Bob Schwartz

Tag: American Idol

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.

Jane Austen To Be American Idol Judge

Jane Austen

Jane Austen is actually dead; has been for almost two centuries. Whether or not that would stop American Idol from circulating rumors about her possible addition to the ever-changing panel of judges is unknown.

There is a new Idol connection to one of the most popular of British authors. The headline from the Daily Mail:

Anonymous donor gives $150,000 to stop U.S. singer Kelly Clarkson buying Jane Austen ring and keep in the UK

An anonymous donor has handed a Jane Austen museum £100,000 so that it may try and buy one of the author’s rings back from U.S. singer Kelly Clarkson who wants to take it out of Britain.

Earlier this month, the British government placed a temporary export ban on the gold-and-turquoise ring in the hope that money could be found to keep it in Britain.

The Jane Austen’s House museum said it had raised £103,200 of the £152,450 asking price since launching a fundraising campaign on Friday, most of it from a single anonymous donation.

Clarkson, a big Austen fan who reportedly owns a first edition of Persuasion, was top bidder for the ring in a Sotheby’s auction. The museum appreciates that the attention of an adoring pop star will help further raise awareness of the already-trendy author (see the newly-released indie film Austenland). But it also bemoans how much of Austen’s legacy has already left Britain, and how little remains there.

Two of the many thoughts this sparks:

Is there an Austen-inspired Kelly Clarkson single or album in the offing? One can imagine tracks inspired by each of the novels.

Should American Idol give up on judges with musical backgrounds (or in at least one case, a comedy/talk show one), and go instead with literary types? It could be current authors (J.K. Rowling, for example). Deceased authors may be out of bounds, although technically they could go with holograms or “tribute” judges pretending, i.e., if Kelly Clarkson won’t be a judge as herself, she could appear as Jane Austen. Given some of the judging antics past, this sort of thing might not be a reach too far.

The Voice Has a Big Secret

Danielle Bradbery
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.

Close to Her

Karen Carpenter
This past week on American Idol, a show on life support, some finalist named Lazaro—whose back story includes the fact that he apparently doesn’t speak English and he stutters—chose to perform the song Close to You by the Carpenters.

Also, Lazaro apparently can’t sing. The performance was rated by Idol experts as the worst ever in the show’s history. It is available online, but please don’t listen; treatment for it will require years of therapy. Lazaro was summarily eliminated by viewers.

In a 1994 tribute album, If I Were a Carpenter, Karen Carpenter songs are covered by an amazing collection of artists. In the video of their version of Superstar,  Sonic Youth includes a Karen Carpenter montage, with their riding around in a convertible, passing a sign announcing “Now Entering Downey, Home of the Carpenters.” It is a moving tribute, and the vocal couldn’t be any farther from Karen Carpenter’s.

Here’s why: no vocals are close to Karen Carpenter’s, and nobody sane or self aware goes there. Not even her brother Richard’s heavy-handed arrangements and production—responsible for their massive commercial success—could obscure that. Watching her sing is a revelation. The revelation is that while she certainly knew she was good, she probably had no idea just how good (or beautiful) she really was. Knowing she was so much more than good enough might not have saved her, but she was that good.

How good? If she was in a competition like American Idol, they would just stop the season right there, if not cancel the show entirely. Same thing if she was on The Voice, because they would have found The Voice. Search over.

In 1980, she sang a television duet with Ella Fitzgerald.  If there has ever been a queen of American popular song, Ella may have been it. Duets are funny things. They are frequently a bit off or complete misfires, even when the two artists are separately good. Another thing is that each one of the pair has to bring something special, even when they are not artistic equals. Comparing Karen to Ella, or anyone to Ella, is like comparing anyone to Karen: pointless. In the case of this duet, remember that Ella was renowned for her purity of tone, her effortless range, and for that something that was supremely and gorgeously her. All those things can be said about Karen Carpenter. Ella was already having health problems at this point, though you wouldn’t know it from her voice, and she would live for another sixteen years to the age of 79. Karen was visibly suffering from the problem that would end her life, three years later, at the age of 32.

Karen Carpenter singing Superstar.