'Rising Star': What to Expect During the Duels

The second stage of the ABC singing show calls for Walls in front of only half the contestants, and advice from all three experts. No duets necessary.
Courtesy of ABC
"Rising Star"

After downloading the app, repeatedly checking in and casting real-time votes, America raised the Wall for 20 singers on Rising Star.

Next up on the ABC singing show? The "duels," but don't be mistaken: The upcoming round isn't reminiscent of any other round on a current talent competition.

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For the next three weeks, each one-hour episode will showcase three duels. Two similar-sounding singers will perform a solo of their choice — the first on the open stage, the second from behind the Wall — and whichever of the two gets the most votes wins the match. Singers learn the identity of their opponent a week before their duel, and find out whether they're performing first or second via a coin flip.

"There's an interesting dynamic in that the first person has an open stage, so if they want to jump about and run about the place, they can, whereas the person behind the Wall is a little bit more restricted," executive producer Ken Warwick tells The Hollywood Reporter. "However, that person knows what they've got to beat, and so does the audience, so we like to think that it evens out."

While the winners of each duel will be determined by voting results from the live broadcast, the West Coast's delayed airing will be crucial, as the highest total of the singers who did not win their duel will still move on to the next round. In total, four of each night's six will advance.

It's a departure from the second rounds of other singing shows: American Idol trims hundreds of hopefuls after they perform in groups during Hollywood Week, and The Voice cuts teams in half with sudden-death duets. But in both situations, all involved sing the same song, which inevitably leads to compromise. "If there's a country person and a rock person, they'd both have to sing a country song or a rock song, and it's not fair," explains Warwick, formerly of Idol. "This is more fair, as far as we're concerned, because the kid can sing a song that's in their own wheelhouse. … You don't take a kid out of what they're good at; you let them be as good as they can possibly be."

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Also a point of difference in this round is that each singer is mentored by all three experts — Ludacris, Kesha and Brad Paisley — at the same time, meaning that viewers will hear plenty more from the three besides a few short lines of feedback after an audition.

"They don’t always disagree in the direction where they should be going! But it makes for good TV and it's helpful to the artist," executive producer Nicolle Yaron, formerly of The Voice, tells THR. "All week, they've been meeting with them and helping them with their look, arrangements, instruments they should play, vocal coaching. They're giving help on how to best take on their opponent, as well as how to create their own image and style, and how to differentiate themselves and become their best."

So how do the Rising Star experts fare as mentors? "Ludacris is not a villain; he just knows nothing but the truth, and he always wants to make people better. And he's got the warmest, most funniest, loving guy," teases Yaron, adding that Paisley demonstrates his instrumental mastery. "It's not only helping them with their vocal, but also their guitar-playing. At one point, he was their guitar tech! But he is the toughest in mentoring; he definitely pushes them the most."

And of Kesha, producers say viewers will discover more than just her deep knowledge of music. "I must be honest: When she first came in, her persona — or her rap sheet, if you'd like — is that she was a party girl," says Warwick. "We talked to her and this is what impressed me: She really was intelligent, what she said makes sense, and she was sweet and kind. And she wanted to kind of fix this reputation that she had had." He continues, "I'm starting to quite warm to her, and she's doing it in the right way — gradually educating the public in the way that she is. If it had happened immediately, people would've said it wasn't genuine. And she's getting there."

Yaron adds, "I mean, she's still her. She still loves beards. I got an email from her this morning about playing with a ball of yarns and her cat cult."

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Of helping the mentors grapple with the demands of a live singing show, Warwick says, "All we've ever said to them is, you can only be yourself. Don't play a role that doesn't fit correctly fit you. Say exactly what you feel, and that's the only way it's gonna be varied. … Trust me, I've been there; I've seen more judges than I care to. If you act as you are, and genuinely and honestly assess the performance as you see it, you'll find things to say, because you're not confined by what you think you want to say. That's what they're now doing, and they're doing great."

It's all a work in progress, the producers admit of the new singing show. And regarding the chemistry between the experts, Warwick laughs, "You probably don't remember the first Idol back in 2002, but trust me, there was definitely a backlash to [Simon] Cowell being the way Cowell is, with his acerbic critiques. It was something we ironed out over the first series; it took us longer to iron that out than it's taking us to iron this out."

He jokes that the dynamic between the Rising Star experts "will never be as good as Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, I must say! But we're doing the best we can."

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee