After a decade of Simon Cowell-dominated ‘talent’ programming, many people have wearied of the tried and trusted format pioneered by the high-waisted impresario. Now, after a number of failed attempts (such as the toe-curlingly bad Fame Academy), the BBC appears to have found a format that won’t just rival Cowell’s relentless machine, but threatens to derail it. So why has The Voice so unexpectedly captured Britain’s imagination, and what does this new show tell us about the current mood of our constantly shifting culture?

I Want You

‘I WANT YOU’ declares the message emblazoned on the front of each of The Voice's rotating judge’s chairs. For the uninitiated, the BBC show’s ‘hook’ is that in the initial rounds, the four judges sit facing away from the stage as each hopeful performer begins singing. If they like what they hear enough to offer the owner of the voice a coveted spot on their ten-strong team, they hit a dramatic red button which rotates the chair 180 degrees, and illuminates that life-affirming sign. 

This spring, the show has run head-to-head with Cowell’s Britain’s Got Talent, setting up a similar duel to Strictly Come Dancing’s annual autumn ratings battle with his pop conveyor belt The X Factor. The Beeb has not had a great track record in the ‘talent’ genre of late; despite Strictly’s enduring success, there have also been a slew of failed shows, including an abysmal quest to find the UK’s Eurovision performer and various attempts to reboot Arlene Phillips. So when The Voice was announced, expectations were suitably cautious. Would the BBC be able to add the necessary stardust to the show in these austere times? And could the British public even stomach yet another singing competition?

The answer to both questions has been a resounding yes (although readers of May’s ‘This month we don’t love’ column will note that some remain to be convinced). The show has attracted some genuinely huge names from the music industry (and Danny from The Script) to take part. Singers Jessie J and Tom Jones are stars of very different eras, yet of similar magnitude; producer/performer is one of the most influential men in modern American music. Their presence on the show as judges and mentors has created a level of interest and excitement, but what has really turned The Voice into a hit is its subtly different emphasis.

Gifted and Deluded

A Simon Cowell talent show always follows the same pattern: the early rounds show the contrasting fortunes of two types of contestant: the musically gifted, and the musically deluded. Almost exclusively, the performers are either one gulp of Evian from being studio-ready, or so bad you could imagine farmers using them to ward off vermin. The first bunch receive ovation and adulation; the second, humiliation. For the majority of applicants (more than 200,000 people now apply for The X Factor each year), there is a verbal declaration of negative feedback. 

What we don’t see, of course, is the crucial preliminary stage, in which hundreds of thousands of applicants are whittled down into the very good (make good music) and the very bad (make good TV). Neither do we see evidence of alleged pre-contracts made between Cowell’s management company and the best performers before the show even begins. Whether or not those allegations are true, rumours of vote-rigging and manipulation have dogged his shows from the outset. Despite their razzamatazz (and perhaps because of it), there is a hard-to-shake sense that Cowell’s phenomenally successful programmes are cooked up in a morally questionable crucible, where the desire for fame and fortune is great enough to make thousands of contestants complicit.

The Voice, then, seems to deliberately counter some of the more dubious aspects of the ITV talent shows. For a start, we’re told that all the contestants have been pre-approved by scouts. So while there’s more of an apparent barrier to entry, at least the viewer knows this is the case. Because the scouts are only looking for gifted singers, there is a positivity to the show, as the great are sorted from among the good. No one is told that they’re talentless; that they shouldn’t give up the day job. Everyone is encouraged; those who don’t make the cut are given constructive feedback and wished well.

Substance over Style

There’s something even more distinctive about The Voice, though – at least in its early stages. Until a judge hits their button and swivels that chair, they have no idea of the singer’s age or appearance. One of the key criticisms of talent competitions is that too often contestants are judged on how they look, not just how they sing. A key value of The Voice is that, through these blind auditions, judgements are made purely on singing ability. In a superficial culture, those chairs are revolutionary (pun intended).

I like to believe that The Voice’s warm public reception (at time of writing it is easily beating BGT with more than 10 million viewers) has much to do with its focus on encouragement and genuine talent. Perhaps our culture is beginning to grow past the rather puerile obsession with laughing at famehungry hopefuls who have even less talent than self-awareness. We’d rather watch someone perform well, and be praised for doing so, than watch a wellgroomed teenager screech his way through Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’. That joke has worn thin, and not just with younger audiences – the show is also a hit with the older viewer who might traditionally steer clear of brand Cowell.

The contestants on The Voice, just like the lucky few who make the later stages of The X Factor, seem to thrive in this environment. Talented people who are encouraged are often so buoyed by these positive interactions that they are enabled to go on to achieve even more. 

This isn’t just true in the world of the TV talent show. It’s too easy to be negative, critical and cynical, even though we know it leads to an uneasy, unsatisfied feeling, and plenty of human injury. It might be just a talent show, but The Voice models a better way. Encouragement builds up; constructive criticism fosters growth. Let’s take our lead from Jessie J, Tom Jones, and the apostle Paul who writes: ‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up’ (1 Thessalonians 5:11).