Why 'The Voice' Rules Over 'Idol' (At Least Right Now) : The Record Call it drama in real life — where Fox's long-running show offers rags-to-riches fantasy, NBC's singing contest doesn't shy away from the hard work that goes into the dream of pop stardom.
NPR logo Why 'The Voice' Rules Over 'Idol' (At Least Right Now)

Why 'The Voice' Rules Over 'Idol' (At Least Right Now)

Jamar Rogers performs the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" on Monday night's episode of The Voice. Lewis Jacobs/NBC hide caption

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Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Drama: that's what singing on television was about this week. The biggest deal was the rivalry that heated up when The Voice, the moment's most promising American Idol rival, gave NBC its highest Nielsen rating since 2007. (Some sporting event, leading into the show, helped secure the triumph.)

Embedded within that story was the arc of the two-night premiere of The Voice itself, with its flashy judges, fine musical performances and intriguing competitors. Finally, Idol tottered in with its annual Hollywood Week, a grueling batch of episodes in which most of the hopefuls are kicked to the curb after all-night practice sessions and forced collaborations that reduce even the strongest of them to quivering, pitchy messes.

Followers of the song-wars ate up the story of The Voice as the new Rocky Balboa, a scrappy underdog ready to topple a tired champion. Many opined that The Voice's strong start might not play out well, since that show focuses on the judges (who vie with each other to become contestants' mentors), while Idol eventually draws in viewers by maintaining focus on the singers themselves.

I'm in the camp currently finding The Voice fresher, but for different reasons.

Number one is what you'd expect to be central in singing competitions: the music. Ex-Idol godfather Simon Cowell (now dealing with his own problems at the failing The X Factor U.S.A.) has always stressed song selection when coaching strivers, and he's absolutely right. People aren't belting out scales here; they show their tastes and subcultural loyalties through what they rip from the proffered songbook. They do so, that is, if their competition makes that possible.

One of Idol's emblematic struggles is with its own limited view of pop. Cowell is the source of that issue: his tastes run to boy bands and sequined divas, and he always encouraged Idol standouts to stay in that wheelhouse. Steven Tyler's presence means that more auditioners feel free to rock out, but it's still in a particular way. Belting out a power ballad, or giving a Dave Matthews-style spin to a soul classic, does not make a would-be star stand out in a scene where rap, indie rock and electronic dance music are all making a mark in the mainstream.

Give it up to The X Factor for one revolutionary accomplishment: it made room for a rapper, the adolescent Astro, to make it all the way to 7th place in the competition. But The Voice has variety built into its format, by way of its judges' table, which spans country with Blake Shelton, pop with Christina Aguilera, alternative rock with Adam Levine and freaky-deaky hip-hop soul with Cee Lo Green.

Some critics suggest that too much focus on the judges obscures the contestants on The Voice. Perhaps, though I'll bet the producers get the balance right as this season goes along. What's crucial is that the judges embody the playlist mentality of current popular music lovers. And they (or whomever's determining what's performed on the show) just have better taste. A Prince medley that turns "Kiss" into a honky tonk stomper? That's the kind of musical surprise these singing shows desperately need. (It's true that Prince appeared on the alpha program in 2009, but only two of his songs have ever been featured in Idol's 12-year run.)

Viewers tuning into The Voice this week heard a wide range of music — some typical stuff, from Adele to The Beatles, but also an indie-songbird version of an urban hit (in keeping with the big Youtube trend), a couple of blistering female hard rockers, a classical-crossover divo crooning in Italian, and, wait for it, a White Stripes song. Such variety is very current and offers a clearer sense of vocalists' personalities than yet another rendition of "Hallelujah."

About that fellow who took on "Seven Nation Army": Jamar Rogers was actually a would-be Idol once, accompanying his pal, eventual runner-up Danny Gokey, on the first part of his journey. Rogers, who is an HIV-positive former meth addict, has talked about Idol playing down his troublesome past when he participated in the show. (He chose to not reveal his HIV status then.) On The Voice, his history and current healthy lifestyle were presented in measured tones, as part of the program's overall embrace of contestants who've lived a bit before walking on its stage.

Here's the other reason The Voice feels relevant now. One of its gimmicks is sharing stories of participants who've struggled for success in the music industry or spent significant time in other careers. It flips the basic Idol script about fresh young faces getting their first break (often a fiction anyway) to dwell on the dignity of second chances.

The X Factor relegated these storylines to the "over 30" category, and hit upon one exceptional talent, the sweet soul man Leroy Bell. But Bell's fascinating biography, which includes a stint as a Philly soul songwriter and a minor disco hit, was played down in favor of constant references to how good he looked at age 60.

The Voice inevitably dwells on superficialities too (it is a prime-time network show, you know), yet already this season a mood has been established. We are in the company of the 99 percent, people with great potential to whom life has not always been fair. Hardship featured on Idol usually comes across as a stunning sob story (one guy this year, already eliminated, was born without ears!) or a reason to poke fun.

The Voice's tone is more considered, and so contestants' baggage becomes something to which we can relate. Putting off having kids because you can't afford it; ending up temporarily homeless after a broken marriage; surviving domestic abuse — these are typical reality show crises that gain humanity because of how they're portrayed on The Voice. And there are the less perilous problems, like feeling washed up after sparse success follows an early career surge. (True, few of us would have had that first break on the All-New Mickey Mouse Club.)

The Voice promises to turn that rarest of birds, the singing pop star, into what we all want to be: workers living up to our potential. The process it portrays more closely resembles an employment opportunity than a fantasy "big break." I can't think of a more appropriate narrative for America right now. Plus, maybe we'll get to hear more Prince.