'The Voice' and 'American Idol': Song Sung Blue

Fox's mother of all singing-competition shows preps its swan song, while NBC scratches our Stefani-Shelton itch

Jordan Smith performing on 'The Voice.' Credit: Trae Patton/NBC

Farewell, American Idol. Not so long ago, the Fox singing competition ruled the airwaves as the mightiest empire on TV, the indestructible show-biz juggernaut that would anoint the pop mega-stars of the future and bury every challenger in its path. But now it faces the final curtain. As the end-times Idol gears up for its last season, they're turning it into a fittingly splashy spectacle, even promising to bring back the old team. We can count on appearances from Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. (Maybe Nicki? Probably not Kara.) But it's a Viking funeral for what once looked like an invincible franchise destined to outlive everything else on TV. Paula wept.

Idol is already rolling out the big guns for the May finale, even bringing back original producer Nygel Lythgoe, who calls it "the greatest entertainment show in the history of American television." (That's overdoing it, but overdoing it was always the whole point of Idol.) How did this happen? How did this beloved behemoth of a show run out of inspiration and collapse? Wasn't the show supposed to be too big to fail, like Adam Lambert's hair or Simon's ego? Are we really burying American Idol — or America?

People haven't fallen out of love with the basic idea: a singing contest where nobodies get a chance at the big time with celebrity judges and heavily medicated guest stars. In fact, The Voice is cruising to the climax of an excellent season, riding high in terms of both success and entertainment value. It has a livelier mix of personalities: that sassy Adam Levine, that spacey Pharrell, the rock-steady Carson Daly. It even has rumors of romance between Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani — this kind of thing never happened to Simon and Paula, hard as the moms of our nation might have shipped them.

It's really high time for Idol to go sleep with the fishes. It has the bloat of a major pop-culture event, but not the bone structure to adapt to a leaner, meaner world. All the pomp and ceremony began to look silly as the energy level deflated — last season it struggled to match Undateable in the ratings, which was just embarrassing. It was originally supposed to serve as the lead-in for Empire — but as soon as Empire debuted, it made the elder show look hopelessly outdated and slow-witted. If anyone put the final knife in Idol's back, it was Cookie. She single-handedly generated the kind of week-by-week pop buzz that Idol used to claim for itself.

Idol was never really about creating bona fide pop stars — the Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson stories were utter flukes — but about the show itself, the pageantry of seeing ducklings turn into swans in the national spotlight, the chemistry of the judges. And while the current panel is a pleasant bunch — Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. — Idol doesn't bring the personality clashes of the Simon-vs.-Paula or Nicki-vs.-Mariah days. Or even the Steven Tyler-vs-Steven Tyler days.

Whereas The Voice has really delivered this season, especially the episode with perhaps the year's most psychedelic mind-warp moment: Gwen leading her three wide-eyed protegees through the New Radicals' "You Get What You Give," all four singing with big smiles in a hail of confetti, chanting "health insurance rip-off lying" like this is the perkiest song in the world. Gwen even sang the line threatening to kick Marilyn Manson's ass in. (I like Gwen's chances against Manson, though the Hanson brothers would make mincemeat out of the other judges. Courtney Love can fend for herself.) It was an utterly insane moment that made no sense at all. But that's what TV singing contests are all about.