The Voice(s)

My family and I are following both of American television’s current vocal competitions, The Voice and American Idol.

For years I was the only one among us who watched American Idol. I wasn’t always riveted by it, but since I hardly ever watched it live I could fast forward through the recordings of particularly abysmal performances. I figured it was my duty as a scholar of American popular culture to be familiar with the program.

I also watched (and watch) America’s Got Talent and The X-Factor, although I’m not sure I can sit through another full season of the latter. And I always adore The Sing-Off, which features a cappella groups singing their hearts out. I tend to wander off pitch without accompaniment so I take my hat off to the Sing-Off performers.

North Shore, my favorite group from the past season of The Sing-Off. Don't ask me why I resent old white guys in government and love them on TV, but I do.

Last summer while visiting my mother and me in Massachusetts my brother David, his wife Leigh, and their son Michael stumbled across an episode of America’s Got Talent on my DVR.

Suddenly my relatives became talent-show junkies. We spend a lot of time together watching the two current shows. Although David, Leigh, and Michael don’t believe in fast forwarding it’s fun to have company while viewing the programs and even more fun to have someone with whom I can discuss them.

Frankly, I’m torn about both competitions and what they mean for singers.

American Idol became a lot more fun last year with the addition of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler as judges. Their wardrobes are entertaining, and their personalities, particularly Tyler’s, are engaging. He starts to make a comment that seems way, way off base—and then somehow goes on to demonstrate on-target knowledge of both human nature and the human voice.

As an older performer and listener, however, I’m put off by American Idol’s age limit. Its contestants range in age from 15 to 28. I understand the emphasis on youth in a way; after all, the program hopes to uncover new talent. Nevertheless, the nation offers plenty of covered-up talent in the 29-plus age group. And sometimes one longs for just a little more maturity than these contestants can show, in their voices and their attitudes!

As a singer I’m also frustrated by the ways in which Idol’s audience and judges seem to reward over-singing. It’s true that an idol needs to stand out in a crowd. Even so, sometimes a singer needs to let the words and the melody do their work. Too often these young performers can’t resist messing with both lyric and song–and receive applause for their misguided efforts.

The Voice should be more appealing to me than American Idol, and in many ways it is. Its opening premise—that the final contestants are chosen by the judges sight unseen, merely on the basis of their sound—is brilliant and allows the show to highlight singers with a diversity of backgrounds and appearances.

The Voice also lets its judges coach the singers. The judges/coaches come from a refreshing mixture of musical genres (Idol tends to focus in the main on pop music) and dole out more concrete advice than contestants receive on American Idol.

Nevertheless, this program, too, tends to reward over-singing–particularly in the battle rounds, the just concluded episodes in which the coaches eliminate half of their team members by having those members face off against each other, two by two, singing songs chosen by the judges.

The battle round is an interesting concept since it requires both cooperation (it is, after all, a duet) and competition (it is, after all, a fight). The latter facet of the round forces vocalists to pull out all the stops, which unfortunately sometimes does less than justice to the songs they are singing … and less than justice to their voices.

I hope that as the weeks go by the contestants on The Voice and American Idol buck this trend. The world needs less over-singing and more pure singing.

Meanwhile, my family and I will continue to watch and critique the programs. I only hope that my nephew Michael will suspend the critical eye and ear he has been honing when he comes to hear ME sing late next month. I want to continue to be one of his idols.

Still, I’m glad he’s learning to listen for things like pitch, emotion, and lyrics in music as well as rhythm (like much of his generation, he adores hip hop, which is nothing if not beat centered!). We all need to be aware of music in our lives … and to be encouraged to make it.

My next post will talk more about my own feelings about the nature of songs. Meanwhile, I’ll tune in tonight to see which Idol contestants continue on to the next round.