When it premiered last year, all I saw in The Voice was the cheesy glitz – the swivel chairs; the tiresome song choices of the contestants; the overweening egoism of Christina Aguilera. As the season went on, I kept dipping in and out of it (more than I can say I’ve ever done for any season of American Idol), and the first element of The Voice that won me over was Blake Shelton, whose easygoing charm was refreshingly free of coyness, irony, and self-absorption. And – oh, right – I started listening to the voices of the contestants chosen by Aguilera, Shelton, Cee Lo Green, and Adam Levine. Quite a few of them exhibited something rare as well: They were, for the most part, free of the ornate mannerisms and studied calculation that Idol enshrined as the winning standard for TV singing competitions.
Came the new season of The Voice, and I was downright enthused to give it a second try; I haven’t been disappointed very often. Sure, the revolving self-help-manual advice dispensed to those for whom the chairs do not turn is frequently tortured, but since in its initial conception The Voice dispensed with the most despicable aspect of Idol – the inclusion of freak-show delusionals – the rejected aren’t ridiculed or edited in for their breakdowns.
Even better, The Voice in its second season is, if anything, even more inclusive than it was in its first, or than any other network competition. Voices are chosen that wobble, rumble, quiver, and howl in a variety of genres. Shelton and Green, in particular, recognize and occasionally articulate the solid pop-music-critic fundament that it is frequently the imperfection of a voice, deployed artfully, that lends it character, wit, and, yes, power. Even Aguilera, who seems to think the term “diva” has always meant entitlement and lofty disdain, and who sings as though she needs to prove something to high culture, has become open-minded enough to champion someone as rough around the edges as Lindsey Pavao, and good luck to Xtina with Moses Stone, “The Voice’s first-ever MC,” according to Carson Daly.
If all The Voice was about was music, though, it wouldn’t be much as television. Certainly one enjoyable element in the Voice setup involves compelling Aguilera to interact with mere mortals, and even now, after a full season has passed, you still get the delightful feeling that her first instinct when she turns to face any new contestant is to command them to fetch her some tea, followed by her tight-lipped smile as she swallows a pride exceeded only by the chest she pushes into living rooms across this great nation. Levine, in a completely different way, seems similarly reluctant to engage with anyone who’s not a fellow Brentwood School alum, which makes him still rather stingy about slapping the big button – he may have coached last year’s winner (you know, what’s-his-name, isn’t he a big star yet?), but Levine’s competitive streak is amusingly paltry and petulant compared to the earthier yet more measured efforts of Green and Shelton.
This week, The Voice derived its drama from the way some contestants who seemed just right for Shelton veered over to Green (Sarah Golden, I think you’re gonna regret it), and the surprising no-chair vote given Perez Hilton pal Winter Rae (I have sympathy for Rae, but she needs to hang out more with the bowlers she serves and less with what the writer-director Preston Sturges called “gossip-schmearers”). Any show that gets me rooting for a model who decided to take up singing on an apparent whim and vocalizes with whimsical phrasing (best of wishes to you, Erin Martin) and a belter like Jordis Unga (nice call, Blake) is giving cheesy glitz a good name.