Despite a Michael Bolton performance, 'American Song Contest' fails to fulfill its campy (Euro)vision

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·9 min read

Long before American Idol or The Voice — before Star Search, even — there was the Eurovision Song Contest. The United Nations of talent competitions, Eurovision features artists from countries across Europe and Australia performing original songs on live television, and it has long been one of the most-watched broadcasts on the planet since it launched in 1956, with an annual global audience of 200 million.

But now Eurovision awareness is at an all-time high in the United States, due to several factors: In 2020, Will Ferrell’s satire Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was a Netflix hit and nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Song; last year’s Eurovision winner, Italy’s Maneskin, became a hard-rock sensation, scoring an unlikely top 15 hit in America and performing on Saturday Night Live; and the most famous Eurovision winner of all time, ABBA, recently reunited after a 40-year hiatus.

So, now is the perfect time for a Stateside version of the competition, as singers representing 50 states and six U.S. territories compete for the title of Best Original Song on NBC’s American Song Contest. But the burning, glittering question is, will American Song Contest (why it’s not called “Amerivision,” I do not friggin’ know) be as campy as its Euro predecessor?

So far, the answer is no. But at least Monday’s big premiere had… Michael Bolton!?

Michael Bolton represents Connecticut on the premiere of 'American Song Contest.' (Photo: NBC)
Michael Bolton represents Connecticut on the premiere of 'American Song Contest.' (Photo: NBC)

A little EVSC background for the uninitiated and unfamiliar: The original Eurovision has always been untouched by time or taste, with international contenders/pretenders all decked out in Spandex-'n'-sequins outfits while executing variety-show dance moves that wouldn't have been out of place during ABBA’s famously career-launching Eurovision 1974 performance of “Waterloo.” Eurovision is perhaps the only televised talent competition more over-the-top than RuPaul’s Drag Race or The Masked Singer. An actual drag queen, Austria’s “Bearded Lady” Conchita Wurst, actually won Eurovision in 2014, and other past standouts have included Finnish GWAR wannabes Lordi; Iceland’s gimp-masked shock-rockers Hatari; and the “Twin Terrors of Dublin,” identical X Factor twins Jedward, representing Ireland twice. Justin Hawkins from the Darkness was once a semifinalist for the United Kingdom, even! (He was robbed.) And just last year at EVSC, Germany’s Jendrik was accompanied by a dancing Hamburger Helper-esque hand; Lithuanian electropoppers the Roop bopped around like yellow-suited Sprockets; Norway’s Tix donned Victoria’s Secret angel wings and iron shackles for the power ballad “Fallen Angel”; and Flo Rida randomly showed up to assist San Marino’s pop duo Senhit.

And this is the sort of entertainment American viewers — who until 2016 weren’t even able to watch Eurovision in the U.S. without some sort of geo-unblocked VPN hack — demand and deserve. But while Snoop Dogg is co-hosting NBC’s eight-week American Song Contest event (along with Idol winner-turned-Voice coach Kelly Clarkson) and Bolton is repping for Connecticut, this week’s ASC premiere failed to live up to Eurovision’s wacky promise or premise. The contestants — even Bolton, a man with a sense of humor who once paid tribute to Jack Sparrow with the Lonely Island — took themselves way too seriously, and the NBC brass seemed to be confusing this show with the network’s recently canceled songwriting competition, Songland. I mean, where were the pyro flames? The Sprocket robots? The S&M dungeon-masters? The dancing Hamburger Helper hands???

Oh well. Maybe when thong-songer SisQó represents Maryland on a future episode (yes, that is happening), things will improve. Incidentally, other big-font names that will compete on American Song Contest in the coming weeks include reigning Masked Singer champ Jewel (representing Alaska, of course); electronic twosome the Crystal Method (Nevada); folk/soul singer-songwriter Allen Stone (Washington); The Voice Season 9 winner Jordan Smith (Kentucky); and, representing Ohio and hopefully wearing her infamous, delightfully tacky 2001 VMAs gown, soul star Macy Gray. (Sadly, someone named Ale Zabala will be singing for Florida, instead of the obvious choice: the above-mentioned Flo Rida himself. Sigh. Yet another missed opportunity.)

As for whether any of American Song Contest’s 56 contestants — who range from established stars to relative unknowns — will eventually bring the fun and the funk, rock as hard as Lordi and Maneskin, or come up with a ditty even half as ear-wormy and grand-prize-worthy as the fictional Fire Saga’s “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” that all remains to be seen. On Monday’s big premiere, 11 of those 56 hopefuls, including Bolton, competed; at the end of the live two-hour episode, a 56-person jury representing each entity picked one song to advance to the semifinals, while three additional songs, determined by that jury plus the voters at home, will be revealed at the top of next Monday’s quarterfinals episode. Here’s what went down:

Yam Haus (Minnesota), “Ready to Go”

These nice Midwestern boys came across as a lite, less catchy Walk the Moon, Foster the People, or Portugal. The Man with their trite pop-rock positivity anthem. Yam Haus was pretty much ready to go… back to Minnesota.

AleXa (Oklahoma), “Wonderland”

This Tulsa-raised cheerleader-turned-K-pop starlet, who’s currently living in South Korea, at least brought the proper production to the show, as would be expected from anyone in the K-pop world. She looked like a comic book heroine in her fembot armor and Aeon Flux pigtails, as she strutted the checkerboard stage floor and dangled from NSYNC puppet strings. She knew how to put on a show. Too bad her song was so forgettable, but at least she sold it.

Kelsey Lamb (Arkansas), “Never Like This”

Kelsey is a country-pop singer who loves Blake Shelton and Avril Lavigne… and that’s pretty much what “Never Like This” sounded like. Her weak vocals would have never turned Blake’s red chair or any other chair on The Voice, and her earth-toned staging made her look like she was performing in a local Thanksgiving pageant. Like Yam Haus, she seemed like an obvious fodder contestant. She will be going out like a Lamb.

UG Skywalkin (Indiana), “Love in My City”

This Uganda-raised missionary kid also got robbed of any splashy production, but he had some serious swag and natural charisma to make up for that. Maybe this wasn’t MTV Video Music Awards-level, but I could see this number being on a VMAs preshow, at least. His song was modern and low-key vibey; Snoop himself called it “bangin’” and said he was “jammin’” to it.

Christian Pagán (Puerto Rico), “Loko”

That hot pink leather biker jacket had Christian looking like he was in Metro Station (or maybe Walk the Moon), and his performance was energetic — but that just wasn’t enough to salvage such a generic song.

Michael Bolton (Connecticut), “Beautiful World”

This was very Olympic anthem, very American Idol Season 2 coronation song, with minimal production other than the white-suited choir that emerged for the final chorus. Of course, this is Michael friggin’ Bolton, and his voice sounded superb, so maybe he didn’t need all those Eurovisionary bells ‘n’ whistles. But I was a bit bored. Where was the Lonely Island when we needed them?

Alisabeth Von Presley (Iowa), “Wonder”

Alisabeth described her style as being like “if Lady Gaga hit Pat Benatar and it exploded into a pot full of glitter,” and she had pink hair and played a keytar, so that all was very promising and very on-brand for the Eurovision franchise. Her girl power anthem wasn’t very memorable, but it had a pleasingly Little Mix-like feel and was delivered with Barbie & The Rockers/Gem & The Holograms flair. So, this girl gets an A for effort.

Jake’O (Wisconsin), “Feel Your Love”

OK, this self-declared “weird Wisconsinite” was one of my favorites. He had Mark Ronson-esque matinee-idol good looks, neato Elvis-on-Ed Sullivan staging, and Jack White rock ‘n’ roll charisma, and his “nuvo retro” banger of a song wasn’t bad. He definitely lit up the stage and elevated the energy in room. I was feeling his love.

Keyone Starr (Mississippi), “Fire”

This churchy rock 'n' soul singer, who described herself as “if Aretha Franklin and Lenny Kravitz had a kid” and promised the “full Mississippi experience,” was actually discovered by Mark Ronson (she sang “I Can't Lose” on his Uptown Special album). Her original song wasn’t at a Ronson level, but as a sexy and seasoned performer, she made it werk. She had high-ponytailed hairography, fiery vocals, and a fearless stage presence. She owned this. I don’t know if Keyone can win this show, but she really ought to go on The Voice.

Ryan Charles (Wyoming), “New Boot Goofin’”

I enjoyed this “cowboy western rap” artist much more than I expected, and more than I care to admit. Everything about his performance embodied the sublime ridiculousness of what I’d wanted from a Eurovision spinoff: corny Chingy-reminiscent rapping, lots of twerking, a futuristic boot store filled with neon footwear, etc. It was totally dumb and a ton o’ fun. Snoop seemed to enjoy it too, dancing along and predicting, “I think everybody is going to be new boot goofin' on TikTok, ‘cuz I already got it started.”

Hueston (Rhode Island), “Held on Too Long”

Billing himself as “if Chris Stapleton and Adele and Sons of Anarchy had a baby, but in a good way” (what was up with all these weird gene-spliced descriptions tonight?), this big-hearted dive bar singer from our nation’s smallest state got the pimp spot for a good reason: This was a genuinely solid power ballad, in that schmaltzy KISS-does-“Beth”/Journey-does-“Faithfully”/Bob Seger-does-“We’ve Got Tonight” tradition. I could see this song actually winning the whole show.

As it turned out, “Held on Too Long” won the night’s jury selection, so Hueston will be advancing to the semifinals. As for the three others, I will go with Jake’O, Keyone Starr, and Ryan Charles for sheer entertainment value — sorry, Michael Bolton! But I hope there’s more entertainment to come in the weeks ahead. SisQó, I’m looking at you…

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