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The sound of music

Also, why does Cee Lo like cats so much? | Photo by Phillip Barth via Picasa

If there is one program I would consider to be the most interesting show on television in 2012, it would have to be NBC’s reality talent show The Voice. This may seem kind of odd, considering I am a journalist who makes a large chunk of my income listening to bands the general public hasn’t heard of. But for whatever reason, when I put down the remote control at night and lie in bed trying to fall asleep, The Voice is the television program I think about most.

For those who don’t know, The Voice has a pretty simple premise. Four musical celebrities sit on a panel and judge singing contestants. The panel consists of country singer Blake Shelton, pop star Christina Aguilera, Gnarls Barkley mastermind Cee Lo Green and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine.

The show’s season begins with a blind audition in which the judges hear live performances of each singer, but are faced away, forcing them to choose a singer based solely on their voice (hence the title). Each judge is looking to stock a team of 12 singers who will then battle each other in front of a live studio audience. Slowly, the contestants are whittled down until one contestant from each judge’s team remains. Finally, the audience and the panel of judges vote on their favourite singer, who then wins $400,000 and signs a deal with Universal Republic.

But none of that stuff really matters. The interesting thing about the show is the blind audition process.

As I mentioned before, the judges face away from each contestant. As the singers perform, the judges have about a minute to decide if they want this person on their team. At that point, the judges hit a massive button, their chair spins around and they finally get to see what the singer looks like. If only one judge wants the singer, that contestant is automatically placed on that judge’s team. If multiple judges want the singer (which happens frequently), then they must coerce the contestant into joining their team.

But here is the weird thing about the show, and what I suspect really draws viewers in week after week (the show premiered this year to 17 million viewers): logic doesn’t really apply to how the singers are chosen.

Think about American Idol and their winners (and sometimes losers) who landed recording contracts. Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry, Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert—they’re all pretty similar in the sense that they sound like the usual pop star.

This is not the case with the contestants on The Voice.

The crux of the show lies in the fact that the judges can’t see the singer. Logic would dictate that because these are all mainstream, multi-platinum recording artists, the safe bet would be to choose the most mainstream sounding singer. However, this never happens on The Voice.

Take for instance singer Tony Vincent. Vincent came on episode three of the show’s second season. He is a classically trained singer who got his start singing country, moved on to musical theatre and has had a successful career singing in Broadway productions such as American Idiot and We Will Rock You. Vincent is the perfect singer. But when he came on The Voice and sang his favourite Queen song, only one person turned around (Cee Lo Green).

Tony Vincent sounds too normal. He sounds like a Broadway singer. He hits all the right notes.

That’s not what the judges of The Voice want. Time and time again, the singers who have the most judges turn around are the ones who sound different.

Two other singers performed in the same episode that sounded almost exactly the same as one another. Their names were Naia Kete (who performed Bruno Mars’s “The Lazy Song”) and Mathai (who sang Adele’s “Rumour Has It”). Both singers sang pretty ordinary pop songs, but they both sang them in the weirdest ways possible. Essentially, they sang like Joanna Newsom, a pretty unlistenable artist to the general public who kind of sings like a kindergarten teacher. They also kind of sounded like Fiona Apple.

Logic would dictate that no one would be interested in these singers (if they auditioned on American Idol they wouldn’t even make it to the first round). But the judges of The Voice loved them. Kete got two offers (going with Shelton), while Mathai had three (going with Levine). And you know what? The audience loved them, too. People went crazy for these two singers, which seems to suggest something that most people have known for quite some time: being pretty doesn’t make you a good musician.

When the Buggles wrote “Video Killed the Radio Star”, they were mostly talking about how music videos would make it so that ugly people never became famous in the music industry again. To be a famous singer, you had to look beautiful.

The thing that is so interesting about The Voice is that it proves that the majority of people don’t actually want that (neither do established recording musicians). What they want to hear is something unique.

Although the show is based solely on the premise of not seeing the artist, the second most exciting part of the show is when the judges spin around and see the singer for the first time. Time and time again, the judges are most excited when the singer either looks totally unlike the genre they’re performing in (i.e. tiny white boys singing soul music), or has some sort of visible “flaw” (i.e. being too short, too fat).

I kind of credit this to the success of Adele this past year. Adele gained a lot of coverage for two main reasons. The first was that she was a really powerful soul singer. The second reason was that she was a pretty overweight, white British lady who was a really powerful soul singer.

As much as we don’t want to admit it, the latter is the main reason she has drawn so much attention. She has a unique voice, but she also looks unique, in the sense that she is not what you’d expect upon first hearing her.

Now that the recording industry is going downhill people no longer want a pretty face to sing an OK-sounding pop song. They want something that is different, whether that’s sounding like something someone has never heard before, or looking unlike what they would imagine.

That’s ultimately why the show is a success, and a fun by-product is what it proves about the average music consumer. Deep down, what matters—and what has always mattered—is that people like the unexpected. To succeed in the music industry and have lasting power, you need to be different.

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