The Voice Has a Big Secret
by Bob Schwartz
The Voice has a big secret, but it has always been hiding in plain sight.
It is no secret that Danielle Bradbery won NBC’s singing competition, or that she should have or would. The overwhelming talent of this 16-year-old phenom—not just compared to her competition, but to professional singers twice her age—left the coaches/judges speechless, literally running out of superlatives. The outspoken Adam Levine on the night of the final performances essentially declared her the winner, before the public votes were cast. (On the results show, he backed off before the announcement, diplomatically offering the opinion that it was close and all the finalists were great.)
Will Danielle become a star or superstar? As with winning The Voice, she should, if there is any justice. But the music business is funny and anything but just. And yet, just like in farm fysics, cream rises, and Danielle is very heavy musical cream.
Now to that secret. The point of The Voice—in its system and even in its name—was to better itself over American Idol, which in the balance between talent and entertainment has weighed heavily towards crowd pleasing and audience building. The Voice was supposed to be, and mostly is, a little more about singing. About “the voice.”
In an instance of cleverness meeting mission, The Voice decided to begin its competition by having the coaches just listen to singers—chairs turned away, not looking. Though performing is about a raft of things, singing is about sound, even at a time when videos sit in parity with audio tracks.
And so, the secret. As much as it seems antithetical to the interests of NBC, its ratings and its sponsors, we are supposed to listen to The Voice, not watch it. We are supposed to be auditors, not viewers, not distracted by the form “the voice” takes, even though that form is obviously critical to live performance and videos. Maybe that works in somebody’s favor (not having the perfect looks or stage presence) or against it (cute does not necessarily sing as cute appears). That is the precise point of the turned around chairs and blind listening.
If you just listen to the live performances and close your eyes, you’ll see. (The studio performances of the same songs, extended, sweetened, smoothed out, are only partly representative).
People have quibbled—been downright defiant—about Danielle for a host of reasons (the internet is where reasons, sound and ridiculous, go to thrive). Maybe the biggest complaint is from those who just don’t like country music, or even claim to “hate” it, which is a legitimate preference. De gustibus non est disputandum—there is no disputing taste.
But for those non-country folk, please be open to the talent, current and historic. Here is Patsy Cline, one of the great pop singers ever, performing Crazy live. or the studio version of Sweet Dreams (more arrangement, a little chorus, but still an unadorned voice in need of no help). There are “the voices” in every genre, and if you would be willing to say “I hate opera, but she sure can sing” then you have to say the say the same about country, blues, R&B, musicals, whatever. In Patsy’s case, she was one of the first to land in the country-pop crossover space, based on the sheer appeal and power of her singing.
This isn’t meant, no way, no how, to compare Danielle to Patsy. Danielle may get close someday; time will tell, but that’s a nearly impossible standard. It’s just meant to remind us that beyond stage performance and videos, beyond human interest back stories, beyond genre fragmentation and hybrids, beyond all the chazerai—a great Yiddish word meaning the insubstantial junk that surrounds important things, there is the singing.
The Voice got that right by showing us how to just listen, chairs turned, eyes closed. The Voice voters got that right by listening to Danielle Bradbery and declaring her “the voice.” It’s no secret that she is.