Bob Schwartz

Tag: Adam Levine

TV: Love Note to Tessanne Chin

Tessanne Chin
Last night were the semifinal performances on The Voice. There are three worthy contenders left, including Cole Vosbury and James Wolpert. Then there is Tessanne Chin from Jamaica.

Tessanne sang Bridge Over Troubled Water and owned the night. Talent competitions are not meritocracies, so she may not win, and it won’t matter.

1. She is beautiful, inside and out, delightfully open-hearted, loving and modest. You can tell this by watching and listening to her and by the testimony of her coach, Adam Levine. Adam obviously has a crush on her and he isn’t alone.

2. Even with the normal lyricism of a Jamaican accent, hers is especially enrapturing. Randy Jackson, former judge on the soon-to-be-former American Idol, constantly complimented contestants by saying they could sing the phone book. Tessanne could read the phone book and people would pay for it.

3. Her performance last night was one of the great performances on a singing competition ever. There are dozens of recorded covers of the original, most famously by Aretha Franklin. Listening to some of them, there may be a few that are technically more pristine, but not a one that seems to have skipped the singer’s vocal cords and lungs and sprung directly from a beating heart. This may explain in part why her coach was tearing up, as were undoubtedly many others.

All that is why it doesn’t matter whether Tessanne wins or not. If you don’t watch The Voice, see her first performance of Pink’s Try. And consider that performances are gifts, no matter what the circumstances, and Tessanne is a very talented and generous giver.

Lesson from The Voice: Caveat Inspector

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.

The Voice: “I Hate This Country”

Adam Levine - The Voice
Adam Levine is a popular musical artist with Maroon 5 and a coach on NBC’s singing competition The Voice.

Last night was an elimination round for two of the remaining eight contestants. Each of the four coaches (including Shakira, Usher and Blake Shelton) has members of their respective teams in the competition.

After the typical tense triage, three contestants remained. Only one would survive. Of those, two were from Team Adam, and one was a talented singer named Judith Hill. She may not have been destined to win, but she was a solid performer who had already had a career as a backup singer for Michael Jackson, and might yet get a chance on her own. The two other singers remaining were not in her league.

The camera was on those three as host Carson Daly pronounced the obligatory nail-biting “America has voted” spiel. In the background, you could hear a simple comment from Coach Adam, as he likely sensed that the most worthy of the three was about to be eliminated:

“I hate this country.”

Meaning, one presumes: I hate these stupid popularity contests, even one that I am a part of, where merit matters less than the judgment of numbers and the crowd. I don’t hate America, but I hate it when America speaks like this.

And then, Judith Hill was gone.

Every one of the artist-coaches has built a successful career, and knows that entertainment, like every other field, is not entirely a meritocracy. Still, even accounting for differences in taste, a few minutes of singing can reveal those with consistent control, those who can find and hit all the notes, those who can put power and style in what they sing—and those who can’t.

So Adam, and everybody else who gets frustrated by singing competitions that don’t always give us the best, or political systems that don’t either, embrace your frustration. At least it means that you haven’t given up, that you still have standards, that you still have hope and expectations that the competitions and elections will give us winners who really can sing—even if we lose some worthy ones along the way.