As a musician, I have been standing by an instinctive mantra since ‘Pop Idol’ was first broadcast in 2001. That being a mantra of condemnation for what represents a cheapening trivialisation of musical ability in the form of corporate, mainstream, domestic entertainment manifesting as TV talent shows. However, considering the fact that behind my offhand attitude, I have spent very little time actively examining such television shows, it’s not entirely valid of me to criticise a field of which I have so little practical experience. In order to address this disconnect, I have taken it upon myself to watch every single minute of BBC’s second series of ‘The Voice’.
The four judges are marketed as the real stars of the show. Established acts that exist as veterans of the tempestuous and mysterious beast that is the music industry. This status is undeniable of the legendary Sir Tom Jones, who sits on his musical throne in a manner akin to a regal old lady. Such credentials do not seem so apparent with the other panel members, however. While I have always considered myself a fan of rock, I must admit I had never heard of Gaelic stud-muffin, Danny O’Donaghue and his seasoned rock band, ‘The Script’. Perhaps the years I have invested in the journey towards my ever-beckoning grave have finally blinkered me from the zeitgeist of the modern rock scene. My ignorance of Jessie J is an honest one, as I was genuinely surprised to discover how successful this lady’s popular music career had been. As for the fresh Mr Am, his place on the panel is immediately understandable. His unusually, eccentric charisma, packed with kitsch oddness and snappy, urban sound bites make him represent a charming dichotomy of the quirky and the downright irritating, which of course makes him television gold.
The Voice, unlike some of its rival shows, does manage to serve up a minimum standard in the quality of its contestants. There are only a small minority present that appear to have only entered the show on the strength of family compliments, only to fall foul of reality in mockable performances of shocking ineptitude. The mean-spirited ambience of shadenfreude present in shows such as Simon Cowell’s ‘X Factor’ has no business here, and in its place we have a set of vocalists that on the whole seem to offer competence in singing, if not always excellence.
Team O’Donaghue’s Mitchell Emms, represents a talented, off-the-shelf, hair-metal style hard-rock vocalist. But it’s difficult to truly understand Mitchell’s motive for entering the competition, when he’s not teamed up with an exclusive rock song-writing team, but instead has a raison d’etre as an artist by being the bloke that sings previously released material from the history of rock. How effective would a singer like Bruce Dickinson or Freddie Mercury have been, had they been handed the work of a corporate, record company song-writer to croon, instead of music emanating from their own bands? In the so-called knock-out stage, Mitchell strums a sickly-coloured, baby blue Fender Jaguar as he confidently struts, head-bangs and sings along to an average and forgettable rock song. I wonder if the guitar is even plugged in, as the guitar sound is anonymous in the mix of the safe, polished rock backing-track that accompanies his performance. Despite this torrent of mediocrity, he still manages to win the round against two of his fellow half-baked, wannabe superstars.
One of the more satisfying eliminations was that of former R&B singer-songwriter, Nate James. His first stab in the cruel business started almost a decade ago, where his debut album won him a couple of MOBO nominations. His career peaked in 2008 with a performance on ‘Later… with Jools Holland’ and a headlining appearance to an audience of 120,000 at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Despite substantial success, with over 200,000 copies of his albums sold, James was dropped by his record label and was now hustling for business on The Voice. However, it appeared that his attempts to stir the memories of past fans, and to reach for fresh appreciation was to fall on deaf ears. He coyly slid off the show, having been eliminated by plucky rookie, Lovelle Hill, and the part of me that bemoans my own lack of musical success gave itself a petulant, imaginary high five.
Pop Pop Pop Music
As an aside, Chi Chi Izundu and Anisa Subedar wrote in their BBC Newsbeat article of May 29th about how the record industry might be ‘failing new pop artists’. I thought that this was quite a strange notion considering the very nature of what pop music is and how it has worked historically. The whole point about pop music artists is that you aren’t supposed to invest in them long term because they have such a short appeal window. An industry based on finding shiny accessible music for children to listen to as they develop their early musical taste. Pop music by it’s very nature is not supposed to produce long term artists, as the very target audience outgrow the material and develop a need for more sophisticated music, be that rock, classical or R&B. When a pop star demonstrates longevity, it’s the exception rather than the rule. For every Justin Timberlake and Madonna, there are hundreds of Jive Bunny’s, Leon Jackson’s, Babylon Zoo’s, Mel & Kim’s etc. Even if you look at the 1950’s and 1960’s, there were thousands of throwaway pop acts. Just as an academic experiment to prove this point, take a moment to peruse the collossal number of one-hit wonders, and the artists that have disappeared in time into obscurity: www.onehitwondercentral.com
The Voice is a show designed to develop these short-term pop products. Izundu and Subedar quote a Geoff Taylor of the British Phonographic Industry:
“The Arts Council should be supporting the music industry’s excellent record of breaking talent, not attacking it with ill-judged sound bites”
This could not be further from reality. Why should tax-payers money get pumped into short-term projects, when it could be put towards longer term acts that have so much greater potential to develop a dedicated following, but under the current economic conditions are struggling to continue?
At it’s best, ‘The Voice’ represents (mostly) high-quality karaoke. However, an over-emphasis on vocal ability at the expense of the entire composition reduces the musical performances to little more than vocal show-boating over a corporately, slick muzak soundtrack. The audience’s yelps of communal joy are highlighted in the program edit whenever the singers demonstrate turbo-charged multiple octave ranges or near-perfect Whitney Houston-esque melisma technique, even if they occur during the most inappropriate moments in a song. Such is the timing of these unwarranted interludes of show-boating, it reminded me somewhat of randomly using the ‘Star Power’ function during the performance of a song in a round of ‘Guitar Hero’. Performers that demonstrate idiosyncrasy with unusual voice-tone are quickly swept aside in favour of ass-shaking, r+b power-divas. The reliance of the show on pre-written material completely dismisses any ability the musician may have in song-writing, blending chord progressions with melodies or any knowledge of musical theory.
An artist by the name of Leanne Mitchell, was lucky enough and talented enough to win the first series of The Voice. Her anticipated debut album managed to cause nosebleeds all round entering the charts at number 134. Not bad considering her formative years as a holiday camp entertainer. Sir Cliff Richard heralded from the holiday camps of post-war Britain, but his undeniably successful place in British music history was not to be repeated by the unlucky Ms Mitchell. Unfortunately, what this all means is that the whole point of the show, the search for publicly loved talent that could be nurtured into award-winning acts and artistes, seems to have been lost somewhere. The core qualities in the show are in the super-dramatic editing style and in the petulant drama between the judges. The pretentiously-named Will.i.am’s ‘middle-aged man masquerading as an annoying 14 year old boy after watching too many rap videos’ schtick, when juxtoposed against Jessie J’s naive optimism for the power of music, love, emotion and the human soul is nothing short of hilarious. So while this show holds no value for the prospective careers of the contestants, it is incredibly entertaining all the same. Or as Will might put it, “The dopest thing in the history of freshness” whatever that means…