the girl with the dragon tattoo

the girl with the dragon tattoo
Yes, I have a dragon tattoo as well

Τετάρτη, 15 Οκτωβρίου 2014

Not just another talent show?

I never thought I'd write a post about The Voice... But here it goes.

There is something happening in the U.S. version of The Voice this year that has not happened before. It's undoubtedly (pun intended) the combined presence of coaches Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams, that amounts to something more than a change in the coaches line-up. Pharrell and Stefani, going through the first round of the battles, consistently vote for the underdog - changing forever the face of this popular singing competition - probably for the better.

Christina Aguilera, or Usher, to mention some the those who sat in the red leather chairs before them, would almost never go for imperfect vocals or quirky characters. Given the choice, they would always pick the person who was able to "hit those high notes" - to use the favorite The-Voice-coach vernacular.

But Pharrell, for example, voted for 18 year old Elyjuh instead of the flawless performer Maiya. He picked up cross-eyed Luke instead of street-smart Griffin and indie rocker Taylor Phelan instead of the more hip Jordy, making those kind of choices that only Cee Lo Green or Shakira would make before him... However, Cee Lo Green and Shakira never shared the same coach line-up and through the seasons, they remained, themselves, as well as their artists, the underdog of the competition. Stefani boosted this alternative streak of choices, by picking Sugar's raspy voice, and Taylor's indie rock sensibility, instead of the more obvious choices, the good-looking Jean and Amanda Lee Peers, and she also stole country-singer Craig when Blake made the obvious choice and picked James David Carter.  The combined dynamics, that Stefani and Pharrell introduce now to the new season of The Voice may just be about what this competition promises: finding the next world-class superstar.

While Cee Lo Green and Shakira, made choices  in the past, that ultimately worked against them, when rooting for the underdog, Pharrell and Stefani seem to bring to the competition something that it really  needs, to make it to the next level: a breath of fresh air and the ability to find the right talent material to actually create such a superstar.

So far, the competition remains infamous for not being able to launch musicians to such a level for their careers, as it originally promises. United States winners, up to now, make some records (at best) or remain obscurely in the trenches of the music industry, never making a bigger name for themselves. I can't speak about what's happening to the rest of the planet, as the competition is happening in so many countries by now, from Albania to Australia, that it's hard to keep up with the news.

Setting aside what this kind of competition really is (a huge career opportunity for the coaches, a grinding stone for new talent, yet another vehicle in order to boost i-tunes sales, for a music industry whose old-time practices seem to go through its final death throes), this season's The Voice brings something to the game that was desperately needed: individuality.

Taylor Phelan's audition was one of the most memorable during the blind auditions phase. For me, it was refreshing to see an artist take the stand, instead of another well-meaning performer who only knows how to use their voice but would never be able to write a song - which usually constitutes the majority of the contestants.

Seeing Phelan making it to the next round, past the battles, is not only refreshing, it's also deeply satisfying. The Voice is great entertainment - I admit. But so far, it never amounted to anything more than this. Watching Pharrell and Stefani perform something that can only be equaled to a slalom down some very slippery slopes, my hopes are getting high, instead of going down.

So far, it was never the underdog that won the competition. Artists had to jump a lot of hurdles to make it to the finale. First, to use their voice in the best possible way, to make those chairs turn. Second, to be able to win the favor of the judges by proving that they can win a singing battle. Third, to win the favor of the audience. Will it happen this time? I certainly hope so.

It's by no means easy to go through all of those three stages. Artists are not usually qualified to do these things. Artists are qualified to listen to their own inner voices. Proving to be better than others, is a whole different game.  Even with the coaches' help, it can be impossible to win. The coaches make their own choices, and the audience does not always respond to them the way they expect it to, in the end.

It takes guts to go through this kind of ordeal, to tell you the truth. I respect and admire the contestants for daring to show up and compete. What makes The Voice different than other ridiculous talent shows, is, after all, that the level of the contestants is very high. Everyone knows how to sing already, for a start. But I can't help feeling that however well-meant the intentions of the contestants are, they are bound to be hugely disappointed. The coaches put them through hell during the battle rounds, often doing things that the contestants were promised not to. Gwen Stefani, for example, paired Menlik (the reggae singer) to Troy (a rock singer), taking back her word, from day one, that she would let Menlik perform reggae songs... Menlik was lucky enough to get stolen by Pharrell in the process.

Even if the contestants make it to the live rounds, they can be voted off at any point in the competition. After all, there can only be one to win. So, what's the point in this whole fanfare? It would be great if The Voice, at some point, does what it promises. Find and mold artists to their full potential. But, as things go, this is a slow and personal process for any artist. And it cannot happen during the show - the show, at best, could only be the pedestal for that.

It seems to me that Pharrell is the magic element in this competition. He has the know-how and the insight, as a producer, and the sensitivity, as an artist, to find and work with such a person- even if that happens aside the competition. I'd be really glad as a viewer, if that promise... became more than just a promise in the near future. It would make the Voice something more than it is right now: an entertaining way to spend weekday nights in front of the tv.

UPDATE: A few thoughts, after the finals. It seems that unconventional choices cost Gwen Stefani's and Pharrell Williams's teams a place in the finals. Adam Levine's and Blake Shelton's teams occupied all the top four spaces in the finals with Levine's team, who got three singers at the top four, owning 75% chances to win. Despite the odds, Levine's team lost, and Blake's single man came out swinging: Craig Wayne Boyd, the underdog, throughout the competition, a guy that was passed around from team to team, made it to the top. An unexpected one, for sure.