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Just The Voice

Photo credit : Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Just The Voice

Cue the music - in 140 beats or less.

Adam Levine's analogy for The Voice, the upstart among singing competitions and this weekend's post-Super Bowl TV placeholder, is that it's like Twitter, where American Idol, The X Factor and other TV singing competitions are like some rambling, aging blog.

The Voice - in which Maroon 5 frontman Levine and fellow judges Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green audition prospective singers "blind," based on their voices alone and without seeing them actually sing - is all about voice and hitting the big notes, and less about looks and image.

"Sometimes, we say stupid s---, and it goes out on Twitter for millions to see," Levine told reporters last month in Los Angeles. "People make mistakes, because they're human. We make them all the time, sometimes more publicly, as I have done. But, you know, whatever. Life goes on. You can't worry too much about it, right?"

The Voice rocked the social-media world, as well as the ratings charts, in its debut season.

"I don't want to mention all the other shows, but we were at the top," The Voice's social-media correspondent, Christina Milian, said. "Everybody is very, very engaged. People speak their minds; they want to be involved. They want to have exclusive content. They want to know more."

The judges double as coaches; this season, each judge/coach will have 12 artists in his or her group of proteges, up from last season's eight.

Contestants range from virtual unknowns to forgotten, or else, overlooked, passed-over performers looking to reclaim their early promise. The Voice encompasses a wide range of music styles, from solo artists to duos, from rock, pop, R&B and hip hop to alternative, Latin, country and the blues.

The eventual winner may or may not enjoy a successful recording career, but the show itself has already proved to be a chart-topper. The Voice was the highest-rated, most-watched new entertainment series of the of the 2010-'11 TV season, according to the tracking site, TVbyTheNumbers, and earned early renewal last May from its parent network, NBC. The Voice airs on CTV in Canada.

By airing immediately following Super Bowl XLVI, The Voice's second-season premiere promises to be an audience attention-grabber. The Super Bowl is typically the highest-rated U.S. broadcast of the TV year, and the program that airs afterward often achieves near-record ratings.

The Voice is an unusual choice, this year. The post-Super Bowl time slot is usually occupied by established, traditional programs like House, Grey's Anatomy and The Office. The first Super Bowl lead-out program, in 1967, was Lassie. It doesn't get more traditional than that. Other lead-out programs over the years have included All in the Family, The Wonderful World of Disney, and 60 Minutes.

If The Voice has touched a nerve with an audience jaded by slick packaging and tired of constant manipulation, Aguilera and Shelton say it's because everyone, from the coaches on down to the contestants, is encouraged to be themselves, and not who the music industry expects them to be.

"I try to show my artists on my team that you're not running for office, here," Shelton said. "You're an artist. Be who you are."

Aguilera concurred.

"We're not coming on the shows to play a part," she said. "We're coming on the show as ourselves. We take risks and chances. We are artists, at the end of the day, you know, just doing what we do, bringing it to the table and trying to share with these amazing artists, trying to make it all that we can. We're not actors. We're artists."

Aguilera signed onto The Voice, initially, because she wanted to. Aguilera is riding the crest of an active, vibrant music career; her performance of Etta James' At Last at last weekend's memorial service to the late blues singer brought the house down. The last thing Aguilera wanted, or expected, was to be shackled to a TV show, with its demands on her time. Something about the idea of judging a raw, untested singer based on her voice, and voice alone, touched her, though.

Aguilera had hopes, but she did not expect The Voice to strike a chord with mainstream TV viewers as quickly as it did.

"It humbles us," Aguilera said. "There's an honesty about it."

That may be why numerous high-profile artists have signed on to be mentors during The Voice's coming season. Alanis Morissette will work with Levine's group of proteges; Kelly Clarkson, the original winner of American Idol, and country artist Miranda Lambert, Shelton's wife and a former contestant on Nashville Star, will work with Shelton's group. Ne-Yo will work with Green's group, and Jewel and Lionel Richie will help counsel Aguilera's proteges.

Aguilera says that, at its heart, The Voice is about raising hopes, hitting the high notes, and being positive.

"I wouldn't have signed up for this show if it was about ridiculing someone, or poking fun at their lack of talent or inability to sing," Aguilera said. "That isn't in support of the business. It isn't in support of anything we do as artists, and I wouldn't be a part of that."

Aguilera has kept in touch with Beverly McClellan, her first-season finalist and protegee. McClellan, a 43-year-old soul singer with a shaved head and in-your-face tattoos, is not the recording industry's image of a conventional pop artist. McClellan is precisely whom The Voice was made for, Aguilera said.

"You can't help but get really engaged in being a part of these people's lives, as their coach and mentor, and spending so much time with them. It's pretty magical to be part of someone's journey. These are real people with real dreams. You're cradling it in your hands. I think we all, all four of us, accepted a certain level of responsibility by agreeing to take on this show. We take it very seriously."

Shelton recorded a duet with his protegee, Dia Frampton, last season's runner-up, on Frampton's post-Voice album, Red.

"She's on tour with me for the next 23 shows," Shelton said.

As a format, the TV singing competition "is getting very tired in a lot of ways," Levine admitted.

The Voice is different, though, he added.

"This is a completely fresh, new perspective. The blind auditions are a really interesting twist, totally different thing. I think that's why this show has done well, and will continue to do well.

"All four of us are singers. At the end of the day, that's probably the thing that differentiates us the most: We all sing. It's our craft, all four of us. That alone makes it unique."

There may come a time when television is oversaturated with talent competitions, but Aguilera doesn't accept that it has come to that yet.

"The truth speaks for itself," Aguilera said. "I don't really watch anything else. I believe the sole purpose of this show is the title. I stand behind that. It's called The Voice for a reason. You see it from Day 1, the blind auditions, when our chairs are turned away from the stage. We have no idea what's going on behind us on the stage. All we have to guide us is our ears.

"You really have to have a voice to be on this show. There are no two ways about it."

The Voice premieres Sunday, Feb. 5, immediately following the Super Bowl on CTV and NBC.