From Anna Graceman's soulful take on the Motley Crue classic "Home Sweet Home" to POPLYFE's lively Beatles cover, to say music plays a prominent role on America's Got Talent would be a gross understatement. Music is so prominent that, in the case of singers, it can make or break chances of moving on to the next round and getting one step closer to being crowned the winner. When it comes to voting, a fan's impression of an act's performance and personality can heavily rely on the act's song choice. For instance, Daniel Joseph Baker's selection of Lady Gaga hits week after week earned him the nickname "Lady GuyGuy," and Team iLuminate have said themselves "the music drives the movement" when putting together their innovative hip-hop routines.
The process of bringing performers' ideas from vision to stage is largely driven by the music backing the performance, as often times the entire concept will begin with the song choice. The performer's producer will work with them on several ideas, then present these ideas to the music department to determine whether or not the music is available for licensing. Usually, the contestants will pick several songs they love, just in case their first picks aren't available for use. "It really is all about the act and what they want," explained Miguel Jefferson, AGT's music coordinator. "It should feel natural for them." The acts have to have their songs picked out for the next round of the competition even before they've performed for the current round, the main reason being that the backing music on AGT is prerecorded and tailored specifically for that act. In some cases, this means the song has to be chosen, rearranged, recorded, mixed and edited within a day. Because the show is aired live each week, as soon as the music department learns who has been voted through on Wednesday morning, they begin work on arranging the act's next song, sending it to be mixed and edited so that, come Thursday morning, the act can immediately begin rehearsing and working with the vocal coach for the next round. In other words, Wednesdays are by far the busiest.
Including Miguel, the department consists of five people and is overseen by Meryl Ginsberg, the head music supervisor. After an act chooses its song and Miguel has cleared the song with the publisher, musical director Nigel Wright and his right-hand man, Mike Farrell, work with the act to figure out how to arrange the full track into 90 seconds that combine all the parts they want to sing. Nigel then determines who is necessary to execute the backing track - how many percussionists, guitarists and, in some cases, horn players are needed. The band is brought in to record the track, per Nigel's arrangement, then the track is shipped to London for mixing and editing. This long-distance collaboration is done for efficiency: because of the time difference, while the music department sleeps here, the music department across the pond is busy putting the track together as quickly as possible, allowing for a swift 24-hour turnover. Come Thursday morning, the singers are ready to join the team in the studio and work with vocal coach Yvie Burnett on their vocal presentation. Yvie has worked with everyone from Sarah Brightman to Katy Perry and fine tuned the most memorable voices of Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor, including fan favorite Susan Boyle and powerhouse Leona Lewis. She helps the singers polish their notes, enunciation and ad libs to create a pitch-perfect signature style, so that once the singers have moved on to learn blocking and choreography, they've got the actual singing down pat.
When it comes to clearing songs for dancers, the team has to work quickly to either get the proper permission to use an act's first choices on air or to find suitable alternatives that still align creatively and organically with the contestant's vision. After all, Snap Boogie's last performance was a purposeful play on words with "Boogie Wonderland," and the Summerwind Skippers' epic post-apocalyptic theme wouldn't have packed the same punch (or jump) without Britney Spears' dance anthem "Till the World Ends."
So what happens when a song doesn't clear last minute? The performers will tailor their acts to fit what they can use. Miami All Stars had to do just that with their first Hollywood performance; their swift routine adjustments and flexibility spoke volumes on their professionalism, not only onstage but also in the production process. Luckily, there haven't been too many of those instances this season. Even for tracks that are usually impossible to obtain, the team has managed to do it, in large part due to the caliber of talent using the song. Typically out of reach, The Beatles' "Come Together," Evanescence's "Bring Me to Life" and Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home" were all made available because the team sent over videos of POPLYFE, Lys Agnes and Anna Graceman singing, respectively. And just like that, the popular tracks were approved. "This season we've gotten a lot of good music because the contestants are really strong. So we can send the music over and the publisher approves it a lot more easily than usual," explained Miguel. Though the talent competing is undoubtedly strong, the team that's providing the tools and training for it to be showcased in the best light possible must be equally exceptional. It's a good thing AGT's music department surpasses this requirement.