July 2012

Arts & Letters

The Vice of a Nation

By Robert Forster
'The Voice'

How must John Farnham feel? For decades he has been the embodiment of his worldwide hit ‘You’re the Voice’ – and then in one night it all changes. ‘The Voice’ in public consciousness, especially in that juicy rump of the consumer population aged between six and 40, no longer signifies a guy with a thinning lion’s mane of blond hair, arms spread, exhorting, “You’re the voice, try and understand it”, but four pop stars in big red chairs with a buzzer listening to singers they can’t see. Pop is wonderful and pop is cruel. It may drift in still waters for a time while Lady Gaga mimics Madonna and One Direction take on Take That, yet it is always concerned with generational change. The Voice, the top-rating television singing contest, is a tolling of the bell, bringing together a swirl of issues around pop, the music business and the question of how commercial-sounding artists come to public attention.

It used to work like this. Powerful record companies, producers, disc jockeys or Molly Meldrum would ‘discover’ young singers: a demo tape would be made, a precious few got a recording contract, a song was written or found for them, an image for the artist constructed, and, if the song was catchy enough, it would be a hit and the singer became a star. All of these processes were hidden from the public, and the result was a conveyor belt of new ‘discoveries’ popping up seemingly from nowhere on AM radio in the ’60s, on Countdown through the ’70s and ’80s, and on Saturday-morning video-clip shows for years after. It was the basis of the weekly Top 40 chart, it was how things were – a system so long in place that it looked like it would never be broken. The ice-pick opening the first cracks in it was the internet. File-sharing, illegal downloading, YouTubing followed. The old model survives, but it no longer dominates; technology has moved in and rewritten the rules, and into this new pop world has come a rough beast, long forgotten: the talent show.

For years it had been a thing of ridicule in rock’n’roll, and too amateur for those in charge of the charts. In Australia, its place and standing in the entertainment industry were confirmed each week on the long-running TV variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday, where a series of non-professional artists gamely presented their wares. The segment was called ‘Red Faces’. Performers were silenced with a gong. The critical dialogue between judge and contestant: the flaring of Red Symons’ nostrils. Here was a warning to the talented who sat at home watching: a star-making process was already in place – a hard-to-find, insiders-only department of the music business. Although little could be discerned about it, two things were clear: if you wanted a pop career, you had to be young and beautiful.

Enter Susan Boyle. Forty-seven. Frumpy. Scottish. Single. “Never been kissed.” Possessing the voice of an angel and singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from the musical Les Misérables to a gobsmacked set of judges on Britain’s Got Talent. As unexpected and miraculous as she was, the platform for her breakthrough was built eight years before, with the arrival of Pop Idol in 2001, the first modern televised talent competition. And as Boyle and others on programs such as The X Factor proved, you didn’t need ‘looks’, or to be spotted in a disco, to find yourself at the top of the iTunes chart. The singers kept on coming, as did paper-thin variations on the talent-quest concept: and the television/pop industry amalgam kept on wondering when the viewing audience would grow tired of the whole format. So did a Dutchman named John de Mol. He’d created Big Brother in the 1990s, and setting himself the challenge to re-invent the TV singing contest, he came up with The Voice of Holland in 2010. Cue worldwide franchise buy-ups of the format. And on 15 April this year, 2.2 million Australians settled down to watch The Voice, and the viewing numbers and hysteria only kept growing. A “game-changer”, the TV critics called it. In other words: goodbye, MasterChef.

If de Mol is a genius for coming up with the concept – and it is brilliant – then equal credit for the show’s success must go to whoever is responsible for casting the local edition. A glance at the predictable four-member judging line-ups elsewhere in the world confirms this, helped as the process is by excluding cynical industry insiders and second and third-tier pop stars from the panel. The casting is remarkable, and most first-night viewers would have been tuning in to see the judges interacting and up close, rather than another round of hopeful singers. For it is no exaggeration to say that Seal, Keith Urban, Delta Goodrem and Joel Madden are the four most charismatic and intriguing people assembled together on television since, umm … Seinfeld. Or Abba. They are certainly generating the same kind of buzz and business.

The contest moves through stages, narrowing a large field of singers down to a final four and a winner. The strongest hook of the show, besides the revamped judging panel, is the different ways the singers are culled and the role the judges (who are all musicians) play in the process. The first filtering stage is the best, and whatever clichés The Voice resorts to after this, the program will be remembered for the “blind auditions”. It’s great television because it is a visual trick. The panel sit with their backs to the stage listening to a singer and having to judge his or her worth not on the traditional package of appearance and sex appeal, but on voice alone. If they are impressed, they hit their buzzer, which swings them around to confront the singer. That’s a wonderful moment, too. Sometimes the voice and the singer ‘match’; at other times the variance is much wider. Meanwhile, as viewers we are seeing what the judges can’t see and what the singers can’t know – the various emotions running across the judges’ faces as they decide whether or not to move the person on to the next round. Listening to music without visual stimulation is a private experience, and to watch four famous pop stars react and be taken by each performance is the key ‘grab’ of the series.

But a talent show is only as good as its contestants, and excepting the few diamonds that the show unearths, what the audience witnesses is a rather depressing troop of vocalists demonstrating how singing is practised out in the pubs, clubs and music academies. In short, it’s shouting and bellowing. Somewhere in the last 10 or 15 years, and it may coincide with the career of Christina Aguilera, singing became associated with swooping vocal gymnastics and an accompanying set of facial contortions to convey ‘emotion’. Once vocalists of the calibre of Diana Ross, Dusty Springfield and David Bowie managed to communicate the full spectrum of suffering and enchantment to be found in this world without looking as if someone had stuck a sharp metal object into their body and pushed them onstage. Pain in song now means pain on face. And, given the unflattering clarity of digital TV and the drive-in-sized plasma screens parked in many Australian lounge rooms, watching close-ups of screwed-up faces as they scream can be an unsettling entertainment option.

Wading through this, with their own tics and deficiencies as performers in tow, are the judges. They are four very different people from four different corners of the entertainment industry and yet they ‘click’. The format of the show is a gift, giving each room to expose unknown sides of themselves. Mysteries immediately get solved. Why did Nicole Kidman marry Keith Urban? Half an hour of the first episode tells you the answer – he’s a helluva nice guy. Enthusiastic, encouraging, singing along with songs he knows; and he’s thoughtful and brief in his comments to the singers. Sitting next to him is Delta, who, unfortunately, is not so pithy or perceptive. She is the one member of the panel who can seem unsure of herself. This reflects bigger questions. Is she a true singer–songwriter? A pop diva? And why in every ad break is she advertising Swisse skincare products with a guy who looks suspiciously like Keith? To her right is the show’s surprise: Good Charlotte lead singer Joel Madden. He is a new type for prime-time television: the LA frat-boy emo rocker. Blue hair, toothpick in mouth, eyeliner and a great loose attitude that plays beautifully to both the spontaneity and the old-school show-business riffing of the program.

And then there’s Seal.

Alpha male? Oh please, you’re neutering the man. Showing more cleavage than Lindsay Lohan, and with all the camp pop affectations of jewellery and accessories in place, there hasn’t been a hunter staking his territory this self-assured, commanding, maddening, demanding on Australian TV since who knows when. And yet, just as you’re laughing at him the hardest, he will, while deploying an accent you only hear in British Airways First Class when flying from London to New York, critique an artist with intelligence and flair. At 49, he is the oldest member of the panel, and has the rare gift of being able to convey to others what he has learnt from his experiences.

Unless some mind-bending post-Gotye talent arrives in the second half of the year, The Voice will be the pop event of 2012. All the judges appear keen to sign on for next year; the hype will continue. Yet every show has its life span, and, to invoke MasterChef again, what was eye-poppingly fresh in the first series can be tired or dead by season three or four. By then Seal, Keith and Joel will be gone. Delta, who has a lower international profile than the others, may hang on, but it is doubtful she will ever have a panel this quirky and high-powered around her again. And the singers? On a show of proven quality, regarded as artist-friendly, we, may, just, get, less, BELLOWING!

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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