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The U.S. gets its own version of the 'Eurovision Song Contest'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you have ever wondered what ABBA, Celine Dion, Julio Iglesias and Olivia Newton-John have in common, I've got your answer. They all found international fame on "Eurovision."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATERLOO")

ABBA: (Singing) Waterloo. I was defeated. You won the war.

MARTIN: For over 60 years, countries have sent singers to the competition with an original song in hopes that they will be crowned the winner by voters watching at home. But the U.S. hasn't been part of it at all until this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN SONG CONTEST")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And, yeehaw, two music legends will help bring the joy of "Eurovision" to the U.S. of A.

MARTIN: That's the goal, anyway. Those two would be Snoop Dogg and Kelly Clarkson. The show is called "American Song Contest," and it starts tonight. Glen Weldon and Stephen Thompson are the hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, and I know they're going to be watching. Hey, you two.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey there.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hey, how's it going?

MARTIN: It goes well. I'm super excited for this conversation. OK, for those who have not yet experienced the majesty of the "Eurovision Song Contest," I'm going to turn to you both for an explainer here.

WELDON: Well, let's see. In terms of visual, what you've been missing is spectacle - lasers, fire, video projection, smoke machines, glitter. And in terms of music, you're going to get basically three types of songs. You're going to get bops, which are up-tempo songs. You're going to get anthems, which are stirring and bombastic and defiant.

THOMPSON: (Whispering) That's right.

WELDON: And you're going to get ballads, which are slow and melodramatic and achingly sincere. And in terms of tone, that's the magic. The magic is it's 100% leaning into the glitz and glamour and cheesiness of everything but doing it in a really knowing way. And a great example of that self-awareness is when Sweden hosted the contest in 2016. The two hosts that year, Mans Zelmerlow and Petra Mede, sang a song parodying exactly what it takes to win "Eurovision."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EUROVISION SONG CONTEST")

MANS ZELMERLOW: (Singing) Let the song begin with passion. Let the wind begin to blow.

PETRA MEDE: (Singing) You can break the rules of fashion and your chance to win shall grow. Look into the TV camera so the audience can see.

ZELMERLOW: (Singing) That you're lovable, not desperate. Smile and they will vote for me.

MARTIN: I mean, I wish you could see me - no, not really, because I'm doing bad chair dancing. But you can't not move...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...Because you cannot not feel, right? That's what I love about "Eurovision." It is self-aware, but they're like, we are moved by feelings and we want to have that in our songs.

WELDON: Absolutely.

THOMPSON: Yeah. It's self-aware, but it's sincere.

WELDON: Yeah.

MARTIN: I love it. So before we get to how this American version is going to work, can we talk about the hosts for a second? We're talking Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg. Is this a winning team? Because in my mind, "Eurovision" - the hosts have got to bring, like, crazy energy. Snoop is relaxed, shall we say, in a public presentation. Very relaxed.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that's a really good question. I think what they are is they're game.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: They are very willing to participate. Are they willing to lean hard into the absurdity of it and actually incorporate themselves into the absurdity of it?

MARTIN: Yeah.

WELDON: And if "Eurovision" - if one of the salient points of "Eurovision" is its randomness, then Snoop Dogg's status as an agent of chaos can only help.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So this is how Snoop Dogg and Kelly Clarkson describe this new American version.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN SONG CONTEST")

SNOOP DOGG: Every state and territory will compete live for your votes...

KELLY CLARKSON: ...In the biggest televised music event you've ever seen.

SNOOP DOGG: America's next great hit...

CLARKSON: ...Could come from your hometown.

MARTIN: All right. That was significant. Every state and territory, right?

WELDON: So, yeah, that's all 50 states, plus five U.S. territories - Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa - plus Washington, D.C., which doesn't happen in a lot of contests like this.

MARTIN: (Cheering) Right.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: OK, Stephen, this seems like it opens it up and diversifies the range of contestants, no?

THOMPSON: Well, yeah. I think that kind of brings us to the next structural issue, which is that the artists here have already been chosen. And you have a mixture of kind of unknown artists with a few ringers...

MARTIN: Right.

THOMPSON: ...That really kind of throw off the balance. I mean, Michael Bolton is representing Connecticut. Jewel is representing Alaska. Macy Gray is representing Ohio. You have some pretty well-known names interspersed with artists who might be known in some localities but aren't necessarily identified closely with their state. I, for example - I live in Maryland, and my state is represented by the singer Sisqo, most famous for the hit "Thong Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THONG SONG")

SISQO: (Singing) That thong, thong, thong, thong, thong.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) And I have to confess that in the 16 years that I've lived in Maryland, I have never been stirred into kind of a patriotic fervor by the music of Sisqo. (Laughter) And - but this show expects me to be.

MARTIN: Yeah.

THOMPSON: I just - I don't see people doing that. You know how - have you ever seen those maps go by, like, on Twitter, these kind of clickbait maps? And it's like, what fast food restaurant does your state like best?

MARTIN: Oh, right.

THOMPSON: And you look at it and you're like - you're just like, nobody I know goes to Arby's. What are you talking about?

MARTIN: (Laughter) I go to Arby's.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Like, I'm not going to...

WELDON: My favorite candy isn't Zagnut. What are they talking about?

THOMPSON: Exactly. Milk Duds? And so I just - I'm not sure that you're going to be able to whip up the same fervor. I think a lot of people are going to sit there and be like, Arby's? Michael Bolton?

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, last question. Is there room for this in the market? I mean, not to be Debbie Downer here, but aren't there a lot of these shows out right now? "Idol," "The Voice," The Masked Singer," which Jewel won last season, by the way. So she's kind of making the rounds. But it has - this new show has to distinguish itself from all those others and try to replicate the crazy, beautiful awesomeness that is "Eurovision."

THOMPSON: I think that's a huge, huge question. I mean, there has been market saturation of singing shows for 20 years.

WELDON: The other thing is, can it capture the tone? I mean, yes, spectacle is a big component of "Eurovision," and God knows America can do spectacle. We eat spectacle for breakfast. But a love of the ridiculous - you can call it camp, you can call it irony. I would prefer not to because I don't want to break into a graduate seminar. So let's just call it queerness. There is something defiantly fabulous about "Eurovision," which is why it has such a huge gay fan base. And that's what I worry the American version won't be able to capture because as much as we love our over-the-top displays, we are a nation, Rachel, founded by Puritans.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Right.

WELDON: There is a - still a reflexive distrust of anything that is fun for fun's sake or fabulousness as a virtue.

MARTIN: Oh, so much more to talk about, but I'm afraid we have to end it here. Stephen Thompson and Glen Weldon of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Hey, guys, thank you so much.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Rachel.

WELDON: Thank you.

MARTIN: "American Song Contest" begins tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOY")

NETTA: (Singing) I'm not your toy, not your toy. You stupid... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)