Danielle Bradbery from Cypress, Texas, has performed nine times, competitively, on this season of The Voice. Earlier this year, her mentor, Blake Shelton, said she isn’t just important to the country music industry, she’s important to the world. Danielle will probably win (at least one Vegas gambler puts her odds at 3-1, ahead of fellow finalists Michelle Chamuel and The Swon Brothers). Danielle is also 16 years old.
Four seasons in, and The Voice has finally run into a child prodigy it can’t dismiss, someone whose look-at-me youth isn’t hiding a lack of listen-to-me talent. And Danielle shouldn’t be dismissed — girl can sing. But she shouldn’t win, either — girl can only sing. Her performance style is generously described as repetitive and less generously described as nonexistent. The fact that she is on a stage, in front of an audience, often surrounded by fake scenery and backup singers is all irrelevant. Worse, as far as America knows Danielle can only sing one thing: mid-tempo, mid-aughts country-pop. Last Monday, Danielle sang Tim McGraw’s “Please Remember Me.” Afterward, Blake Shelton, her coach, stood up and clapped and clapped and clapped. “You don’t have any weaknesses in your singing,” he told her. “How the heck is that possible?”
There’s a gap — between me and Blake; between Danielle’s age and her talent; between her live performances and what comes through on TV; and between how good she could be and how good she actually is.
But that’s not surprising: Danielle is a child prodigy — an example of the trope, at least, even if her talents aren’t prodigious (there are so many musical children, or haven’t you seen August Rush?). What is surprising is that it’s taken this long for The Voice to find a child prodigy America can love, because their kind has taken over every other unscripted show except the ones that require parental consent (no one’s been pressing to get their preternatural kids on Survivor or Big Brother).
Sure, it’s unfair to say America loves child prodigies, because I don’t know every American. But in a singing competition watched by an average of more than 10 million people weekly, Danielle is thriving. Why? She’s young, she’s sweet, and she doesn’t have a lot of experience. As a 16-year-old is the subtext to pretty much every non-musical interaction Danielle has with host Carson Daly, the coaches, her colleague-contestants, and America. And in a synergistic stroke of packaging as old as American Idol itself, Danielle shows up each week to sing a song that we all fondly semi-remember from high school dances and music videos on GAC (remember GAC?) and then we buy them on iTunes, which in turn boosts her popularity, because The Voice counts iTunes sales as votes. The show won’t release numbers, though, because the numbers double as votes, so that would ruin everything, basically.
American Idol vs. The Voice debates are useless in so many ways. One debuted a decade before the other, after all. And yet they air on competing networks in the same season, so comparisons become inevitable and even instructional. One lesson: As my colleague Samantha Highfill notes, American Idol has been able to launch even its dimmest stars, while The Voice hasn’t even launched some of its stars at all. Danielle Bradbery — who is a sunnier, younger version of last year’s Voice winner Cassadee Pope — may change that. The coaches (explicitly) and the producers (implicitly) believe she will. “She’s got so much life to live,” fans say, as if the promise of greatness should be a guarantee of victory. But the promise of great packaging? That can guarantee almost anything.
So if you love (and vote for) Danielle Bradbery — why? And do you think her brand of sunny simpleness is the future of The Voice?