Last week, The Voice introduced us to some wonderful singers — an HIV-positive recovering addict from the Bronx, a 50-year-old woman with a soulful rumble that could cause earth tremors, an Air Force staff sergeant who bore down on a Pat Benatar cover as if she were locking onto a target. Meanwhile, on American Idol, two hours of producer-contrived nonsuspense were built around a teenage girl who fell off the stage. When the history of reality-competition TV is written, what may be remembered is that this was the week The Voice became, at least temporarily, a more popular show than Idol, drawing more 18- to 49-year-olds than Fox’s warhorse. It will also be remembered as the week a lot of people realized that The Voice is, in every way, the better show.
The contrast starts right in the titles. Idol looks to manufacture someone you want to worship — a concept that no longer flies once you’re past the age of having a Justin Bieber screensaver — whereas The Voice looks for someone you want to listen to, which is pretty much in line with how most of us choose our music. There’s a crucial difference in tone as well. The opening weeks of Idol traffic in humiliation and tears — the neediness of the young, desperate to be extracted from the mob; the familiar weariness of the judges; the talentless clowns pimped as sneerworthy sideshows. But the opening weeks of The Voice are about hope and discovery. There’s disappointment, but no shaming or hysteria. The four Voice judges represent different, and current, genres and have been cast strategically: Adam Levine is competitive, driven, a hustler; Cee Lo Green is droll, seductive, and grandiose; Blake Shelton is the NASCAR alpha dad; and a trying-too-hard Christina Aguilera is all cleavage and noblesse oblige as the noisy brat princess. But at least they’re fun. The judges on Idol primarily represent their own desire to stay on camera. And that exposure-at-any-cost ethos is reflected in Idol‘s contestants, who more than ever seem to lead with how badly they want it rather than how much they deserve it.
The premise of The Voice is that talent — not youth, looks, or packageability — is the great equalizer. Even the show acknowledges that that’s a fantasy; last week the judges groaned when they turned around during the ”blind” auditions to discover that a guy they’d rejected for his shaky sound was a hunky Yale athlete, a dude with an Idol look who lacked a Voice voice. But as fantasies go, The Voice‘s is more appealing than the narrative Idol pushes, which is that America is a machine that — while giving lip service to ”risk taking” — rewards pliability and familiarity. After a decade, we no longer believe in the Idol factory. ”America voted” and rejected Jennifer Hudson; then, apparently, America 2.0 changed its mind and made her a star. And ”America” has crowned any number of Idols that it promptly decided never to care about again.
The Voice has been smart enough to separate the ideal of populism from the dreariness of a popularity contest. Last season, it included older contestants, and it was so relaxed about being gay-friendly that suddenly Idol‘s long history of gay-panic jokes seemed not just offensive but terribly dated. Most of all, The Voice feels optimistic: As the judges morph into coaches, they become participants in an immensely heartening story line, which is that the road to fame begins when those who are successful extend a hand to those who are deserving. That idea felt especially resonant on an emotion-packed Grammy night, when a huge national audience thrilled to the sound of Adele, now recovered from vocal-cord surgery, and remembered, in complicated ways, Whitney Houston. The night was a reminder that all of us can still fall in love with a voice. But idolize someone at your own risk: You’ll usually end up heartbroken.