“This special episode of Songland was taped before the COVID-19 pandemic,” read the cold open of Monday’s broadcast. “The Tokyo Olympics will begin July 23, 2021.”
Monday’s episode was supposed to help guest star Bebe Rexha find an official anthem to record for the 2020 Summer Olympics — “something that has high energy, makes you feel like you can accomplish anything, something that just makes you feel like you can take on the world.” But of course, no one at Songland could have predicted how much that world would change, due to both the coronavirus pandemic and the outraged public reaction to the killing of George Floyd, by the time Rexha’s episode aired. And so, this week’s winning song — or make that the winning mashup, a Songland first — took on new purpose as a hopeful statement of survival during these trying times.
As it turned out, no one Songland contestant could totally capture was Rexha was certainly looking for. But one of them was certainly no stranger to TV talent shows. Longtime America’s Got Talent viewers might have recognized the name Anna Graceman — even if the now-20-year-old looked very different from how she did in 2011, as a tutu-clad child prodigy and fan favorite on AGT Season 6, when she blew everyone away with her first audition (as seen below) and eventually made it all the way to the top 10.
Graceman’s AGT past was oddly not mentioned on Songland, even through both shows air on the same network, NBC. But Anna, who has penned more than 70 songs since she started playing music at age 6, has accomplished a lot since her AGT breakthrough almost a decade ago. She went on to become a YouTube sensation, racking up 35 million for her AGT audition alone, and by the time she was 16 she’d released two albums on her own label, Another Girl Records. She also performed in an all-star AGT Vegas revue that ran for seven weeks at the Venetian resort and was a finalist in the International Songwriting Competition judged by Tom Waits, Jeff Beck, Bernie Taupin, and Mark Foster.
But stardom has eluded her in adulthood, so now Graceman was back on TV going for the gold, so to speak. However, as Songland judge Ryan Tedder noted, “With these anthemic songs for things as lofty at the Olympics, you can get very cliché very quickly,” and Graceman’s entry, “Gold” — which was, well, about “going for the gold” — was too “on-the-nose” according to Tedder’s fellow judge, Shane McAnally. Trite lyrics aside, Rexha loved Graceman’s moodyverse and pre-chorus build-up, but said the chorus “didn’t hit me in the face.” Rexha suggested adding some “electric dirty guitar” to grime it up a bit a la “No Doubt and the Killers,” so clearly Graceman still had some growing up to do as a songwriter.
Conversely, Rexha was totally hit in the face by the “A-plus” chorus of contestant Greg Scott’s more aggressive “Miracle” — she liked it so much, in fact, that she even went up to the microphone and began belting it on the spot, from memory, which was a great sign. But McAnally pointed out that “Miracle’s” tepid verse didn’t feel current, and Rexha pretty much suggested that Scott throw out the verse and start over from scratch. Scott seemed completely willing to do that and not the least bit insulted, saying these pros “totally dissected my song in the most positive way.”
And so, it was on to the workshop round, where Scott was paired with Tedder and Graceman with McAnally. (Judge Ester Dean worked with another contestant, Josh Vida, but his pleading love ballad “Crazy Enough” never seemed Olympian enough, even with Dean’s help, to go any further than the bronze on this episode.) Tedder switched up “Miracle’s” production entirely to give it the “raw, cool” vibe Rexha wanted, and he simplified the melodies so that Scott’s gold-medal chorus could really shine. Meanwhile, McAnally made “Gold” bigger and bolder by adding a choir and some thundering, Imagine Dragons-style drums, and he changed the title and hook from “Gold” to the less obvious “Bones,” which definitely freshened things up.
Both songs were improved, but when Scott and Graceman performed them for Rexha (with Scott now accompanied by a female vocalist), Rexha had a your-chocolate’s-in-my-peanut-butter epiphany and realized that “Miracle” and “Bones” were two great tastes that tasted better together. “What I have in my head is going to be a mind-twister. Like, something nobody will be thinking of,” she announced with a grin.
“Nobody really saw this coming; this has never happened on the show before,” Rexha told the shocked contestants, when she informed them that she had decided to Frankenstein the “Bones” verse with the “Miracle” chorus and lay McAnally’s lyrics on top of Tedder’s melody. It was a brilliant move, as the new hybrid tune (still titled “Miracle”) was truly the sum of its parts, stronger than what any of the participating songwriters had come up with on their own. This actually felt like a true Olympic anthem.
“Having Bebe on the show has certainly kept us on our toes,” said McAnally. “That’s the kind of next-level songwriting that only someone like Bebe could really pull off.”
Of course, there was a bittersweetness to this episode, since all of the songs’ lyrics were about finally reaching one’s goals after a lifetime of preparation and dedication — and now the Tokyo Olympics athletes will have to wait another year to pursue their dreams. But Rexha’s rousing “Miracle” is available to stream now, and congratulations are in order for both Scott and Graceman, who have realized their dreams and whose unexpected collaboration will be heard at next year’s Summer Games.