All season long, Ryan Tedder has sat behind the judges’ table on Songland, helping guest A-listers like John Legend, Meghan Trainor, and the Jonas Brothers find new tunes penned by undiscovered composers. And during the workshopping process, Tedder has helped fine-tune five of this season’s 10 winning songs. But on Songland’s season finale this Wednesday, the judging table was turned (and Tedder’s seat was filled by hitmaker Jason Evigan), as Tedder used the show to seek out a track for his own band, OneRepublic.
It was interesting that Tedder (and his bandmate Zach Filkins, who joined him for this episode) would go this route. Tedder noted on Wednesday’s show that OneRepublic have never recorded an outside song before, and aside from his impressive Songland track record, Tedder has co-written such megahits as Adele’s “Turning Tables” and “Rumor Has It,” Beyoncé’s “Halo” and “XO,” Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love,” Ellie Goulding’s “Burn,” and the JoBros’ comeback singles “Sucker” and “Cool.” To be willing to completely hand the reins over to another songwriter demonstrated Tedder’s trust in the Songland process – a trust shared by NBC, incidentally, since the network just greenlit a second season for the show.
After eliminating Tyler James Bellinger’s Sam Smithian “Giving You Up” – which was actually favorite entry of the night, but was performed in a glass-shattering falsetto more suitable for Songland co-creator Adam Levine than for Tedder’s range – Tedder, Filkins, Evigan, and regular judges Ester Dean and Shane McAnally focused on the three remaining contenders.
Waitress-by-day/songwriter-by-night Madi’s “Darkest Days” was nicely lilting in a Keane/Coldplay sort of way, but its lyrics, which seemed pulled straight from a Louise Hay Inspirational Quotes of the Day desk calendar, were quite trite. Dean thought the song needed more pain and sadness; Evigan thought the pre-chorus needed more clarity. Tedder griped that “Darkest Days” wasn’t dark enough and was too “pretty” and “cute,” but he appreciated that it was dance record, which would challenge him and make him “flex in a different way.”
Madi was paired with Dean in the next round, and Tedder was extremely hands-on, as would be expected, not totally ready or willing to abdicate his old Songland role. Dean and Madi heeded his orders, but I’m not sure if Dean’s dancey production ultimately improved the song. Tedder claimed he was a “huge fan of happy/sad,” but this still did sound sad enough.
Brigetta’s “Be Somebody” was even more “pedestrian,” as McAnally said. It was all about struggling and trying to make it in the music industry – not exactly a subject that Tedder can relate to anymore, considering that he has won three Grammys and his band has sold more than 10 million records worldwide. Tedder said the sad-sack ballad needed “lyrical surgery,” so it was Dr. Evigan to the rescue.
Evigan, turned off by the Brigetta’s desperately aspirational, fame-seeking theme, switched the chorus -- at Dean’s suggestion -- to say “I wanna be your somebody” instead of “I wanna be somebody.” This made it sound a lot less like something Navin Johnson would say after seeing his name in the White Pages, so that was a plus. Evigan also added urban drums and gang vocals (very “Counting Stars”/“Love Runs Out” of him). The moody new version of the song still took too long to get going, but once it did, there was a satisfying payoff in the big, banging chorus. Filkins said this revised version “made total sense,” and Tedder said it gave him “goosebumps.”
But the especially bumpy goosebumps were reserved for JT Roach’s “Somebody to Love.” It was a pretty encouraging sign when Tedder said this “heartbreak song” deserved to share the same title with a certain famous Queen classic; I wouldn’t go that far, of course, but this entry was the clear winner. Its soaring chorus was reminiscent of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” or LeAnn Rimes’s “Blue” (“familiar in the best way” is how Tedder described it), and since the last breakup song OneRepublic recorded was their breakout hit “Apologize” in 2006, it was time for them to tackle another single like this. “There are so many breakup songs in the world right now, but that sounds new,” said Filkins. “I’ve pitched a lot of songs to OneRepublic, and they’ve never responded like this,” quipped McAnally.
McAnally the master storyteller was the right man for this job, tweaking Roach’s vague lyrics to be more personal, deep, and “knife-in-the-heart.” (The best new line: “You ain’t even tryin’ to make me jealous, but you just can’t help it.” Ouch.) And the new sparer, less guitar-heavy production with cello accompaniment was very “Apologize Pt. 2.” Tedder said, “I’ll be damned if that wasn’t an almost perfect song already,” but called the new version “gut-wrenching.” Evigan confessed that he wish he’d written it.
When it came time for Tedder and Filkins to make their decision, they didn’t even have to deliberate. “I had one melody circling around in my head over and over again,” Tedder announced… and it was this “magical” one. I guess now JT Roach doesn’t have to regret that he quit his rather awesome day job at The Onion (!!!) to pursue his dream, because his songwriting talent is no joke. “I know we’re sitting on a hit,” Tedder attested.
The finale ended on a literal high note, with OneRepublic performing “Somebody to Love” with the full Colorado Symphony orchestra at the hallowed Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Wow… that’s how you go out with a bang, NBC! But as mentioned above, Songland has been renewed and will be back next year.
It is heartening to see that America’s viewers latched onto a program that got into the un-glamorous, un-scandalous nitty-gritty of behind-the-scenes songwriting -- since in 2011, a similar (and also very good) reality competition, Bravo’s Platinum Hit starring Kara DioGuardi and Jewel, was a ratings disaster. But Songland’s Shark Tank-style approach was a success, with quite a few of the contestants’ songs becoming top 10 hits on iTunes or even scoring placements in major commercials and films. So I look forward to visiting Songland again in 2020.