A look at “The Voice”

th (8)I watched The Voice last night, for the first time. Here’s my take on the show, and how I compare it to Idol:

What I Like About the Voice

– By far the largest advantage The Voice has over Idol is its panelists.

Idol has three formidable stars who aren’t by nature suited for the job they have been given, while “The Voice” gets the best out of their stars by giving them a task they are perfectly suited for. Idol’s judges struggle to look like anything other than a bad joke once the finals begin, while The Voice’s coaches are in the middle of everything in mostly positive ways. Idol’s judges don’t have any vested interest in the competition. The Voice’s coaches are intimately involved with and invested in every aspect of the competition. Idol has an R&B singer/dancer, a rocker and a pop/R&B producer on their panel. TV has a pop diva, a rocker, a country singer and an R&B singer on their panel. Idol’s panelists are all over 40, and two of them are over 50. The Voice’s panelists are all in their early 30’s. Idol’s panelists, other than JLo, haven’t had a big hit since the 20th century. The Voice’s panelists are all current artists.

Idol’s contestants who get negative feedback generally get dumped from the show by the voters, while the rest of them stagnate because nobody is telling them what they need to do if they want to get better. The Voice’s contestants are getting directed, tough love instruction from coaches are personally invested in making them better; all the while weeding out the weak links themselves. Idol gets maybe one or two contestants a year who noticeably improve from the semifinals to the end. Virtually every “Voice” contestant improves from week to week, even though song choices might create the illusion of a step back at times.

– The Voice has a better band, and they know how to use it to better effect.

Idol’s band is formidable and they don’t make a lot of mistakes, but they generally just learn the songs and play them with normal professionalism unless someone like Adam Lambert or Skylar Laine gets them going. The Voice’s band is part of the show, and they play every song like their hair is on fire. At times this can be jarring, but that’s because I am new to the show. My only criticism of the band is that, in their exuberance, they tend to get a little bit too busy and loud. I’ll take the tradeoff, though. One of my biggest complaints about Idol this year is that the performances don’t have enough pizzazz, and I think part of that is because the band isn’t as invested in the songs as they can be. Idol is in its 11thyear, while The Voice is still really new and trying to establish itself. It’s hard to keep an edge when you have been doing it for over a decade.

Differences That Don’t Really Matter

Carson Daly ain’t Ryan Seacrest, but he has his own charms. He isn’t nearly as slick as Ryan, but he has a sort of folksy way of talking that is pleasing. He does his job well.

The stage is garish, and my eyes were almost overwhelmed by the constant sea of red and black, but as much as I like the Idol stage I can’t say that I dislike the Voice stage. There is an energy up there that works for the performances; not like Idol’s directed to the front focus but more of a wide lens look at the whole thing. With Idol you really see the singer. With The Voice you see everything, with the singer working in the midst. You don’t lose the singer. Their cameramen do a really good job of creating a visual gestalt, and going back to the singer enough to keep the focus where it belongs.

Idol doesn’t do much backstage stuff, while The Voice does a bunch of it. Idol tends to do the family interviews in off camera segments and Ryan going into the crowd, while The Voice does most of theirs backstage. Keep in mind that I only saw the finale, so they might have done something different in the earlier rounds.

The Voice sells itself as an exciting new product, while Idol sells itself as an established product. This is natural. Idol is established, while The Voice is trying to get established. Idol’s promos generally assume you know who they are. The Voice’s promos tend to try and punch you in the face to get your attention.

What I Like About Idol

– Idol gets better singers. It’s a small sample size, but only Juliet Sims would easily make the Idol tour among TV’s top four. Jamar Rogers made TV’s final 8, and he was dumped inHollywood by Idol in season 8. The Voice draws from a larger pool than Idol, accepting professionals and older singers who wouldn’t qualify for Idol. None of their final four would qualify for Idol. Sims has had multiple recording contracts;Lucca was part of the Mickey Mouse Club and is several years too old for Idol; Paul and Mann are both too old.

The Voice does a terrific job of backing their contestants on the show, but they are only in their second season and they don’t have a cache in the business yet. Idol has over 300 number one hits from their alumni. This isn’t something that The Voice can’t overcome down the road, though. They are new, while Idol is established. If Sims or Paul have success on the radio they can use that to build from. Last year’s winner Javier Colon reached 17 on the Billboard charts with his first single but his album didn’t sell well, peaking at 134 on the album charts. They have work to do if they are going to catch Idol.

Idol is a pop culture fixture; The Voice is an Idol spin-off. Idol has become part of our cultural furniture, like Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show. The Voice is fighting to establish its relevance, and it’s an open question whether they will survive and thrive amongst the throng of singing competitions who are trying to replicate Idol’s success. Idol doesn’t have to do anything new and amazing to survive; they just have to be consistent and keep up with cultural changes. The Voice still needs a transcendent star to establish themselves as something more substantial than a short term curiosity.

Idol replicates the American Dream much better than The Voice does. Idol’s pool of contestants go through a similar process as The Voice does early on, but while The Voice waits until they are down to a few dozen before the panel hears them Idol gives roughly a thousand hopefuls a shot in front of the judges. This allows for a wider swath of talent to bubble up. The Voice ends up with a fairly obvious group, while Idol’s group is always weirdly diverse and never predictable. Idol’s judges will hear their candidates several times before they have to pass judgment on the best of them, while The Voice’s panelists have to make their judgment the first time they hear them. The Voice’s producers make most of the pre-live show decisions, while Idol’s panelists make most of the pre-live show decisions.

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I think I’ve already said, several times, that my main problem with “The Voice” is that their hook is “we don’t care about anything but the voice”. I like the idea, but they don’t do it that way. They have producers (who can see the contestants) pick the final 40-50 candidates, then they have each of them sing one time in front of the coaches when they can’t see them. The chairs turn around, and from that point forward everyone can see everyone.

If someone wants to produce a singing competition where the voice is the only thing that matters, do it on the radio. Pretending that the voice is the only thing that matters on a TV show is pointless. We can see them, they can see them. I don’t mind the show; it’s an entertaining show. The pretense that its more “pure” than the other karaoke competitions is insulting. Other than that, I enjoy the show and I wish them the best of luck.

I took some time to write about the “Voice” final four, after listening to them on Monday night. Here’s my take:

Chris Mann-Opera singer. He has terrific intonation and a sweet, well trained tone to his voice. He’s a bit low key (Rip Van Winkle was a bit low key for twenty years), and he doesn’t take any real chances with the melody to make a song dynamic rather than sweet,; and he has Pat Boone’s rhythmic sense. He’s two things: sweet – and boring. He looks sort of like Ben Affleck, but without the butt on his chin. His best post-Voice gig? Honestly he’s probably Broadway or bust. I see little likelihood that he’ll sell a lot of albums.

Tony Lucca-Former Mouskateer. He is a pro who plays his guitar well, and he has a very strong, professional rhythmic sense as well as very good intonation. He knows how to entertain an audience, and I enjoyed all three of his performances. His big weakness is that his voice isn’t very strong, and that his tone is fairly pedestrian. He didn’t growl or scratch, or hit any high notes, or show anything unique or unusual last night. He gets the most out of what he has, and the Mickey Mouse Club hook should get him a contract. He’s had that hook for twenty years, though, so I can’t be sure that he is a good enough songwriter to make hay with the sunshine the show is giving him. He is professional, and if he can come up with the right songs he has a shot.

Juliet Sims-Eighties throwback rocker chick. My brother Dennis loves her, and I sort of love her too. She scratches like Melissa Etheridge and she bites off her notes and melodies like Lita Ford. She knows what she’s aiming for, so it won’t be all that tough to figure out songs to record. She has some weaknesses….. Her voice is strong, but not STRONG. She has been inconsistent, going in between massive performances and struggling, inconsistent performances. She wasn’t anywhere near her best last night, which cost her the title. She was the prohibitive favorite going into the finals. I’m making an assumption based on a few looks, but she appears to have been an eighties throwback in some negative ways as well as positive. She looks older than she is, and a little bit washed out and tired. I’m high on her future anyway. While she would be cliché in the 1980’s nobody is singing her style on the radio at the moment. It’s possible that she will, with the help of the show, get enough of a push to draw a new audience into her style of grinding, raspy, old school pure rock and roll.

Jermaine Paul-Former Alicia Keys backup singer. He won the title, and based on what I heard last night he deserved it. He was the only contestant who outsang his mentor on their duets, and both of his individual performances were good. He commits to the melody much more than the recent Idol R&B types have, and he can do the complicated runs. He overdid the runs last night, but that was in a competition. His ability to recognize and sing a melody gives me confidence that he won’t overdo the runs and trills on his album. Weaknesses….. His intonation isn’t perfect; he’s about where Skylar is now. Like Skylar, by the time he gets on tour he should have that fixed. It’s not uncommon for a harmony singer to struggle with aspects of lead singing at first. Crystal Bowersox struggled with rhythms; Jermaine struggles just a tiny bit with intonation. He’ll fix it, and he’ll be fine. I have no idea if The Voice will have any real cache in the business, and they probably don’t know either. If they do, Jermaine should have some success. Just as it is with every former contestant on a singing show, he’s going to need some really good songs and a big marketing push.