The key to the surprising success of "The Voice," NBC's new Tuesday night music reality show, can be captured in something that country music singer Blake Shelton, one of the four musical "coaches" on the new hit, said after blindly hearing a rotund, bearded blues rock singer known as Nakia sing fellow panelist Cee Lo Green's smash "Forget You."
"You look nothing like I expected," said Shelton. "I don't know what I expected, but I didn't expect to turn around and feel threatened, and I do a little bit." Shelton, mind you, is 6 feet 5, has a bear-track-and-barbed-wire tattoo on his left forearm and twinkle in his eye. "Those are the things that, to me, make an artist," he continued, "the things that are unique about us." Looking at his fellow singer-coaches -- Green, diva Christina Aguilera and blue-eyed soul singer Adam Levine of Maroon 5 -- Shelton added: "And I feel like every one of us here is unique and had to beat some odds."
The same could be said of the show, at least within the parameters of the music reality subgenre of prime-time television, teeming as it is with judges, pop songs, bickering, tears and glory. Last week's telecast of "The Voice" attracted 12.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, winning its time slot in key demographics and jumping 10% from the opening week.
It could be because "The Voice," hosted by Carson Daly, feels more like a musical game show than a talent show, and touches on the collaborative aspect of the music creation process. And there are worse things than watching Cee Lo Green, or Christina Aguilera, in the studio with a young, gravel-voiced novice trying to figure out a way to turn words on a page into a hit song.
Before discussing any game, you have to understand the rules, and they're a bit more complicated here than on "American Idol." Based on Holland's (much more raucous) top-rated show, "The Voice of Holland," the American version is centered around the four coaches, all of them singers, who have sold more than 70 million albums combined. There's Shelton the country singer, Aguilera the R&B; diva, Green the rapper-turned-crooner, and Levine, who with his band Maroon 5 crafts clever little pop ditties.
In the first two episodes, the coaches picked their teams through a blind audition process that began with their chairs turned away from the stage, listening to each singer and trying to decide whether the voice struck a proverbial chord. When Aguilera, who's a natural in this setting, was impressed by Frenchie Davis (yes, the former "Idol" contestant), Aguilera pressed a big red button, which caused her chair to spin around to see who was singing. Needless to say, she was surprised. If more than one coach hits the button, the amateur gets to pick her mentor.
Going into this week's show, each judge now has eight contestants to mentor -- Levine referred to his group as "my little singing army" -- and that roster will be cut in half during "battle rounds," a conceit born on the streets when budding rappers would compete with one another in real time to see who had the best flow. Pairs of singers will battle by simultaneously belting out a song to impress their coach. When it's over, the coach will eliminate the lesser singer from the show.
The sixteen remaining singers will work with their coaches over the rest of the season, with the audience serving as the sole judges. The winner gets $100,000 and a record deal with Universal Republic.
But what makes "The Voice" worth watching, in addition to the clever conceit, is the chemistry among the judges, and the stories. Because there's no age limit on the contestants, their back stories are fascinating glimpses into the lives of musicians. Beverly McClellan worked the clubs around Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a decade, but never got a break. Ditto Tim Mahoney, 15 years in the trenches of Minneapolis rock and blues clubs: "I can't count the deals that's been on the table and lost before it ever got to the lawyer. I feel like this is my last shot." Sister act Tori and Taylor Thompson are perky young country singers who could explode or end up on the never-was circuit.
The four coaches have their own histories: Aguilera has suffered a few prominent flops in the last year, but her voice and charisma remain; Green was nominated for a Grammy for the profane version of "Forget You," and wrote one of the great songs of the last decade in "Crazy." Levine is a charmer with a sweet voice and a quick wit; and Shelton is engaged to singer Miranda Lambert. He also is a bit of a wild card who got into trouble with gay and lesbian groups when he tweeted what was perceived as a homophobic rant. He immediately issued an apology.
On stage, the four were a chuckle a minute, naturals who bounced banter off one another. When Green referenced his friend the singer Pink while discussing a performance, Levine faked reaching onto the floor and quipped, "Let me get that name for you. You dropped it."
And Green looks like King Henry VIII perched up there on his throne. In the first two episodes, he wore the same punk rock Misfits T-shirt, and smiled his broad smile as he tried to convince a singer to choose him as coach. What he said next captures the potential in front of "The Voice": "You're like myself: an exception to the rule."