Sunday, September 25, 2016

I Want To Talk About The Voice For A Sec...

Come on Alicia, you can do a better M for YMCA than that.
Something really quite beautiful is happening on the eleventh season of the singing competition, The Voice.

Well, first, my minor gripe out of the way: I wish NBC called them ‘Series’. Season for me, and pretty much for television audiences in America, means a year. Season 11 means a show has been on for 11 years. But no, NBC does two different “seasons” a year, one toward the beginning and the other near the end. Just something to differentiate them would be marvelous.

But enough of that. Following American Idol, a bevy of reality singing competitions flooded the market and oversaturated the genre. Every age group, every genre, every possible incarnation of a singing competition was on nearly any channel. Every single one had a gimmick, so when NBC decided it was time to add one to theirs, they pilfered the Dutch.

NBC already was doing the acapella group competition, The Sing-Off, which never secured much of a following, even though it featured the most qualified judging panel for any reality competition show ever: Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman with either Sara Bareilles, Nicole Scherzinger, or Jewel filling the third spot. Accomplished musicians and talented vocalists, the competition showcased the best judges’ critiques anywhere.

But taking the format from The Voice Of Holland, NBC secured another incredibly credible panel to helm the show: Maroon 5’s frontman Adam Levine, country music star Blake Shelton, the incomparable voice of Christina Aguilera, and the ever charismatic CeeLo Green of Gnarls Barkley. Despite being yet another reality show singing competition in a market shitty with the same tired format, The Voice managed to distinguish itself. The blind auditions were enough of a hook to secure an audience. Even though the judges were high profile, they proved to be invested in the contestants, and eager to share the expertise with their respective teams.

Fast forward 11 years, and we’ve seen people rotate in and out of the middle two chairs: Christina to Shakira, to Gwen Stefani; CeeLo to Usher, to Pharrell. This season marks the first with two women joining regulars Adam and Blake. And what a powerhouse two women they are. Pianist and singer-songwriter R&B extraordinaire Alicia Keys, and one of the new princesses of pop, Miley Cyrus. Taking a page from Madonna, Cyrus courts controversy with many of her performances.
And these are the two women I want to talk about.

I watched the abysmal 12th season (actual season) of American Idol, where much of the air time was devoted to the two feuding judges, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the winner, I don’t even remember if there was a competition that year, or if it was just a dozen plus episodes of Mariah and Nicki sitting at a table arguing with Keith Urban inexplicably placed awkwardly between them wishing he could go back to Australia to be as far away from them as possible. (Because Australia is the furthest thing away from everything.) Nicki and Mariah are both amazing, accomplished artists. Mariah was one of those foundation voices of the 90s, with Celine and Whitney, who brought dozens of artists to the table of music; Nicki captured attention and hearts with a string of unforgettable hits that feature eclectic music and her stellar rap skills.

There are stories that have followed Mariah throughout her career about how she can be difficult to share a stage with. There are stories of Nicki being incredibly outspoken. It’s likely both have strong egos and definitely have very strong personalities. I take nothing away from their immense talents, and I also serve no judgment on how they choose to carry themselves. If they have egos, they have no reason to be ashamed of them. So my criticism is not that they did fight while on the show, it’s that the show itself chose to showcase so much of it, and likely even provoke it. It plays into the stereotype that if we feature two women, there will be a catfight.

I’m not a fan of that narrative, nor am I particularly interested in society constantly pitting women against each other. In the run-up to The Voice’s new season, a lot of press and marketing was interested in how Alicia and Miley were going to get along on the show. It’s as if it’s pre-ordained that having two big female personalities, two strong women sharing the spotlight, will inevitably not end well. And it was incredibly refreshing to hear both of them doing their best to quash those speculations. They claim to be more interested in the bigger picture: in representing female artists, in empowering all artists to find their voices. And from just the auditions so far, you see it. And it’s wonderful to see.

It’s what women and girls should be seeing on television and in our society. The toxic combination of elements in our world: capitalist marketing, consumerist thinking, aggressive competitiveness, constant reminders of various inadequacies particularly for women, and the false dichotomy that only one person can do well, has instead contributed to seemingly innocuous but seriously harmful biases, such as: women will always be catty with each other.

You see it all over the internet. Our only means of comparison is to hold one person up in shining example by putting down another. I remember a meme that made the rounds months ago contrasting Malala Yousafzai and Kylie Jenner. Ultimately, it’s a problem of the media, but it highlights a false dichotomy. It is not Kylie’s fault that the media chooses to cover the Kardashians much more than the accomplishments of Malala. Yet she is now made the face of that problem. She is not the cause. Her lifestyle and life choices may be a result, but we’re not here to judge those things. Nothing is inherently wrong with Kylie, even in the light of Malala. They are each living their lives the way they choose. One does not inform the other. If Kylie’s values do not match yours, do not use her as a role model. It’s as simple as that. But to tell others, to insist to young women around the world who are watching them, “This woman is good, this woman is bad,” you’re placing value judgments on things that simply aren’t there. Kylie’s not a humanitarian, she’d have no business in diplomacy. Why would she? Malala is different, look at the insanity and conflict she has weathered. They are simply individuals, but society’s insistence on the binary has forced us to codify one as bad and the other as good. There are plenty of girls who look up to someone like Kylie who don’t share her exact values and priorities. Personally, I think Kylie’s welcome to do what she likes. The people criticizing her for not contributing to more meaningful efforts are most likely not doing their part on that front either anyway. We all could be doing more, and if that was the ultimate message then I’d be behind that, but it’s not. And it’s not fair to place a face of blame on it when that person is ultimately just living their life.

It’s why it’s so astounding and rather heartwarming to watch Alicia and Miley as they are on the show. The two women are not eye candy. They are not second fiddle. They are not stunts, they are here because of who they are and what they have done. Two women who could not be any more different, two women who are immensely talented, two women who are looking to make an impact. And even though they ultimately are in competition against each other, as well as Adam and Blake, they are showing incredible sportsmanship thus far. Wins for their respective teams are celebrated by the other. They advocate for each other, even when they’re the only two who turn for a contestant. One such head-to-head prompts Adam to comment, “Let me get the popcorn!” (It’s the default setting. We’re about to see the two ladies go at it.) Instead, Miley advocates for Alicia, then talks about her own qualities. Alicia does the same. The contestant picks Alicia, Miley high fives her. Obviously, Miley’s disappointed at losing out on a recruit for her team, but she’s forward-sighted enough to know it’s ultimately just a win for everyone. It’s girl power, it’s empowering. And that’s important. Because there’s girls watching.

Individually, I also love how the two acquit themselves on the show. What’s amazing about Alicia Keys, is similar to what I mentioned about Mariah earlier. Keys is a foundational voice of the 00’s, and her soulful voice and her talent at the piano has inspired a generation to music. Many of the contestants cite Alicia as an influence when the judges interview them. No one else, as good as they are, carries quite that same legacy. I love when Alicia embraces that. “You came here to meet me,” she proclaims confidently as the other judges laugh, because they know it’s true. The chance to be mentored by the artist who first influenced you is incredibly enticing. But more than that, Alicia Keys as an artist is undeniable. I love that she almost doesn’t have to say anything. She doesn’t need to sell herself on a contestant. She’s Alicia Keys. You’re probably here because of her.

Miley on the other hand comes in with a deficiency. It’s the elephant in the room. People don’t like her. She’s polarizing. She stirs controversy. She’s provocative. But she needn’t worry (and obviously she doesn’t) because they said similar things about Britney and Christina (two other foundation influencers) but ultimately those talents likewise cannot be denied. Go to any comments section about The Voice, it’s countless comments of: “Big fan of the show, will not be watching because of Miley. Sad to see a judging chair go to someone so untalented.” Really?

Pulling back from this specifically for a moment, I’m weary of people calling things guilty pleasures. First of all, you either like something or you don’t. If you like it because it’s train-wreckingly bad, that’s not a guilty pleasure, that’s the reason you like it. But guilty pleasures do not extend simply to things we’re pretty sure are bad but we like them anyway. There are also guilty pleasures that are good but the majority has chosen to write them off. In this similar situation, much like Miley, is Ke$ha.

I love Ke$ha. I think she’s fucking talented, and a good songwriter, and when given the chance, a marvelous singer. I also happen to think the same thing of Miley. If you don’t like her music, if you don’t like her performances, then she’s simply not your taste. But that doesn’t automatically make her a terrible artist. She has an amazing ear for musicality, and she’s a damn good singer. I also think she’s going to be a great producer of music one day if she ever decides to perform less. But she’s not a guilty pleasure. I unabashedly listen to both of them because I legitimately enjoy them. Look up Miley singing "Jolene." Right now. Do it.

I’ll do it for you.



That husky country twang, the phrasing, the accompaniment… she’s a good artist. And it’s a damn shame that people fail to see that. Behind all the crazy outfits, the outlandish live stunts, is a mature artist. Just because this “out there” type of performance and expression is what she chooses to do with her talents instead of more subdued fare doesn’t automatically discount her as a contributor.
But what’s interesting, and in many ways empowering, is that Miley is all too aware of the predicament. When Miley advocates for herself to contestants, she extolls primarily her virtues as a very expressive performer, as someone who knows music having grown up with it, and as a performer looking to pay it forward. She downplays herself a little, except to the performers who come off as more shy, she reminds them that she’s very good at expressing herself (while in a denim jacket covered in absurdly large flowers). She encourages contestants to “go with something different.”

She knows that there are people going into this writing her off, but she’s not afraid. And it seems to be working. After the first three audition episodes, Alicia has the most recruits, with 6. Right behind her is Miley. She is technically tied with Blake for recruits, but in reality, one of Blake’s he gained outright since no other judge turned. All of Miley’s recruits she had to fight for. (Incidentally, with the exception of Blake’s aforementioned team member, every audition has been a contention.) So she is winning people over, and I hope this show manages to put her over with more people than previously, because she’ll get to show off traits that are not immediately noticeable when she’s on tour or on television: her musicality, her knack for thinking through performances, etc. She was great as a guest mentor in previous seasons, I have every confidence she’s going to be great here.

But like I said, it’s the magic of seeing the two ladies be there for the contestants and command such presence in the room. They’re both smart and sassy (Miley calling out Adam for winning only three out of the ten times he’s been a judge) and it’s very refreshing to have such outspoken, approachable, and charismatic personalities on the show. Pharrell was good, but quiet. Shakira was a bit hit-and-miss for me. I loved Gwen. I loved Usher. I love Christina but not so much on the show. And these two right now tend to bring the best of all their predecessors to the table, while being notable in their own right.

You get to watch dignity and class, with two female artists who will not resort to leaning into the hype, and instead stand on their own reputations and their accomplishments. They are assertive and articulate, they have been fittingly competitive with each other as well as the other two judges on the panel, but they haven't resorted to anything underhanded, anything personal, they have taken no potshots at each other. TV can be compelling without setting women against each other. Competition can be competitive without resorting to resentment. Both women's success is undeniable.

And the contestants are taking that seriously. They are noticing. We should too.


And to sweeten the deal, we still get a catfight every episode. The bromance and rivalry of Adam Levine and Blake Shelton is great TV. It also subtly reminds everyone that cattiness is not an inherently female trait.