As American Idol
dwindles down to its final five finalists, it seems to lose momentum week by week. Gone is the promise that the Top 13 (well, at least the Top 11) contestants held. I am bewildered, and sometimes even stunned, by whom my fellow Americans are choosing as the most talented or even intriguing singers this season. Pedestrian 16-year-old country artist Lauren Alaina has more style than picture-perfect and perfect-pitched balladeer Pia Toscano? More talent than quirky and unpredictable Casey Abrams? Really, America? REALLY?
Fortunately, as my interest wanes in that chestnut, a new show debuted last week that looks as if it might present Idol's first real competition in the vocal talent genre. If you missed the premiere of NBC's The Voice, check it out this Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET. I consider it a return to must-see TV on NBC, and many others agree. The 12 million viewers who tuned to its first outing made it the highest-rated premiere of the season. Plus, it racked up another 6 million viewers for an encore of the premiere Wednesday night (airing partially against Idol). Though it remains to be seen whether the later rounds of the show, in which the public gets to vote, will prove that America still doesn't have a clue, right now The Voice is fresh and exciting.
The point of The Voice is to find great singers based, at least initially, on their vocal talent -- not their appearance, personality or stage presence -- and then to mentor them into superstars. To that end, the show has four coaches -- singers Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. Note that all four are major current talents, unlike Idol's judges, who are so 5 minutes (or 15 years) ago.
Each coach will work with eight singers whom they select during the "blind auditions" round. In this first phase of the show, the coaches face away from the singers as they perform. If they hear a voice they like -- hence the name of the show -- they can buzz in to claim the singer for their team. If none of the coaches buzz in, the singer is eliminated. However, if more than one coach buzzes in, the power reverts to the auditioner, who can select which coach he or she prefers to work with -- but not before the coaches make appeals for why they should be picked.
We loved watching strategist Levine, who, when he was considering selecting someone, watched the other coaches' hands. If they made a move for the buzzer, Levine made sure to buzz in simultaneously. This tactic was effective in currying favor with the singers, who tended to be partial to the first coach (or two) who buzzed in to win them. Levine also relied on cute begging ploys when he had to fight to win a singer.
The Voice skips Idol's weeks of torturous shows traveling the country to find worthy singers by having its casting team work with the music industry to locate great voices. Thus, you'll see everything from neophyte 16-year-olds to seasoned contestants such as Idol Season 2 semi-finalist Frenchie Davis. (Davis was disqualified from Idol after topless pictures of her showed up online. If you missed the premiere of The Voice, she was selected by Aguilera.) There was even a folk duo.
After each mentor has selected a team of eight, the show's second phase, the "battle" stage, begins. For this round, each coach has advisers to help whittle their teams down to their best four singers. Aguilera will team up with singer-songwriter Sia, Levine with Maroon 5 music director Blackstone, Green with singer Monica, and Shelton with veteran country artist Reba McEntire. The advisers will help the coaches develop and bring out the best in their singers by helping them select songs that suit their vocal styles, providing advice on performances, and sharing secrets of their own success. To pare the team by half, the coaches pit their artists against each other in duets before a studio audience. After the face-off, the coach decides which singer will advance.
The final part of the competition is the "performance" stage. In this semi-final phase, the top contestants from each team compete against each other in live broadcasts, and viewers vote to save one talent on each team, leaving the coach to decide whom they want to save and who will not move on. In the finals, each coach will have one artist left. Viewers decide who will be named The Voice to receive a recording contract and $100,000.
So far, each coach has picked three singers. It's hard to determine which coach, if any, has picked most wisely, since I would have selected one contestant each from Levine's, Green's and Shelton's teams. I wasn't that impressed with the singers Aguilera chose. You can watch the premiere here. If you find you love the performances, full-length studio versions are available on iTunes.
And let me know if you like the show as much as I do.