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'The Voice' Still Hits High Notes as Music Industry Morphs
October 29, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

The biggest surprise watching The Voice today is how it has managed to sustain the high notes, both in the ratings and, more importantly, with  the way it has connected with its primarily young audience. There may be no reality-competition program that uses social media to better effect. 

As with anything on broadcast  television — American Idol being the most recent and cautionary example — The Voice will run its course eventually. For now, though, it has managed to succeed both as a TV show, and as a window into today’s troubled music industry. 

As veteran New Yorker culture writer John Seabrook points out in his just-published book The Song Machine, music sales reached their pinnacle in the 1990s, with $27 billion sales worldwide in 1999 — two short years before American Idol’s debut. The record company executives who scoured the country for the next hit makers had no way of knowing that, by 2014, worldwide revenue would tail off to $15 billion. That’s still a heady number, but it’s also half what it was a decade and a half earlier.  

File-sharing sites like Napster may have opened Pandora’s Box, but Seabrook believes that  iTunes — one of The Voice’s primary sponsors — is proving to to be the bigger agent of change, by peddling individual songs for 99 cents in an industry grown fat from selling albums for $15. The inevitable result, Seabrook argues, is not real songs so much as “industrial products... made for malls, stadiums, airports, casinos, gyms and the Super Bowl halftime show,” three-minute advertisements for whatever product image the artist is trying to project at the time. 

Sound familiar? Except that, in The Voice, those three minutes are whittled down to 90 seconds. The Voice is all about covers, karaoke by any other name — and only covers of those songs the producers have been able to clear. That may be the real reason why The Voice has yet to break a bona fide star, who writes, sings and performs his or her own songs, selling out stadium arenas along the way. Sadly, for all its strengths — and The Voice often makes for entertaining and addictive viewing — it’s unlikely to produce the next Prince or Madonna, an artist who is both popular with the audience and a true original. 

Today’s music artists occupy a central place in their songs, Seabrook writes, “but more as vocal personalities than singers... What do they stand for as artists? Their insights into the human condition seem to extend no further than the walls of the vocal booth.” 

Again, sound familiar? Seabrook could be describing Rihanna, this week’s mentor on The Voice, widely considered to be one of the defining singers of her generation, the publicly anointed queen of pop and R&B. Time will tell whether Rihanna (with Pharrell, top) is remembered as one of those generational artists who both reflected and represented her era, but the suggestion is today’s music is too superficial and lightweight to be remembered for anything other than singles downloads.
And yet... as TV, The Voice has moments that can be truly astounding. There’s a wide-eyed optimism to those early-round blind audition shows. Reality-competition programs, even successful ones, have a way of trading in ridicule, humiliation and cynicism, and yet there isn’t a cynical bone in The Voice’s entire body. There’s a sense of palpable joy. Tears are met with words of encouragement, and here’s the amazing part: None of it feels fake. “You’re not good enough” is just not good enough for The Voice. Instead, the show’s mentors encourage flailing contestants to hone their craft, take a little time to grow, as an artist and as a person, and then come back and knock us out.  

In its early season The Voice suffered from a change in tone between the blind auditions — for me, still the highlight of any season — and the subsequent “battle rounds,” in which singers stare each other down in one-on-one sing-offs. The music industry is competitive, yes, but the battle rounds seemed an unnatural way to choose one over another. The Voice’s producers were savvy enough — and matureenough to admit they had a problem, despite the sky-high ratings — to introduce the “save,” by which one mentor can poach a singer from another mentor’s team. That seemingly simple addition changed The Voice forever. The producers could not have known it at the time, but that one little change may have extended The Voice’s shelf life beyond what otherwise would have been its normal shelf life. Over nine seasons and little more than four years, The Voice has stayed close to its first-year performance — 12.33 million viewers in its first season, and an average 12.37 million this season so far. 

Rihanna has proven a warm and generous mentor, with none of the forced bonhomie and false “I’ve got an album to sell” charm of drop-in guests on some other singing-competition programs. 

“Those imperfections are what is going to make the character in your voice,” she counseled one young contestant, in an installment earlier this week.  

“Whoever that was that just showed up,” she counseled another, during rehearsal: “That’s who you are.”
And just when the music aficionado might be about to give up in despair — a 90-second Demi Lovato cover? Demi Lovato? Really?  — a 15-year-old Braiden Sunshine (above, left) channels Michael Bublé’s Feelin’ Good, and it’s nowhere near as awful as that might sound. 

In a knockout-round show from earlier in the week, genuine contender Amy Vachal (right) brought some beautiful vocal stylings to Etta James’ Sunday Kind of Love, only to be turned over by her coach Pharrell Williams , who favored 16-year-old Madi Davis instead, after Davis’ take on Joni MItchell’s A Case of You  

When Williams, soft-spoken and low key where Adam Levine can be boisterous and noisy, tells one of his charges that she’s an artist, not just another contestant on The Voice, he sounds as if he means it. 

“Your voice reminds me of what the music industry used to be,” he told one of his young protégés at one point. 

As luck would have it, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton used their remaining saves on Vachal, in arguably the night’s highlight moment, guaranteeing Vachal a spot in the live performance shows. Vachal chose Levine over Shelton. In another inspired twist in The Voice, the power lies with the contestant. When more than one coach shows interest, the contestant gets to choose where she or he will go from there.
When the live shows begin, the coaches will no longer pick and choose their favorites. The audience watching at home will have final say. Audience tastes in TV-singing competitions don’t always mirror those of  music buyers  — too much focus on middle-of-the-road country artists, while soul divas, gospel singers and hard rockers are often overlooked. Even a preternaturally mature big-band crooner like Sunshine — his actual birth name, by all accounts — or a talented R&B diva with soul to spare like  Vachal, may get lost in all that country twang. 

No matter, from a srtrictly TV-viewing point of view. The Voice can be counted on to deliver fast-moving, entertaining TV, even if it won’t deliver the genre-busting singing sensation the music industry so desperately wants, and needs. After all, as Levine himself said when it all began: “I trust this show more than I trust the music industry.”


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Alex S.
You are correct, sir. Thanks to your diligent eye, the offending mention has been corrected.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for being so gracious in pointing out the error, even if, as you say, it's a small core4ction. Not everyone bothers to be so polite. And, if I'm being honest with myself, when an error is made, there's no such thing as a 'small correction.' They're all important. So, thanks.
Oct 30, 2015   |  Reply
Dave Sobel
Thanks for the insight about a show my family and i enjoy and watch every week. Small correction, Adam Levine also tried to steal Amy Vachal. She chose him, not Shelton.
Oct 29, 2015   |  Reply
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