I stopped watching American Idol after Season 9, and even during that I was losing enthusiasm. But I do like watching people sing, so when I watched The Voice season premiere after this year’s Superbowl, I was happy to discover that it’s better than AI in every way.
While they’re both singing talent competitions, the formats are completely different. We all know AI’s—auditions before the judges, Hollywood week, then weekly performance rounds voted on by America. The first round of The Voice is somewhat different. The singers do “blind auditions” where the four coaches (Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton, and Adam Levine of Maroon 5) listen to the song with their backs turned. If they like what they hear, they press a button which turns their chair around, and if more than one judge presses the button, the singer gets to choose which team to be on. The coach of the team will mentor the singers on it. Coming up soon are the “Battle Rounds” where singers compete against each other by singing the same song at the same time, followed by rounds where the public votes.
Remember Goofus and Gallant from those Highlights magazines you read as a child? (By the way, I recently read a Highlights in a waiting room, and it has changed very little.) Well, AI = Goofus with less fun, and The Voice = Gallant with less annoying-ness. Let’s take a look:
American Idol has uncomfortable, obnoxious, bad auditions. Once in awhile you get a bad audition that doesn’t seem staged and doesn’t make you cringe with its awkwardness, but they’re few and far between. At first, the bad auditions got some attention at AI, but I think at this point most people just want to see the good ones. There’s nothing entertaining about someone being told that he or she has no talent and being subjected to extremely public ridicule.
The Voice only asks people who are actually talented to appear on TV. No one who makes it to the blind auditions is a bad singer—some are just better than others, and there’s actually an element of suspense regarding whether or not the singer will advance. When a singer doesn’t make it through, the coaches are nevertheless very encouraging and offer constructive criticism rather than insults.
American Idol tries to fit people into boxes. You can’t do anything too far outside the current music mainstream, and singers who are overweight or not conventionally attractive always get comments about “image issues.” The judges constantly muse about how singers would fit in on the current music charts, giving no consideration to the idea that people might like them the way they are. No one over the age of twenty-nine can audition.
The Voice works with all different kinds of singers. This season, along with the usual pop, rock, country, and R&B singers, there’s an opera singer and an MC, among others. A lot of times, they are people who are outside the music industry mainstream and auditioned for The Voice in hopes that they could finally be themselves. One singer, Nicolle Galyon, is hoping to bring piano into country music. (Now that I think about it, why isn’t there any piano in country music?) The opera singer, Chris Mann, says that he’s always been told to “shrink his voice down to size,” but doesn’t want to do that anymore. The blind auditions ensure that the judges aren’t thinking about an artist’s look rather than sound, and there is no upper age limit—one contestant this year, Kim Yarbrough, is fifty years old.
American Idol has judges who are now most famous for American Idol, or who peaked a long time ago. Had you ever heard of Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson before AI? And how long ago was Paula Abdul last relevant as an artist?
The Voice has four coaches who are relevant and current now, and they represent many different genres. There’s a reason why it’s often hard for contestants to choose between coaches—and watching the coaches bickering when more than one of them turns around (“I turned around first!” “My team won last year!”) is half the fun.
American Idol does not have openly gay contestants. It’s a show that’s very popular in red states, so while I’m not sure whether the show discourages the contestants from outing themselves or whether they choose not to, either way, they’re not free to be themselves. While Adam Lambert had a boyfriend while he was a contestant, he never mentioned it on the show. There have been other gay contestants, but none of them have mentioned it on the air.
The Voice has had openly gay contestants in both of its seasons. This season, I can think of two off the top of my head—Erin Martin, whose girlfriend came with her to the blind audition, and Sarah Golden, an out folk singer who has had trouble making it in the music industry due to her unwillingness to feminize her appearance. I didn’t watch last season, but four of the contestants then were openly gay, including Vicci Martinez, who came in third and landed a record deal.
It’s easier for contestants on The Voice to be out in other ways, too. Do you remember Danny Gokey’s friend Jamar Rogers, who auditioned with him on AI but didn’t make it past Hollywood week? AI’s narrative focused on Danny’s wife’s death, but it turns out that Jamar’s backstory is just as interesting. Now that he’s on The Voice, we got to hear it: he’s a former meth addict who has been homeless and is HIV-positive, but has been clean for six years and volunteers with an organization that helps fellow HIV patients. In an interview with him that I read, he said that on AI, he wasn’t comfortable revealing his HIV status, but I’m glad that The Voice didn’t hide that part of his life.
American Idol tries to pretend that it provides an opportunity for people waiting tables or singing to the cows on the farm, ignoring that many of their contestants have actually been toiling at the fringes of the music industry for years.
The Voice is frank about being a second (or third, or fourth) chance for many of its contestants. I actually have one song from Charlotte Sometimes, one of this year’s singers, in my iTunes already. Tony Lucca used to be on The Mickey Mouse Club with Christina Aguilera. Jordis Unga was formerly a contestant on Rock Star: INXS. Tony Vincent has appeared on Broadway, and Jermaine Paul was a backup singer for Alicia Keys. I like this aspect of the show—it’s not easy to make it in the music industry, and people are often rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with their talent. I like that the show gives people who deserve to be heard another chance.
American Idol does not have any animals.
The Voice has Cee Lo’s pissed-off-looking white cat, Purrfect, whom he’s always holding in his talking heads:
Need I say more? Gallant has kicked Goofus’s ass. If you’ve stopped watching American Idol, it’s time to start watching The Voice instead.