'The Voice' vs. 'American Idol' (Compared)
THR's music editor Shirley Halperin weighs in on NBC's new hit singing competition, which features Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green.
Everyone has been asking me: What did you think of The Voice? It's not that my opinion matters so much, but as someone who's covered American Idol for 10 years ... well, the comparisons are inevitable. And truth be told, the Mark Burnett-produced NBC show is the first real contender for the throne that Fox's singing competition has held for a decade — or at least, it's in fine position to give Idol a run for its money. So did The Voice's premiere episode, which returns for an encore presentation Wednesday night, do that?
In a way, it's almost unfair to judge the show at this early stage, but the fact that producers were still editing together Episode No. 1 at 9 a.m. Monday, as an NBC rep told reporters gathered for an early screening, says a lot. Like Idol, which was also finessing the first episode of Season 10 in the eleventh hour, there are a lot of factors to weigh when launching a show with such star power. There's the issue of pacing, you need some laughs, tender moments — but not too many so as to trigger a gag reflex — and, of course, the best talent imaginable.
So let's start with the latter: Were the 16 contestants chosen the best singers the world had ever heard? Hardly. There were a couple who showed promise, for sure — 16-year-old Xenia, who brought to mind the soft, nuanced style of a Norah Jones, and Rebecca Loebe, who reinterpreted Nirvana's "Come As You Are" as a jazz number (Casey Abrams, you might want to pay attention). As for the rest, aside from the fact that many are what would be deemed "professional" singers — having had record deals, roles on Broadway, etc. — they were good but not great. In Idol terms, it's doubtful most would have made it through Hollywood week.
With that in mind, let's discuss the Frenchie Davis factor. Was it an effort to glom off the Idol name? Certainly these coaches must be discouraged from using words like "pitchy" and "dog," but name-checking an Idol reject is OK? In truth, I don't have a problem with Frenchie's participation. If anything, her disqualification from Idol Season 2 (due to "racy pictures" displayed on the now-irrelevant Myspace) was reactionary in the worst way, and if anyone deserves another chance, it's her. But when your show's motto is "demand a better Voice," it feels like a slag on an inferior product, yet you have no problem using that product yourself? Anyway, it wasn't Frenchie's best, either, but I look forward to her progress.
Of course, the big twist in The Voice is its use of celebrity coaches who have a vested interest in the success of these eight chosen team members. Getting the biggest bang for NBC's buck (and I hear each is receiving a hefty paycheck), they've enlisted artists with multiple Grammy nods, sales in the millions and, most important, a personality. But is that the real Christina Aguilera? Coy, flirtatious, sweet, nurturing? Or is it the TV version? If I were a betting gal, which, as it turns out I am, I'd put my money on the latter — although clearly, she's received some quality coaching herself.
Adam Levine, on the other hand, is someone I've spent enough time with where I can attest to the fact that Adam the person is much like his TV persona: choosy, competitive, sarcastic and attitudinal — in a good way. I love that he's quickly become the collector of outcasts with the overweight Jeff Jenkins and the aforementioned Loebe but also acknowledges when it's not a good fit — like in the case of Vicci Martinez — without apologies.
Cee Lo Green is much the same, though it looks like he's still finding his sea (Lo) legs. As for Blake Shelton, he's long been buzzed about as The Voice's standout coach, and for good reason: The guy is likable, funny and handsome. Carson Daly's purpose as family cheerleader feels like a footnote at this point, but there is time for him to find his place as well, and perhaps tone down the flowery, flaunting rhetoric after every singer's turn.
All this will come to light once the show segues to live episodes in June. It's a big risk. Like Idol's Steven Tyler, who received high marks for his audition banter but has become progressively less amusing during the Top 13 rounds, every coach will need to reconcile their TV selves, taking into account the talk on Twitter along with the opinions of family, friends and, yes, jaded journalists.
The Voice has hit upon a key factor, however, that Idol is paralyzed to change: that judgment is better left to the coaches because America rarely gets it right. Sure, Idol found Carrie Underwood, now a country superstar; Kelly Clarkson, a radio-ready vocalist if ever there was one; and David Cook, the kind of rock singer who should have had no trouble getting a record deal and graduating from packing the bar to selling out arenas. But Idol voters failed to anoint Adam Lambert victor of Season 8; ditto for Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson and Crystal Bowersox. And while Voice viewers will eventually have that responsibility handed to them, the early rounds might make more sense.
In the end, what it comes down to is viewership, and according to the overnights, The Voice, like Idol, is being watched in larger numbers by women. Hopefully that won't mean that female contestants are shown the door tout de suite, as has been the case on Idol for the last four or so years.
I didn't watch The Voice live because it didn't feel like appointment viewing, but I'm hoping that will change as more contestants' stories are told and some real stars start to shine. After all, record companies these days don't have the resources, manpower or wherewithal to develop truly undiscovered acts. Television, on the other hand, does, without putting the industry's entire livelihood at stake. Still, until The Voice gives me someone to care about — and that includes said person's look, story and personality — it's relegated to the DVR and the overnight hours in my house.