How NBC's 'The Voice' Is The Anti-'American Idol'

Originally published on May 23, 2011 9:14 am

If you're a reality TV snob, maybe you think one hyped-up singing competition is just like any other.

But from the start, NBC's The Voice seems built as an answer to complaints about American Idol. And now they have emerged as mirror images of each other.

One of the biggest knocks on Idol is that great singers lose if they don't have an Idol-extruded generic popularity. Even the show's judges lamented the early departure of one of Idol's best singers this year, the charisma-challenged Pia Toscano.

NBC tossed that all away. The Voice wants to make the point that musicianship comes first so boldly that the judges face away from prospective singers in the first round.

Another factor at play is Idol's pervasive and ever-increasing focus on youth. It's going into the finals next week with both contenders who are still in high school: Scotty McCreery, 17, and Lauren Alaina, who was just 15 years old when she auditioned.

But The Voice has standout rocker Beverly McClellan, 41. Onetime Idol contestant Frenchie Davis is 31 and grizzled soul crooner Nakia is 36.

In fact, The Voice has placed bald, aging lesbian rocker McClellan and gay belter Nakia front and center in their commercials. They are living examples of the show's anti-Idol attitude. On Idol, the only time gay contestants talk about their sexuality on the show is after they've left; yes, Adam and Clay, I'm talking about you.

Still, the most important component for each program is the judging. On Idol the new judges have become relentlessly positive cheerleaders, using the show to re-ignite their careers. Ryan Seacrest helps Steven Tyler shill his new book and Jennifer Lopez has a new single to promote.

The Voice offers real working musicians as judges, presenting valuable advice to teams of singers. They talk about things like breath control, restraint, blending harmonies and other technical issues that rarely come up on Idol.

The pros of The Voice are pop stars of the moment; from country star Blake Shelton and pop diva Christina Aguilera, to Maroon 5 lead vocalist Adam Levine and eccentric R&B singer Cee Lo Green. And their easy banter feels like hanging backstage with the coolest musicians on the planet. It's just fun to hear Shelton rib Cee Lo for dressing like a peacock or Cee Lo's half-serious contention that he knows about country twang because he's from Atlanta.

Now for the big surprise: different as they are, both shows have succeeded. Together, they provide viewers a rare look at two sides of the pop music coin, from watching Idol mint an inoffensive all-around pop star personality to seeing The Voice try focusing mostly on musical ability.

Indeed, The Voice may be the first time someone has figured out how to echo American Idol while directly answering its flaws.

And since imitation is the sincerest form of television, I bet it won't be long before NBC and Fox plenty of company.

Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

It's been a big week for music on television. Both NBC and Fox announced more singing shows for the fall. Last night, "American Idol" announced its two finalists. And the newest singing competition, "The Voice," has broken out as a hit.

Well, commentator Eric Deggans says there may be a lot of music on TV, but the shows are not the same.

ERIC DEGGANS: People love watching musicians create melody from nothing. It's like a magic trick: watching great singers excel at something that most of us already think we can do, at least a little bit.

And if you're a reality TV snob, maybe you think one hyped-up singing competition is just like any other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: But from the start, NBC's "The Voice" seems built as an answer to complaints about "American Idol." And now they have emerged as mirror images of each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: (Singing) I love you baby likes a flower loves the spring.

DEGGANS: One of the biggest knocks on Idol is that great singers lose if they don't have generic popularity. Even the show's judges lamented the early departure of one of "Idol's" best singers this year, the charisma- challenged Pia Toscano.

SIEGEL: I have no idea what just happened here. I'm shocked.

Unidentified Man #1: Dude, we are all sad to be standing here right now.

DEGGANS: NBC tossed all that away. At the beginning of "The Voice," judges face away from prospective singers.

SIEGEL: I turned around and you looked nothing like I expected...

DEGGANS: Another factor at play is youth. "Idol" last night crowned Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina as finalists, two teenagers whose combined ages are about half that of judge Steven Tyler. This ensures next week's winner will be untested and inexperienced no matter who takes the crown. But "The Voice" has standout rocker Beverly McClellan.

Unidentified Man #3: And at 41 years old, this could be her last shot.

DEGGANS: And grizzled soul crooner Nakia is 36.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NAKIA: (Singing) Well, I'm sorry. Can't (unintelligible).

DEGGANS: Gay belter Nakia is front and center in their commercials, alongside bald, aging lesbian rocker McClellan. On "Idol," the only time gay contestants talk about their sexuality is after they've left. Yes, Adam and Clay, I'm talking about you.

Still, the most important component for each program is the judging. And on "Idol" these days, the new judges are mostly using the show to re- ignite their own careers.

RYAN SEACREST: And congratulations to Steven Tyler but soon to be a bestselling author.

DEGGANS: "The Voice" offers real working musicians as judges.

SIEGEL: I think you swayed so gracefully over the tracks. Your breath control, your clarity...

DEGGANS: These pros are pop stars of the moment, from country star Blake Shelton and pop diva Christina Aguilera, to Maroon 5 lead vocalist Adam Levine and eccentric R&B singer Cee Lo Green.

SIEGEL: So Blake(ph), tell me, then: Why should I choose you over Cee Lo?

BLAKE: Because he dresses like a peacock.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Their easy banter feels like hanging backstage with the coolest musicians on the planet.

Unidentified Man #6: We happen to have a few famous friends, and Pink is one of them, and...

Unidentified Man #7: Let me get that name for you. Drop it? Let me get that name for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: And now for the big surprise: Both shows have succeeded. "The Voice" may be the first time someone has figured out how to echo "American Idol" while directly answering its flaws. And since imitation is the sincerest form of television, I bet it won't be long before NBC and Fox have plenty of company.

SIEGEL: Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.