Like some 37 million other Americans, I tuned into “The Voice” following Sunday’s Super Bowl. And almost immediately I was reminded why I hated the show the first time around.
It’s not that I don’t like televised singing competitions. I’ve watched every season of “American Idol” and I even slogged through “The X Factor” last season. I watch both as part of my job, true, but I’d likely be watching them anyway. It’s fun getting wrapped up in these shows.
But not “The Voice.” Something about the show feels painfully contrived, from its flawed premise to the phoniness of the supposed rivalries between the judges. The whole thing makes me want to hit the buzzer on my chair and turn away from the television.
The admittedly intriguing premise finds the show’s four judges — Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green — judging the show’s contestants with their backs turned to them. Hearing what they sound like, not judging them on their style or their stage presence or their cool hairstyle. Just listening to them. But literally that’s the only thing the show gets right, because from there it’s a mess.
If the judges like a contestant, they hit their buzzer, their chair whooshes around and then they awkwardly stare at the contestant, waiting for them to either finish the song or for the other judges to zip around in their chairs. Whoever has hit their buzzer then tries to convince the contestant to be on their “team,” where they’ll “mentor” them, or whatever. Using last season’s contestants as an example, that mentorship doesn’t seem to last long: When Adam Levine and his band scored a monster hit with “Moves Like Jagger” last year, did he feature any of his contestants on it? Nope, instead he used one of his “rival” judges, Christina Aguilera. I guess “Maroon 5 featuring Angela Wolff” didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
The judges try to outbid one another, attempting to woo the contestants onto their team by convincing them their skills are best suited to the individual talents of the singer. They nip at each other, Aguilera says something about Adam Levine acting like a used car dealer, and everyone laughs. But what the show never does is convince viewers why any of it matters. Do the judges get a $10 million bonus if their contestant wins? Because that’s an incentive and would serve as a legitimate motivator. It wouldn’t matter much to me as a viewer because personally I couldn’t really care less if Blake Shelton has the money to buy Miranda Lambert 25,000 new pairs of shoes, but at least it would give the judges a reason to care. But as it stands, the only thing guiding them is pride, and I don’t believe that Cee Lo really has all that much invested in whether his reality show contestants finish stronger than Levine’s. In the end, it’s not going to hurt his bottom line one way or another.
As for the contestants, faced with the tough decision of which platinum-selling recording star they’ll let “guide” them on the show, what does it matter? None of these singers are quitting their day jobs to take on these contestants full time and manage their careers, nor are they really expected to. So does it matter if it’s Blake Shelton or Christina Aguilera? I guess it comes down to who’s the most pleasant to hang around when the cameras are on, or who smells the nicest, which I’m guessing is a tie between Aguilera and Cee Lo. (Plus, none of the judges have proven to be great talent scouts, so it matters even less who the contestants choose. They’re good at being artists, which is why the biggest thing to come out of Season 1 wasn’t a new singer guided under the tutelage of one of the mentors, but rather “Moves Like Jagger.”)
The contestants themselves, meanwhile, are “invited” to try out for the show, meaning they’ve already been pre-screened, perverting the supposed purity of the blind audition process. We know and the judges know the contestants are already going to be at a certain skill level, and most of them have some sort of prior experience, which takes the newcomer element out of the equation. First season winner Javier Colon was signed to Capitol Records from 2002 to 2006. What does it matter if the judges’ backs were turned to him during his initial audition when he had already been signed to a major label for four years, signed by people whose backs weren’t turned to him?
Meanwhile, “Idol” and “X Factor” are both guilty of ramping up the sob stories on the contestants, playing up elements in their lives that make them sympathetic to viewers; “The X Factor,” in particular, presented every contestant as if the show was their absolute final, Hail Mary shot at a career. But “The Voice” does so in particularly egregious fashion. Sunday’s premiere featured Waterford’s Tony Lucca, a former “Mickey Mouse Club” member (he was in the same cast with Aguilera, who didn’t recognize him by face or by name, ouch) who has released more than a half-dozen albums and tours regularly. He’s married, has a child, and has more than 500,000 followers on Twitter. The show tried presenting him as a hard luck case, but I’m just not feeling too bad for the guy.
If “The Voice” somehow kept its premise of focusing on contestants’ voices and only their voices — they could perform with bags over their heads, and then as each person was kicked off the show they could reveal their face for the first time — it might be interesting. (It could be like “Dating in the Dark,” or “The Swan,” but for singing shows.) As it is, however, it’s a confusing mix of egos, odd motivations and reality show shmaltz that doesn’t know what to do with itself. The most intriguing element of the show is whether or not Aguilera will fall out of her top on live TV, and that seems like another reality show altogether.