearly defined persona of his own. But that doesn’t make it, necessarily, TV worth turning your chair for.
“Songland.” NBC. May 28. One episode screened for review.
Executive Producers: Audrey Morrissey, Ivan Dudynsky, Dave Stewart, Chad Hines, Adam Levine