One of the riskiest and most rewarding of any audition in The Voice‘s previous seven seasons occurs Monday night at the end of the two-hour season debut: A 15-year-old farmer sings a song from the public domain and wows the coaches despite his style falling far outside the known ranges of Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Pharrell Williams and Christina Aguilera.
It’s the sort of performance that keeps viewers returning season after season for a ritual that sees little variance: Backstories that tug at the heart, powerhouse performances from singers whose physical appearance does not match their vocal prowess and clowning around from the coaches.
Host Carson Daly provides the usual hype about the upcoming season having the best talent the show has ever seen. Whether that’s true remains to be seen, but the premiere did show signs of promises. One singer vocally approached Bob Dylan‘s “I Shall Be Released” as if he were three members of the Band and a gospel singer; a woman whose former group had a song hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs in 2010 exposed a gritty, blues side to her voice; and a 20-year-old West Virginian delivers a performance of a George Jones song that Levine calls the best country performance in Voice audition history.
As it sets out on its eighth season, here are a few pros and cons that emerge from its debut.
Christina, chemistry and coach strategy. Blake announces that he’s looking to work in different genres this season; Pharrell is angling for singers who don’t fit neatly into one genre or another. By expressing their objectives — and making it work in their pitches to singers — Christina Aguilera finds herself in a spot where wisecracks, grand promises and the fact that every young singer worships her is insufficient to build the team she wants. Christina loses out on one singer and, subtle as it is, there’s a noticeable change in her tone the next time she tries to woo a contestant. The putdowns and laughs continue, but Aguilera has a more giving presence than before; her return is definitely a welcome one.
Look at me, I’m a coach. Granted, the audition rounds are a chance for the coaches to goof around and act amore animated than during the live rounds, but the sense that the four stars in the chairs are more important than the contestants lingers. While that’s a director/producer decision, the coaches are making significant efforts to interact with the talent in a manner that makes for heartwarming television. (The coaches’ opening performance of Lenny Kravtiz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” does not play into anyone’s sweet spot.)
The Pharrell factor. Williams is raising everyone’s game. He cajoles and wheedles contestants, predicts positive outcomes, assertively sells his skills and comforts the singers for whom the audition phase is the end of the road. It’s evident a producer’s approach is particularly enticing to young singers. Levine, naturally, is most eager to go toe-to-toe with him — and does! — and Shelton, if he stays true to branching out of Nashville, will need to expand his shtick beyond his charming drawl and winning record.
Sob stories. Sure it’s heart-wrenching when a contestant’s family has endured hardships. In the long run, the story anyone will care about is how the singer developed, who has supported them along the way and how have the individuals dealt with adversity. And there’s nothing worse than an attempt to get the audience to fall in love with a young singer who ultimately isn’t up to snuff and can’t get the coaches to spin around their chairs.
The Adele-emulation era may be ending. American Idol had Mariah Carey-Whitney Houston wannabes to deal with; The Voice has been a landing for singers who envision themselves as the next Adele or Amy Winehouse. The first two-hour episode alone finds a far-more varied pool of inspiration — the usual Janis Joplin, but also pop voices that share the control of singers like Ariana Grande or the distance of Lana De Rey. With far fewer vocal gymnastics — and this is true for the men too — Voice contestants are starting to feel more original than usual.
Hype. It’s not just the between-segment comments that go over the top, it’s that at least three of the auditioning singers are told they can win. That seems odd to say at this juncture. And I’m guessing it’s only going to get heavier as the show progresses. Sometimes a lighter hand delivers the proper touch.
Song selection. It’s a little old-fashioned at times, but the variety of songs on the show continues to improve. It’s catalog things like Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts,” Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and the Faces’ “Stay With Me,” songs that had a moment but are not classified as major hits. If these shows are no longer going to produce hit recording artists, they can help revive gems of different eras and expose them to new audiences.