A few winning contestants on Songland have already experienced success. Tebby Burrows’s “We Need Love,” selected and recorded by guest judge John Legend, went to No. 10 on the iTunes chart; Adam Friedman’s “Be Nice” for the Black Eyed Peas went to No. 17; and Able Heart’s “Greenlight” for the Jonas Brothers and Darius Coleman’s “Better Luck Next Time” for Kelsea Ballerini both climbed the charts to No. 2.
But this week’s Songland episode, featuring Aloe Blacc, offered the biggest opportunity yet: The winner’s entry would be placed in an “epic battle” scene of the forthcoming Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw starring Jason Statham, Idris Elba and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Music placements in mainstream film and television are most songwriters’ holy grails these days, and The Rock himself, making a surprise FaceTime appearance to encourage this week’s aspiring silver-screen songwriters, seemed just as “super-excited” as Hobbs & Shaw director David Leitch about finding a “super-anthemic” song with “swagger.”
“Our music for Hobbs & Shaw is our soul, and it’s a lifeline of our movie,” he said. “Thank you so much for sharing your passion. Go out there and have fun. And by the way, the world doesn’t know you — but they’re about to!”
Interestingly, the contestant that I thought rocked the competition the hardest this week was the one that Blacc and Leitch opted not to advance to the second round. Afika’s overcoming-adversity anthem “Chosen” was the only entry that didn’t sound like an Imagine Dragons outtake or an American Idol coronation song, with a chanty intro that recalled Kanye West’s “Power” (judge Ester Dean also name-checked Kendrick Lamar) and what Blacc described as “vibey”with a “nice energy.” It was quite easy to imagine this bombastic blockbuster blasting out of some 5.1 surround sound speakers at the local megaplex.
And yet, “Chosen” wasn’t chosen. While Blacc appreciated its aspirational lyrics and aggressive attack, he ultimately felt “Chosen” wouldn’t work for him. Afika graciously thanked the judges and exited, taking with him their suggestions on how to improve the track. I sincerely hope Akifa has a hit with it some day, and that The Rock’s prophecy about the “world getting to know” the Songland hopefuls applies to Afika as well.
So that left Blacc, Leitch, Dean and the show’s two other resident judges, Shane McAnally and Ryan Tedder, with three other cinematic anthems. Here’s how it went.
Kyle Williams, “I’m Just Getting Started”
I was digging the reggae/dancehall vibe with a touch of the Mary J. Blige-popularized “Nadia’s Theme” from The Young & The Restless, but the big rock chorus sounded a bit dated, a bit ‘90s beer commercial. And it was lacking a certain oomph; I needed it to be faster and, um, furious-er. McAnally also craved more of a “payoff,” and Dean wanted to elevate the song to the “next level” with some tribal drums (although that unfortunately made it sound like even more of an Imagine Dragons rip-off). Blacc wanted the song to “tug the heart more.” But Leitch was ultimately the man in the director’s seat, literally and figuratively, and he declared, “The swagger in that is undeniable.”
Despite the judges’ critiques of his track, Williams moved on to round 2, where he was paired with Tedder, whose goal was to make the song “as edgy as possible.” Tedder liked that the song was “cocky without being obnoxious” or cheesy (“It’s really hard to do anthems that aren’t cheesy”); he merely wanted to make it more urban, less Twenty One pilots. (He also said he wanted to make it more AWOL Nation-esque, which confused me. So AWOL are an urban band now?) Back for his second performance, Williams’s revised version felt too chill in verse, but this time, the chorus really delivered. Tedder had “goosebumps,” and Blacc said this was the sort of song that inspired him to get up in the morning and get to work.
TVTE, “Call for a Hero”
The Bonnie Tyler/Chad Kroeger-esque song title was corny, and the trite lyrics were way too on-the-nose — this seemed deliberately written in the hopes of landing an action flick placement, which amusingly reminded me of a recent Hard Times satire (at least I think it was satire) article, “Black Keys Stop Beating Around the Bush and Title New Single ‘Ford Commercial.’” TVTE’s (pronounced “Tate”) song was also way too busy, with six different movable parts (the average song, according to expert Dean, contains three). The best part of TVTE’s audition was really her vocal performance; maybe the girl should have tried out for another NBC talent show, The Voice, instead. But Leith thought the song’s “call to action” spirit could fit well with the film.
Later in the studio, TVTE’s assigned mentor/writing partner Dean worked to overhaul the chorus to give it a stadium-ready call-and-response vibe (that was a special request from Blacc), and she added some Dr. Dre piano to up the cool factor. But the new version didn’t sound too different, or all that cool. It still sounded like a parody of a hero movie song. TVTE still slayed that vocal, though.
Steve Fee, “Same Blood”
This Nashville songwriter raised on church music and Top 40 pop seemed to connect well with the bromance theme of Hobbs & Shaw, with inspiring lyrics about the “family you choose.” This was a refreshing change of pace from the episode’s other bludgeoning blowhard songs, and it was clear that Blacc and Leitch were moved. But was “Same Blood” right for a fight scene? Not really. It was more of an end-credits song.
In the studio with McAnally, Fee opened up about what this power ballad was really about: Years ago, Fee became friends with a little boy with cancer who loved his songwriting, and he visited the child, named Creed, in the hospital to sing for him. At that time he befriended Creed’s single mom, and when the boy tragically died, Fee told her he would stick by her like family because they are the “same blood.” Fee and the woman actually got married five years ago. McAnally teared up hearing this story, and he was inspired to add a gospel element with piano. The end result still didn’t sound like an epic battle song, but it was a winner in its own way. “I felt your heart … That is why we write songs,” McAnally gushed.
Blacc and Leitch ultimately picked “I’m Just Getting Started,” which they explained had an appropriate message for the first installment in a brand-new Fast & Furious series. But after the show, Blacc decided to record “Same Blood” as well. (This made Blacc the second Songland guest judge to pick more than one winner: On the Black Eyed Peas/will.i.am episode, there was actually a three-way tie.) It remains to be seen if either song will be a hit on iTunes or, in the case of Kyle Williams, at the box office. (Blacc’s recorded versions of both singles can be heard below.) But both songwriters’ careers are for sure getting started, and tonight, they got a piece of the rock — or The Rock.
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