The Voice

Maybe because I am naïve about the way these things work, I was actually kind of psyched for The Voice. I told my sister this, and she snorted into her phone. But it was credible people judging it, I argued—I like Cee-Lo Green a lot, and Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Christina Aguilera, and Blake Shelton have all had their moments for me. Her response boiled down to, Yeah, but it’s still a reality-competition show.

Too right. The Voice’s premiere fumbled right out of the gate—the four stars (some of them playing—Levine on drums, eh?) trading verses of Cee-Lo’s “Crazy,” his big Gnarls Barkley hit. It’s cute but underwhelming, which is what the show basically boils down to as well. Host Carson Daly hollers, “That is how you do it!” Really, Carson?

In the promos for The Voice, Levine talked about how janky-looking some of the great ’70s singers were—I suppose he meant the kind of folks you never saw anywhere but on American Bandstand and now the Time-Life CD-box infomercials that recycle them—when for the most part The Voice presents a rather telegenic bunch of candidates for—what exactly? The next great American singing star, it seems, but the show’s rules are repeated twice, in their entirety, at the beginning and end of the show. They take about three minutes to explain, each time, and they’re still a labyrinth.

Here are the basics. The judges are tasked with choosing a team of eight singers. To audition, each new candidate enters the stage. The judges are on revolving chairs (the show was likely conceived around some leftover Match Game set pieces), with their backs to the stage. The singer begins—the usual mélange of obvious hits, obvious classics, obvious ploys, and obvious treatments (the easy winner in that department was “homeless musician” Rebecca Loebe, who lives out of a Toyota and rendered Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” as straight-up Sarah McLachlan worship). When a judge decides they like the singer enough to want them on their team, they hit a button and their chair turns to face the singer. That way, Carson Daly tells us repeatedly in his best dude-I’m-serious, the showbiz types on the program’s panel can judge these up-and-comers on what really matters—the way they sound, not the way they look. The teams of eight then, presumably, mow one other down in head-to-head competition, just like every other thing like this on the air, with the grand prize a deal with Universal/Republic—which, the noticeably intrusive voiceover told us, was “part of the global Universal Music Group,” a thing that people at home are just dying to know all about, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the fucked priorities of self-important bizzers hanging on to the wrecked remains of their industry or anything.

The judges wore TV-casual: Levine in his best modified George Michael; Cee-Lo wearing a Misfits T-shirt and giant red sunglasses; Christina looking like Christina, only with clothes on (primetime is for families); and Blake Shelton the cool country gentleman. Not to mention tall: He was roughly twice the height of one of his selections, 16-year-old Xenia Martinez of Temecula, CA, who chose the Script’s “Break Even.” He also had some of the only decent banter of the night—Cee-Lo had buzzed in before Shelton, and the country singer explained that as a young woman, Martinez would likely need stability: “One day, he’s going to show up dressed as Batman.”

The thing is, as TV watchers have discovered time and again for decades, musicians aren’t necessarily that interesting to watch when they’re not playing music. All four of the judges are clearly game, and have their personae down more or less pat—Levine is the excitable, competitive one; Christina is Paula/J-Lo with actual pipes; Shelton is wily, the last one on the trigger; and Cee-Lo is slightly pervy. When Frenchie Davis, who was disqualified from the second season of American Idol after the surfacing of topless photos taken when she was 19, gave the Broadway-showstopper treatment to, um, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” Cee-Lo’s response was, “Great choice of song. I can relate to it totally.” She went with Aguilera anyway.

Wait—there’s competition? It doesn’t much seem like it, and not just because, like every other two-hour reality-competition show out there, the editing is so slack. The judges do a lot of mock-aggressive bantering, but at the end of the show, with Cee-Lo’s mock-serious, “Competition is getting tough out there. Friends are becoming foes,” it’s pretty laughable. It’s a bunch of showbiz backslapping, no tension at all. The music is the same way: overwrought, talent-show baloney, for the most part, to go with the choice of material. That said, the judges did gong the worst performances: Jared Blake, who played an acoustic guitar that we, the TV audience, could not hear at all, while singing “Good Girls Gone Bad” with pro forma hoarse sincerity, like a cuddlier version of the dude in Staind. Sonia Rao hit a big clam on the big climax of “If I Ain’t Got You.” And Joanne Rizzo, 56, of Freehold, N.J., and her amazingly tacky beaded top, rendered “I Say a Little Prayer” a zero.

There’s a lot more, but this is a look-in, so I’ll leave it at this: The most scary-starstruck contestants are easily Elenowen, a married Nashville couple, Josh and Nicole Johnson, currently living in her parents’ basement. They’re dazzled by the whole thing, clearly, and drink in the attention like the pros they clearly are already: Cee-Lo mentions wanting to turn them into a modern Sonny & Cher, but their glib banter (Judge: “You guys spoke at the same time...” Nicole: “We do that”) makes it clear they’ve already thought that part through.

Stray observations:

  • AWFUL logo. Awful.
  • Watching Kelsey Ray, the model-like 20-year-old who ends up on Cee-Lo’s team, bob her head to her iPod was probably the funniest moment of the episode. Watching her finally get the break she deserves because she has a great voice, not because she’s great looking, isn’t funny so much as a big so-what.
  • I do like one singer from this show: Jeff Jenkins, 22, from Texas, a big kid whose mom died 10 months ago. He did a lot of glossalalic runs on his choice, “Bless The Broken Road,” and neither that nor the song are particularly to my taste, but he had a rather discreet approach I enjoyed.
  • Christina has two bald women on her team. Seems logical, somehow.
  • Carson Daly needs to sit down. His whole “Aw, this is the new American family and I want to be part of it” bit with Tye Austin, a black kid with white parents, was queasy-making. (Austin sang Bruno Mars’ “Just The Way You Are” and was picked up by Cee-Lo.)

More TV Club