Deconstructing “The Voice”: Week 3
Welcome to Week Three of “Deconstructing The Voice”, a non-academic attempt to understand what the popular NBC show says about music, teaching, taste, and the impact of constructing a robot that displays emotions (a.k.a. “Carson Daly”).
In order to write these reviews, I have to watch all 94 hours of The Voice each week. Fortunately, Tuesday’s episode was a “Best of the Blind Auditions” episode, so I skipped it. I’m sure important things were revealed in a never-before-seen bit of banter between coaches Adam Levine and Blake Shelton – but, I think we’ll survive.
Last week we talked about how The Voice rarely mentions formal music education (and it’s not necessarily positive when it does) and the differences between expression through performance and process. This week, we’ll talk about how The Voice is an inaccurate title, update the music education references, and hand out some awards. (My predictions will be up on Monday.)
The Voice is Inaccurately Named
Three weeks into this show and it’s hard not to see that “The Voice” is a misleading title. Rather than being called The Voice, it should be called The Coaches or The Judges. (A more apt name would be: The Multi-Million Dollar Celebrities Who Ham It Up For The Camera… Oh, And There’s Some People Singing Back There. HAHAHA! Adam & Blake Sure Like To Bicker, Don’t They!?)
Maybe things will change as we move out of the audition rounds, but despite the amount of time spent learning contestant backstories (more on that later), this show is more about our celebrity coaches than anything else. Think of it this way:
- Each episode starts with a conversation between the coaches about their experiences on the show. This opening scene functions as an establishing shot – showing us who are the important players and whose eyes we should experience the next two hours.
- A lot of emphasis is placed on the interactions among the judges after each performance. As “Carson Daly” pointed out on last Tuesday’s night’s show, a performance on The Voice is about 90 seconds long. Judges typically spend at least that amount of time talking to the singer and “fighting” with each other for who should get that performer*. (*Has anyone else noticed how much Blake Shelton brings up gender and gender norms on this show? It’s usually him making a joke. Maybe I’ll make a list in the coming weeks.)
- The selection of a coach is given more dramatic weight than any other element on the show. After the fighting, the contestant chooses a coach. This is framed like so many other reality competition shows: “I choose…”, (cue extremely long and awkward edits to prolong the tension). Then, they’ll say the coach’s name and the selected person JUMPS out of their chair. An exciting song plays (Pharrell often has “Happy” played for his “wins”), and they embrace their new team member. Sometimes, the show will actually go to commercial before the contestant reveals which judge they’ve picked. More than anything else, that highlights what producers feel is the dramatic center of their show.
- After a contestant chooses a team, the coaches are the first ones to talk about the decision. Rather than hearing from the contestant first, we hear a coach or two talk about how excited/upset they are about their selection. Only after that do we see the contestant talk and watch them greet their family.
- The coaches pick teams and “win” the show! Rather than competing against each other for the judges’ approval, The Voice contestants actually compete with their judges to win America’s vote. It’s a clever twist, but it does shift the focus of the show quite a bit.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, the coaches are the only ones who actually undergo the true voice-without-visual experience. The central premise of the show is that the voice is the defining greatness of an artist. However, not only do we see the performances as they occur (unlike the coaches), but we are also given elaborately-produced backstories on each singer – further distancing us from just the voice.
To prove my point, below you will find a list of backstories and defining contestant attributes that the audience was presented with before each performer went on stage last week:
- Packs boxes in a warehouse, dreams of singing;
- Homeschooled in a barn, recovering from disfiguring boiled water accident gave her confidence to sing,
- Jewish Cantor, age 62;
- Blind since age 11;
- Lives on a five acres farm with lots of family and animals;
- Dad is a little person who teaches music;
- Former opera singer now wants to sing popular music;
- Supportive mom died in middle school, wants to make her proud;
- Overcame speech impediment through singing;
(As I wrote this list out, I started to feel that I might come across as callous: that I was somehow trivializing the contestants’ personal journeys by defining them with a single bullet point. That is definitely not my goal. Everybody’s experiences – love, pain, fear, triumph – are an important part of their identity as an artist. I would never want to take that away from someone. Expressing ourselves through art is what makes music so amazing in the first place! I’m including this list to highlight that, as an audience, we are primed to experience each performance outside of its technical merits. After hearing these stories, we desperately want these contestants to succeed.)
Ramping up the stakes is simply great television! Doing so, however, further distances us from the central premise of The Voice. What that means, or whether it matters at all, is something that we’ll try to examine in future recaps.
Also, please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that anything I’ve observed is inherently “bad”. I’m just intellectually curious. My goal is to highlight the dissonances that occur between the show’s concept as it is sold to us (the audience) and what the show actually is. Maybe there’s something really interesting there… and maybe there isn’t. Time will tell.
Music Education Update!
As mentioned last week, there have only been two specific references to music education through the first two weeks. This week, we were treated to a pre-taped segment about Matt McAndrew – a 23-year-old from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who works as a part-time music teacher at Bach to Rock. (Skip to 3:20 to watch the whole segment here.) He briefly mentions that he teaches guitar and voice lessons as well as coaching some of the student rock groups.
Later, Matt talks about how he found himself becoming a music major in college:
“I was in choir and my teacher was like, ‘We can put together an audition for you to go to school.’ And then I got into the University for the Arts in Philly and they gave me a Promising Artist scholarship.”
That’s all we get.
Most music teachers, however, will instantly recognize Matt – a self-professed “class clown” – as the young adult with lots of talent, potential, and intellect. Despite all of those attributes (and, probably, because of them), it seems that he’s lacked a clear cut direction to travel after high school. This unnamed choir teacher helped set Matt on a path that would lead him to The Voice! It’s incredible how one small gesture can make an enormous difference in a student’s life.
Not every teacher has the ability to reach every student, but stories like this are the reason why offering a wide variety of classes is so important. Matt’s life intersected directly with the experience and knowledge of his choir teacher. That person knew something was special about Matt and was able to help orchestrate an audition that would lead to a four-year scholarship that would, eventually, lead to an appearance on The Voice.
In all honesty, it’s a small gesture from that choir teacher – it’s the kind of thing music teachers do all of the time. However, that small investment has paid huge dividends in Matt’s life and THAT, my friends, is as good of an advocacy argument as anything else. Had Matt not had the opportunity to participate in that choir with that teacher, who knows what happens next?
Matt’s performance on Monday night was really strong. Despite some early nerves (totally understandable), his belt never feels strained and his pitch during the chorus is spot-on. His tone and ability to pull back are probably what got Adam to turn around so quickly. All in all, a memorable performance from night #5 and I’m looking forward to what comes next.
(Note: A quick trip to Matt’s NBC bio states that his guidance counselor was the one who helped arrange his college audition. I’ve reached out to Matt and will update if I get any answers. Regardless of who it was, my larger point still stands.)
Week Three Awards
Online Favorite That I Need to See More From – Griffin
Griffin has a great voice. No denying that. He’s got a smooth tone, great pitch, spectacular range coupled with an ability to hit his low neats super cleanly. Actually, Adam’s comments about Griffin’s range are the most insightful we’ve heard on the show (even if Gwen thought it was just Adam being funny):
Pharrell; “I couldn’t believe your range and even when you went to the lowest note it was like…”
Adam: “Usually that’s the opposite with singer. Usually when people get down that low it starts to sound like ice cream mouth. [Sings garbley, funny low note.]”
That’s a very specific point about tone and articulation that Adam’s making. Well done! But here’s the thing, though:
For ME, I didn’t feel anything from that performance. Since he has more views than most Week 3 contestants, obviously other people thoroughly enjoyed it. But, for as much polish Griffin has (as well as a great Macklemore look), I’m not sure his performance “said” anything. It was technically excellent, but it lacked something musically. Basically, I have to see him perform again before I can get super excited.
Best Contestant Who Didn’t Get a Chair Turn – Chandra Knudsen
(Also, “Best Technical Feedback”)
Now, I was shocked when nobody turned around for Chandra. She has great tone and she was able to communicate a LOT through her performance (take notes, Griffin). However, during the performance, you could tell the coaches wanted to turn around, but just couldn’t bring themselves to hit the button. At one point, Adam (who couldn’t turn around because his team was already full) turned to the other coaches and said, “That’s so close. So close.” He was talking about Chandra’s pitch and he was right: She was just a tad sharp on her bigger notes.
Blake, who seemed like the most obvious fit for Chandra, offered her some great feedback on her performance:
“You were sharp a lot. When you’re overshooting your notes, that’s actually good news in the pitch world if you ask me. Because there’s so much more there and you just haven’t completely mastered containing it.”
That comment is accurate (she was sharp), prescriptive (she knows what to work on), and encouraging (she has “so much more” to accomplish). While rare, The Voice does have moments where the conversation focuses on actual technical abilities. Needless to say, those are my favorite.
I’ll predict right now that Chandra will be back next season.
Favorite Voice (Possibly Colored By My Love Of The Song) – Mayra Alvarez
I really, really like Mayra’s voice. I also LOVE the Michael Jackson song, “Human Nature”. She does love her vocal gymnastics, but the blind audition format encourages the vocalists to put it all out there. Actually, Gwen comments that she usually doesn’t like it when performers take liberties with the melody, but that Mayra made it work.
In terms of this performance, she had some pitch issues – particularly on those low notes in the verse. However, as Gwen points out, Mayra’s voice is “light and fluffy and floating all over the place” and she made the journey thoroughly enjoyable: we started out light and then she has this wonderful glissando that increases in power going into that “chorus 2” or “bridge” or whatever you want to call it.
So, all in all, a combination of her voice and the song (and that she has such pretty hair) is what got her an award this week.
Best Coaches’ Comments About Musical Choices
Evan Watson sounds a lot like Joe Cocker. It’s not just the growl in his voice, but the intensity that he brought to this performance. I was a little shocked that this performance didn’t get a chair turn, however, the coaches’ comments were really interesting (particularly Adam):
Blake: “You’re a good singer and I feel like you interject about 50% too much of the growl into your voice.”
Adam: “Joe Cocker has the dirtiest, raspiest, growliest voice in the world, but when he sings, the verses are the most tender, beautiful, most delicate things… If you can do what he does, and you have the raw ability to do that, you just have to learn how to control it, dude you’re going to go anywhere you want. Really.”
Do I think that Evan has a better voice than some of the people who DID get a chair turn? Yes. However, I do think that the coaches’ comments are useful and Adam’s comment, in particular, highlights an understanding of how to utilize different voices for maximum effect.
- The first two vocalists of the night (Matt McAndrew and Brittany Butler) had great performances. Also, probably not coincidentally, they were the only two who had studied music in college (Brittany went to Berklee). Both performances were confident and demonstrated their abilities to make musical choices.
- Speaking of Brittany Butler, Pharrell DID seem rather smitten during her performance.
- Beth Spangler has a strong voice, but she really seemed to lose some steam as the performance went on. Pitch got a little wonky, she didn’t quite have the range, and, musically, I felt like we were hitting the same note over and over again. America seems to disagree with me based on her YouTube view count. (Also, why would NBC put her in that red and in those overalls? I did like her lipstick, though.)
Anyway, I’ll have my predictions up on Monday. Having said that, I have NO idea what to expect from the Battle Rounds. It looks like we’re going to get some actual coaching, though… so that should be fun! I wonder if anyone will give Carson will get any lessons on acting like a human. (Sorry for that joke… I really reached there!)
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Until next time…
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