“The Voice” is better than “American Idol”…except when it’s not.

Voice

American Idol reached a rather unfortunate milestone this year. For the first time in the show’s twelve-year history, it was not the most-watched American television program of the season. By some measures, it wasn’t even the most-watched singing competition series. That honor goes to The Voice, a show currently surrounded by positive buzz that nonetheless fails to measure up to its aging predecessor in at least one important area: producing viable commercial recording stars and high-quality musical talents.

For all of the talk about the increasing irrelevance of Idol in a pop music landscape dominated by mechanically processed dance music and YouTube flashes in the pan, American Idol has reliably churned out media stars for its entire run. Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson proved the show could produce genre-defining vocal powerhouses; Jennifer Hudson demonstrated the show’s ability to produce Oscar-caliber superstars; and other acts like Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry, Phillip Phillips, Kellie Pickler, Kris Allen, David Cook, David Archuleta, Fantasia Barrino, Clay Aiken and Katherine McPhee have achieved varying degrees of success on the charts, television shows, Broadway and more. Idol has consistently fulfilled its goal of contributing to pop culture outside of the realm of the show itself.

By contrast, The Voice has boosted the profile of its celebrity “coaches,” particularly Blake Shelton and Adam Levine, but its track record with contestants has been essentially non-existent. Javier Colon and Dia Frampton from the first season appeared poised for some sort of stardom tied to Levine and Shelton, but they quickly flamed out, lacking record-label promotion and, apparently, star quality. Has anyone heard ANYTHING about Jermaine Paul since he inexplicably won season 2? (It didn’t help that Paul’s preferred genre fell far outside of coach Shelton’s comfort zone.) Season 3 winner Cassadee Pope recently released her first single “Wasting All These Tears”; with the help of a performance on, what else, The Voice, the song briefly occupied the iTunes Top 10. But Pope will need to do a lot more than a generic pop-country ballad to distinguish herself in a world with tons of those to choose from.

Meanwhile, this season’s winner Danielle Bradbery, a fresh-faced sixteen year-old with a lovely voice and very little stage presence, has a chance to break through in the thriving world of country music – unless this season’s Idol runner-up, the more mature Kree Harrison, gets there first.

Many people who champion The Voice point to the undeniable chemistry and entertainment value of the four coaches, and they’re right, but the success of the panel has come at the expense of crafting a singing competition that lives up to the hype the show sets for itself. Based on what I saw in the show’s first two seasons and this week’s season 4 finale, the coaches spend far more time talking about themselves than critiquing their contestants, and I don’t think I heard more than maybe five seconds of commentary about any contestant’s voice, ostensibly the star of the show according to the title.

I don’t mind that the show places such an emphasis on the celebrities. Watching Shelton and Usher clearly proud of and impressed with the artists on their teams provides a kind of emotional uplift that Idol has increasingly lacked in recent years. But if The Voice continues to ignore the problems with its contestants, the gap between the hype on the show and the actual talent level will become unbearably wide. “An important artist!” Shelton raved after Bradbery delivered a competent but soulless Sara Evans cover last Monday night. It was wishful thinking on the witty country singer’s part. If The Voice can find a Kelly Clarkson or an Adam Lambert or a Jennifer Hudson, maybe it will kill Idol once and for all. For now, The Voice remains a glossy alternative to a sinking titan.

**

Odds and Ends:

*I’m not the only one who thinks The Voice could do with a better post-show track record. Joel Keller of The AV Club has also written perceptively about this issue.

*Despite my problems with the show’s hyperbolic statements, I have to admit that this week’s season finale was massively entertaining. Even though I had no idea who they were, the previously eliminated contestants impressed me, and the celebrity duets were well-selected and well-performed. Plus, how can I resist any show that employs Bruno Mars and his gleeful dancing band?

*When The Voice produces a winner capable of doing this, please let me know:

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