Back in 2011, having sat through the countless performances of “Open Arms” and “I Believe I Can Fly” which seemingly composed the full runs of “Fame,” “Road to Stardom,” and “The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll,” it would be reasonable to posit we might all be getting a little fatigued with the saturated reality singing competition market. Promos for yet another U.K. import seemed wildly ill-timed, with the genre clearly in decline.
It wasn’t “The Voice’s” widely-advertised spinning chairs and blind auditions that got my attention, but rather the word on the street: The buzz was that this show was kind. While its predecessors always had the one nice judge (usually, though not always, the sole woman), the overall tone had become one of casual cruelty.
America’s longtime love of being scolded in a British accent was well established, from “Weakest Link’s” Anne Robinson to Simon Cowell on “American Idol” and the whole Gordon Ramsey megafranchise, and that tone — Simon’s realistically batting down the unreasonably confident, as though self-belief were a moral failing, and holding back praise for the most important storylines (“I Dreamed a Dream,” anyone?) — dispersed throughout the genre.
But “The Voice’s” celebrity panel has always been branded as mentors, not judges — and that proved to be a meaningful distinction, when set against other shows’ panels. Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and then-coaches Cee-Lo Green and Christina Aguilera appeared truly delighted at the chance to showcase their expertise and help develop emerging talents. This season’s new additions of Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys bring the series’ first gender-balanced mentor panel, each woman bringing their own particular brand of musical expertise and genuine sweetness.
Without the easy crutch of piling humiliation on its contestants, this show tempers its overwhelmingly positive attitude with the perpetual “playful” judge-on-judge animosity, which will prove especially fascinating this season, with Levine already pitching himself as something of an underdog against the overwhelming volume of two entire human women both offering opinions at the same time. The important thing is that the tears — a staple of all reality television — here come from joy, pride or genuine sadness and disappointment, never embarrassment.
The show is going into its 11th “season” in five years: Certain facts about the music business which would come through as a matter of course can feel rote, simply from the constant airing of the show. Big-voiced female singer over a certain weight class? Bring on the Mama Cass-meets-Stevie-Nicks makeover! Religious contestant wants to get in touch with their church side? Yet another cover of “Hallelujah” that misinterprets the song’s point!
Because the mentors mostly come from the A list, the panel’s changeover season by season is a bonus — rather than feeling like a red flag or broken agreement, as in “American Idol’s” decline, it continues the show’s concept of itself as elite — a lot of those unavoidable repetitions go down easier overall. Every season is a rebrand, and gives the mentors a different way to explain those unchanging aspects of the music industry and how to recreate yourself for success within it — without losing yourself in the process.
The Season 11 premiere (Sept. 19-20) rolled out the usual suspects: Early front-runners, emotional faves and of course the most classic “twist” of all: Setting us up to fall in love with a singer, only to have our collective hopes dashed when none of the judges turns around for them.
“The Voice” is designed along a lopsided bell curve: The slow accumulation of contestants, brutal elimination, and then multiple-narrative storylines as the groups and singers move toward the finale. In recent seasons, we’ve seen the show play around with that formula further — slow mercy-killings of early rounds’ Voice Saves and Voice Instant Saves means we spend prolonged time with the maximum possible number of contestants. It’s a rare reality hit that knows what works, and stretches anyway.
Judging by their appearances already, Keys and Cyrus are bringing an entirely new energy, but one based in the show’s central appeal: The mentors are not only outsize talents, but have publicly contended with building their own individual brands in a way that lends their advice a different flavor than that of, say, the “American Idol” roundtable of producers, label owners and so on.
When a Miley Cyrus or Alicia Keys is able to offer very young talents advice on dealing with and creating fame — regardless of what she or any of the mentors has done with that fame, or how we might feel about it — we know they speak from direct experience. And if it comes with a spoonful of sugar, all the better. The show’s “voice over look” premise sets the tone for what follows, and in this case, that’s the kind of optimism it seems we’re looking for right now.
“The Voice” airs Mondays and Tuesdays, and occasionally Saturdays, at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.