Last night’s elimination episode of The Voice, which sent the show’s top five acts to its season four semi-finals, restored my faith in the viewers who vote for and download music from the contestants. The retention of the only two non-country singers left in the competition, Sasha Allen and Michelle Chamuel, proved that at this point, America is picking people on pure talent, not because they have a twang in their voice or a flair for wearing bedazzled cowboy boots.
The producers of The Voice were fearing the same thing, as they changed course to make the semi-finals a five-way competition instead of a four-way one like it had been in the past, and the reasons are pretty obvious: they didn’t want an all-country semi-finals. They got their wish, and with both Michelle and Sasha still around, there’s a good chance that the finals will have a non-country participant as well.
How did we get here? Two words: Blake Shelton. The goofy, affable, drunk-tweeting coach made a move this season that showed that he’s a pretty smart guy under that silly exterior. But he’s inadvertently making his meal ticket show into a boring one, even for the legions of country music fans.
Country music is extraordinarily popular these days, seeing mainstream acceptance for the first time since probably the Garth Brooks heyday of the early ’90s. And thanks to acts like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Blake’s wife Miranda Lambert, more singers are straddling the country and pop lines than ever, opening up the genre’s audience even more.
Blake knows this, considering his years in the business. He also knows that there’s better potential for country stars to come out of The Voice with real careers than any other genre. His evidence comes from the people who have been on his teams over the last two years: he championed alternative singer Xenia from season 1 and her career went nowhere, and he won with R&B singer Jermaine Paul in season 2, and his career has not taken off, either.
However, Shelton had a revelation in season 3, after throwing middling pop singer Cassadee Pope some country songs to belt, including his and Miranda’s touching hit “Over You.” She shot to the top of the iTunes charts and handily won the season. He could see where the voting bloc of The Voice lies, and it seems like the vast majority of them are country fans.
So, for season 4, instead of trying to find a varied team, Shelton front-loaded his team with country artists during the blind auditions, then slowly whittled down his teams during the battles and the knockouts into a finely-honed country powerhouse. And anyone who didn’t think he knew what he was doing when he kept choosing acts like the Swon Brothers over ones that were obviously more talented don’t really know country music. Blake knew, and even articulated this during this week’s live competition show, that harmonizing duos are a staple of country music, and he knew that the Swons’ down-to-earth, working-class Oklahoma charm would snap up votes, especially as they improved with coaching.
Another thing he knew? That no matter how generic their voices are, young, blond, big-voiced female singers are pretty damned popular in Nashville these days. It’s why Holly Tucker and Danielle Bradbery lasted so long in this competition, with Holly finally being voted out this week. And it’s why Adam Levine’s only remaining team member is country singer Amber Carrington. Are they great singers? Sure. But their voices tend to blend together, as do their looks. They could be sisters, almost, with Danielle being the little sister who is the most talented of them all.
So Blake has done a pretty smart thing for himself in loading up on country; it not only bodes well for a third straight victory on the show, but he knows that he can champion these acts after the season is over and they’ll have more than a good shot of breaking out, burnishing his reputation (and maybe his bank account) even more in the country music world. But in doing so, he’s inadvertently made season 4 of The Voice into one of the most boring seasons yet.
I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of country music, especially some of its more classic, less poppy songs. Because Blake isn’t taking any chances, he’s handing his artists one country song after another, many of them standards like Merle Haggard’s 1968 classic “Okie From Muskogee,” which the Swons sang Monday night. With four of the six artists this week being country, singing two songs apiece, the country assault got so monotonous that I often stepped out of the room during performances, something I almost never do because I want to hear how well or poorly everyone sings (Isn’t that the point of watching these shows?). Even Shakira and Adam, conceding that the country voting bloc has spoken, gave their remaining team members either country-fied rock songs (Amber’s version of Skid Row’s “I Remember You”) or rockified country songs (Sahsa’s thrilling, angry version of Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”) to sing.
Even the most ardent country fan can’t like how homogeneous the show has become this season. One of the best things about The Voice is that the coaches and singers pick the music they’re going to sing; there are no theme nights like on American Idol. So the variety of songs and arrangements that we’ve heard during previous episodes have been a bumpy ride of highs and lows, thrills and head scratching, surprises and disappointments. As we’ve gotten to the later rounds of season 4, however, that hasn’t been happening, as Blake has given his team songs that are in their wheelhouses and let the votes and iTunes downloads come in.
There’s a reason why Adam let slip, “I hate this country!” as he saw Judith Hill and Sarah Simmons about to be eliminated last week, and even if he said he was kidding, there’s always a little truth in any joke. Even Blake knows Judith and Sarah have more talent than the Swon Brothers. But he also knows which contestants are going to sell CDs and downloads after the season is over. You can’t fault him for being right. But if he’s not careful, he’s going to kill his golden goose sooner rather than later if he keeps doing this going forward.