Dayton contestant's eerily timed gun violence ballad is rejected on 'Songland'

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music

NBC’s new talent competition Songland returned this Wednesday after a six-week hiatus, and the timing couldn’t have been more eerie. This season was filmed months ago, so there’s no way that Dayton, Ohio-based contestant Chris Jobe could have predicted that his episode — featuring his anti-gun violence ballad “It Could’ve Been You” — would air only 11 days after an actual horrific mass shooting in his hometown.

(Wednesday’s show opened with a card that read: “This episode was filmed prior to the devastating events in El Paso and Dayton earlier this month. Our thoughts are with those affected by the tragedies.”)

“I’ve lost friends, classmates [due to guns]. When tragedies happen, it affects all of us,” Jobe said. Referring to the many socially conscious statement songs by this week’s guest, Macklemore, like the pro-gay marriage anthem “Same Love” and opioid crisis ballad “Kevin,” Jobe said, “I think [my] song is perfect for Macklemore, because I know he wants to make the world a better place.”

“It Could’ve Been You” was obviously well-intentioned, and Macklemore, who was on the show seemingly looking for his new Ryan Lewis, was clearly moved. But there was a triteness, a lightness, a brightness, a certain lack of gravitas here. Jobe’s sing-songy, overly rhyme-y, lyrically simple entry seemed especially featherweight now, in light of his home city’s recent tragedy. Macklemore and Songland’s regular judges (pro songwriters Ryan Tedder, Ester Dean, and Shane McAnally) somehow foreshadowingly picked up on this, and they gave Jobe some tough critiques.

Macklemore, who has caught flak for beating out Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys and for his controversial single “White Privilege II,” said the song’s story needed to be told more authentically and properly. “I’m a white rapper who grew up in a good neighborhood in Seattle,” he explained frankly. Dean, who pointed out that she did grow up in the ’hood, didn’t think Jobe’s throwaway “pop pop” line, mimicking the sound of gunshots, was appropriate for such a serious song, saying the lyrics needed to be more “kind” and sensitive to listeners affected by gun violence. “You’re speaking too loud, in a room where you don’t know who’s in it,” Dean cautioned.

McAnally proceeded to switch the song to a minor key while Dean sang a gospel freestyle over it, and immediately it felt heavier, sadder, and just more important. I think it had real potential, especially in this current political climate, and I do wish that Macklemore had chosen to take the song to the show’s advanced workshop round. I believe Dean in particular could have worked her magic with it. But Macklemore decided that the subject matter was too “delicate,” and he passed. But it seems Jobe, inspired by the judges’ advice and of course by the recent events that have literally hit so close to home for him, continued working on “It Could’ve Been You” on his own, with impressive results.

So, that left three other songwriters vying for the chance to provide Macklemore with the “banging chorus” he needed for his next single. Among those was Tel Aviv-born, Brooklyn-based busker Iro, whose pained but triumphant ballad “Shadow” was the clear standout. Iro’s husky indie voice and the song’s driving percussion reminded me of Brits like Bastille or Kanye West collaborator Mr. Hudson, with a touch of Aloe Blacc; Tedder actually thought “Shadow” sounded Irish. (It in fact sounded a bit like “Love Runs Out” or “Counting Stars” by Tedder’s band, OneRepublic.)

Iro and his assigned mentor, McAnally, took that Celtic-soul-brother idea and absolutely ran with it, workshopping the stomping song with a bunch of fiddles and other jig-inducing instrumentation. I don’t necessarily think those embellishments improved the tune, but Macklemore was impressed. “I just want to perform this song in front of 40,000 people in Ireland. I have a vision ,” he raved.

Kansas City studio duo Pop Culture’s entry, “City Kids,” had all the makings of a Capital Cities-esque feelgood summer party smash, but since they’d written it with the expectation that Macklemore would insert his own verses later, it was a completely unfinished idea — nothing more than just a hook, albeit quite a catchy one. Pop Culture’s lyric sheet literally only had the non-words “la la la la la” printed over and over. Tedder loved the “swag” and “slacker anthem” feel, but once he got assigned this track, he had his work cut out for him; he really deserved more than the show’s usual credit/percentage for this one.

In the studio, Tedder focused on the arrangement, transitions, time-stretches, and he and Pop Culture emerged triumphant with an actual full-fledged song, retitled “Unforgettable,” with actual words. And Tedder even sang those words himself! It felt very commercial — as in, I could imagine this song being in a commercial for Pepsi or the Gap — but Macklemore, despite calling the track “fire,” didn’t seem totally sold. “I really like you guys, but sometimes you have to cut the people you like the most,” he told Pop Culture with a shrug. Maybe OneRepublic should record this one, since Tedder did much of the work anyway.

Casey Cook’s “Judgments” was last. I appreciated her sweet and wistful voice, which reminded me of Skylar Grey, but I agreed with Macklemore that Cook’s pop production was fussy and overbearing. “I wanna hear it naked,” said Macklemore. Working in the studio, Dean stripped down the song so it wasn’t so “busy and bright” (thought she did add a choir) and made the lyrics more sophisticated and storytelling in quality. But the end result still sounded dated, and not the right fit for Macklemore.

In the end, Iro and “Shadows” unsurprisingly prevailed, and while Macklemore did not fulfill his dream of singing it in Ireland, he did perform the winning tune 12 days after this episode’s taping at a festival in Brazil — and he brought Iro with him to croon the chorus, explaining, “If you write the lyrics, you’re on the song. I would not have it any other way.”

It was a total A Star Is Born moment when Macklemore brought Iro onstage, and judging from the massive crowd’s response, it seems that these two have a smash on their hands. Watch their performance below.

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