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Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams have joined The Voice for its seventh season, and while the two longtime friends and oft-collaborators effortlessly rocked the stage together just after the announcement was made, how will they handle competing against each other as coaches? Will viewers see more Shakira-like maternal instincts or Usher-type exercises (literally)? And how are veteran coaches Adam Levine and Blake Shelton stepping up their own singing-show game?
Ahead of the show’s Sept. 22 return to NBC, The Hollywood Reporter stopped by The Voice’s Universal Studios backlot soundstage on the fourth day of the blind auditions to size up the season-seven coaches and their recruiting strategies:
1. Pharrell hones in on musical identity. The “Happy” mastermind’s feedback centered mostly on who contestants were, musically, rather than how they sounded technically. “Your performance was perfect, but it was so perfect that I didn’t get to see who you are,” he told one singer who delivered a flawless, yet impersonal, audition. “I personally want to hear your story when you sing.”
2. Stefani prioritizes technical ability. On the other hand, Stefani — the only coach who was often seen writing quickly in a notebook between auditions — tended to share critiques about stage presence, emotional delivery and vocal stylings. “I feel like your voice is already on the radio!” she told one singer, while telling another, “It felt young, a little Disney. … If we work together, we can get you to grow more. Nobody’s perfect.” She’s admittedly not a fan of “vocal Olympics” or when singers try too many runs or change up melodies for a rendition that’s uninteresting. “I’m sensitive to that,” she said.
3. Pharrell is conversational in critique. “What do you love about it? What part about it makes you feel great?” he interrogates one contestant constructively. “Forget when you thought we were feeling … how did you feel? Now we’re getting somewhere. What you didn’t feel, we didn’t feel, and that’s the difference. … You were singing to us, but not necessarily singing for yourself first.” At one point, Levine himself questioned his new colleague’s inquisitive strategy, shouting, “Stop badgering the witness!”
4. Stefani plays both sides. While judges Christina Aguilera and Shakira often touted their girl-power sensibilities and maternal instincts to lure female contestants, Stefani took a more lighthearted approach. “Do you like clothes? I have so many clothing lines, it’s crazy! I can hook you up, I can so hook you up!” she promises one female singer. And when a male performer is up for grabs, she plays her “boy” card by noting that she’s in a band with a ton of guys, and is married to Gavin Rossdale.
5. They’re rejection-ready. Although the two are new to the show, they both had their consolation speeches ready. “I’m super sorry, it just breaks my heart. … it’s a lot of pressure to be up there,” said Stefani without a stutter. They even used their newness to their advantage: Stefani told one singer, “You’re on The Voice right now — how crazy is that? I’m on The Voice too, that’s new,” and Pharrell also said, “I’ve just been listening to the song — that’s actually been a bad habit of mine, because I’m new to this, and then before you know it, the song’s [over].”
6. Pharrell likes metaphors. “I want to be your subwoofer — you just sing,” he said, also using metaphors about a piano and a basketball team to illustrate points. He also vied for a singer by refusing to sit down, “because you need someone who is gonna stay standing up for you the whole time,” and “walk the walk,” he said as he paced the floor. But sometimes his metaphors don’t translate: He told another coach, “You have one slot, and we have multiple slots … [if that’s the logic to win,] then no one would go to Vegas!” only to be teased by his fellow coaches for the faulty logic.
7. Hugging is suddenly fun. Whether recruited to a team or otherwise, Stefani usually started a string of hugs from all four coaches for a contestant. And after she stood up to embrace a teary and speechless auditionee onstage, Shelton shouted, “Have you [already] picked her for your coach for that? That’s bullcrap!”
8. They fight quite nicely. When Pharrell and Stefani saw themselves solely eyeing the same contestant for the first time in the season, Shelton stated, “They’re gonna nice each other to death,” while Levine added, “They’re gonna fight each other with rainbows and happiness.” Accordingly, Pharrell let “my bae and my boo” Stefani have the floor first, to which Shelton commented, “See? The first handful of cotton candy has been thrown!” And as they patted each other on the back instead of shooting each other down, Levine noted, “It’s like watching a candy cane sword fight over here!”
9. That “Shevine” love-hate bromance is still on. When the day began, Shelton was greeted by Levine with a thumbs-down as he greeted the audience, but Shelton later made fun of Levine’s patterned shirt, asking, “What time is bowling practice?” Still, the two veteran coaches were the most comfortable with the crew on set: When a cover of AC/DC’s “Back to Black” played as a background music, Shelton shouted, “Next time, play the original — this is bullshit!” And when the latest Maroon 5 single “Maps” was played, Levine jokingly gave the studio the middle finger, and then pressed his button frantically, as if to recruit the singer of the track to his team.
10. Coaches play the game more than ever. The four were more frank about the show’s format than any other season, discussing decisions openly with auditionees. After Pharrell, who called himself “transparent” and said he doesn’t “sling mud,” admitted to one that he “pressed my button because your voice deserved to be acknowledged … you deserved four chairs,” he disclosed that he already had similar-sounding singers on his team, and it wouldn’t be beneficial for the contestant to choose him. “This show is not only about talent; it’s about strategy. My pressing the button was a compliment … I’m wishing you the best.” And when Levine begged a singer to side with him, Shelton shouted without hesitation, “I’ve heard this bullcrap for three days now! He’s got more four-chair turns on his team than anyone, and you’re not gonna make it past the battle rounds.”
11. Shelton has a hat of his own. Forget the music award trophies — at one point, the country singer pulled out a hat from under his chair that resembled Pharrell’s now-signature Vivienne Westwood headgear, and wore it while attempting to woo a contestant away from the music producer. “You my friend, look like a horse’s ass,” said Levine to Shelton, while Pharrell sat in awe that the technique might just work. “This kid is actually gonna join his team with this hat on?!” he said, also calling Shelton “The Nashville Whisperer” as he plugged his location and genre authority, and some kind of “Voice Jedi,” telling one singer, “You don’t even know that you’re under his control already!”
The Voice returns Sept. 22 on NBC.
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