'The Voice': Idol's Wild Child

How the newcomer defied all expectations to challenge TV's biggest show

Lewis Jacobs/NBC
'The Voice' star judges Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton
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It's safe to say that The Voice has gotten off to a roaring start. It's the top-rated new series in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, and it's no wonder NBC is expanding it to two-hour live episodes in June. Everybody expected a flimsy American Idol knock-off. But instead, The Voice has turned out to be a brilliant surprise. The ingenious team format pumped new life into the singing-contest formula, from the blind auditions to the cage-match sing-off duets. It has the excitement and sparkle of a true pop event.

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It's easy to explain why The Voice exists: The logic went that with the Idol franchise about to bomb, America would need a new singing competition to fill the void. We would need starry-­eyed kids belting their favorite Beyoncé jams. We would need celebrity coaches like Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton and Maroon 5's Adam Levine. We would need hopes and dreams and redemption stories. Most of all, we would need Carson Daly.

This article appears in the June 9, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now.

As it turned out, Idol came back strong, rising from the grave like a pitchiness-hating Godzilla. But it doesn't matter, because The Voice has its own style. It's big on flash, from Cee Lo sporting a Misfits T-shirt to Aguilera wearing what appears to be a Dollywood souvenir wig. Yet the coaches take the vocals seriously. The format forces them to act as real judges, giving criticism during rehearsals and eliminating singers from their own team. That's quite a switch from Idol, where the new regime is committed to positivity at all costs. Steven Tyler would turn down a blow job from a unicorn before he'd tell contestants they can't sing.

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The Voice has lots of singers who fit the Idol mold of young, innocent ingénues with psycho stage moms. But it also has long-suffering adult pros, with a whiff of thirtysomething despair in their voices. That adds an edge of realness. Some are already bitter and frustrated lifers, like the Minnesota bar-band vet Tim Mahoney, who called himself "the king of almost." Can you imagine any of the apple-cheeked Idol kids talking that way?

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The coaches are refreshingly unimpressed by the usual pushy reality-TV clowns. When Frenchie and Tarralyn had their sing-off duet, tackling Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," Tarralyn attempted to sabotage her partner by taking off from the rehearsed arrangement. It was a camera-hog stunt, worthy of The Real Housewives – yet most viewers probably assumed it would work (I sure did). So it was a welcome surprise when Aguilera chose Frenchie, going for the vocal chops instead of letting herself get intimidated by the "at least she makes good TV" principle.

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The breakout star is clearly Adam Levine. He's the droll pop smoothie with the arched eyebrow and the bulletproof hair, the one Aguilera warns is "a little bit of a wheeler-­dealer-shmealer." Who knew this guy was so funny? During the blind auditions, he mistook contestant Mahoney for a female singer. "I thought you were a chick," he said. "I need a woman for my team, and, sadly, you have a penis." (Cue a gratuitous reaction shot of Aguilera. Tasteful!)

The real shocker here is Christina Aguilera – who has never been the most likable star on the block, which is why pop fans take sadistic pleasure in watching her crash and burn, whether she's stripping with Cher in Burlesque or disemboweling the national anthem at the Super Bowl. But she's pouncing on the opportunity to remodel herself as a full-fledged human being, the way J.Lo did on Idol. She even made a joke about her Super Bowl debacle. "Don't worry about the words," she told her team during rehearsals. "I never worry about the words." That's right – a self-deprecating quip from Xtina! Whoever thought we'd witness such a thing? Maybe she can call her next album Sadly, You Have a Penis?

There are other shows out there trying to fill the American Idol void that wasn't – most notably Bravo's Platinum Hit, featuring the odd but entertaining duo of Jewel and Kara Dio­Guardi. It's always nice to see aspiring songwriters get tips from the pros, especially if Jewel starts giving them advice along the lines of "You know what this song needs? A line about cooking eggs and cracking the yolk to make a smiley face!" No doubt there will be a lot more, but for right now, The Voice is on top.

From The Archives Issue 1132: June 9, 2011