Will 'The Voice' Be More Legitimate Than 'American Idol'?
by Stephanie Earp, posted Apr 18th 2011 5:00PM
In the Netherlands, that land of windmills, tulips and endless reality series, a show called 'The Voice of Holland' has become more popular that the Dutch versions of 'American Idol,' 'X-Factor' and all other singing competitions. So, of course, it's been developed for a North American audience, and starting Tuesday, April 26 on NBC and CTV, 'The Voice' will try to make a similar jump to the top of the ratings pile over here.
The show has all the hallmarks of a reality singing competition: celebrity judges (Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green), vapid host (Carson Daly) and a drawn-out audition phase. But it makes one subtle switch to the usual proceedings, and that has me very curious: The judges (called "coaches" in this case) can't see the people who are auditioning. It's a pretty simple twist, but potentially a very powerful one.
It's a pretty frank slap in the face to 'Idol.' How often have we watched the judges at early auditions look contestants up and down? You can practically see them fitting the girls out in sequined bustiers and booking the guys into a spa for a full body wax. They make no bones about it -- they tell contestants they have the right look, that they're cute, that they're "the whole package." Of course, if they make it past Hollywood Week, that package gets a spiffy new wrapping as hair, makeup and wardrobe is applied with a trowel.
If you've read the 'Hunger Games' series by Suzanne Collins (and if you haven't, do it), you probably recognized this transformative element of 'Idol' in the book's teams of stylists. As much as I'm tired of hearing reality TV blamed for everything from political attack ads to divorce rates, Collins' teen version of 'The Running Man' did make me feel sort of sick to my stomach. Okay, so 'Idol' isn't asking its contestants to kill each other, but as all good sci-fi does, the series made me question the way 'Idol' and similar shows create new versions of the people it features. Sure, sometimes the makeovers serve to highlight existing tendencies -- the country crooner gets a cowboy shirt, the punk rocker gets a fauxhawk -- but, is Collins right? Do all these makeovers serve to dehumanize the contestants? Do they become mannequins? Are they in fact chosen, if unconsciously, because they make good mannequins? And is a bad styling choice enough to make voters turn against a contestant?
I suspect it is, and I think that this may be what happened to Pia Toscano a few weeks ago. The Pia who auditioned was a pretty girl, but a pretty girl-next-door. She dressed in age-appropriate casuals and wore her dark hair in a simple center part. The Pia who performed as part of the elite group of final contestants was styled so hard it hurt. I get that her big voice may have led stylists towards a diva look -- huge earrings, beaded gowns and (gasp!) shoulder pads -- but the look was pretty dated, and pretty cold. We might buy albums by Mariah, Whitney and Celine, but they don't make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.
I think the blind audition format of 'The Voice' could cut both ways. Certainly, singers who might not make the cut on 'Idol' will get through, and it will be totally delightful for the audience to know what the person looks like before the coaches do. But it will also probably eliminate performers who might not have perfect pipes, but do have that indefinable certain something. For example, I wonder if someone like 'Idol' contestant Naima would succeed in a blind audition. A huge part of her appeal is in her look, her stage presence, and the way she carries herself.
But the blind audition phase can't last forever. The format of 'The Voice' is as follows: The four coaches hear the singing with their backs to them, and if they like them, they can select them for their 'team.' If more than one coach selects the singer, the singer gets to choose who to work with. Once teams are selected, the coaches work with their performers, in groups and one-on-one, and even have the option of performing with them. It seems inevitable that part of that coaching will include imaging, especially considering that each of the four coaches has a strong sense of personal style.
Still, I feel like taking advice on stage gear from Xtina or Cee Lo Green is going to lead to a far more authentic and interesting place than being zipped into a pre-fab persona. (Seriously, if you read some of the interviews the 'Idol' stylists have given, you'll see that they actually refer to contestants as 'this year's David Archuleta' or 'the new David Cook.')
Maybe, just maybe, the format of 'The Voice' means this reality show can find someone who isn't just 'the new whoever' but is really and truly new.
'The Voice' premieres on April 26 at 9PM ET on NBC in the U.S. and CTV in Canada.