Reality Rocks - Archive

Why “The Voice” Is The Anti-”Idol”

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Just two months ago, when "The Voice" premiered on NBC smack-dab in the middle of "American Idol's" comeback season, many doubters scoffed. Wasn't the show just one big gimmick, with its blind auditions and ominous spinning chairs of doom? Weren't pop stars like Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green committing career suicide by slumming on a reality show like this? And most importantly, did America really need yet another singing competition?

Well, the respective answers to questions above turned out to be no, no, and, apparently, yes. "The Voice" is now a bona fide hit, with better ratings and better talent than anyone probably ever expected. As it airs its two-part finale this week, the show has already been renewed for a second season, with all four A-list coaches (Christina, Cee Lo, and Adam Levine and Blake Shelton) on board. Season 2 of "The Voice" will premiere in a coveted slot, right after the Super Bowl, on February 5, 2012, and will once again compete with "American Idol," which returns in January.

And considering how "The Voice" has quite successfully positioned itself as the "anti-Idol" of reality TV singing competitions, it'll be interesting to see how the two shows stack up against each other next year. In many ways, "The Voice" has provided excellent alternative viewing for disgruntled "Idol" fans, so the folks at Fox might need to worry a little bit. It seems nothing--not the dismal run of Season 9, not the loss of Paula Abdul, not the hiring of Ellen DeGeneres, not even the resignation of Simon Cowell--has derailed "American Idol" yet, but "The Voice" just may be the little show that could.

So how is "The Voice" better than, or at least refreshingly different from, "American Idol"? Let me count the ways...

Contestant Diversity - Among "The Voice's" contestants, there has been an incredible mix, not just in terms of musical styles, but across ethnicities, age groups (contestants ranging from 16 to 42 years old), and sexual orientations (four of the final 16, three of the final eight, and two of the final four are openly gay). The diverse final four consists of a handsome Latin-American man who croons smooth rock 'n' soul (Javier Colon), a winsome indie-folk songstress with an emo past (Dia Frampton), a supercool rocker girl from the Northwest (Vicci Martinez), and a fortysomething blues-rock chick with a shaved head and neck tattoos (Beverly McClellan). And three of them, excitingly, are FEMALE. Which brings me to my next point...

No Gender Issues - On "Idol," the season starts out with an equal number of boys and girls, which of course frustratingly ensures that some very talented singers will fall by the wayside because they don't meet some silly gender quota. But then, once the voting begins, all the tweens and their moms block-text in earnest, ensuring that no female singer ever wins. ("Idol" has had four male champions in the row.) On "The Voice," however, the mentors simply choose their team members based on who they like best, plain and simple (seven out of Christina's eight singers were female), and then when the voting opens, the female singers actually do quite well. This may be because of...

Limited Voting - On "The Voice," viewers are only allowed 10 votes per method (phone call, online, or iTunes download). Other reality competitions, like "Dancing With The Stars," impose similar voting limits, but "Idol" does not, allowing crazed fans to phone-bank all night and skew the votes (usually in favor of hunky young male contestants). One look at the diverse final four on "The Voice" should make it clear that limited voting is the way to go on these shows--as the results are more likely to reflect the actual pop marketplace and the contestants' chances of selling records in the future. Which brings me to...

iTunes Downloads Count As Votes - This is just so simple; why didn't "Idol" think of this? The best gauge of how well a reality contestant will sell is, frankly, how well that contestant sells while the show is still on the air. While downloads of "Idol" contestants are available on iTunes, only "The Voice" counts each iTunes purchase as a vote towards a contestant. During last week's semifinals, "Voice" contestants had 14 songs in the iTunes 100 (two of them, Javier and Dia, actually had songs in the top 10). In the real world, the only "vote" that counts is the kind made with a music fan's pocketbook, after all, so this means whoever wins "The Voice" will already be a proven seller, someone who's already had success on the charts. And this brings me to...

Transparency - While all reality shows are fixed or manipulated to some degree, "The Voice" has more transparency than most, at least when it comes to the votes. One glimpse at the aforementioned iTunes charts already reveals the contestants' ranking, for instance. And on last week's results show announcing the final four, viewers at home actually got to see the coaches' point tallies, as well as the public votes. All of this is more than enough to silence the sort of vote-fixing accusations and angry conspiracy theories that plague other reality competitions (like "Idol"). "Idol" has become more and more about "shocker" eliminations, but personally, I'll take honesty and transparency, and the right contestants getting through, any day of the week.

More Accomplished Singers - Most of the contestants came to this show as seasoned pros. Of the final four, Dia Frampton was in the Warner Bros. Records duo Meg & Dia, Javier Colon was signed to Capitol Records, and Beverly and Vicci had been gigging and self-releasing music for years. Other contestants had been on other reality shows, or had had record deals before, or had written hit songs for other famous singers, or had acted in films. While some punters understandably complained that this wasn't fair, "The Voice" never claimed that its contestants were total newbies, and all of these semi-unknown contestants still needed a big break. And since they all brought their professional experience to the "Voice" stage, even holding their own performing alongside their superstar mentors, the real winners were the viewers, who got to watch great, solid performances week after week.

Credible Judges - Cee Lo and Blake's careers are hotter than ever right now. Christina, though she's suffered several professional and personal setbacks over the last year, still gets invited to sing at the Super Bowl and the Grammys. Adam Levine still tours the world and dates supermodels. Let's face it, none of these singers really NEEDED to sign up for a show like this. Therefore their involvement added cred to the show, and more importantly, likely drew viewers who would never normally tune in to a show like this but liked seeing Cee Lo rock out in an afro wig, Christina and Adam duet, or all four coaches kill it during a group performance of "Crazy." Also, unlike the "Idol" judges, the "Voice" coaches seemed to take their jobs seriously. Since they weren't so much judging as mentoring, they became genuinely involved in the contestants' success, pushing them to be their best and sometimes even performing with them, as equals, in fun group numbers. Many "Idol" viewers, myself included, complained that the "Idol" judges' empty "in it to win it" and "beautiful" comments left that show's contestants floundering without any guidance, but every single singer on "The Voice" probably learned something from their experience working with their coaches.

Of course, I am looking for some improvements in "The Voice" Season 2. I'd love it if the audition portion of the season were stretched out a little more, and I'd like to see the semifinalists compete for public votes more than just four times, so we can all get to know the contestants a little more intimately. (In this regard, creating emotional attachment, "Idol" totally excels.) But "The Voice" is really onto something here. If it can keep establishing itself as the "anti-Idol," not only should "Idol" be worried, but maybe even Simon Cowell and his "X Factor" team should sweat a little bit, too.

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