When Ariana Grande was announced to replace Nick Jonas as a coach on The Voice, the entertainment industry freaked out. Riding off the success of the sister albums sweetener and thank u, next and her recent number one album positions, Grande, a two–time Grammy–winning artist with six Billboard Hot 100 hits under her belt, has been at her prime; so it came as a surprise that she would offer her services to The Voice. Although Grande’s decision to be a coach on The Voice was an odd one for her career–most stars on the show like Kelly Clarkson and John Legend are past their peak– it’s extra perplexing that she chose The Voice, a competition that by now is largely known for never realizing anyone’s stardom aspirations.
The Voice is one of the many reality singing competitions that include American Idol, Masked Singer, The X Factor, etc. In this oversaturated market of singers in competitions hoping to make it big, The Voice is the odd one out. While shows like The Four: Battle for Stardom or The X Factor have long been discontinued, The Voice is currently on its 21st season. Not even American Idol has produced this many seasons, and Idol started a decade earlier than The Voice. Yet, despite having nearly double the number of seasons as Idol, why has the show never produced successful alumni?
The core of the problem is how the show is formatted. Singers go through blind auditions, where they sing in front of the four coaches with their chairs turned away from the singer. If a coach likes the singer, they push the button to turn the chair, signifying that they want the singer on their team. The singer then selects a coach and goes through battles and performances all the way until we get a winner. Even though the show seems to be formatted towards the contestants and the audience (a part of the competition also includes live voting and The Voice was the first competition to introduce counting song sales on iTunes as votes for a singer), that is not the case.
When the winner of the show is announced at the end of the season, it’s not the singer that wins. Sure, the top singer is guaranteed a $100,000 cash prize and a recording contract with Universal Music Group, but when one peruses through the week–to–week media coverage, they would find that most headlines would mention the star coaches and what move would they hypothetically make in a faux sports coverage–like manner. The Voice is, fundamentally, about its star coaches and how they are the ones that could find star talent and give opportunities to these ambitious singers. So behind the weekly montages about a contestant’s life and why they joined the show, The Voice is rather a very elaborate marketing campaign for the coaches and gives them enough exposure to still be in the public consciousness.
Take, for example, The Voice’s longest–running coach, Blake Shelton. Before he joined, Shelton was a relatively successful country artist and country mainstay, but he never really cracked the American mainstream in the early stages of his career. Pre–Voice, Shelton only had two top ten albums, despite being consistently near the top of the country charts. However, his first album following his start as a Voice coach, Red River Blue, debuted at number one and became Shelton’s first number one album ever. Subsequent albums all hit the top ten (minus his most recent release in May 2021), and Shelton has remained a coach since the show’s inception in the US. Now, that’s not saying The Voice is the sole reason for his mainstream success, but it’s definitely a considerable variable given the continual airtime the country star has received.
Similarly, on a smaller scale, Adam Levine of Maroon 5 saw increased commercial performance for his band following his addition to the roster. The song “Moves Like Jagger,” released during The Voice’s first season with fellow coach at the time, Christina Aguilera, arguably made Maroon 5 more mainstream and revitalized Aguilera’s career; the song was heavily promoted during their stints on The Voice. It was understandably performed live during an episode of the competition, further reinforcing the omnipotence of “Jagger”.
For the other celebrity coaches that joined later– like Gwen Stefani, Shakira, and Miley Cyrus–The Voice was a way for artists to maintain a presence in the public consciousness when their careers were stagnant or in decline. It would appear to be the case for Ariana Grande, who, although had a number one album recently, isn’t at the same heights of success as when she released the blockbuster albums, sweetener and thank u, next. Yet a weekly presence on American TV will give her the marketing she needs for her future projects. At the end of the day, it’s really not about the talented artists and their dreams of becoming a star.
Even taking away the celebrity coaches, we still come across a major issue. Ask a person to name a notable contestant from the show, and they’d probably have trouble coming with anyone. That’s because, unlike The Voice’s counterpart, American Idol, the show doesn’t really know what to do with its winners. Following the announcement of the first–place singer, Idol would award the person a recording contract of up to six albums, and record labels were very hands–on with the winning contestants, organizing tours and compiling albums of the songs from the show. Prominent record executives like Clive Davis even helped produce a few of the first few finalists’ albums, including season one champion and current coach, Kelly Clarkson.
Meanwhile, details about the recording contracts Voice winners were promised are few and far between, and many of them either found very minor success or eventually walked away when Universal Music Group didn’t follow through with their contracts. The Voice’s most notable alum, Melanie Martinez, didn’t place in the final three at all. Martinez was a part of Team Levine in season three and was eliminated in the fifth round, but she was able to secure a recording contract independent of The Voice’s aid. Same with the case of controversial country star, Morgan Wallen, who was eliminated early on but was able to become successful in his own right. While The Voice’s promises aren’t entirely empty, but there doesn’t seem to be an organized effort to help jumpstart any winner’s careers.
Sometimes, even the contestants themselves don’t fit the “aspiring musician” image that The Voice tries to portray them as. To audition for the show, you submit a few files and if you’re lucky enough, you might get a callback. If you make it past the callbacks, then congratulations! You are on the show. This process is deceptively simple, and The Voice does not broadcast their audition process like Idol, X Factor, or America’s Got Talent, leaving the room wide open for producers to select people they deem good before they even do the “blind audition” in front of coaches.
An example in the current season of The Voice is Wendy Moten, a Memphis–based singer. Her powerhouse soulful vocals get cheers from the audience, but they probably don’t know that she also was a one–hit–wonder in the UK with two top 40 hits under her belt from the '90s. While we can’t guarantee that other singing shows are more authentic, so to speak, the lack of transparency of the audition process compared to the other shows signals that the producers prioritize providing good entertainment over producing stars.
As television trends towards streaming services and cable is slowly losing its ground, it’s clear that The Voice producers brought on Ariana Grande to boost demographics. But with fundamental flaws and cookie–cutter goals, The Voice only gives a voice to a select few. There’s no apparent sign that the show will end anytime soon, riding high with its current 21st season, but until the format of the show undergoes a complete overhaul, we will likely never get a major star from The Voice in the near future.