What is The Voice aiming for?

I was intrigued by The Voice as soon as I heard of its blind audition gimmick. The judges don't see the singers before deciding whether to let them on the show or not, and that seemed like a bold statement -a blatant criticism of the pop culture landscape which values an attention to surface details over proper talent. The very title of the show would seem to indicate that this singing competition is about singing and nothing else. It doesn't matter what you look like, what your background is, how old you are, etc.- you just need to have a good voice.

That's what it sounded like this show was going to be, anyway. It quickly proved to be nothing of the sort. The performances are musically unambitious but flashy. Everyone is dressed up in stupid-looking outfits and surrounded by dancers. The camera zooms around maniacally, following the prevailing wisdom that no one actually has the patience to listen to music anymore. The sound levels are always set to let the band drown out the singer, so that no one should pay any attention to the imperfections of their voices but should just enjoy the popular (and almost always dull) tunes. And they keep emphasizing the backstories over and over and over again. I really don't care if these singers were mechanics or salesmen or models or backup singers. I just want to see whether they can sing. Isn't that the point?

But really, the producers haven't decided what the point is. Christina Aguilera had a speech a few episodes back about how "the voice" means "everything around the voice". Cee Lo Green agreed with her. Both of them are putting on over-the-top productions which drive Blake Shelton crazy, since he actually is just looking for a voice and doesn't enjoy all those distractions. I really enjoy seeing these clashes of approach emerge, because it makes it fun to root against everyone Christina and Cee Lo throw at us. But you'd think they'd sort out the mission statement for the show before starting it, and not just let the judges figure it out as they go.

There's a similar lack of purpose in The Voice UK. The most interesting moment so far was when a teenaged girl came into the blind auditions and sang an opera song ("Nessun Dorma"). She did not sing it well - she was extremely shaky, and I got the feeling (as I do with Chris Mann in the American show) that the producers had just let one opera singer in for the gimmickiness of it and didn't really care whether they were any good. Anyway, this girl gets up and sings her song and naturally no one wants her on their team -not so much because she's not good, but because she's classical and they don't want to have anything to do with that. But then -and this is the fascinating part- they turn around and find out she's young and has zero training, and suddenly they're all beating themselves up about not picking her. Granted, they always pretend to be angry about not picking people, because these pop stars are obsessed with their images and don't want to be seen (even by talentless amateurs) as bad guys. But Will.i.am actually seemed genuine about it. He said that he had an opportunity with her to "reinvent radio", and that he blew it.

Now, why should it matter how old she is? And why should it make them want to work with her more if it's just raw talent with no training? It seems to me that there's a problem on both sides here: on the singer's part, to go onto this competition without getting any voice training first shows a lot of arrogance. But she's young, I can let that slide. The judges should know better than to care. If it's a voice competition, then the story doesn't matter. Yes, it's heartwarming to see someone aspiring to something that she loves but which won't make her popular. And yes, it's cuter the younger she is. But can't they even pretend that this isn't about that? Can't we at least have the pretense of integrity?

2012, April 17th

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