Lesson from The Voice: Caveat Inspector

by Bob Schwartz

The Voice
The Voice is now the dominant singing competition on television, having surpassed, probably permanently, American Idol. There is a lesson from The Voice that goes beyond just music, a lesson that goes to the heart of what has become a more media centric/entertainment centric society.

The reasons for the success of The Voice are pretty simple:

A substantial number of solidly talented and interesting contestants.

Panels of likeable and helpful celebrity coaches, with real musical expertise and real chemistry between them: Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton in the fall; Shakira, Usher with Levine and Shelton in the spring.

The show process begins with the uber-concept in the show’s name. The first round is a blind competition, where the panelists can hear but not see the contestants sing. It is, at least in part, all about “the voice.”

This week began the Knockout Rounds, where votes from the TV audience determine who will stay and who will be eliminated. The first of two nights on Monday was peculiar, anomalous for any singing competition. Of the ten singers who performed, not a single one was criticized, even for a tiny misstep—even though a few performances were very good, some were okay, and some were just not quality singing.

American Idol never quite figured out how to deal with judges’ criticism of contestants. Starting with the original panel, and continuing through the revolving door of judges who failed, there were more or less roles for the judges: the more brutal but somewhat constructive one (Simon Cowell), the kind, encouraging and heart-on-the-sleeve, maybe a little ditzy one (Paul Abdul) and whatever one (Randy Jackson).

There was an underlying issue in all that. There is little doubt that the producers of Idol shaded and spun the show so that certain contestants might rise a little higher than others. Whether this amounted to rigging results is unsubstantiated overstatement. But clearly, with all the elements at their command, producers could shine a different light on different singers, light that might affect voting. A judge’s praise or criticism could certainly be one of those elements.

In so many ways, for the better, The Voice is not American Idol. But the toolbox has some of the same tools: heartwarming or heartrending back stories, strategic song choices, etc. If the panelists/coaches criticism could affect the outcome, on Monday the decision seemed to be to have none at all.

And it was weird. At some point, even as the least trained audience ears could sense a musical problem, you could see coaches forcing smiles and faint praise. One big tell is when a panelist begins by telling a singer how good they look or how wonderful a person they are. Which is utterly ironic, since the show is based on the premise that voice matters above all.

If Monday’s absence of criticism was notable, it was even more apparent as soon as the Tuesday Knockout Round began. From the first singer on, many of the performances received what was in all cases deserved small critiques—never devastating, sometimes not as big as it could have been, but critique nonetheless. It was as if someone behind the scenes had noticed and said: our audience may like certain singers for their look, their attitude, their personality, but the audience isn’t deaf or stupid. We have a panel with four eminently talented musicians, and while we don’t want brutality, their credibility as judges of performances—their honesty—is on the line.

Which brings us to the greater lesson that should never be forgotten. From the beginning of advertiser-paid media, newspapers to now, all of those media have dual roles to play. They are whatever they essentially do—report news, entertain us, stage competitions, offer ways to publish short messages to the world, etc. But they are all also ways of delivering eyes, ears, hearts and minds to advertisers. There is nothing wrong with this. Nor is there anything wrong with media not being transparent about this obvious dual role and announcing all the things they do to increase the audience.

So enjoy. Get invested in your favorites (this season: Caroline Pennell, Tessanne Chin and Cole Vosberry, all of whom could be The Voice, all of whom deserve success). But remember that in commercial media, along with caveat emptor (buyer beware), it is caveat lector (reader beware), caveat inspector (viewer beware), and on this day of the Twitter IPO, caveat tweeter.

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