The Voice has passed its most important test this spring. With Christina Aguilera and Cee-Lo Green on the bench, Mark Burnett and company successfully slotted in Shakira and Usher during their absence and delivered a season that lived up to ratings expectations and helped NBC complete a rejuvenating year (even if they also canceled most of their new series from last fall). It’s proof that it’s the format and not just the individual coaches that America has become attached to, and it bodes well for the show’s future as a season-long staple for the network.
However, if we take a step back and ignore the ratings for a moment, has The Voice ever managed to pass the test we tend to use when judging the value of a singing competition? Four cycles into its existence, The Voice—like fellow newcomer X Factor—has failed to generate a recording artist who has gained any cultural traction. This is not to say that all of the show’s winners were untalented, but rather to suggest that there is unlikely to be a point in the future when “Who won the fourth season of The Voice?” will show up in a general interest trivia round as “Who won the sixth season of American Idol?” did for me a few weeks ago.
To be fair, American Idol has shifted out of the mainstream enough that I’m guessing many people would struggle to answer that question; however, early seasons of American Idol reached that intangible point of cultural prominence where the title of “American Idol” meant something. Although Carson Daly and the four coaches consistently talk about how much it would mean for these artists to win The Voice, has there been any evidence to quantify or even qualify that claim? It’s too early to judge this question definitively as Cassadee Pope is making a run at country radio with her “Avril Lavigne goes Country” single “Wasting All These Tears,” but I’m comfortable saying that The Voice has settled into a cultural space of “popular but meaningless.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, provided you’re willing to sit through lots of empty claims from Daly. I’ve caught only a few episodes of The Voice this season (and am filling in here as the substitute for a busy Caroline Framke), but have seen a bit more in recent weeks as I’ve been home visiting with my parents. Loyal viewers of the show, they nonetheless have developed a distinct relationship with the series. My mother skips through the coaches’ comments, deeming them to be useless in their undying positivity; when Monday’s performance finale brought out all of the finalists to sing, she admitted she wouldn’t be able to name most of them. She has her favorites, and she has her opinions of the contestants, but the show is ephemeral: always present, always watchable, rarely captivating.
And yet there’s something about The Voice that I admire, and tonight’s two-hour finale offered a nice demonstration of it. What works about The Voice is that it’s upfront about how it’s ultimately a space where NBC can sell celebrity and commercial products on the backs of unknown singers. When the show begins, Carson Daly introduces the celebrity coaches before he introduces the three finalists; during Daly’s mid-broadcast previews of what was coming up later, Cher’s performance of her new single “Woman’s World” seemed to be mentioned more often than the fact the show would be announcing its winner. The finale transitions from performance to performance without much connective tissue, the “Here’s Bruno Mars performing his new single” indistinguishable from the performances featuring finalists from the show itself (who, as someone who didn’t watch the entire season, were often anonymous to me). Daly stops the broadcast late in the hour to personally thank Starbucks on behalf of the crew, suggesting the crew could not have completed their labor if not for their caffeinated—and promotional—support.
In most contexts I find much of this infuriating. There’s a point in the broadcast where Michelle Chamuel’s performance with OneRepublic is sandwiched between a video package about the rift in Adam and Blake’s bromance and a comedy routing with Blake making fun of Usher’s coaching techniques, and part of me was angry. Instead of focusing on the contestant the show is ostensibly claiming to help elevate in her career, the show is instead focusing on cheap comedy. It was even worse when Carson Daly referred to Michelle as “Usher’s Michelle Chamuel,” as though she belongs to him, a pet peeve of mine ever since Justin Bieber referred to Carly Rae Jepsen as “his” artist. I realize it’s just rhetoric at the end of the day, but that’s the kind of fear you have when real people enter themselves into this reality television machine.
And yet as the finale progressed, there was something strikingly genuine about the whole affair. During Monday’s performance finale, Shakira brought props to express her support for the three remaining finalists given that all of her team had been eliminated before the final round. The props mean little, really, but Shakira seemed to genuinely enjoy being able to play cheerleader for these people. And when you watch Usher talk about what it would be like for Michelle to win the competition, or as you watch how much fun Blake was having playing the goofball with his team, you realize this is fun and meaningful for them. The relationships the contestants speak to with the coaches don’t feel like a construct of the Mark Burnett machine, but rather genuine human connections, reinforced when the season’s final image is all of the coaches and the three finalists on stage with winner Danielle Bradbery’s family, as though they’re all part of the same family in the end.
The Voice works because you believe that image would have been identical had one of the other finalists won. Rather than a singing competition, The Voice is a documentary reality show about the mentorship of young singers by charismatic and caring celebrities. Each week viewers tune in not to see who wins and loses, but rather to watch as singers grow into artists; the same is true of most singing competitions, true, but the tight focus on mentorship foregrounds this narrative above that of competition. It’s why Bradbery, the 16-year-old with the pure voice and the pure heart, played so well to Americans, and why “reality show quirky” runner-up Michelle Chamuel beat out the more generic Swon Brothers. Michelle said in her final confessional that “winning is about representing the people who have put time and energy into this.” The Voice is successful because it hails viewers in ways that make them feel like they’re part of that group of people, contributors to the “team” of each coach or contestant they choose to support; it’s why Adam Levine’s harmless dismissal of America turned into such a controversy, as it shattered the illusion that viewers, coaches, and contestants were all on the same playing field.
We could have a conversation about what yet another young female country-leaning vocalist means for the show’s cultural footprint, or what Blake’s third-straight victory tells us about the makeup of The Voice’s audience. And although my mother has encouraged me to be nice, I could also note how perplexed I was that the Swon Brothers made it this far in the competition, or how Amber Carrington easily outclassed the other finalists vocally, or how that excerpt from Justin Rivers’ version of “The Climb” made me cringe. I rolled my eyes every time Carson Daly was reading some hyperbolic statement about the show’s importance off a teleprompter, and I thought every judges’ comment from Monday night was completely and utterly pointless. Nothing Christina Milian tells me is going to convince me the show’s social media posturing isn’t as overblown as every other show’s social media posturing, and nothing could make me hide my disdain for that “Aren’t we all shocked Shakira knows big words?!” nonsense.
But The Voice doesn’t care. As the show aggressively announces coming out of every commercial break in the simplest terms possible, “THIS IS THE VOICE!” Through four cycles, the show has settled into a rhythm wherein the central relationship between its coaches and their charges has connected with American audiences. The show isn’t designed to create the next musical superstar, it's designed to make Americans feel like they’re getting a front row seat to the space where such a thing could theoretically take place—whether it does or not is beside the point, although I’m sure NBC would rest easier if it would. Most viewers might hit the mental reset button by the time you’ve read this review, ready for another cycle to begin in the fall, but NBC has made The Voice a success by encouraging viewers to—in the immortal words of Pitbull featuring Christina Aguilera—“Feel This Moment.”
- I enjoy how they forced Danielle to sing at the end, surely knowing she’ll run out of words and end up hugging people instead.
- I’m guessing there were a few audible exhales when the Swon Brothers were announced as the third place finishers, although it wasn’t much of a surprise: If Michelle had finished in third place they wouldn’t have announced it (because it would have robbed them of Usher and Blake holding hands over the winner), and there was no way Danielle was finishing third. Still, from what I saw online it seemed like they were the most divisive act remaining: As one person put it, “the pretty one is holding the other one back.”
- I’m not one to throw shade for artists who use backing tracks, since it’s such a standard in the industry, but in what universe does Pitbull lip-synch his way through “Feel This Moment” while Aguilera sings most of her hook live? That’s some lazy nonsense right there.
- Cher was also not singing live through a lot of “Woman’s World,” but her dance period has always lived in that awkward auto-tuned inbetween, and I was surprised even some of it went without the backing track. Also, I think we’ve now confirmed that the musical trajectory of Cher and RuPaul has fully converged; I look forward to the duets album.
- Other guest performance observations: Florida Georgia Line is a struggle for me for a lot of reasons, Bruno Mars’ Dancing Band makes me happy, Hunter Hayes’ stubble made me chuckle, and I wish it had been Bob Saget.
- Holly Tucker was good in her performance alongside the Swon Brothers, but then she breaks out the saxophone in a later performance? I like your style, Holly Tucker.
- Curious to know if people are tiring of the formula, or if Usher and Shakira helped shake things up: NBC is entering that space where saturation is possible, and although ratings have held fairly steady I’m wondering what kind of attrition they’re expecting.
- Any suggestions on individual performances someone like me who only watched bits and pieces of the season should seek out?