Friday, June 1, 2012

The Whimpering Voice

Danny O'Donoghue in his Victorian busker years
I've been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride with The Voice UK. When it was first announced that the BBC had paid a mouth-watering £22 million for the rights to show what is technically a Dutch* import but ostensibly a US one (bidding for the UK version only came into life following the massive Stateside hit featuring Christina Aguilera), all that crossed my mind was the thought, "sigh, not another TV singing contest". "It'll be just like X Factor" I would lament, especially in light of all the reports that they were approaching dejected X Factor judge Cheryl Cole. (Or worse, it would be the BBC's take on X Factor, which brings to mind their take on its Pop Idol predecessor, the abominable Fame Academy.)

I used to watch X Factor, from the very beginning, and by the second series it had developed into a trashy, yet compulsively addictive show that I couldn't allow myself to miss - and as each series went on it got trashier and yet the compulsion to watch grew perversely stronger. The music itself was pushed to one side as it became a platform for:
  • Simon Cowell's smug proclamations about music - a subject he knows a great deal about, having brought us records from such luminary artists as Zig and Zag, Robson and Jerome and the Teletubbies - though to his credit he was always rather more plugged in about the quality of the singer in front of him than the airheads sitting next to him, in the earlier series anyway (his standards seemed to slip as the years went by and his pockets got fuller)
  • Various obvious deceptions, eg that 150,000 people had auditioned in front of the single panel of diva-like judges
  • The inane witterings of Louis Walsh, a man who would otherwise be unemployed by now if not for TV fame (I can't imagine how much contestants resent being in "his" category)
  • Unthinking ageism (once you're over 25 you're "past it"?)
  • Talentless novelty acts like Chico, Wagner and Jedward (in fairness, I like Jedward now, but they were awful on X Factor, and they still can't sing)
  • Cheryl Cole (not her music but her, er, "personality"?)
  • Artificial drama, usually carefully co-ordinated with the tabloids
  • An even-numbered judging panel that more often than not deferred to the public vote, thereby rendering the sing-offs a complete waste of time
  • Pretending that nobody on the show is gay (thankfully this has improved in the last two years) 
  • Promoting shallow qualities like physical appearance and manner over talent and singing ability
  • Premium rate phone voting (so the results would be determined by people with more money than sense, usually voting more than once)
  • The exploitation and abuse of mentally ill people.
It was the latter that caused me to break the habit of a lifetime and simply stop watching - specifically the treatment of Ceri Rees, a tone-deaf widow who kept going back onto the show thinking she had a chance and being publicly humiliated. The production team who pre-vet all contestants should have known better than to send her on, but apparently they actually gave her false encouragement in the name of creating yet another classic in Syco's patented line of Crap Auditions. After all, it's only because of contestants like this that the "Susan Boyle moment" worked.

Of course a string of winners I thought were unworthy of the infamously constrictive and unrewarding record contract (Leon? Seriously?) - and my favourite acts being knocked out in early stages of the public voting - had also frustrated me, but I'd never liked the Crap Auditions, I thought putting them in front of a live audience only heightened the cruelty, and it was for this reason that I stopped watching X Factor and had no plans whatsoever to give the Voice a look-in.

But it only took a few minutes I caught of the first episode of The Voice to hook me in completely.

It was very different to what I expected. This was no X Factor knock-off - the audition format was truly innovative, the spinning chair element nowhere near as silly as it seemed on paper. There were no bad singers, and a strict limit on the number of auditionees a mentor was allowed to pick - and, while a Syco producer might have thought having only good quality singers would put a strain on the 'fun factor', this actually made the show exciting. People were being judged purely on the quality of their voice, or at least the style of their music, and living and dying by it. For the most part, only the cream of the crop were getting through - and decent singers (including some very good looking ones) would fail to progress simply because they didn't meet the high standard. And the judges - all internationally famous singers themselves - had real, constructive comments about the singers' performances, why they did or didn't get picked, and how they could develop their voice in the future.

The audition format was enormously compelling, but there was a nagging doubt at the back of my head. How will the show sustain itself into the later stages? The central conceit of "the judges don't know what the singers look like" was gone, but it's proven rather innovative so far, maybe they have some more twists up their sleeve?

Sure enough, the next stage was the "Battle Round". It was actually rather merciless, using a set dressed up like a boxing arena to pit contestants against one another so as to eventually whittle their number down by half. It did seem unfair at times, almost arbitrary, to put two singers against each other and judge them entirely by one performance of a duet they sing together - and there were a number of cases where some of the better singers lost out because they were pitted against the best singers - but because the standard overall was so high, the performances were actually wildly entertaining to listen to.

So the first two rounds were excellent TV - although to my mind it suffered from a few scheduling issues. The audition shows were an hour and twenty minutes each - about twenty minutes too long for a show without ad breaks - given there were only four of them you'd think they could have spread the auditions over six weeks instead. And then the Battle Round episodes were even longer, at one hour forty each - and broadcast in two installments over a single weekend! It got a little tough to endure the whole thing by the time it got to the twentieth duet.

While that may seem like a minor quibble, spreading those shows over a longer period of time would have protected the show from the disaster that followed. For the live shows seemingly offered very little in the way of difference from X Factor. I say seemingly because there were a few token differences, but every single one of them was worse.

Firstly, there were too many contestants. Something that couldn't be better highlighted than the fact that they had to split the line-up over two weeks at a time for the first four weeks. There are twenty contestants, and it's rather difficult for the audience to develop a connection with any one of them when they get seen very briefly once every fortnight for a month. And the short schedule of just six weeks meant that in three of the six live shows, including the semi final, 50% of the contestants - four out of eight each time - were sent home! (In fact it was ridiculously poor scheduling given that in the first two shows, they sent off just one contestant from each team - they would have been rather better off sending off two from each in the first two shows and then one from each in the middle two.) Whoever eventually wins (and with the favourite having been voted off last week, after being given the 'death slot' of the opening number for no discernible reason, it's already looking quaintly disreputable) will not benefit commercially from having had a huge profile on The Voice in the way an X Factor contestant normally would.

Secondly, for all the talk of the judges "building their teams" in the earlier stages of the contest, these teams never actually go against each other, and are instead torn apart by internal division. Okay, that's overstating it slightly, but what actually happens - and it's never formally acknowledged on camera - is that the process of whittling down the individual teams continues into the live shows, and the "teams" only go against one another when each is reduced to one, in the final. This of course perpetuates the "too many singers" problem, as well as the problem of letting better singers go at the expense of stronger singers for arbitrary reasons. And the fact that it's never formally acknowledged means that, in the semi final for example, people could potentially vote for both singers on the same team without realising that each vote they cast just cancels the previous one out.

Then there's the basic presentational issues. The staging looks like a relic from Top of the Pops - specifically the Andi Peters version that killed the brand. Complete with an internal mosh pit of brainless audience members who cheesily wave their arms along to every performance regardless of whether it's any good or not. There is a staircase and balcony at the back that as far as I can recall has been used exactly once (for a completely weird number involving a long microphone cord). And, perhaps because so much money has been ploughed into the show they feel like they ought to make it look like it's been spent on something, a screen at the back displays poorly-conceived animations and graphics of the contestants as they perform.

Meanwhile, for reasons that are never quite clear, the show requires the services of two presenters, and they have gone with the first two they could find in the bargain bin of presenters the BBC already had on contract, who turned out to be Holly Willoughby and Reggie Yates. (I suppose we should feel some relief that we didn't get lumbered with Fearne Cotton, who with Yates could have reformed the team that killed off the aforementioned TOTP.)

The biggest problem, as it transpired, and as the photo above might suggest, is that one of the mentors is not actually very good at music. Dull song choices and uninspired arrangements let his team down - and when he came to perform with his team (continuing the pretence that they were up against the other "teams") he proved to be the least capable singer on it. Which might seem like a stretch of irony, but the performance was just bad. That, along with the fact that Tom Jones doesn't seem to have much to contribute besides name-dropping, drags the whole judging panel down. (I ought to note that despite my initial reservations, is actually the most insightful panellist, as well as having the most creative use of language, and he's kind of proven himself by having the de facto strongest team of contenders.)

What the live shows really needed was the sort of innovation you saw at the audition stages. Group numbers and duets with pop stars are things we've seen before, and it all drifts away from that supposedly central theme of "the voice". Producers must think about this sort of thing in future series - while they also do something about the numbers problem. Perhaps we could see contestants do their own individual takes on the same song during a show? At the very least that would set it apart from everything else that's out there.

*And by the way, the Dutch version is weird. Not just because they all sing in English and then speak in Dutch, but there's also a pair of judges who share a single button and a massive seat between them, like some kind of Siamese Monarch.