Revisiting the 'American Idol' vs. 'The Voice' debate

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Image Credit: Michael Becker/Fox

When NBC’s rival singing competition The Voice returned in February, I felt like I was the only Idol fan left in America. Media outlets championed NBC’s chair-spinning competition, with its flashy format — an audition style that’s admittedly superior to Idol‘s — and sass-spewing judges, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton. “The Voice is more relevant, more meaningful, more compelling and more entertaining right now,” said Alex Strachan of the Montreal Gazette. “After a decade, we no longer believe in the Idol factory,” wrote EW’s Mark Harris. Those barbs stung me (an American Idol junkie) personally — these critics’ concerns had me worried that the freight train of Idol might be chugging to a stop. The Voice briefly legitimized this fear by pulling ahead in the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic and beating the Fox stalwart in the ratings race.

Still, I stuck with Idol this season, and I’m glad I did. After three months of watching, I remain convinced that American Idol is a viable singing competition — with the best vocals of any show on TV. American Idol kept its focus on the contestants and their singing, and over the course of the spring, it reclaimed its title as the highest-rated television show on television.

Here’s why Idol reigns supreme:

Great singers. American Idol‘s open-call auditions still find fresh, undiscovered voices in America. The latest Top 10 finalists are the strongest group that the show has ever produced (Seasons 5 and 7 would also be in contention). Between Elise Testone’s jazzy rasp, Deandre Brackensick’s gorgeous falsetto, Jessica Sanchez’s soulful growl, Colton Dixon’s angsty pop/punk sound, and Joshua Ledet’s general talent, audiences are in for a treat. During Idol‘s performance episodes, the contestants delivered pitch-perfect performances. Standout vocals included Sanchez’s “And I Am Telling You…”, Joshua Ledet’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Phillip Phillips’ “Volcano,” Testone’s “Whole Lotta Love,” and Skylar Laine’s “Stay With Me.” Idol‘s sound mixing keeps the vocals front-and-center, but on The Voice  singers are sometimes drowned out by the loud arrangements (and crazy set pieces). As The Voice‘s live shows revealed, the contestants — who are often chosen for their radio-ready tones — don’t always have the beltiest voices, for tackling glory notes on pop songs. (I’m looking at you, RaeLynn, James Massone, and Erin Martin.)

So many performances! When America votes for either Phillip Phillips or Jessica Sanchez tonight, they can do so feeling confident that they’ve gotten to know both vocalists. From the audition round to the finale, each singer will have offered up a whopping 39 performances on American Idol. (That’s 24 solo performances, 7 duo/trio/quartet performance-night numbers, and 8 results-night group performances.) This is accomplished, in part, by having each contestant perform every single week. By comparison, when America voted for Jermaine Paul to win The Voice, they’d seen him perform 10 times (six solo performances, a Battle Round duet, and three songs with coach Blake Shelton. He also sang three songs by Blake Shelton.)

The show is focused on the contestants. I’m not going to deny that watching A-list judges bicker can be fun, but part of what I love about Idol is that it’s not about the judges. Sure, J. Lo and Steven Tyler add a distracting celebrity factor to the judging panel (and, mind you, I think we can all agree that the judges are NOT Idol‘s strongest element), but the show remains focused on the young singers competing for the title of American Idol. Jimmy Iovine works with contestants to make unfamiliar genres fit their specific persona — country girl Skylar Laine didn’t have any trouble making a Whitney Houston song work splendidly. When a contestant is eliminated, I feel like I’ve gotten to know him/her. After watching The Voice, water cooler chatter revolves around Christina and Adam’s bickering.

America decides the winner. I’m not the biggest fan of the once-a-season Judge’s Save, but I do appreciate that the public vote always determines who will go home on American Idol. The show’s producers can manipulate a lot of things — contestant images, song choices (although Idol contestants have a lot to say in what they sing), performance order, set design — but it’s nice knowing that the judges and producers can’t change the lowest vote getter. At the end of the day, once the Judge’s Save is out of the way, there is no safety net for Idol‘s stars. It’s all in America’s hands. If a front-runner like Colton Dixon gets the least number of votes, he’s gone in 7th place. Simple as that. It makes for great TV, and it reveals a level of trust in America’s power to choose a new Idol. The Voice has exactly one week in which America gets to determine the vote entirely by themselves, and that is the finale week. On every other episode, the coaches are able to save contestants, give certain contestants points, or take care of eliminations by themselves. It’s an odd step backwards in the world of reality TV — and again, it puts the emphasis on the coaches, not the contestants.

Idol‘s proven record. People love to claim that American Idol hasn’t produced any real stars since Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, but that isn’t the case. Sure, winners Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze have left a lot to be desired in terms of record sales, but last season’s winner, Scotty McCreery, has sold 1.1 million copies of his debut Clear As Day — no easy feat. Season 8 alum Adam Lambert achieved platinum status for his debut For Your Entertainment, and he’s got a shot at topping the Billboard 200 with his second release, Trespassing, which hit stores last week. Jordin Sparks scored a platinum debut album of her own, and although her sophomore release faltered, she’s eyeing a Jennifer Hudson-style comeback with the summer music drama Sparkle, which also stars the late Whitney Houston. Obviously, not every Idol contestant becomes a chart powerhouse, but the show’s success stories (and I haven’t even mentioned Fantasia, Kellie Pickler, Daughtry, Lauren Alaina, Clay Aiken, or Mandisa) legitimize the brand. Only time will tell if Jermaine Paul can find similar chart resonance, but The Voice producers are surely hoping he can manage a higher ranking than Season 1 winner Javier Colon, who peaked at No. 134 with his post-Voice debut Come Through for You.

At the end of the day, I understand why people were so excited about The Voice. It’s an entertaining, interestingly-structured show — and it’s fun to root for something new. But that’s reason I like American Idol — because in my mind, Idol stands up for what’s new more than any other singing competition on TV by focusing on unknown contestants, rather than its judges. Though it may be an older show with an aging format, American Idol asks its viewers to invest their time (and hopefully their money) in a brand new crop of singers every year. That’s the draw. The show serves as an artistic development platform at a time when most major labels have abandoned artist development, and it remains an undeniable brand for producing budding music stars.

What do you think? Are you, like me, still enamored with Idol, or do you think the show has lost its appeal? How do you feel about The Voice and other singing competion shows The X-Factor and ABC’s upcoming Duets? Let’s have a (civil!) conversation in the comments!

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