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Despite 'Voice' challenge, 'American Idol' is still music show to beat

Greg Kot

11:48 AM CDT, May 5, 2012

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Despite mounting evidence that it had been eclipsed by “The Voice” in the network television sing-off sweepstakes earlier this year, “American Idol” remains the music show to beat.

Though “Idol” is down from previous years with a particularly uninspiring final four, it still holds a significant lead over its chief competitor: Recent “Idol” shows have averaged about 17 million viewers while “The Voice” is falling short of 11 million, according to the Nielsen ratings. Among viewers aged 18-47, the race has always been tighter, with “The Voice” regularly topping “Idol.” But last Wednesday, “Idol” came back and barely beat the NBC show among the highly prized younger viewers. How has “Idol” been able to hold on to its dominant position despite early signs that “The Voice” was coming off as a fresher, younger and hipper alternative?

It comes down to the audience’s emotional investment in the outcome. “The Voice” is about established stars helping pro singers climb a rung in the music-industry ladder. Though “Idol” is becoming increasingly infested with power brokers and middle men (Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine, we’re looking at you), it still comes off as a show about fans voting for singers who appear to be a lot like them – in other words, their peers.

"The Voice,” which will celebrate its season-two winner Tuesday, is best when the four judges – Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton – pick their respective teams at the start of the season. The drama is all in the swivel of those high-backed chairs; performers, unseen by the judges, sing their hearts out, and judges turn to pick a singer for their team only when they’re knocked out by what they hear. The idea is to somehow make the competition more pure; as in, “It’s all about the music, man."

(Of course, that’s kind of silly. Last I checked, television is primarily a visual medium, and with millions of Americans looking on, it’s disingenuous to assume that visual presentation isn’t going to count for something by the time the season ends.)

"The Voice” also has an apparent edge in talent because the singers, often with some professional experience on their resumes, are hand-picked to try out, whereas “Idol” is ostensibly open to anyone – attracting the delusional, the mediocre and the downright awful as well as a handful of unknowns with some (very raw) talent. While “Idol” weeds out some pretty shaky performers in the early rounds, “The Voice” usually chooses from a crop of vocalists with decent chops, if not necessarily star power.

But as the season winds down and the pretenders are eliminated, the allure of the out-of-nowhere “Idol” contestants develops a momentum of its own. Americans like rooting for underdogs and unknowns, and “Idol” has scratched that itch since the days of Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry. Cast aspersions on their music if you must, but Clarkson was a waitress and Daughtry a car mechanic before “Idol” gave them a shot at recording careers, and they’ve made the most of the opportunity.

As for “The Voice” singers, there’s a reason many of them didn’t get their big break before – they’re just not good enough. The inaugural winner in 2011, Javier Colon, had previously been signed to a major-label deal and worked with the Derek Trucks Band. After his “Voice” victory, he signed a new record deal and his third album, “Come Through for You,” was released, but it didn’t even chart as high as his 2003 debut. Even the folks who voted for him on TV weren’t motivated enough to buy his album in large enough numbers to crack the Billboard top 100.

This week’s “Voice” finalists aren’t bringing the scream factor with any regularity, either, with the possible exception of Chris Mann, who is aiming for a Josh Groban-style neo-operatic vibe, and Juliet Simms, who gave the season’s top performance so far with a stomping cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World."

It's not that “Idol” is overflowing with star power this year, either. Even longtime watchers are having a difficult time picking a candidate to get overly excited about among the four finalists: Jessica Sanchez, Phillip Phillips, Joshua Ledet and Hollie Cavanagh. “Idol” still hasn’t fully recovered from the loss of its best (and not coincidentally most acerbic) judge, Simon Cowell, leaving Randy Jackson, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez to sugarcoat even the least-inspired performances.

Yet despite those shortcomings, “Idol” has pulled decisively ahead of “The Voice” in popularity among all viewers. It could be a charisma gap in the singing talent, but it’s also systemic. The judges and not the singers dominate “The Voice.” Despite their bickering and occasional petulance, Xtina, Cee Lo, Shelton and Levine remind us each week that they’ll always be bigger stars than their hand-picked team members. The more air time Levine and Aguilera get, in particular, the tougher it is to invest in their decision-making. They’re the gatekeepers, as they constantly remind us, and they want to keep it that way.

"Idol” isn’t immune from these sort of industry power trips either. The judges make their favorites known (Lopez’s blatant campaigning in recent weeks for Ledet, for example). And the increasingly heavy-handed music-industry presence (as represented by Iovine) is becoming a major drag that could ultimately sink the show. But “Idol” still fosters the relationship between the audience and the wanna-be stars better than “The Voice” does -- even if many of the wanna-be’s will be forgotten as soon as another top-rated season is in the books.

greg@gregkot.com