Series Premiere: The Voice – “Blind Auditions”

“Blind Auditions”

April 26th, 2011

In principle, The Voice is about something grand and meaningful. By having the show’s judges be unable to see the singers they are judging, the show purports to finally have a singing competition in which physical attractiveness and age are no longer a driving factor. In a music competition space in which Steven Tyler objectifies young female contestants and Paula Abdul’s most lasting impression on the pop cultural space is the predication of every American Idol comment with “You look beautiful,” The Voice seeks to focus solely on the eponymous instrument.

However, The Voice is not “important.” Showing that a pretty girl with a solid voice would get noticed even when she can’t be seen, or showing that even an American Idol reject with a controversial past can still get attention, does absolutely nothing to impact society’s obsession with looks or their opinion of people who choose to sell their bodies; The Voice is not going to change America in any way shape or form, and that part of the show is somewhat cloying at the end of the day.

And yet, lest you consider me cynical, I actually found The Voice quite refreshing in that it managed this sentimentality while maintaining a sense of fun. This is not a show that will change America, but it is a show that demonstrates the value of chemistry between “judges” and which in its central conceit creates an endless stream of “television moments” that channel the series’ central altruism in ways I found charming if not as life-changing as NBC would like us to believe.

56-year-old Joann Rizzo, who finally gets to follow a dream normally reserved for 18-year-olds, suggests that she has a chance to become “The Voice of America.” This is a bit of an overreach, but not an uncommon one for reality television: everyone who takes part in a reality show wants that show to be a national sensation, whether it’s American Idol (which actually became a national sensation) or The One: Making a Music Star (which I only remember because Canadian George Stroumboulopoulos was its host). For Joann, this was not meant to be her moment regardless of the show’s eventual outreach: none of the coaches chose her, regardless of her age. However, her appearance here is supposed to in and of itself be a victory for the show, and her “failure” was played as heartfelt and purposeful when it was mostly smug and self-satisfying. It was The Voice showing off how inclusive it could be, and that version of the show is a bit obnoxious.

I’d say the same about Frenchie Davis’ audition, one of those moments that feels like the show actively trying to distance itself from American Idol. By actively dredging up Frenchie’s past, and by positioning this as a chance for redemption, there’s a clear effort to say “We are more inclusive than American Idol.” It doesn’t matter that she has a pornography past, and it doesn’t care that she was on American Idol: all that matters is that Christina Aguilera wants her voice on her team.

However, I’m not sure why the show thinks that it needs this kind of display to demonstrate the difference between this program and FOX’s Idol machine: all the show really had to do was stick with “good” singers (thus avoiding the ugliness of American Idol’s audition round) and let the “coaches” (very carefully not called judges) do their thing.

On the first point, the fact is that American Idol believes that people who can’t sing are fun to watch, and I’m not convinced that this is the case. While some love the American Idol auditions precisely because of the editors’ enjoyment of embarrassing non-singers and watching them storm off swearing or stumble off ignorant to just how terrible they just were, I’ve never found it particularly compelling. While there was a novelty to someone like William Hung when the show began, efforts to create those moments have become overbearing – the show keeps acting like it desperately needs someone like “Bikini Girl” in every season, and it contains a mean streak that feels dishonest. This is especially true when you compare that to the judges’ current inability to actually critique their contestants, as we have a season where the judges aren’t judging but in which many singers were “judged” as bad and put on display for it.

While I might occasionally find The Voice a bit too sappy for my tastes, there’s something refreshing about positivity. The show goes down easy, never feeling like it is turning against its singers or even that it doesn’t believe in them. The coaches who don’t pick singers feel like they need to justify why they didn’t press the button, and there’s a real feeling of “Everyone’s a winner!” here. Normally I’d resist such tomfoolery, but I can’t deny that it made the show watchable: pleasantness is perhaps underrated, and it kept things from getting ugly (which is where Idol so often goes wrong).

And yet this show isn’t about the singers, or at least not at this stage in the competition. Right now, the show is about the coaches, and I have to hand it to them: these are some fantastic coaches. There is a reason that the show opens with the coaches performing “Crazy,” a performance that has gotten a lot of buzz and deserves most of it. They just have this really enjoyable energy about them, with each individual proving very game for this particular task. I’m not sure I’m sold on the premise of this show, but they seem sold on the premise of this show: watching them banter with one another over contestants, or try to goad the final holdout into pushing their button, or just generally grooving along to the music, I start to like people like Christina Aguilera and (especially) Adam Levine more than their music has ever made me like them.

The show is clearly built around their personalities, with each artist representing a particular genre (or style) that the show wants to speak to, and I’ll be curious to see how the show balances the coaches and the contestants as we progress further into the competition. But for right now, it is fun to watch these four recording artists get legitimately excited about discovering talent and being a part of this silly reality journey. They aren’t taking it seriously, waxing poetic about how important the show is or the great things they’re doing for America’s perception of pretty people or ugly people. Instead, they just appear to be enjoying themselves, which is far better television than what American Idol has become – I am sure these people have egos, but they don’t seem to be on display here, and that’s almost heartwarming when compared to the Idol machine.

I do sort of wish that they had just stuck with that, to be honest: get rid of the talk of changing the way we perceive people, drop the idea that this is altering the world of music as we know it, and just make it a fun show about musicians creating musical dream teams and training them to face-off in front of America. Ultimately, the coaches were fun enough to get me through the sentiment, and for those who really enjoy the sentiment I think this is very well-calibrated. However, I also sort of want the show to follow its own advice and just let the format be the format: don’t tell us what we’re supposed to think or how we’re supposed to feel, just give us a fun show that we might enjoy sitting down to for a few hours every week.

The result may not sound as important, but I think it’d be the best way of capturing the charm of this particular premise.

Cultural Observations

  • I quite enjoyed the sound effect when they try to push the button after the song is over – there’s something so wonderfully sad about it, nicely capturing the futile attempts to go back in time and pick someone. Of course, it’s also a bit damning when Cee-Lo only wants to do so because the girl’s hot, but what are you going to do?
  • To be honest, I actually didn’t think any of the singers were that impressive: it seemed like Javier was the most beloved on my Twitter feed, and he was quite strong, but I definitely didn’t see anything particularly impressive here.
  • But seriously, though, Adam Levine surprised the hell out of me – all of the coaches made an impact, but Levine seemed to be having the most fun and capable of mixing it up the most effectively.
  • I don’t intend on covering again, but I’ll probably tune into the first “battle” episodes because I’m always intrigued at reality show formats and want to see just what they have in mind. It sounds a bit strange, to be honest, but that’s part of the fun.
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5 Comments

Filed under Reality TV

5 responses to “Series Premiere: The Voice – “Blind Auditions”

  1. The Lost Apostle

    The judges/coaches were a revelation – the chemistry and banter was fun and generally positive. There were a few weird moments where Christina Aguilera seemed to almost be angry but whatever. I thought it was fun. Is it me or is the caliber of judges better than Idol is now or ever was?

  2. I am definitely getting the same vibe from this show. I really enjoyed the episode, which surprised me because I wasn’t looking forward to it in the least. The judges were really great, and I loved the fun competition between them. One thing I especially loved was how the judges had to “pitch” the contestants if there were more than one of them competing to have someone on their team. It added a different level of involvement that is not usually seen in one of these formats.

    I am skeptical, however, of how interesting this is going to be once the actual coaching rounds begin. I think then it’s going to turn into a much more typical reality show and lose some of the spontaneous fun of the audition rounds. Also, from the explanation of how the format works it seems it is at least 50% more complicated than is absolutely necessary. This is based on a Dutch format, and the Dutch LOVE their convoluted mechanics, which doesn’t translate to American audiences very well. We’ll see how it shakes out, I suppose.

    Aside: I can’t believe you just brought up The One — when I worked in reality television my company produced the show (a Dutch company once owned by the creator of this show, which is why I know all about Dutch reality TV). I didn’t think anyone remembered it, as it was a colossal failure. THE ONE good thing to come out of that show (see what I did there?) was a song called “Better Off Alone” from who all of the producers figured would be the eventual winner, Austin Carroll, that pops up in my iTunes shuffle from time to time. It’s a good one that was subsequently recorded and ruined by Katharine McPhee. Reality talent show cr0ss-pollination!

    • I remember The One, too – the reason why it failed so spectacularly had, if I remember correctly, much to do with it changing the time when The National (a nationally beloved Canadian news show) went on.

      I’d rather not hijack Myles’ comments, but I’m kind of interested, now, in what happened after The One flopped – did anyone get the prize money, etc.

      • Anne

        I was looking forward to the show airing but after the 1st episode I have to say I am rather disappointed.
        Despite great talent some of the choices seem questionable regarding the candidates have gone through pre-castings and without wanting to sound arrogant I can claim a karaoke bar I go to almost every week holds more and better talent than some of those artists picked in the show.
        Also, once picked it appears the choice for the candidates as to which team to join is clear in most cases.
        Sure, the sure is entertaining but it tries to sell itself with a huge factor of uncertainty and things just don’t seem to be all that uncertain which takes largely away from the show’s surprise factor.
        What I do like about the show, especially compared to AI, is that every performer gets featured before going on stage. I always felt that was card played unfairly on AI as it features candidates randomly and individuals with sad or tragic stories tend to be the focus of that and get more camera time very early on the show. Granted, people often vote through sympathy, compassion and identification I believe that was a strong advantage on AI for some individuals which is treated more fairly and balanced on TVoi.

  3. Tim

    Did you see The Sing-Off? Seems to me this show has some of its ethos, but probably not enough. IMO that show was the first reality competition I remember where even by the second show, I truly felt, as the inscrutable Nicole Scherzinger asked, “Why does this have to be a competition?” Somehow, it doesn’t seem to be a good idea to overlay The Apprentice onto that model, which is how I feel about The Voice right now.

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