“The Voice” Closes Its Eyes And Takes On “American Idol”


So: The Voice. The big challenge. American Idol has been the dominant ratings force in American TV for a full decade now, but none of the other networks has really managed to do much with that show’s format, which seems like a relatively easy thing to steal. (Or they haven’t made a big singing-competition show out of the format, anyway; Dancing With the Stars is the same show in a lot of ways.) The Voice is a last-ditch shot on the part of a desperate NBC, and it sure seems like they spent a lot of money, time, and thought on this thing. (God knows anyone who’s watched Community over the last few months has had to deal with nonstop ads for the show.) They also got themselves a pretty impressive roster of guest coaches.

Christina Aguilera is obviously the big get here, even after all the disastrous career decisions she’s made lately (biting Gaga and then claiming she’d never heard of Gaga; attempting to make a megabudget electroclash album nine years too late; Burlesque). Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, and Blake Shelton are all pretty famous too, and unlike 2/3 of the current American Idol judging lineup, they’ve all scored hit songs relatively recently. What interests me more about them is that they’ve all had a hand in at least one awesome thing–in descending order of awesomeness, Soul Food, marrying Miranda Lambert, “Beautiful,” and the chorus of Kanye West’s “Heard ‘Em Say”.

After one episode, it’s not immediately apparent how they’ll all work out as TV characters; they seem like a radically mixed bag so far. Xtina babbles incoherently, Cee Lo babbles slightly more coherently in a lightspeed helium drawl that makes him sound like no other man on the planet, and Adam Levine comes off as a pretty normal and recognizable human being when he’s not doing deeply off-putting celebratory dances. The real revelation so far is Shelton, who doesn’t play into the theatrical side of the show too much and who seems to be having fun with it. He also has better comic timing than anyone involved in the show–especially Carson Daly.

Carson Daly, who’s hosting this thing, is a big, big problem. I can’t believe I’m even saying this, but Carson is no Seacrest. He’s not even a Brian Dunkleman. His rumpled leather jacket looks fucking lame next to Seacrest’s impeccably tailored suits, and he high-fives contestants’ families with all the grace and fluidity of a confused rhino. Thus far, his main role is to loom too close to people in the green room and to make everyone uncomfortable. He is a massive liability.

The show patterns itself after Idol just enough for it to trumpet its differences as a big deal. It doesn’t have judges; it has coaches. Idol makes us sit through weeks of excruciating auditions and supposed-to-be-funny rejects; The Voice tosses us right in and starts with a select group of talented people. Idol makes a huge point of telling its contestants’ backstories; The Voice barely pays them lip service. The judges on Idol criticize contestants’ looks (mostly just telling them they look great, but still); the coaches on The Voice don’t even get to see what the contestants look like until they render a verdict.

The rules of the show, which involve singers ending up on coaches’ teams, are a bit overly complicated, but the show establishes the parameters early enough, and it’s not hard to follow. It is, however, not particularly compelling to watch these coaches lightly rib each other about who ends up on which team. Also, the video montages are just bad. “Singing is kind of like talking, but from, like, the deepest part of your heart.” Thanks for the wisdom, random brunette lady! “Music and I are one.” Thanks, guy in the hat! That, combined with the amateur-hour theme music (“This is the voice!”), the bad computer graphics, the weird pre-taped atmosphere, and Carson Daly’s general presence combine to make the show feel just slightly off, like it’s Canadian or something. American Idol has had years to develop a rhythm, and The Voice has a long way to go. But it’s already an interesting experiment.

The show opened with a truly goofy and enjoyable little opening number, with all the judges singing Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and acting as a deeply silly impromptu band, Adam Levine singing while playing drums, Cee Lo wearing red sunglasses and a Misfits shirt. There was a big implicit message here: These are coaches who presumably know singing than certain iconic American Idol judges because they can actually sing, and Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson would be like fish flopping around onstage if anyone ever forced them to sing. And as a sent message, it actually worked, mostly because these four people all sounded completely different from each other while sounding pretty good on the song. (Actually, Cee Lo revealed right there that he probably has a thinner voice and less onstage charisma than any of the other four, which is funny, since he was the only one singing his own song. But I’m willing to cut that guy all the slack in the world, seeing as how he was part of maybe the greatest rap group of all time.)

Another shot fired at Idol: The first singer was Tarralyn Ramsey, who is–get ready for this–31 years old! What a decrepit fossil! Ramsey’s very first sentence was about how this is her last shot at singing, and her placement as the first contestant seemed to have something to do with the fact that The Voice–unlike Idol–doesn’t have age restrictions. Of course, the person writing this recap happens to be exactly 31 years old, so it felt pretty lame to have someone on the show talking about that number like it’s infinity. (That might be more my problem than the show’s, though.) Anyway, she sang a belty soul-gospel version of Faith Hill’s “Breathe” and sounded legitimately awesome, and she ended up on Aguilera’s team.

Patrick Thomas was this goofy little country kid in a giant hat, who admitted to being a nerd in high school. It wasn’t exactly a shock. He sang Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying,” which makes me think the Hill/McGraw couple will just own this show. He’s obviously got a strong instrument, but he didn’t exactly do a whole lot with it. He ended up with Blake Shelton, who, in one of the show’s greatest moments, belly-laughed at all the coaches who didn’t get him.

Jared Blake was a Daughtry-looking tool with one of the worst goatees I’ve ever seen on TV–it straight-up looks like a vagina–and a lot of big clunky rings. He also has tattoos of stars all up and down his arm. I guess that’s a thing that people do? He said that he used to have a big problem with drinking but that the reason he stopped was because he’s got four little girls. So, uh, why didn’t he stop drinking at one? Or three? Why is four the magic number there? He sang Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad,” of all things, like he was trying out to replace that blind guitarist guy in the band from Road House. It was ridiculous. None of the judges picked him, which makes me think maybe this show will be good.

The show made a big thing of not showing Vicci Martinez’s face for a while, so I thought she’d have hideous facial scarring or gigantic face tats or something. But no, she just looked like a perfectly normal, vaguely butch girl. She sang Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which is probably going to be an evergreen for these shows, and did this nice gnarled-up raspy take on it. She chose Cee Lo after just about all the judges tried to land her.

Another dart at Idol: Sonia Rao was a very hot girl who did a fairly good job with an Alicia Keys song, but none of the judges could see her, and none of them picked her. All the male contestants made a big show out of kicking themselves, but here’s the show announcing itself, saying it doesn’t matter how these people look. Pretty smart!

Elenowen was a goofy-looking married couple from Nashville, and I guess groups will also get to compete on the show? I don’t know how that will work. The dude lives in his wife’s parents’ basement, which is a sad thing indeed. They sang that song from Once, and the girl sounded (and looked) way better than the guy. Way to drag your wife down while you’re living off her family, dude! They ended up with Blake Shelton, who made the point that he knows how to keep a singing married couple together. Well played, Blake!

Next contestant: Holy shit! Frenchie Davis! Who got kicked off of American Idol a million years ago after topless pictures came out! And now she looks like Grace Jones, except bigger. She sang a yelly, operatic version of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” sort of an on-the-nose pick. Only Xtina picked her, so that’s where she ended up. But her appearance on this show seems sort of like Lex Luger showing up on the first episode of WCW Monday Nitro while he was appearing on a taped episode of Raw at the exact same time. (Luger and Frenchie both have gigantic chests, too.) It’s an attack move, and kind of an awesome one.

Kelsey Ray’s whole thing was that she’s a really hot girl who’s appeared in some lip-syncy YouTube video that I guess have gotten a lot of hits. I’ve never heard of her, but her thing about how she wants to be judged on her voice and not the fact that she’s hot was enough to turn me against her. What a fake-humble conceited asshole! She sang an absolutely shitty thin, nasal version of Estelle’s “American Boy,” and a bunch of coaches inexplicably picked her. She ended up with Cee Lo.

Jeff Jenkins was a big, hulking country guy whose mom just died. He sang a throaty, extra-twangy version of Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” and it would’ve been better if he didn’t half-swallow all his words. All four coaches gave him tried to snag him and gave him a standing ovation, so apparently I’m wrong. He ended a particularly half-hearted bit of fake drama that the show worked up, becoming the first guy on Adam Levine’s team.

Carson introduced Rebecca Loebe as a “homeless musician,” and I’m looking forward to seeing TMZ report that, nope, she actually has an apartment and three roommates and a cat. She sang this weird, messy version of Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” half Sarah Brightman new age and half Evanescence goth-metal silliness. (Bridget, my wife, said “very Tori Amos,” which I guess is the exact midpoint between those two, but this chick ain’t no Tori.) She signed on with Adam Levine, using the word “trajectory” to explain her decision. I like that word! Nice usage, Rebecca Loebe!

Joann Rizzo got a pretty big video package. She’s a heavily accented, middle-aged New Jersey mom who yelled a lot. None of the judges picked her, and I can’t blame them. Sorry, attempted feelgood story!

Xenia is a shy 16-year-old, and you have to feel extra-bad for a shy 16-year-old with a name like “Xenia”. But she’s got one of those nice, vaguely bluesy adult-contemporary voices. She’s also got a nice face. I immediately decided that I like her. After some weirdly entertaining back-and-forth between Blake and Cee Lo, she went with Blake. The real revelation there: Cee Lo and Blake Shelton have chemistry! They could have a talk show together.

Here’s a fun game: Pick the show’s cliché before it happens! The camera didn’t show Tje Austin until he was halfway through his song, but it did show his parents, a country-ass white couple, the dad in a cowboy hat. I swear to you, I immediately predicted that he’d be black. Yup! With an afro, too! He did a pretty, relaxed rendition of Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are,” and then he joined Cee Lo’s team. Carson Daly, during the post-song family celebration: “How do I get in this family right here? This is the new American family, and I want in on it!” You’re making everybody’s skin crawl, Carson. Shut up.

Javier Colon was quite possibly my favorite contestant on the show thus far, and not just because he’s a dad with two ridiculously adorable daughters. (I’m an easy mark like that.) He did a sort of acoustic coffeehouse-R&B version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” and it was exactly what one of these singing-show performances is supposed to be: A great song, sung well, in a way that didn’t have too much to do with the original version but which also honored the melody of the original song. Pretty amazing that this guy never ended up on Idol.

The show teased Beverly McClellan for weeks before she showed up, and it’s obviously got a whole lot more to do with how she looks than how she sings: She’s a big middle-aged bald lesbian with neck tats. But she’s got some swag to her, and her Janis Joplin impression, while a bit predictable, was pretty strong. She wound up on Xtina’s team, and I have to wonder how she feels about two of her three contestants being large bald lesbians. Still, even if The Voice loses to American Idol badly in every other respect, at least it’ll lock up the large-bald-lesbian demographic.

[Pic via MJ]

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 27, 2011

Archive Highlights