With its cheesy set, weak host and random coterie of celebrity judges, there wasn’t much reason to think The Voice would amount to anything more than a second-rate American Idol knock-off. However, on the brink of its debut-season finale, the show has handily usurped Idol as prime-time’s premier singing competition.
When The Voice sung its first note in April, American Idol was enjoying a (short-lived) resurgence in relevance and this new talent show seemed like little more than a cover version.
You’d have been crazy, to borrow one of judge Cee Lo Green’s signature tunes, to predict that this oddball knock-off staffed by such disparate stars—also including Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, a down-on-her-luck Christina Aguilera and country crooner Blake Shelton, as well as the inexplicably employed host Carson Daly—could compete with the decade’s most popular series, much less snowball into a pop-cultural phenomenon.
Yet this NBC adaptation of the Dutch series The Voice of Holland did indeed become the season’s biggest breakout thanks to the pitch-perfect production of Survivor Svengali Mark Burnett and a dedication to, of all things, actual talent.
All eight of last week’s semifinalists could out-sing pretty much every Idol contestant since Adam Lambert, and every winner since Carrie Underwood in 2005—even token teen Xenia, a shy wisp of a 16-year-old who seemed rather relieved to be eliminated, had a shockingly assured and unique vocal on “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved,” by obscure Irish alt-rockers The Script.
They stood in the starkest of contrasts to Idol’s dishwater-dull finalists. On AI, winner Scotty McCreery kissed his crucifix after meeting Lady Gaga. On The Voice, finalist Dia Frampton got there by singing R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” (after a Kanye cover the week before) and two of the final four are proud lesbians, a far cry from Lambert’s Idol-imposed closeting.
They’re also among the strongest competitors on any show of this ilk, with bald blues singer Beverly McClellan positively slaying B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” while Vicci Martinez blew minds with her thrilling, drum-pounded take on Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over,” capping a run that began with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and broke from the pack with Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
The Voice began with hokey “blind auditions” where the celebrity judges listened to the singers with their backs turned, only to swivel their thrones if they liked what they heard. Then they competed among each other to build teams of the best singers and proceeded to winnow those numbers down, with the assistance of call-in viewer votes.
Adding a competitive angle to the judging literally changed the game—technically, they’re “coaches” and must actually mentor the competitors rather than mouth J-Lo-like platitudes—and added some amusing friction. Adam Levine finally put his smarminess to good use, not just bickering with an out-of-her-league Xtina but also burning Cee Lo’s constant name-dropping. (“I’m Cee Lo. I know celebrities!” he snarked after the soul-singer faux-casually mentioned his friendship with “Chris and Gwyneth.”) And while Shelton may have seemed an outlier, he was really invested in cultivating unique singers.
The Voice still needs work, don’t get me wrong. They’ve been tinkering with the convoluted rules on a near-weekly basis and that set swiped from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has got to go, as does Carson Daly. Ryan Seacrest not only makes hosting look easy, he’s a consummate professional and his importance to Idol can not be underestimated. Daly might as well be named Dunkleman.
The show should be longer, too. It’s nice that they don’t drag out their auditions with the delusionals, but what’s interesting here is how the coaches coax out increasingly professional performances from their team. The Voice could stand to let us see more of that growth.
But those are minor tweaks compared to the achievement of becoming the anti-Idol. That was always the intent—the show launched with their, to quote Cee Lo again, fuck-you ad campaign,Demand a Better Voice—and it quickly became a refuge for fed-up fans looking to escape the mothership’s domination by little girls and the Deep South. The Voice contestants are older, more diverse, poised and polished. Some have had failed recording contracts, and even former Idol reject Frenchie Davis (tossed back in the day because of a topless photo scandal) made it to the semis because amateurism isn’t the point.
Idol is about a journey, as the show repeats ad nauseum, but The Voice is about a chance—and the latter simply makes for better music.
The Voice’s two-part season finale airs Tuesday, 9 p.m., and Wednesday, 8 p.m., on NBC/CTV.