In its four cycles on the air, NBC’s “The Voice” has established a mutually beneficial relationship with its six superstar coaches, boosting their brands while using their marquee appeal to supplant American Idol as the country’s chanteuse competish of choice. And the best strategy to keep it that way, it appears, means allowing them to leave.
For its first three seasons, the show provided a platform to Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. Last season saw the former two replaced by Shakira and Usher, who will cede their chairs back to their predecessors for Cycle 5, then return for another go-round on Cycle 6.
These peaceful exchanges of power stand in marked contrast to the acrimonious judging panel upheaval that has almost become commonplace on the show’s nearest competitors. As the series enters its dotage, the kerfuffles surrounding Idol’s coaching staff have at times upstaged the show itself, with X Factor’s comings and goings also providing industry gossip fodder. Perhaps it’s a testament to the notable extracurricular benefits that have graced The Voice’s alumni during their tenure, enticing them to repay the favor by signing on for numerous tours of duty.
And per producer Mark Burnett, these sorts of shifts were always seen as inevitable, and in fact quite necessary.
“If you’re going to have coaches that are currently at the top of their game,” he says, “and if they want to stay at the top of their game, it requires them to service the fans, which means creating new music and touring. So it was very clear from day one that that would necessitate coaches being unavailable.
“There is a cost to the production of having current working superstars, and it was our choice to go that route, versus going with people who are looking to make a career resurgence.”
Burnett professes a hands-off approach to assembling judges — without any screen tests, chemistry meetings or even much in the way of guidance aside from “have fun” — and views the assembled coaches much like a basketball team, using terms like “deep bench” to describe the inactive reserves. And like any good g.m., he hopes to strategically add more manpower to the bench over the coming years: “It’s a very complicated, thousand-piece jigsaw of scheduling,” he says.
For her part, Shakira — who plans to spend her hiatus recording an album — says the fringe benefits of coaching have more to do with tapping sources of inspiration than goosing her Q rating.
“From the new artists to my fellow coaches, they all do interesting things,” she says, “and it’s inspiring to be in such a musical environment. It makes you want to get your ass to work.”
Per Shakira, perhaps the best move “The Voice’s” coaches can make is to reject the whole idea of the position as a steady second career, maintaining a sort of outsider sensibility.
“I’m not really a ‘television personality,’ ” says Shakira, with heavily implied airquotes. “I’m just doing this for fun, and for the experience. It’s been great, but I have a musical career. I can only take so much on my plate, and I have a lot there already.”
And while the show’s sextet of songsmith solons were, of course, household names long before joining, the exposure has undeniably given them a professional boost.
Levine’s career has perhaps seen the most obvious lift. While Maroon 5 enjoyed a multiplatinum tenure for years before the show, Levine’s name was hardly something to build a franchise upon. After the show bowed, the band notched the biggest hit of its career with “Moves Like Jagger” — not coincidentally, the song was debuted on the show, and it featured fellow judge Aguilera — and Levine himself has since launched a few solo hits, as well as his own fragrance line, a line of guitars and drums, and a merchandise deal with Sears. He’s also scored an acting gig on FX’s “American Horror Story: Asylum,” a hosting spot on “Saturday Night Live” and a first-look deal with NBC.
Likewise, prior to his stint on the show, Cee Lo Green had notched one huge hit as a solo artist, in addition to his history as a member of Gnarls Barkley and Goodie Mob, but the show certainly helped him craft his now-dominant image as America’s lovable weird uncle. He’s spent his downtime away from the show staging his Loberace review at Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood; it’s debatable whether he would have had the Middle American name recognition to pull this off so deep in Manilow country without his Voice popularity. He’s also plugged 7-Up in a series of commericals.
As for Shelton, none of his five pre-“Voice” records registered higher than No. 8 on the album chart — since joining the show, his subsequent records have climbed to No. 3 and No. 1. Usher is set to portray boxer Sugar Ray Leonard alongside Robert De Niro in “Hands of Stone,” a biopic of boxer Roberto Duran. And while Aguilera’s most recent album was a commercial disappointent, the show has helped keep her in the conversation, with high-profile performing slots at the Super Bowl and the Grammys.
However, as successfully as its judging apparatus has developed, a criticism one can lob at the show is that, in its three full cycles so far, it has yet to produce an all-conquering star like Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. In a Variety interview earlier this year, RCA Records prexy Tom Corson speculated that the proliferation of network singing shows (though not “The Voice” in particular) had become “great for the judges, but not always so great for the contestants these days.”
Asked if the show places too much emphasis on coaches at the expense of contestants, Burnett rejects the notion outright.
“If you look at the amount of ‘Voice’ performers over the past four years who are now gainfully employed making money from music, it’s enormous,” he says. “It’s a little bit imperialistic to think that it’s only if somebody’s in the news every day or is in on a big tour that they’re (successful) … there are people making a ton of money in music who are not written about everyday. I happen to know that many of our past contestants are performing and being paid as a result of the exposure from the show.”
Yet even if a singing competition gig has become something of a choice career accessory for a certain caliber of star, Shakira is quick to point out that it doesn’t allow for simple paycheck cashing.
“When I accepted this gig, I thought that I wouldn’t be so bad at it, because I’m so opinionated about everything, and I thought it would be a good vehicle to blurt out all my opinions,” she says. “But I never thought I would get this invested.
“It’s to the point where I sometimes even dream about it. The night before (contestant) Garrett (Gardner) left I was dreaming about him, and it wasn’t a good dream — that’s why I had a bad feeling (about his chances). They’re in your mind the whole time, and they really become your proteges.”