Does The Voice Measure Up?

The Voice is NBC's new answer to the American Idol phenomenon. The network previously tried Rock music (Rockstar: INXS and Rockstar: Supernova), Country music (Nashville Star), and even general variety show (America's Got Talent), but have been unable to take down Fox's juggernaut so far. The Voice works on a simple principle: singers initially compete based only on the strength of their voices. Chances are, if you could sing in a commercial genre--pop, rock, country, R&B, etc--you can impress the judging panel panel of Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilea, Cee-Lo Green, and Adam Levine. If you aren't on trend or are just relying on your looks, you'll probably get passed on. How can the judges vote you through on appearance if they can't see your audition until they say "I Want You?"

Each of the judges is putting together a team of eight singers/acts. They vote based on a blind audition, where they don't get to see their possible protege until they say "I Want You" or the performance ends. The system is more fair to singers who might not get a fair shake because of preconceived notions about commercial appeal, but it can easily backfire for those who have never done a blind audition before.

The show differs from American Idol in another key way. The Voice isn't pretending that thousands upon thousands of people are seeing the judges for an a cappella audition. Instead, the singers have already been winnowed down to a select few who get to perform with a live band for a studio audience in whatever style they want. We've seen a torchsong singer reinvent Nirvana and country duo take on Irish folk by way of Once.

It's refreshing to see a show that at least pretends to be about actual singers performing music. There are some distractions--the show is playing up the rivalry between the judges to the detriment of the singers--but the presentation is refreshing.

The show so far has been a great viewing experience. I'm just worried about the further rounds of the competition. After the judges' teams are selected, the singers are coached and then forced to compete for four slots in the judges round for each judge. There is talk about another quartet of professional singers being brought on the show for some other purpose in the contest (maybe they choose the top four singers on each team or provided judges comments on the voting rounds?) that could muddy the waters. These four judges/coaches already have a great dynamic when they aren't drawing the focus away from the singers. Doubling that field could just be confusing.

I'm cautiously optimistic about The Voice. There is potential in the concept if the later rounds and live voting shows don't stray too far from the conceit of a singing show based on actual singing. However, who knows what changes could be made in editing and the live shows to respond to criticism--positive and negative--from the viewing audience? Hopefully the show sticks to the music and uses the judges for color and framing, not as the actual source of entertainment.