Singing competition is a ratings juggernaut, but so far it’s just another one of fame’s dead ends.
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If there were any doubt that the American dream has changed, you’ve only got to look at our talent shows. Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson are the only household names after 10 years of American Idol and two years of The X Factor – a grim statistic. But The Voice, which returns tonight for its fourth season on NBC, attempts to keep the dream alive – albeit in a compromised state.
The imported-from-Holland singing competition is definitely a dream-come-true for the beleaguered network. Last fall it lifted NBC to first place in the Nielsen ratings. With the show off-air since December, the network has since sunk to third (the absence of the NFL’s Sunday telecast hasn’t helped either), so the premiere of the show is a big deal – especially given its retooling: This season Maroon 5 slickster Adam Levine and Nashville star Blake Shelton will be joined by R&B loverman Usher and the goofily sultry Shakira on the coach-slash-mentor panel, replacing Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera.
Despite its makeover, the question remains: How deep is the show’s feel-good story, given that its happy endings haven’t yet resulted in musical stardom? Instead, those hopefuls are adding more fodder to the “where are they now” pile.
The most superficial difference between The Voice and the Cowell-shepherded Idol and X Factor might be its most crucial: Singers audition while the pop stars are shrouded in giant chairs that have their seat-backs toward the stage – and the marquee names can only get a peek once they’ve decided that the voice in question is worth having on their team of singers. It’s a shrewd rebuke to the notion of “manufactured” pop loathed by so many self-proclaimed fans of True Music, and it heightens the ultimate romantic ideal of any game show: The fantasy that the viewer at home could very well be up on that stage.
American Idol and The X Factor possess that implicit dream as well but the earliest episodes subject contestants to cruel scrutiny, the mean factor exaggerated for ratings. The Voice sets up a different dynamic between the celebrities and the singers – instead of belittling them as Cowell did, the big names are there to help, whether through tips on how to control vocals or by simply offering the chance to absorb star power by being in the same room.
The Voice also allows for pop star redemption. The blind auditions and looser age restrictions certainly encourage it, and the show’s masterminds made it even more plain when they invited Frenchie Davis, who was very publicly booted from Idol after a topless-photo scandal, onto the first season. But she was hardly the only known quantity who’s made it to the later rounds: Season Three winner Cassadee Pope, formerly of the emo act Hey Monday, is only one of the Warped Tour refugees who has persevered to the show’s later rounds. Season One winner Javier Colón had a minor Hot 100 hit in 2003. These people have been around the music-biz block, but they might be new faces to the viewers at home who aren’t scouring Billboard.
Redemption fantasies aside, The Voice still hasn’t resulted in the one prize desired most beyond the finale: Stardom on the recorded-music front. The post-Voice road traveled by winners has been rocky, or at least filled with detours: Colón parted ways with his Voice-awarded label in 2012, saying at the time that “it’s really hard not to be upset” when one puts out a record with no support. Second season champ Jermaine Paul won in May 2012 and his debut album, perhaps appropriately called Finally, is slated for release this year. (Pope’s first solo album is also scheduled to come out in 2013.)
The lack of chart success, though, probably doesn’t matter to NBC executives, or to the judges, or even to the viewers at home. The Voice presents multiple fantasies to its viewers and its contestants: The idea of being judged for reasons that go deeper than looks, the romance of being brought out of obscurity and into the spotlight. But stories like Colón’s are a sobering reminder that, despite its bells and whistles, it’s better viewed as a TV show that offers wannabe stars a finite lifespan rather than a launching pad to everlasting fame.
Maura Johnston is the editor of Maura Magazine and an instructor at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute Of Recorded Music.
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