On Monday night, The Voice welcomed Ariana Grande as its new coach, one of the most high-profile artists the singing competition has acquired in its ten-year history. Throughout the two-hour premiere, the “Positions” singer received the expected amount of fanfare and lip service from the contestants and her fellow coaches, first stealing the show with a group performance of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and then becoming the subject of her colleagues’ stale comedic banter. On her rotating chair, the pop star even received a “thank you, next” button.
Since its inception, the NBC reality competition has always prioritized its celebrities, taking cues from American Idol’s later seasons and elevating the show’s star power and coach dynamics above the amateur talent. However, the announcement of Grande on The Voice felt slightly more urgent and tactical, especially in light of the recent departure of one of the show’s inaugural coaches, Adam Levine, who possessed more mainstream hits and appeal to a younger, more female audience than artists like Blake Shelton, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend, or even Gwen Stefani during the years she coached.
As with Miley Cyrus in 2016 and Nick Jonas last year, The Voice appears to be making another desperate bid for younger millennials and Gen Z viewers, as the show’s viewership has skewed older in the streaming era, similar to most network television. However, while Grande and her legion of Arianators will almost certainly make an impact in this area, the charismatic, astute coach will ultimately be unable to save the show from itself.
Thirty minutes into Season 21, it becomes clear that The Voice will always be first and foremost a protracted celebrity meet-and-greet. While judges on more competitive shows like American Idol and The X Factor have historically been more intimidating and unapproachable—after all, they are judges, not coaches—The Voice has always portrayed its stars as the most caring and good-natured people in the industry, implying that you should actually meet your heroes and feel secure enough in their presets. At a time when cruelty is being phased out of reality competition shows, this #positivevibes ethos has benefited the show and even inspired American Idol to eliminate “bad” auditions.
More insidiously, The Voice has profited from viewers’ naive presumptions about celebrities, their supposed magic, and the overestimated power of our proximity to them in favor of tangible outcomes for these enormously talented competitors who deserve more than hyperbolic compliments from Kelly Clarkson and promised In
In the years since The Voice has established itself as a staple of broadcast television, much has been said about the competition’s fatal flaw: its inability to produce successful or, at the very least, recognizable artists. On Twitter every now and then, usually as the show prepares for a new season, you’ll see a viral tweet pointing this out, challenging social media to name just one winner, or comparing the show’s lack of care and attention for its contestants to its Fox predecessor. That said, judging these two shows’ accomplishments and how well they lived up to their conceits solely on the basis that they are both televised singing competitions is a bit reductive, as it overlooks how critical social media and streaming have become in terms of how stars are discovered and manufactured, where the public’s attention is drawn, and how fans mobilize (not to mention how oversaturated the music industry is compared to when American Idol premiered in 2002).
However, according to contestants and even some judges on The Voice, NBC has abandoned its winners even before they have a chance to prove themselves against the Shawn Mendes and Billie Eilishs of the world. HuffPost covered the post-competition careers of the series’ winners in 2018. While Cassadee Pope, formerly of the already-famous pop punk band Hey Monday, stands out as someone who has thrived following her experience and garnered several country hits, previous winners Alisan Porter, Tessanne Chin, Craig Wayne Boyd, Javier Colon, and Sawyer Fredericks were either dropped by Universal Music Group (The Voice’s prizes are $100,000 and a record deal with Universal) or were dropped by the Universal Music Group (The Voice’s prizes are $100,000 and Winners Jordan Smith and Danielle Bradbery have found niche fame in the genres of Christian and country, but their marginal popularity still pales in comparison to what we’ve seen reality TV alumni achieve, from Clarkson and Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson to the men of One Direction.
“Levine previously expressed his dissatisfaction with the show’s management on Howard Stern’s radio show in 2015.”
As the judges have stated. Levine previously expressed his dissatisfaction with the show’s management on Howard Stern’s radio show in 2015. And the following year, Blake Shelton expressed a similar sentiment during a press conference following the Season 11 finale, which his team, Sundance Head, won. Clarkson stated in the aforementioned HuffPost article that the show does not guarantee stardom and emphasized the importance of seizing opportunities and “meeting as many people as possible.” While this is not a sufficient response to NBC’s organizational problems, it is probably the most consistent with the show’s overall message of meritocracy, despite the judges’ frequent reckless promises that they alone can transform the competitors into stars.
Which is why, during the premiere, when Grande mentioned her massive Instagram following while persuading contestant Wendy Moten to join her team, it felt as though the show inadvertently exposed the realities of modern celebrity that prevent a show of this format, on top of other structural issues, from ever truly succeeding. Moten can sing her heart out in front of the entire country week after week, fighting for a spot in a competition that will almost certainly not compensate her adequately, or as easily as Grande can give her a shout-out on Instagram with a more certain outcome. The addition of a new chart-topping star to the coach roster may add megawatt star power and some occasionally amusing moments, but The Voice’s empty promises cannot be concealed.