NBC’s fascinating new talent competition Songland, the brainchild of executive producers Adam Levine and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, puts the focus on composers instead of performers. And in the process, the show is not only making stars out of contestants submitting songs for stars like this week’s guest, Meghan Trainor, but it’s increasing the public profiles for judges Ester Dean and Shane McAnally — who are huge names in the industry, but aren’t necessarily well-known by the average television viewer.
McAnally, who moved from the tiny Texas town of Mineral Wells to Branson at age 15 and then to Nashville at 19, certainly got in the best made-for-TV zinger of Tuesday’s Songland episode, when he and Dean were discussing their largely behind-the-scenes careers. “I was relieved when I find out [songwriting] was a job, because I thought you had to be George Strait to go to Nashville,” said McAnally, “and the truth is, my name isn’t George and I wasn’t straight!”
McAnally released only one solo album, a self-titled effort that received mixed reviews and yielded three moderately successful singles that cracked the top 50 of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart around 1999/2000. But he is now one of the most successful country songwriters of all time, with a multi-page résumé that includes credits for pretty much every major name in Nashville, including Miranda Lambert, Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris, Keith Urban, Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton, Dan + Shay, and most notably Kacey Musgraves, whose “Follow Your Arrow” featured the inclusive line “kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into.” And McAnally has done all this as an openly gay man in a historically conservative genre/scene, which why he landed on Rolling Stone’s recent “Music’s Unsung LGBTQ Heroes” list next to Frankie Knuckles, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, and Big Freedia.
McAnally shares a country pedigree with Trainor — who some may not know got her start penning songs for the likes of Rascal Flatts and Hunter Hayes — though on Songland he glowingly praised Trainor for being a complete-package artist who can sing, dance, and write for both herself and others. But surely any aspiring songwriter on Songland, like this week’s four hopefuls, would be happy to have a career like McAnally’s or Trainor’s. While the one country-leaning songwriter of Tuesday’s bunch, Southern gentleman Zachary Kale, was passed over because his sentimental “All Over Again” was too “cute” and “bouncy” (and because newlywed Trainor apparently already has enough love songs set aside for her forthcoming third album), the three other contenders came with the “sassy power anthems” that Trainor was searching for.
First up was Atlanta’s jovial, starstruck Brandin Jay with “No Money Alright,” a song about being broke but happy that evoked the old-soul style of CeeLo Green’s “F*** You” or Trainor’s own duet with Charlie Puth, “Marvin Gaye.” Trainor loved the feelgood gospel outro and told Jay he was “born to do this,” but she struggled with how dated the song felt. (I honestly believe Brandin, whom third judge Ryan Tedder said “emanated joy,” was just too adorable and likable for Trainor to turn him down.)
When Dean got in the studio one-on-one with Jay, the song did get a much-needed upgrade — trading the churchy vibe for a dirtier, Jay-Z-inspired beat; completely switching up the lyrics (a song about being poor just wouldn’t be credible coming from a superstar like Trainor); and even retitling it “We Got Us.” Trainor was impressed by Jay’s flexibility, openness, and lack of ego – all crucial qualities if one wants a career as a songwriter-for-hire – but his song still didn’t quite seem like a fit for her.
On the other hand, self-described quirky pop artist Kole’s “Hurt Me,” a breakup bop about a smack-talking ex, seemed Trainoresque from the start. Even Kole’s nasal delivery and half-spoken asides sort of sounded like the froggier, goofier parts of Trainor’s voice. And the song was certainly sassy! Trainor called it “the hookiest thing I’ve ever heard” and “fire.” Once Tedder worked on the song with Kole, punching up the production to make it less thin and more urban and edgy, “Hurt Me” sounded like the clear winner. “You remind me a lot of myself,” Trainor foreshadowingly told Kole.
The Timberlakian Josh Wood’s saucy breakup anthem “Alone” had a boy-band vibe that Tedder noted was perfectly timed for the current wave of ‘90s nostalgia; Dean actually compared it to classic Mariah Carey. “This song won’t leave my head!” Trainor confessed. But its storyline was lacking, so McAnally, with his lyrics-focused country background, was the perfect song doctor for this one. McAnally “changed it from the ground up,” adding more kiss-my-ass sass and anger but also some humor. Like Jay, Wood also seemed perfectly fine with the changes, and he totally sold the revamped tune with a vivacious second performance for the panel.
In the end, though, Trainor unsurprisingly selected Kole’s “Hurt Me” (her version of which can be heard below), though I’m a little surprised she didn’t also pick the undeniably earwormy “Alone.” (On will.i.am’s episode, he actually chose to record three contestants’ songs.) But as McAnally’s story shows, Jay, Wood, and Kale just need to keep grinding, and it’s possible that they could become superstar songwriters, no matter what odds they face.
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