"The Voice is different" bellowed the ads. "It's all about the music" bleated the performers. And for a while, we believed them. The blind auditions, the short-lived battle round. At last, someone had found a way to refresh and reinvigorate the increasingly stale TV talent show format. No judges, just coaches and mentors. But now, as we stagger into the live performance stage of the show, it's all starting to look disappointingly familiar. Maybe we were so caught up in the novelty, we forgot to notice that, deep down, nothing had really changed. And all that talk about artistic expression over commerciality was just spin. So let's take a closer look at tonight's first live edition of The Voice, and see how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Holly and Reggie are doing their best with their inconsequential roles, but they're no Ant and Dec. In fact, they're barely Richard and Judy. The cliches are all present and correct: "The atmosphere is electric," "It's the biggest night of their lives," and "You'll get the chance to vote for your favourite artists when the phone-lines open at the end of the show." At one point, Danny says "I'm really excited," to which Holly replies "Me too!" But that's only because they've finally given her a working mic. In retrospect, that may have been a rash decision on the producers' part, since she spends most of the show screaming like Bonnie Tyler with whooping cough. Meanwhile, Reggie spends his evening in the holding pen, playing the Tess Daly role. He's busy reading out Tweets about the show, because our enjoyment of the show can only be enhanced by hearing what Alan from Nottingham thinks of Matt and Sueleen.
Rather than introducing our 'superstar coaches' one-by-one, we get to see them take to the stage in an ill-advised four-way performance of U2's Beautiful Day. It's a handy reminder that they're all music artists in their own right, but it's also as scrappy and disjointed as the High School Musical performances that are now a mandatory part of the American Idol results show. It doesn't help that I've always hated this song, because it constantly threatens to transmogrify into Take On Me, but never does. So instead, you're left wishing that you were listening to A-Ha's eighties classic, rather than U2's po-faced rock. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with The Voice. It can't decide if it's pop or art, so it ends up settling for a joyless purgatory somewhere in the middle.
First off, Holly reminds us that "Our judges have never done anything like this," but she could just be referring to will.i.am having to sing without a team of Autotune technicians on stand-by. Moments later, Tom compares the show to sky-diving, telling us "You don't think about it, you just dive in." Bagsy not going for a tandem jump with the silver-haired boyo. Midway through the show, Holly gives the band a shout-out, but then cautions them that "Nobody likes a show-off." This from the woman in a dress cut so low that I can see a waistband in her decolletage.
The first performance of the night comes from Joelle, who struggles to find the right song to showcase her voice. As Will rattles through suggestions including En Vogue, Diana Ross and Christina Aguilera's Beautiful, it's all starting to feel a little samey. In the end, she picks I'm Going Down by Mary J Blige and gives a fantastic vocal performance. But it's likely that the audience at home will be thinking "Which bit was the chorus?" Elsewhere in the show, we're treated to songs by Chaka Khan, P!nk and David Guetta. For all the talk of artistic vision, I can't imagine that Thom Yorke will be Sky-plussing this.
Whether it's Ruth cramming a redundant run into Oleta Adams' Get Here, Tyler singing most of Steve Winwood's Higher Love in a painful falsetto, or Matt and Sueleen showing Lindsay Buckingham that they have a better ear for melody, there's certainly no-shortage of meaningless oversinging on this show. Then again, just look at the coaches they've got. Tom sings like Brian Blessed with a stubbed toe, Jessie changes the notes like she changes her hairdos, and Will doesn't care what anyone sings, since he can just change it all in post-production.
With her bobble hat safely discarded, Frances is reinventing herself as a fully-fledged popstar, complete with dance routine and a bevy of beefy dancers. Jessie J comments that she finds all the performance stuff a little too distracting, especially on a show called The Voice. Like she's Joni fucking Mitchell. Holly's far more supportive of Frances' new approach, even complementing her on "tackling the stairs in the first show" as if she came down them on a unicycle.
The would-be rocker
Adam is "struggling to release his inner rock god" so he's decided to take on The Foo Fighters. There's a lot of talk about his former tendency to hide in the background, but no mention of the fact that it's precisely what he's doing with the guitar he insists on carrying throughout his song, which might as well be an IKEA wardrobe for all that it adds to his performance. Things get even worse when Holly asks him whether he enjoyed it. "Yeah, that was pretty cool man," he replies, with all the gritty edge of someone about to talk you through your tax liability.
Tyler James manages to shoe-horn yet another reference to Amy Winehouse into his VT, and Ruth reminds us of her dead Dad. I don't mean to appear unsympathetic, but this is the kind of shit we criticise the Cowell Factor for, and yet here we are again, getting a lump in our throat because poor old Tyler is having to pay for his own gear.
Taking their cue from the rampant egos of the X-Factor crew, the coaches on The Voice are making sure to hog the limelight every chance they get. Will has cornered the 'playing it cute' market, dangling his legs from his chair, like Kermit's nephew Robin sitting halfway up the stairs. Danny is on his feet pulling his best duck-face and punching the air whenever anyone mentions 'rock music'. And then there's Jessie, who tries to come up with a new voice every time she speaks, and made a big show of wiping the tears away after Ruth's performance. Concerned that the five close-ups on her 'just something in my eye' schtick weren't enough, she even mentioned it when giving her comments. You know, in case we missed it.