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Is "The Voice" A Progressive Alternative to American Idol?

The success singing competition "The Voice" achieved by positing itself as the anti-"Idol" suggests America is ready to privilege talent over appearance.

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Enter the celebrity judges-slash-coaches: Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Cee-Lo Green, and Blake Shelton. They don't just function as judges but also selected “teams” of contestants and offered them pep talks and musical direction throughout the season, until these groomed groups of singers were eliminated one by one in a combination of judges' decisions and nationwide voting. And the amount of times this gaggle of eccentric and beloved celebs begged the contestants to consider them friends, assured them that they loved them, and swore they were trying to do their best by their teams was nearly uncountable; it was a constant refrain.

This emphasis on collaboration, mentorship, cheering and positivity that has kept viewers (like me) watching--if not at "Idol" levels, then at nonetheless-impressive ones. Pozner jokes that the show's focus on good vibes can almost be absurd at times: “not one person has been told anything negative.”

Silly, yes, but refreshing as well in a bleak, cliche-ridden reality TV landscape as well as a similarly stark economic climate, one marked by meanness in our politics and public life. “I would much rather see a show that is relentlessly positive than what is usually the case, which is sexism, blatant racial stereotypes, and preying on poor contestants' economic realities,” Pozner notes.

Let’s be clear: "The Voice" is not a bastion of perfect progressivism. It’s commercial, it’s mainstream, it’s slick, some of the banter is contrived and awkward, and it still  has those cheesy pauses before the elimination announcements are made. The contestants have been, at times, objectified by hosts, judges, and audience members. And despite its openly gay slate of contestants, the potentially homophobic tweets (and subsequent hasty apologies) of two of its judges have unfortunately muddied that progress some. The show has a lot of the typical traits, in other words, of highly commercial entertainment.

But, oh, the things “The Voice” doesn’t have! It doesn’t have overly long, tear-jerking manipulative montages of each contestant's life, zeroing in on their pain and suffering. It doesn’t have staged photoshoots or an overemphasis on the appearance of the cast. It doesn’t pin its contestants down to archetypes based on those appearances. It doesn't punish outspokenness or creative control--it praises those things. 

Same goes for the judges. While there’s plenty of forced and awkward banter between the judges and contestants and host Carson Daly, it’s clear that the mentorship aspect of the competition is more important to these five celebrities than the competition aspect. There’s something verging on inspiring, humbling, and cool about watching these mega-musical names jump up spontaneously and cheer for virtual unknowns, telling them they are born stars and welling up with pride. Some of the “coaching” moments may be scripted, but the out and out enthusiasm and protectiveness and admiration the celebrity judges are expressing is not.

Sure, "Idol" is still a juggernaut and will likely remain so. But the success "The Voice" has achieved by positing itself as the anti-"Idol" makes me wonder if America is ready for something a little kinder, with a little more heart, and which (surprise!) has a little more substance, too.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at

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