This Is The Voice

Another season has come and gone; another winner has been named (Once again, it was the wrong one; but this time, like the last, there wasn’t a right one: hence this blog.). This time the final result was spoiled for me, because the internet is a pain in the ass: a world of instant information, and hardly ever the right information at the right time, which makes it the next thing to useless. And not to tangent too much, but this is why books are better: because they are passive. They allow themselves to be collected and categorized and clearly controlled, and thus, with access to a library with a good card catalog, or a volume with a good index, you can quickly find exactly what you need, exactly when you need it, without wasting a ton of time looking at the wrong things: this is what the internet cannot do. Mostly, I assume, because it’s too young to know better. Just like the winner who was just named this week (BOOM! Back on subject, baby! That was no tangent — it was a parabola!), whose victory, once I knew about it, made me want to watch the show a little bit less: the same effect the last season’s final result had; and at the same time that my interest ebbs, a tide of irritation and contempt, caused by the parts of the show that bug me, rises and swells and threatens to wash me away.

Damn The Voice, anyway.

I was excited when it began. Toni and I are fans of contest shows, especially those involving art and talent; cooking shows like MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen and Chopped; the tattoo contest Inkmasters and the movie makeup show Face Off; Design Star and Project Runway. And, of course, American Idol. We watched the first season of that, and despite Ryan Seacrest and Paula Abdul, despite the show’s need to create mock-celebrities like William Hung or that “Pants on the Ground” guy, we still watched it, most seasons. But we were getting tired of it. They spent too much time bashing on Simon Cowell, who, regardless of what he may be as a person, is and always has been a hell of a talent scout and a top-notch critic, and the main reason the show ever worked. It seemed like every word out of the guy’s mouth required an irritated (and irritating) rebuttal from Paula Abdul or What’s-her-name, Kara DioGuardi, and this was becoming the primary focus of the show. Meanwhile, on stage the talent was getting less impressive, substance swallowed up in style; the bickering between judges, with snark from Seacrest, was the order of the day, and we were getting sick of it.

But here came The Voice. It wasn’t about appearances: you wouldn’t have to look like Carrie Underwood to win. The audition process wasn’t a nationwide weeks-long freak show. The host was Carson Daly, who is to Ryan Seacrest what Jerry Seinfeld is to Andrew “Dice” Clay. The judges – coaches, whatever – were much more interesting, it would seem, than Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson; I love Maroon 5, and Cee Lo Green. They would more than make up for that country guy who I’d never heard of and Christina Aguilera, who I could take or leave.

So we watched the first season. And honestly? That was a good show. The singers were very impressive, varied in their ability and style and the type of music they sang, which made for a good competition. This guy, Javier Colon, had one of the finest singing voices I’ve ever heard. And he won. Perfect! We watched the second season: Jermaine Paul, who won that one, wasn’t my favorite, but he also had a hell of a set of pipes. Carson Daly was solid; Adam Levine was hilarious; it was fun to watch Cee Lo’s eloquence, originality, and creativity; and I had grown to like Blake as much as I had grown to dislike Christina Aguilera.

Jesus – Christina Aguilera. You know, I’ll give her this: she’s really an incredible singer, one of a kind, one of the best singers and performers of our generation. She’s pretty, too, though I loathe her fashion sense. But she’s crap as a coach, and the reason is simple: she’s a diva. Ever since she was – what, four months old when she started singing? – the attention has always been on her, and that’s where she wants it. If you watch the show, there’s only one coach who ever sings along with her team members during rehearsal, and every time, she acts like it’s a gift she’s giving them; and they, who know where their bread is buttered, respond in kind, “Omigawd I’m singing with Christina Aguileraaaaaaaa!!!” Of course, all of the singers she chooses resemble her in terms of singing style and song choice, so it’s not surprising that they would share her love for – well, for herself.

But then the show started to go downhill. The third season was won by the cute girl who sang country, who beat out far better singers to do it. Fourth season was won by the cuter girl who sang even more country, who beat out other country singers, because together they had eliminated the far better singers. The fifth season winner, TessAnne Chin, was indeed the best singer that year – but she was also the most attractive woman on the show. There was a problem, here. It wasn’t all bad in Voice-Town: Christina Aguilera left, replaced by the wonderful and effervescent Shakira, and then by the sweet and amusing Gwen Stefani. Shakira I had always derided as a shaking ass that sang stupid songs out of its other end, but she quickly won my respect for her intelligence and generosity as a coach, and for her humility — despite being markedly more successful as a pop singer than Christina Aguilera. That was a definite improvement. They also, thankfully, got rid of the mind-wrenchingly obnoxious Mouseketeer Christina Milian and her goddamn social media updates. Cee Lo left, which was bad, but Usher was a fine replacement, and Pharrell an even better one. A mixture of good and bad changes to a generally good show—it should have been able to hold it together and keep making good television, while also introducing talented singers to the country. And as American Idol showed us, with Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert and others, you don’t need to win the show to become successful afterwards, so even the dominance of pretty wasn’t the kiss of death.

Unfortunately, something happened. It was, as I recall, during the fourth season, when Blake’s All-Country team wiped out all competition, like WalMart smashing through mom-and-pop stores in rural Alabama. Adam’s team had a pair of amazing singers – two of the best the show had seen, one of whom, Judith Hill, I was so sure was a lock to win the whole thing that I was a little annoyed that there was no suspense – and America eliminated them both at one fell swoop, preferring extra tall stacks of country music. (I mean, come on—the Swonn Brothers? Over this? Seriously?) And in the last seconds of that results show, as Carson Daly revealed the final vote, Adam Levine said into a live mike, “I hate this country!”

I think that’s when the shit hit the fan, and sprayed all over the show. It shouldn’t have: Adam was voicing a moment of frustration, both as a competitor and as a lover of good music, because he – and we – lost on both counts, in that one vote. He was right: just then, America sucked. But of course, just as we learned from the Dixie Chicks, celebrities cannot criticize our country. Adam had to apologize for what he said. But that wasn’t enough: the producers had to make sure that that wouldn’t happen again. I think that’s why it’s gone downhill ever since, culminating in this last season, which was not at all good. Sawyer Fredericks is not a great singer. He has talent, certainly, but he isn’t great. Neither were the other contestants, though Meghan Linsey was better, and I liked Koryn Hawthorne when she wasn’t singing the wrong songs – which, sadly, she frequently was. But out of a field of good-but-not-great, Sawyer Fredericks was probably third and maybe farther back. Yet he won. Same thing last season, with Craig Wayne Boyd, the redneck-from-the-seventies, (By the way: here are some other men with the middle name Wayne.) taking it over two better singers (Damien and Matt McAndrew).

But all is not lost. The show still has a good foundation to build on: three good coaches, a good host, a great concept – a contest that focuses on the actual singing, that rewards musical talent, that highlights the best part of pop music: the voice. It really is a good idea, one that has a place in America’s notoriously superficial pop culture. I don’t want to give up on my show. But I haven’t wanted to watch the last season and a half of it – maybe not even since Josh Kaufman won season six, the last guy who was the right one to go all the way, and who did it solely on his voice and not on his looks nor the kind of music he sang.

So, in order to ensure that The Voice can regain its fading glory before it jumps the shark and hires Ellen Degeneres as the fifth coach – or, God forbid, Nicki Minaj – I have some suggestions. Some of them are just my personal preferences, but mostly, they are intended to keep this contest alive, and to honor the hard work and talent of actual musicians, both those who compete and those who have won fame the hard way, because I think it a deep insult to make celebrities out of people  who just aren’t that good – it’s bad enough to skip people ahead to the front of the line by putting them on TV in the first place. Here we go: eleven things that will save The Voice.

#1: America should not vote. No, that’s too harsh: America should not be the only vote. Especially not through social media. You want to know why Sawyer Fredericks won this season? Because he’s sixteen, and he’s a boy, and he’s cute. The same thing happened with American Idol, over and over again. Because the show allows people to vote using text messages, and it allows one person to vote more than once. And nobody on this planet texts more often, or with greater speed and agility, than 14-year-old girls. They also have higher turnout in these sorts of votes, like retired conservatives in off-year political elections, because young girls watch a lot of TV, and they fall in love easily, and they – come on, do I need to explain, or can I just say Justin Bieber? When the show allows America to vote, they ensure that the cute young contestants win over older, talented ones. They also push it more towards men than women, generally speaking, simply because teenaged boys are too busy playing video games. Or watching porn.

America can be the fifth vote, the tie breaker; but the coaches should generally decide who stays and who goes. When you watch the battle rounds, when the coaches make the decisions, they almost always choose the right ones; when they don’t, I generally think it is because Blake figured out that America’s votes would go to the cute young ones, and so the coaches lean towards those contestants who can win over those who sing better, simply because they (the coaches) all want to win. The answer, if the show is to be a real musical competition, is to stop letting America decide.

#2: For mostly the same reason, there should be a minimum age to compete, and it probably should be 18. I know there are prodigies out there, but there are a whole lot more mediocrities, and mostly the people who go far despite being very young do it on their looks rather than their ability, which is, unsurprisingly, immature and thus limited, even if they do have real talent. Letting in teenagers is a way to get ratings, not a way to get great singers.

I will also confess that I’m sick to death of hearing children sing about lost love and broken hearts, shattered dreams, and frustrated lives. If I hear one more of those little girls say, “Well, I’ve never had a boyfriend, but I lost a friend in fifth grade (when she told me she hated Justin Bieber), so I’m going to use that emotion while I sing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart.’” Listen up, kids: you need to experience some life before you can sing the blues, okay? It’s just how it is. So, minimum age. Maybe they could require a high school diploma, so we can encourage public education. I’d like that.

#3: Tone down the production. This is The Voice. It should be a singer, on a stage, with a band and lights; that’s it. No dancers. No wacky background projections. No falling spark-fountains or pyrotechnics. Please stop making these untrained, inexperienced singers work a stage the size of a football field. Give them a mike stand to hide behind, and let. Them. Sing. I suppose you can dress them up in cool outfits, and then compliment them on their style, but that really shouldn’t be a thing that matters. Just – the Voice. Right? Along with that, take out the most contrived and artificial elements: no more pretending to drive up in a car before the battle rounds, no more of the mini-runways leading down into the audience so the singers can high-five some of their “fans” (You know, the people who got tickets to the show having no idea who was going to be singing that night, because I don’t believe for a second that they fill the audience the same day they record), no more gimmicky shit like gospel choirs or kids choirs or having the singer do that back-to-back-crouch-down-and-stand-up-again-ROCK’N’ROLL! WOO! thing with the guitarist like they’ve been playing shows together for fifteen years. It’s a house band. You don’t know the guy’s name. Stop rubbing against him while he’s playing. And stop letting the “singer/songwriters” play an acoustic guitar that isn’t even miked while they are singing. It’s silly. Especially when they give up the pretense after the first chorus and just let the guitar hang there like Tom Robinson’s left arm, and then have to walk down to the front of the stage for high-fives with this giant wooden prop strapped to their chests for no reason.

#4: Stop with the social media. I am extremely grateful, if that wasn’t already clear, that they dumped Christina Milian and the Sprint Skybox, but I must also say: I don’t want to listen to Carson Daly read tweets from the Heartland or from the contestants’ moms, I don’t want to read what the coaches tweet right after a decision is made about their team, and I really can’t stand the Instant Twitter Save thing they’re doing now, where the bottom two or three perform and then one person is saved by tweet-votes. I know what this is: this is market research saying that the more you can get the audience involved, the more loyal they are to the show and the more they watch. But you know what actually makes people watch a show? Make a good show. Ask The Simpsons, who never had twitter-feeds. (Maybe they do now. I stopped watching the show, even though that breaks my heart. Know why I stopped watching? It wasn’t that I lacked buy-in. They just stopped making good shows. Just do a good show, guys, all right? Screw market research.)

#5: Also with the same rationale, you should let the coaches actually coach, which means: let them criticize. Ever since Adam’s blowup – and that may not have been the precipitating factor, though I’m sure it didn’t help – the coaches have stopped telling the singers when they do a bad job. Or when they miss a note. Or when it is the wrong song choice. Or when the production was overdone, or just plain weird. No, all they say now is, “That was great, you’re the best, I’m a fan, I love everything you do, that was the best performance you’ve done (Choose one:) so far/of the night/of the season/I’ve ever seen on this show.” Nothing but praise. Now I’m sure what happened was market research and focus groups: the producers brought in a test audience, gave them those happiness-dials, and had them watch the show; and every time a coach said, “You were off pitch, and that dance routine was just offputting,” the test audience dropped into the red. Because here in ‘Merica, it is rude to criticize. Telling people they did something wrong is judgmental, it is arrogant, it is often racist, sexist, ageist, elitist, and it is a direct insult to that person’s hometown, home state, alma mater, mama, and to God Himself. I saw the same thing with Simon Cowell on American Idol: every time he said the singer did a poor job (and he was pretty much always right), the audience booed, he’d roll his eyes, Seacrest would say something genuinely nasty disguised as funny, and in order to allow the show to move on, Cowell would give Seacrest a level look and just accept his punishment for having the temerity to, y’know, tell the truth.

What’s funny, though? The contestants never really seemed to mind very much. Because honest criticism makes you better, and if you actually care about your craft, then you seek it out and are grateful when you get it. These coaches on The Voice are, I think, generally smart and perceptive and experienced in music and performance; we should let them say what they really think, and be grateful when their advice makes the artists better. And makes the show more interesting – it would be nice if Toni and I didn’t have to fast forward through the commentary after every performance when we watch on Hulu.

#6: No more guests. Unless the guest is going to perform with the contestants, all they’re doing is slowing down the show so they can promote their new single. I can see how that is a good deal for Sia or Gym Class Heroes, but I really couldn’t care less. And also, no more painful pretense of friendship and the casual visit, when Carson goes out into the audience to see his “pals,” the cast of whatever-piece-of-crap-NBC-put-on-after-The-Voice, so they can say they just dropped by to enjoy the incredible talent, and by the way, they’re on at 7 Eastern, 2:15 Central, on alternate Thursdays and Easters. It makes the whole show ring false, and that’s bad for both the singers and the audience. And never, NEVER, does that kind of advertising work. If I want to watch a show, it’s not because “Hey! I saw them in the audience on The Voice, doing nothing even remotely like what they do on the show that I decided I want to watch based on seeing them in an absurd non-sequitur!” Unless they make a show called Audience Crashers. Then, okay.

#7: Along with that No Guests rule, the results shows should be faster. There’s absolutely no reason why it should be an hour. I get that you want to milk it for advertising, but handle it some other way. Maybe a half-hour reaction show with guests afterwards, like Talking Dead, because then I just won’t watch it (like Talking Dead) and everyone’s happy. I’m sick to death of how long it takes to find out what actually happened, and what’s worse, the results shows are so boring, Toni and I tend not to watch them right away, because we have to galvanize our spirits in order to sit through tonight’s special guest Nick Jonas (AGAIN!), and so we get the results spoiled for us by the damn Internet. And tell Carson to just read the damn results, without the minute-long pause between “America . . . saved . . . . . . . .“ and the name. Oh – and if it’s not too much to ask, can you stop asking the contestants to say how much the experience has meant to them? We already know. The answer is always the same. Ditto for asking the coaches why America should vote for this person. But then, this last-second-interview is a standard trope of every reality contest show, and it always annoys me (Maybe the worst for this is Gordon Ramsey, who asks every single contestant up for elimination – two a show, every show, and sometimes more – why they should stay on Hell’s Kitchen. Gets on my nerves. But this is way off topic now.)

#8: More variety of songs. There is a whole world of music out there, going back literally a hundred years. So many fantastic singers, so many wonderful, beautiful songs. And they just keep singing Beyonce. And Simon and Garfunkel. And Sam Smith. And Coldplay. Creedence Clearwater Revival, too. When I was looking up clips to link to for this blog, I kept seeing the same songs, over and over again. Make It Rain. Amazing Grace (oy.). Fix You. Jealous by Nick Jonas (vey). But every time they do this, I think, “Why doesn’t anyone sing blues? Ella Fitzgerald? Jonny Lang? Or what about Ray Charles?” Or Elton John. The Beatles, who rarely show up, or Elvis, who never does. Or what about some hard rock? Aerosmith (Not “Dream On,” of course, but anything else in their forty years of music.)? The Who? If you want ballads, you can’t beat the Scorpions. Seriously. And that guy has a hell of a voice: good fodder for singers.

I wonder quite a lot about the song choices. Sometimes the singers pick their favorite songs, which is sweet and all, but we don’t always like the best songs. We don’t even like good songs. I can’t help but enjoy the Backstreet Boys. The larger problem for a show like The Voice is that we don’t like songs that are good for us to sing. I’m a singer. My favorite bands include Tool, Soundgarden, and, in my cheesier moments, Journey. There’s not a song by those three bands that I could sing well. My voice just doesn’t do that. A song that I love and could sing well is XTC’s “Dear God.” But that’s a song about how Christianity has screwed up the world for humanity, and not, therefore, something I should be singing were I ever on national television, especially not in Jesus-lovin’ ‘Merica. Then there are the contestants who sing songs by people who can’t sing well, like Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty. Here’s the problem: those guys may write good music (not my style, but to each their own), but that actually makes it worse. Because Tom Petty, for instance, understands that his voice sounds like a live chicken being grated into a pot of Velveeta fondue, and so he uses his songwriting abilities to – ready for this? – hide his own voice. This means that “Free Falling” is a song with a wonderfully catchy hook, interesting lyrics, and a terrible melody to sing. The coaches should know this, and yet they force their contestants to sing unmelodic songs, or anything by Sting, or Whitney Houston, or someone else with a set of pipes that simply cannot be matched.

Here’s my last gripe about song choice. There are some songs that match the original singer, and nobody else. They are legendary classics, often, and this is because they were done so very well that no one can touch them. “I Feel Good” by James Brown. “Dream On” by Aerosmith. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. “Creep” by Radiohead. These songs, and several others like them, are uncoverable. I know people try, but their versions are crap. Don’t take crap as inspiration to do your own crap. Find a good song that is more anonymous than that. Pick one that speaks to you even more than it spoke to the original artist. Jimi Hendrix did it with “All Along the Watchtower,” which is a Bob Dylan song. Elvis did it with “Hound Dog.” Hell, “Respect” was an Otis Redding tune before Aretha Franklin owned it for all eternity, and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was Dolly Parton’s. There is a whole world of music out there. If you’re serious about trying to create a moment, take more than a moment in picking your song. Okay?

#9: No more fucking arm waving.  This one is personal, I admit, but hey, don’t I deserve something for all this helpful advice I’m offering? I’m saving your show! Now you can do something for me. Take all of those people in the sections right in front of the stage and tell them: stop waving your arms from side to side over your head whenever any singer starts anything even remotely slow in tempo. It’s entirely artificial, and entirely obnoxious. The only time anyone should wave their arms in the air is when they are waving to someone far away, or when the spirit of God compels them, or when the person on stage has just said “Hip hop hooray!” That’s it. It is otherwise never appropriate, and it enrages me every time I see it. Just stop.

#10: No more Christina Aguilera. Please? And for the assistant coaches, get people who actually know what they’re talking about. Get a producer I’ve never heard of who knows how to help people sing better, instead of Meghan Trainor, who is very sweet, but entirely unhelpful. Please note that American Idol‘s first “permanent mentor” was Jimmy Iovine. But seriously: no more Christina Aguilera. Everyone else who has ever been on the show was a better coach. And I’m including Christina Milian, mainly because she never referred to herself as X-Tina. That is, if you’re not aware, Miss Aguilera (and I’m sure you’re aware), a reference to Jesus Christ; Christmas becoming Xmas using the first letter in the word “Christ” when written in Greek. And no matter how well you sing: you are not the Messiah. Just because you personally could win the contest doesn’t mean you should run the contest. Just think of beauty pageants run by contestants. Or prisons run by inmates. It’s a bad idea.

Last but not least, #11: If this is supposed to be a show that makes people stars, that gives them a chance to succeed in the music industry, then please, please, actually do that. There is not a single winner from this show who has become successful, or who was even heard on the radio afterwards, except for, God help us all, the country singers. And the Swonn Brothers. The show finishes with its contestants, and then chucks them away until they want to bring them back for a guest appearance on future episodes. Some of the singers have managed to make it themselves, which of course I respect; but the show is letting down its own people, which is not a good way to bring the best talent on future seasons. I know you can’t actually make people into stars, because pop is fickle; but they should try harder. The coaches always say they love their contestants, and plan to keep in touch with them, and it always feels like a lie.

I don’t want my show to be a lie.

So do it right, and do it for real. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Do it. Thanks very much.

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