When Idol emerged nine years ago, it was the only game in town. It was the first of its kind, a reality singing competition that was part variety show and part Survivor where the weakest singer was presumably "voted off the island." But even in the first season, it became clear that "crowd favorites" like Nikki McKibbin were capable of outlasting far superior performers like Tamyra Gray. So over the years, the "pursuit of the next great singer" has more often been the "wait for the next great singer to get eliminated early and not win American Idol." We've lost amazing talent like Trenyce, Jennifer Hudson, Constantine Maroulis, Chris Daughtry, Melinda Doolittle, and in this season, Pia Toscano (who popped up this week singing on Dancing With the Stars).
But this year, Idol is no longer the only game in town. In fact, as of last night, it's not even the best game in town. We have no way of knowing how good Bravo's Going Platinum or FOX's X-Factor will be when they debut later this year. But we do have some idea about the potential of NBC's The Voice, which opened last night in the 9 p.m. time slot. For two hours, it was everything we have hoped that Idol would be: an entertaining search for the next great voice. Yes, there are back stories. And yes, the producers' fingerprints are evident in various aspect of the show. But there is so much to cheer for in The Voice that these foregone reality show conclusions aren't such a big deal.
First, there are the "coaches," who are so-dubbed because their job will ultimately be to coach and work with the teams of singers that they assemble. In the first round, the coaches start with their backs to the singers and turn around only if they're interested in working with them after hearing some of their performance. (After the performance, all of the coaches chairs turn with or without them pushing the "I Want You" button.) If more than one coach turns, they begin to lobby the contestant in hopes of winning them to their team.
In the next round, each coach will have a "battle round" where they narrow their teams of eight down to four. Those final 16 singers will then advance to the finals where they will sing for a live TV viewing audience that will be part of, but perhaps not all of, the elimination process. The winner will get $100,000 and a recording contract.
One difference is that many of these vocalists have been discovered before, though none have ever gotten the "big break." One example is Frenchie Davis, who was a potential semifinalist on Idol's second season but was disqualified after she informed producers about some unfortunate photos she had taken when she was 19 years old. Since then, Frenchie has been in the Broadway production of Rent, but she's never had the chance for a solo recording career.
The biggest difference is the voices themselves, including those of the four coaches (who gave an unreal group performance of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy.") Out of the 15 performances on the show's opening night, all 15 were at least as good as many of Idol's finalists in Season 10, and many of The Voice contestants would be contenders on Idol. While AI gives us cheesy looks and easy song choices from a country pretender like Scotty McCreery, The Voice gives us truly strong country vocals from singers like Patrick Thomas and Jeff Jenkins. Basically, The Voice is vocal prime rib to American Idol's chop sirloin.
So tonight, when NBC re-airs last night's debut episode of The Voice at 9 p.m., please do yourself a favor and take a look. Yes, you might have to DVR part of Idol, but seriously, haven't you started losing interest anyway?
Here is a brief look at the 15 singers who performed last night on The Voice (each with a link to their performance):
Performer; Hometown; Song (Coaches who turned/ Team selected/ The Capn's rating)
- Tarralyn Ramsey; Jacksonville, Fla.; "Breathe" by Faith Hill. (Christina and Cee-Lo; Team Christina). Tarralyn was a strong opening number who seemed nervous at first with some missed notes, but then rebounded with strength and some unreal high notes and vocal runs. 8.5/10
- Patrick Thomas; Nashville, Tenn.; "Live Like You Were Dying" by Tim McGraw. (Cee-Lo, Adam and Blake; Team Blake). Patrick has a classic country voice and sings with a lot of conviction. He doesn't offer a lot of frills, but he sounds clear and strong. 8.5/10
- Jared Blake; Nashville, Tenn.; "Good Girls Go Bad" by Cobra Starship. (No judges turned; Eliminated). Jared is a true rocker with a wonderful backstory about his desire to be a good father, and he really did do well, but his performance was less vocal and more stage presence. Because the judges are going on voice only, they couldn't identify with him. 8/10
- Vicci Martinez; Tacoma, Wash.; "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele. (Christina and Cee-Lo; Team Cee-Lo). Vicci might be hard-pressed to move past this round, but she have an impassioned performance of a very current song and was largely on-pitch throughout. She'll definitely need performance training. (For comparison, check out how strong Haley Reinhart's performance of the same song was last week on Idol.) 7.5/10
- Sonia Rao; San Francisco, Calif.; "If I Ain't Got You" by Alicia Keys. (No judges turned; Eliminated). At the start, it was clear that Sonia was a bit in over her head. She was very weak and seemed even timid. Toward the end, she rallied and had a few great moments, but it wasn't enough to turn the chairs. Sadly, she definitely had the look, just not "The Voice." 7/10
- Elenowen (John and Nicole Johnson); Nashville, Tenn.; "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. (Cee-Lo and Blake; Team Blake). The show's first duet caught the judges by surprise and had some weak moments, but their voices blended well together. They also posed a very good question about what the judges had to offer them. They'll be interesting to watch. 7.5/10
- Frenchie Davis; Los Angeles, Calif.; "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry. (Christina; Team Christina). Frenchie is a true "poster-child" for this show, as she doesn't have the "look" that producers are looking for. But she does have "The Voice" and was one of the stronger ladies on opening night. Two fun things to look for: watch Frenchie's exuberance when Christina turns her chair, and her glee when Cee-Lo says that he recognizes her. 8/10
- Kelsey Rey; Sebastian, Fla.; "Breathe" by Estelle. (Christina, Cee-Lo and Adam; Team Cee-Lo). Kelsey is the first "looker" to advance on the show, but because of the format, the coaches couldn't see that until she turned. She isn't the strongest vocalist, but she does have a clear voice with just a slight rasp. If she advances to the finals, she'll be a favorite. 8/10
- Jeff Jenkins; Jones Creek, Texas; "Bless the Broken Road" by Rascal Flatts. (All four judges turned; Team Adam). Jeff's voice is one of the absolute best of the night, and the judges seemed to agree as all four turned their chairs. He's another reason the show is interesting, as his appearance isn't what you'd expect from such a great pop-country voice. He should advance to the finals as a favorite. 9/10
- Rebecca Loebe; Atlanta, Ga.; "Come As You Are" by Nirvana. (Christina and Adam; Team Adam). The night's most interesting reworking of a familiar song came from a girl who is living out of her Toyota Camry. Her address should be changing. She blew away this Nirvana classic with flawless vocals, and she was clearly blown away once she realized that she was moving into the next round. 9/10
- Joanne Rizzo; Freehold, N.J.; "I Say a Little Prayer" by Dionne Warwick. (No judges turned; Eliminated). I admire The Voice for including a 56-year-old in the competition, but Joann's choice of song, as well as her performance style, was a bit night-clubbish. This isn't what the music industry is looking for, so her elimination was pretty much assured. That said, it wasn't exactly bad. It just wasn't going to turn any chairs. 6.5/10
- Xenia Martinez; Temecula, Calif.; "Break Even" by The Script. (Cee-Lo and Blake; Team Blake). Perhaps the coaches could hear the youth in her voice, though she sounds more mature than her 16 years. It wasn't a very strong performance, particularly in her breathing technique and enunciation. Still, she has a unique sound and could gain ground with some coaching from Blake. 7/10
- Tje Austin; Austin, Texas.; "Just the Way You Are" by Bruno Mars. (Cee-Lo and Adam; Team Cee-Lo). Tje (pronounced Tje) is another cool part of why this show is great. Tje is a tall black guy with a big afro, but his parents are ultra-white Texas folk. You'd never have seen that one coming, but if you had seen him, you'd still be surprised at how great his performance was. Host Carson Daly had one of the best quotes of the night when he was hugging the Austins post-performance: "This is the new American family." 8.5/10
- Javier Colon; Stratford, Conn.; "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper. (All four judges turned; Team Adam). Meet this season's odds-on front-runner. Try this: just listen to the YouTube link without looking at it and see if you can pick out even one stray note. If this had been on Idol, it would have been one of the greatest performances in this or any other season. Javier has a great story and unreal talent. Look for him in the finals. 9.5/10
- Beverly McClellan; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; "Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin. (Christina and Adam; Team Christina). The most counter-culture contestant is a 41-year-old, bald, tattooed lesbian who can sing note-for-note with Janis. Beverly's appearance will cause problems for her in making a connection with America, but her voice demands attention. 8.5/10