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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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I was never a fan of "American Idol." The one season I watched, I had trouble with the ritual humiliation of the early-episode tryouts--as toneless, droning fans auditioned for the judges and were smacked down with varying degrees of condescension. This was occasionally funny but after the novelty wore off, it was more often depressing. Even worse, the show really aimed to centerpiece this aspect, bringing back the most embarrassing tryout candidates for a weird and uncomfortable finale spectacular at which they were given faux-awards to immortalize their own off-putting behavior. The show even caught flak a few times for making a mocking spectacle of contestants with real problems (mental, psychological) beyond narcissistic delusion.

And then, of course, these souls were just the first to be given the boot. The show went through round after round of brutal eliminations, first by the judges and then by the public, which more often than not in recent years has resulted in winners who are flavorless, white, male and for the most part unsuccessful recording artists. Bodysnarking and policing of more "out-there" contestants has also been the norm on the show, particularly when judge Simon Cowell sat behind the table--and that attitude was reflected in the voting.

But on "The Voice," the new singing show which has given "Idol" a genuine competitor--and which concludes tonight and tomorrow night--this ritual of embarrassment is completely absent. And it's been done by opposing that brutal style and those bland results: of the eight finalists announced this week, not a single one was a white straight male.

That’s right-- three were openly gay, and the majority of the contestants were people of color. Perhaps most amazingly, in the final round, the last four contestants include not a single straight white female, either: two are openly lesbian, three are people of color.

“The Voice’”s gimmick is summed up by its title: appearance doesn’t matter, but artistry does. All the contestants, even those who don’t advance past the first round, have hefty pipes from the get-go. They have been vetted offstage--and many already have fledgling music careers and albums out, or have been orphaned by record companies. And when they performed their first-round tryouts, the celebrity judges sat with their backs turned so they might judge them solely on “the voice.”

What’s most surprising about this blind audition is that although it faded away quickly once the contestants were chosen, its spirit pervaded the show. “I thought the show’s frame would immediately shift as soon as they turned their chairs around,” says Jennifer Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back:  The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV." “Instead, the framing of the show has cultivated a different response on the part of the audience.”

Pozner points to the success of contestant Beverley McClellan, an openly gay singer with a shaved head, body piercings and a non-traditional gender presentation. McClellan got “saved” by voters from the television audience--twice!--who were taken with her formidable chops and stage presence.  

Judging by previous voting on "Idol," says Pozner, “I thought one of the skinny girls who looks more in the mode of the traditional pop star would be the one who got America’s vote.” Instead, she says, “voters were encouraged to vote based on talent.” And they did.

As a result of these “blind” tryouts and voting patterns that followed, McClellan was just one of a varied crew of finalists: fat, thin, older and younger, gay and straight (despite "Idol's" producing gay stars like Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert, none of them came out publicly until the run was over) racially, ethically and musically varied, and possessed of personal histories that renders them more than vehicles for pop treacle, but instead, in most cases, genuine artists who need to be coached rather than created. 

 
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