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

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. 

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.

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