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May 24, 2014 at 12:15 PM

Why ‘The Voice’ & ‘American Idol’ have lost their pop | TV review

Earlier this week, in torrents of confetti, the new winners of two flashy TV singing contests were crowned. But the ballyhoo around the coronation of North Carolina hard rocker Caleb Johnson on Fox’s American Idol, and Indiana soulster Josh Kaufman, on NBC’s “The Voice,” was dimmed by chatter about the general decline of TV singathons.

Exhibit A: The 13-year old American Idol franchise, during its peak, drew 30 million viewers for its finale, as opposed to about 10 million for this week’s closer. And while “The Voice” is now far more popular than “American Idol,” its season finale ratings were down 25 percent from last year.

Why are these shows fading or, in the case of the dismal “X Factor,” being dumped? Take your pick: audience burn-out, less broadcast TV watching by the coveted age 18 to 24 sector, lowered attention spans for contests” that grind on for weeks.

After checking in and out of both series this spring, this fan of the vocal art (and sucker for cheeseball sing-offs) finds no mystery in the “Idol” demise.

After a 2013 season subverted by the tiresome diva judge sniping (I’m talking about you, Mariah Carey and Niki Minaj), “Idol” pulled together a more harmonious 2014 panel (Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Harry Connick Jr.) and promised to focus more intently on the raw young talent summoned in multi-city auditions.

But the show that catapulted such chart-topping pop stars as Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson put off many loyal viewers by rejecting applicants with obvious sparkle and promise, for a “one from column A, one from column B” combo of mostly half-baked and under-seasoned performers.

Week after week, interest diminished, as contestants who were glaringly off-key (C.J. Harris), sure-voiced but stiff (Jessica Meuse, Sam Woolf), screechy (Malaya Watson) and befuddled (Majesty Rose) kept returning.

Grabbing madly for some youthful zing, the show was “cast” mainly with those in their teens and early 20s (the age limit is 28), and too few exhibited the distinctive style or even basic musicianship that made you want to keep tuning in.

The sense of amateurishness was exacerbated by more stupid than usual filler bits — contestants gabbing over dinner, imitating each other, listing trivia about themselves. Gone were the past pop star mentors (e.g., Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Quentin Tarantino), who occasionally shelled out good advice and added a little luster.

“Idol” was wise in granting vocalists more current songs to perform. But not all hits (oldies or newbies) come across in this format. For every tuneful “Happy,” “Grenade” and “All of Me,” there were less melodic or catchy duds. And the “theme nights” were so vague that botched song choices abounded.

“The Voice” has always been a slicker show, with a less dramatic mission. Instead of discovering a small-town kid who has just played local bars and coffee houses, “The Voice” gives more seasoned pro’s and novices a first, second or third chance to make it big. Since the celeb judges have their backs turned away during the early auditions, vocal ability is paramount. (The reactions when a singer doesn’t look as imagined are part of the fun.)

The judges – this year Shakira, Adam Levine, Usher and Blake Shelton – appear to really coach the vocalists, and direct the song choices. This year that made for a much better musical mix of truly singable current and oldie tunes than on “Idol.”

Yes, the comic byplay between “The Voice” hitmakers can be lame. Yes, there’s not a lot of heart-tugging backstory about the contestants on display. But that leaves more time for actual singing, and fewer numbers where you dive for the mute button.

In the end, whoever stuck it out with “American Idol” and voted at the finale, got it right. The top three contestants were the most impressive in a disappointing batch (a back-handed compliment, but there it is). Third placer Alex Preston was not charismatic, but the most musically inventive and skilled finalist. The runner-up, talented teen Jena Irene, might find her Katy Perry pop groove, if she can strain less for high notes and ungarble her lyrics. Winner Caleb Johnson was born several decades too late for heavy-metal stardom, but the guy can wail and rock and fire up a crowd. Yet are we excited about the future careers of any of these people?

Meanwhile, over on “The Voice,” it was sweet relief when the unflashy, 38-year old Josh Kaufman — on the strength of his soulful phrasing, dreamy falsetto and other vocal attributes — triumphed over Youtube sensation Christina Grimmie and down-home teen country crooner Jake Worthington. Kaufman will be worth another listen.

“American Idol” will return next season, in a more abbreviated form, but without better ratings it will likely be cut down further, or just fade away. “The Voice” is coming back, too, and (amazingly) a new TV singing competition begins on ABC, on June 22. It’s called “Rising Star,” a hopeful name in a stumbling genre.

Comments | More in Rock/Pop | Topics: American Idol, Josh Kaufman, The Voice


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