Will country music be the savior of The Voice?

Will country music be the savior of The Voice?

If you ever wonder what happens to the former contestants from The Voice after all the hoopla and shouts of “You’re gonna be a star!” die down, all you have to do is watch them return to perform on the show in subsequent seasons. The sheepish looks on their faces, when they tell Carson Daly about the new EP they’ve finally managed to eke out and the original songs that indicate they’re not as compelling as they were when they were contestants, are a good indication of the number of music stars the show has produced in its first three seasons.

In a word: zero.

Sure, there’s season-two finalist Chris Mann, who is touring on the Josh Groban circuit of middle-aged moms and grandmothers who want to seem “hip.” But none of the show’s winners or finalists have made much of an impact on the music business. 

The sad toll could be seen on last week’s semi-final results episode, where three finalists came back to perform their singles. Season two’s Tony Lucca hit the stage with a single that made me sleepy, but I was shocked awake by the news that, even a year after his appearance on the show, he was only now releasing an EP. Season-three rocker Terry McDermott told Daly he was releasing an EP… but only in his native Scotland. And his fellow finalist, silken-voiced Nicholas David, has also only managed to get out an EP, more than six months after season three ended.

Yes, it’s tough to write and record songs, and life and touring intervene. Still, given the fact that season-one winner Javier Colon has already been dropped by Universal Music due to poor sales, and season-two winner Jermaine Paul has fallen off the face of the Earth, a bad pattern is starting to emerge. Season-three winner Cassadee Pope came back to the show earlier this season with a new single, but she sounded flat and less than confident that her new countrified image would sit well with her.

But Pope’s image change, fueled by her coach and mentor Blake Shelton, gave an indication of what might be in store for the coming seasons. If season four’s voting has been any indication, country is going to rule on The Voice for some time to come, and while this may piss off those who don’t like the genre, it’s likely going to be what saves the show from flaming out after five or six cycles.

Even the most ardent country fan knows that experienced R&B belters like Sasha Allen and Judith Hill, neither of whom made the final three this season, are more talented than The Swon Brothers and Danielle Bradbery, who are going to this week’s finals along with Liz Lemon look-alike Michelle Chamuel. They’re a part of Shelton’s country super-team that he judiciously built during the blind auditions and honed during the battle and knockout rounds. By the time he hit the live rounds, Shelton knew he had a team in place that not only had a very good chance to give him a third victory in a row on the show, but will also actually do well once the season ends.

As I’ve said before, it’s a smart strategy: Blake knows that country is hot right now, thanks to pop-laced acts like his wife, Miranda Lambert, and Taylor Swift; party bands like the Zac Brown Band; balladeers like Lady Antebellum; and more traditional singers like himself, Tim McGraw, and Brad Paisley. He also knows that he’s had problems promoting winners like Paul and audience favorites like alternative artist Xenia. He realized last season, after feeding Pope one country song after another and seeing her zoom past more talented artists like David and Amanda Brown, that the country voting bloc is the show’s strongest group.

The music for these final rounds has been pretty boring; Shelton has taken to giving his team non-challenging country and Southern-rock classics to sing, and even Adam “I hate this country!” Levine and Shakira gave their contestants country or countrified songs. Yet there certainly is a sense that if any act can make it outside the confines of the show, it might just be the Swons, Bradbery, or both. Bradbery’s voice is fairly straightforward and generic, but she’s poised and polished for a 16-year-old who supposedly never sang live before stepping onto The Voice’s stage for the first time; she could become a star in the Swift-ian mold very quickly, even if she doesn’t write about all the boys who broke her heart. The Swons are just plain fun, two down-to-earth guys from Oklahoma who can harmonize well; Blake even mentioned country’s long history of successful duos during an episode a few weeks ago.

Which is why, as painful as it may be for people to admit, country may be the show’s savior. At this point, it’s almost imperative that The Voice produces a star along the lines of American Idol’s biggest names, like Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. As much as The Voice’s popularity is dependent on the chemistry among its coaches and the still-gives-chills quality of the blind auditions, the show still needs to have a win on the contestant side for it to hold on to whatever audience it currently has.

Idol’s early mega-popularity, where even non-watchers knew who was in contention because every media outlet wanted to get a piece of its success, was fueled by the sense that the audience was really about to see the next pop star emerge out of the masses. And even though Clarkson took a while to take real advantage of her first-season victory, her stardom came just in time for Idol fans to forget about the pseudo-stars it generated early on, like Kellie Pickler, Clay Aiken, and Taylor Hicks. Career victories by non-winners like Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry also helped fuel the perception that Idol really was a star-maker. Even in its latter seasons, contestants like Adam Lambert and Phillip Phillips have hung in there to separate themselves at least a little bit from their Idol association.

The same can’t be said, at least so far, about anyone from The Voice. It’s gotten to the point where the next season gears up soon after the previous season ends, and the names of the winners and finalists fade from memory, leaving behind a mass of faces and voices that are hard to distinguish from one another. It’s an unfortunate result of a show that has become, at least in its early rounds, one of the more watchable singing competitions on the air. But the longer the show goes without producing a superstar, the less faith the viewers will have in the show. As it is, the ratings have been slipping as the live rounds have progressed; even the show it leads into on Tuesdays, America’s Got Talent, drew a bigger audience during this cycle. It could be the country-centric approach has turned off wide swaths of viewers who are not country fans. But it could also be that people are losing faith that anyone from the show will ever become a star.

It’s hard to watch these hopefuls and follow their stories, chock full of their hopes that The Voice will make them a star or help revive a flagging career, when you know that no matter how far they get, they’ll go back to obscurity as soon as the season is over. Watching Usher put his leg up, or Blake and Adam proceed with their bromance, or even the silly stylings of Christina Aguilera or Cee Lo Green, who will both be back in the fall, will only take the show so far. If it fails to produce even a Daughtry-level star after four seasons, it stands to reason that it never will, which is a recipe for viewer burnout. If it takes The Swon Brothers becoming stars for that not to happen, well, that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it?

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