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The Voice: a new era for talent shows?

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Last weekend saw the BBC’s answer to X Factor hit the nation’s television screens. Fronted by Reggie Yates and Holly Willoughby, The Voice intends to find a superstar brimming with vocal talent, not a package suited to the ever competitive music industry. The four coaches – they have carefully avoided being dubbed ‘judges’ – have experience from different walks of life.

Jessie J holds the position of up and coming chart success; Will.i.am is a vibrant but established talent, while The Script frontman Danny O’Donoghue offers song writing and musical expertise of a slightly different genre. Finally, music legend and Sir Tom Jones has experience like no other – as he emphasised frequently when battling for contestants – and an unparalleled knowledge of the business.

The show has a simple focus on the voice (as the name suggests) and each contestant must perform their audition to a line of coaches whose seats are facing away from the stage. At the touch of a button, the coach can turn his/her chair and the words ‘I want you’ become lit at its base. Once the performance has concluded the contestant has the choice of any of the coaches who have turned round as their mentor; if no one has rotated their chair, they leave the competition.

The set-up is a world away from the format of long-running talent shows X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. On The Voice contestants have been through audition stages before the live shows but those who progress CAN sing. Weak contestants are not put through simply so the nation can laugh at their severe lack of talent and in this way the programme has a thoroughly positive vibe.

There was scepticism over whether The Voice could really eradicate teary backstage scenes, emotional VTs and contestant biographies from the selection process. And it didn’t completely. Nevertheless, the background information provided about each contestant was minimal and only mentioned when it was applicable to a love of music or the voice of an individual.

Viewers were not bombarded with these factors and it was refreshing – both for the audience and the performer – to know that musical talent was the sole consideration on stage. The contestant may not have been successful – for example, former member of boy band Five, Sean Conlon – but at least they knew that they were judged on their ability to hold a tune, not their ability to gain the sympathy vote.

The benefit of this approach was emphasised by the contestants who spoke of their desire to be judged fairly, or perhaps not judged at all. Other talent shows have continuously had their eye on the prize and been driven by how likely it is that any given contestant will succeed as a recording artist. Or make Simon Cowell money. With this in mind, image has been crucial; there has been no attempt to hide the fact that industry bigwigs think that only a perfect product will sell.

Episode one of The Voice saw alopecia sufferer Toni Warne take to the stage with confidence, while eccentric Samuel Buttery spoke of how he felt he would never succeed on other talent shows as his image wouldn’t fit the mould.

Indeed, in 2009, Susan Boyle shocked the world in her Britain’s Got Talent audition because an astonishing voice emerged from an individual who doesn’t look like a typical pop star. What The Voice has highlighted further is how judgemental we are. The question is why we were shocked Susan Boyle could sing. Why should an idealised image be synonymous with talent?

Despite being beaten in the ratings war with Britain’s Got Talent, which also recommenced last night, The Voice definitely took a positive step for the talent search in the UK. The unexpected mix of coaches worked surprisingly well and their competitive banter made for light-hearted family viewing.

The most striking thing, however, was a dramatic switch in focus. It was no longer about smug judges boosting their public profile; instead the musicians had the power. It was no longer about the image or the publicity; it was actually about talent. However popular The Voice turns out to be, it seems to be a move against a culture which is increasingly focused on the superficial and I’m definitely in support of that.

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