Matilda Dixon-Smith: “The Voice” and Our Collective Fascination with Spinning Red Chairs

Posted on May 14, 2013

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Let’s talk about Ricky Martin, his flawless skin and his flamboyant button pressing.

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Livin’ La Vida Loca, folks. La. Vida. Loca.

The world’s premier reality TV machine, The Voice, is back on Australian screens. True to form, the ruthlessly intelligent program has tightened the reins since last year’s successful outing—this year the show is even more prescriptively, unconsciously, robotically enjoyable than the last.

I say this with a certain degree of fondness—I am an unabashed fan of the series. Considering Idol, The Voice’s relative, fell out of favour in Australia years ago (fatigue and a distinct lack of cool, or perhaps humanity, is probably what killed it), it’s interesting to consider how a show with essentially the same concept, the same objective, the same potential audience—but with one aesthetic difference, four spinning chairs—enjoyed the colossal popularity that The Voice did in 2012.

Is it simply timing? Perhaps enough time had passed since Idol bombed out on Channel Ten, and Australia was ready for a fresh slew of wannabe pop stars to invade our screens. Is it, in fact, the gimmicks: the spinning chairs, boxing-style “battle rounds” and team vs. team? Or did The Voice affect a notable, marketable shift in the ethos of the reality competition genreone that would position it as “the show to beat”, ratings-wise?

In the US, The Voice is also a huge hit, though it took four seasons for it to overtake Idol in the ratings. It is now the show that troubled network NBC uses to prop up fledgling or underperforming series. (Just look at Smash, an unaccountable hit in season one when it followed The Voice, now on the road to Cancelled Town in a different timeslot.) Here, the series is a revolution, with record viewing numbers week after week. But why?

I honestly think the series was a breath of fresh airand not just because of its unusually kinetic furniture. Though I think it’s a mistake to attribute the smart changes to the traditional reality TV format to just one series, it was certainly the first to combine marked differences from other shows. And props where props are due, the chairs were a bloody good idea.

The Voice’s major brainwave was in changing the tone of reality competition. That bitchy, superior, even cruel attitude that Idol perfected is absent on The Voice (dare I say it’s the absence of the ‘Simon Cowell Influence’). Instead, the series breathes positivitysometimes to a sickly degree—and a lot of that is down to the aptly selected judges.

L-R: Seal, Joel, Delta and Ricky (in a revolting shirt!).

The Judges (L-R): Seal, Joel, Delta and Ricky (in a revolting shirt!).

Last year Seal, Joel Madden, Delta Goodrem and Keith Urban tackied up our screens with their vulgar, entertaining platitudes and their perfect in-chair dancing. Keith was kind and dreamy; he embodied the “woman” stereotype of other singing reality competitions. Delta was the pop star; she waxed lyrical about performance and “pizzazz”, and watching her try and seek out the unique competitors (but ultimately failing to find anything truly different) was always amusing. Joel was the poor slob; undoubtedly he knows the most about success (whether or not you liked Good Charlotte, the group was wildly popular in its day) but his struggle articulating it was strangely endearing. In other words, you could always count on him to say something stupid. Then there was Seal, the enigma. Positioned as the true detector of talent, Seal appeared to be the most adept at uncovering interesting voices, but his platitudes began to ring a little false and the illusion of mystery has shattered in season two to reveal a producer who is unnervingly calculating.

This year, Keith is out and the man who is “Livin’ La Vida Loca”, Ricky Martin, is in. As much as I enjoyed Keith’s soft-spoken encouragement (and though it’s disappointing that only one of the remaining judges is actually an Australian artist), this is a trade I’m totally okay with. I’m not sure I believe these judges are who they appear to be, but Ricky seems to be the most sincereand if he isn’t he’s definitely the best actor. I thought he’d be gaudy and useless, but he is a savvy and sensitive mentor. He also has the most wildly, hilariously ridiculous fashion sense. The show is doubly entertaining with Ricky on board, though I could do without the false shows of affection between the judges (I don’t believe for a second that Joel and Seal have a ‘bromance’).

The point is, these stars anchor the show, give it the glitz it needs for audiences to tune in, but it’s the role they perform that keeps audiences from changing the channel. They’ve taken a leaf out of Tim Gunn’s (of Project Runway) bookthe judges now double as mentors, which means they are tied to the success of the competitors. This works on two levels: the judges are constantly forced to prove they actually know what they’re talking about, and they get to monopolise on the success (or grieve in the failure) of their team members.

Oh, Delta.

Oh, Delta.

The show becomes a personal, positive method for tracking the road to stardom (though I think Karise Eden’s non-existent career proves that The Voice is less successful at creating stars than Idol was).  The tighter format in season two just shows that the producers are paying attention. The gimmicks are more useful to the format of the show: judges can now “save” eliminated contestants in the battle rounds, decreasing the risk that good competitors will necessarily go out because they are pitted against another strong contender; and the live finals are more sveltely formatted so there is less mucking about listening to week after week of bad karaoke numbers. Simply put, The Voice is just smart television. 

Plus, the spinning red chairs are still therenow with a theatrical Hispanic man to gyrate sexily against them.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s editor-in-chief and resident television reviewer. She rarely writes about reality television, but when she does, it’s always about singing competitions. Her weekly column, Fantasise or Perish, is released on Mondays. Do you agree with her assessment of The Voice, or do you think it’s just garbage television? Sing out in the comments! 

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