Less than 20 minutes after the conclusion of NBC’s singing competition show “The Voice,” the season two victor, Jermaine Paul, joined his coach Blake Shelton on a jam-packed red carpet inside a studio adjacent to the one where the show has been broadcast live since early April.
The media was out in full force — the dozen TV cameras were triple the usual number while the print and online media was expanded on an equal level — and Shelton had already begun answering the oft-repeated question of “how does it feel to win?” Shelton, always a gracious and forthright interview subject, was not willing to accept any of the praise while he fielded questions solo. Once Paul was working the line with him, it was full-blown love affair — Shelton crediting Paul’s instincts when it came to song selection and Paul lauding Shelton’s tips on stage craft and phrasing.
“Access Hollywood” went first, followed “Extra” and E! as Paul and Shelton — two tall, sturdy men in stylish sport coats — recited the details of their journey together on the show. Paul told Shelton he had a song he wanted them to record together and Shelton responded with an immediate “I’m in”; Paul was thrilled a TV camera captured the moment.
The night before, when Shelton and Paul sang the Sam & Dave hit “Soul Man,” they looked like a musical odd couple, but unlike the other pairings with coaches, Paul was the one contestant who appeared in control.
Shelton chose to duck out for an after party Tuesday leaving Paul to talk solo about his win and his 17 years as a singer, the previous highlight being his work with Alicia Keys. What never came up in front of the TV cameras was the element that bonded them, something they never spoke about during the show’s run. Storytelling.
Paul is the second winner on “The Voice” whose compelling story of almost making into the major leagues of the record industry gave him underdog appeal from the start. Like the first winner, Javier Colon, Paul had a taste of the big leagues as a teenager when he signed with Shaquille O’Neal’s label and later on, as a backup singer for Keys, Mary J. Blige and others. Both winners are family men, committed to making music to put food on the table for their wives and children, men who dedicate their performances to their wives.
Like any country singer worth his salt, Shelton picks songs based on their stories, hitting universal nerves with individual songs of love, loss and understanding. Paul, who sang a lot of rock songs from the 1980s, always looked for lyrics that would resemble a love letter he would write to his wife. Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer,” Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds,” Journey’s “Open Arms” — big, broad-shouldered emotional songs. His timbre, more informed by ’90s R&B and gospel, made each of those performances sound unique and in his finale performance Monday, he kept “Soul Man” out of hokey territory and planted “I Believe I Can Fly” and Shelton’s “God Raise Me Up” in at a gospel crossroads with R&B and country.
Heading into the final round, Shelton and Paul spent an hour and half looking for a song that might work better than the one Paul had initially chosen, the R. Kelly song “I Believe I Can Fly.” Shelton deferred to Paul in the song’s selection, unable to come up with anything that would connect better with the singer. Paul had chosen it, like so many other songs, for its close-to-his-heart message and while he never said it in any interview, perhaps Shelton realized that Paul has a story to tell, just like other country music greats.
When predictions were being made inside “The Voice” studio on the Warner Bros. lot and the viewing party, Paul’s name was not coming up very often as a favorite. He trailed the other contestants in his command of social media and online presence, an element that made Tony Lucca a favorite in some corners. It was a tough race to call and the results bore that out: Host Carson Daly said there was only a 4 percent difference between Paul and second-place finisher Juliet Simms and only a quarter of a percentage point between Lucca in third and Chris Mann in fourth.
“The Voice” pulled in 10.74 million viewers on Monday, 4.73 million of them between the ages of 18 and 49. That leaves 6 million outside the age bracket and certainly Paul has appeal with the young baby boomers who got married, drunk or laid to the songs in his repertoire. The others went for songs that had equally strong personal connections — the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” for example — but they did not become part of a narrative of how a singer sees himself.
Paul’s big challenge now is to find originals that bend genre boundaries, recall the force of late ’80s commercial rock and connect on a spiritual level and offer a fabulous singe a chance to shine. Perhaps Ms. Keys has another “No One” in her notebooks — it would make a nice chapter if she had a role in this new singer’s continuing story.