As Danielle Bradbery takes the crown, I ask: Why don't we care more about who wins The Voice?
As NBC uncorked a two-hour extravaganza Tuesday capping its latest season of The Voice, awarding the big prize to 16-year-old Texas high schooler Danielle Bradbery as the show’s youngest winner ever, there was a sense of anticlimax.
Why, I found myself asking, don’t we care about this win more than we do?
It wasn’t just the typically over-padded finale episode, packed with glitzy performances by Nelly, Bob Seger and Cher (along with more than a few groan-inducing, pre-taped segments featuring the superstar coaches joking around).
Or the fact that country star Blake Shelton, who had coached two acts among the show’s Top Three singers, saw one of his competitors win for the third consecutive time in the show’s short history – signaling that The Voice may have slowly become a country music contest without anyone noticing.
It’s that fans know the contest has a history of producing winners who almost immediately fade from sight, unable to maintain the profile which comes from appearing on one of TV’s most successful new programs.
Here's a hint: Past winners include Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul and Cassadee Pope. Yeah, I don't remember any of them, either.
(As an aside, I found Cher's live performance a bit puzzling. Swathed in a feathered, leathered, fishnet drenched outfit, she was buried in dancers with precious few close-ups of her face. It takes serious courage for a 67-year-old star to take the stage with a dance-floor single, but I would have loved to see a less managed, camouflaged performance.)
Part of the problem is The Voice’s unique appeal, which centers on the interplay between its high-profile coaches. It’s to the show’s credit that producers found two new stars this cycle -- R&B singer Usher and cross-cultural pop diva Shakira -- to fit seamlessly with old hands Shelton and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine.
The substitutions, replacing eccentric singer Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera, kept the most important element of the show feeling fresh. The show’s ratings reflect their appeal, emerging as a mirror image of typical singing competitions, which tend to gain viewers as the contest gets more intense.
Good as The Voice’s competitors are, they too often feel like a backdrop for Shelton and Levine to joke about their “bromance,” or for Usher to cover his boundless ego with shameless flirting. (One moment which made me uncomfortable: a pre-taped jokey skit about all the big words Shakira uses during her evaluations, as if it was a surprise that someone who learned English as a second language might include a few words with more than two syllables.)
As a friend of mine pointed out this morning, The Voice also faced a paradox this season. Theoretically, competition should have dropped as the show's season progressed, with high-profile competitors such as American Idol and Dancing with the Stars wrapping up.
But Dancing and Idol have seen their popularity sag seriously this year, especially with young viewers. So The Voice faced more competition from summer series such as Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, just when they hit the least interesting parts of the contest.
Most of The Voice’s younger fans probably can’t remember back to the days when the popularity of American Idol made finale episodes into serious pop culture events, covered in the same way you might report on the end of a Super Bowl. Newspapers, magazine covers and TV segments speculated endlessly on who might win and how they might affect the pop culture landscape.
Even now, first Idol winner Kelly Clarkson is still cranking out successful albums, with a guest appearance on the new fall CBS comedy The Crazy Ones. Idol sixth-place finisher Kellie Pickler just won the last cycle of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and seventh-place finisher Jennifer Hudson is rumored to be returning to the show as a judge after winning an Academy Award, Golden Globe and Grammy awards.
These days, there are too many singing competitions for a winner to stand out simply for competing. And it seems more obvious than ever that the tastes of voting viewers tend to lean against the kind of distinctive performers who make the biggest mark on music sales charts.
But American Idol offers a sad example of the ratings crater which can follow if you try changing the show’s results by removing the kind of contestant who consistently wins.
How The Voice deals with its country music tilt – and boosts the post-show anonymity of its winners – may be the key to making us all care more, once they finally put someone in the victor’s circle.