On Monday night, The Voice welcomed its latest coach and one of the most high-profile artists the singing competition has managed to acquire in its 10-year run, Ariana Grande. Over the course of the two-hour premiere, the “Positions” singer was greeted with as much fanfare and lip service from the contestants and her fellow coaches as one would expect, first stealing the spotlight in a group performance of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and remaining the center of her colleagues’ stale comedic banter throughout the show. The pop superstar even received a “thank u, next” button on her rotating chair.
Since its inception, the NBC reality-competition program has always put its celebrities front and center, taking cues from American Idol in its later seasons and promoting its star power and coach dynamics above the amateur talent. But the announcement of Grande on The Voice felt slightly more urgent and tactical, particularly since the recent departure of one of the show’s inaugural coaches, Adam Levine, who had more mainstream hits and relevancy amongst a younger, more female crowd as compared to artists like Blake Shelton, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend or even Gwen Stefani in the on-and-off years she’s coached. As with the addition of Miley Cyrus in 2016 and Nick Jonas last year, The Voice seems to be making another desperate bid for younger millennials’ and Gen Z’s attention, as the show’s viewership has increasingly skewed older like most network television in the streaming era. But while Grande and her legion of Arianators will most likely make some kind of impact in this department, the charismatic, astute coach still can’t save the show from itself.
It becomes clear thirty minutes into Season 21’s premiere that The Voice will always be a protracted celebrity meet-and-greet, first and foremost. While judges for more cutthroat competitions like American Idol and The X Factor have historically been less approachable and more daunting—they purposely hold the position of judges, not coaches after all—The Voice has always presented its stars as the most caring and good-natured people in the industry, suggesting that you actually should meet your heroes and even feel safe enough in their presence to be the most vulnerable version of yourself. During a time when cruelty on reality-competition shows is phasing out, this #positivevibes ethos has worked in the show’s favor and even inspired American Idol to eliminate “bad” auditions.
More insidiously though, The Voice has successfully cashed in on viewers’—including the fame-hungry musicians that audition for the show—naive presumptions about celebrities, their supposed magic and the overestimated power of our proximity to them in favor of tangible outcomes for these immensely gifted competitors who deserve better than hyperbolic compliments from Kelly Clarkson and promised Instagram exposure from Grande.
In the years that The Voice has become a broadcast television mainstay, much has been said of the competition’s glaring dilemma: its inability to produce successful or, at the very least, recognizable artists. Every once in a while on Twitter, usually around the time the show is gearing up for a new season, you’ll see a viral tweet pointing this out, challenging social media to name just one winner or comparing the show’s lack of care and attentiveness for its contestants to its Fox predecessor. That being said, measuring the achievements of these two shows and how they did or didn’t live up to their conceits solely on the basis that they’re both televised singing contests is a bit reductive and ignores how crucial social media and streaming have become in how stars are discovered and manufactured, where the public’s attention is drawn, and how fans mobilize (not to mention how oversaturated the music industry is compared to when American Idol premiered in 2002).
But according to The Voice contestants and even some of the judges, NBC has dropped the ball on its winners even before they have a real opportunity to see how they might fare against the Shawn Mendeses and Billie Eilishes of the world. In 2018, HuffPost reported on the post-competition careers of series’ winners. While Cassadee Pope, formerly of the already well-known pop punk band Hey Monday, stands out as someone who’s noticeably thrived after her experience and garnered several country hits, past winners such as Alisan Porter, Tessanne Chin, Craig Wayne Boyd, Javier Colon, and Sawyer Fredericks were either dropped by the Universal Music Group (The Voice’s prizes are $100,000 and a record deal with Universal Music Group or its subsidiary Big Machine Records, which are both part of NBCUniversal) or left on their own because of neglect. Winners Jordan Smith and Danielle Bradbery have found niche fame in the genres of Christian and country, but their marginal popularity still pales in comparison to what we’ve seen reality TV alumni achieve, from Clarkson and Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson to the men of One Direction.
The judges have said as much. Levine previously voiced his frustration about the mismanagement of the show’s winners on Howard Stern’s radio show in 2015. And the following year, Blake Shelton echoed the same sentiment at a press conference after the Season 11 finale, which a singer on his team, Sundance Head, won. Clarkson held the opinion in the aforementioned HuffPost article that the show doesn’t promise superstardom and underscored the value of seizing opportunities and “meet[ing] as many people as you can.” This is the response, although not sufficient in addressing NBC’s organizational issues, that’s probably the most in line with the show’s overall message of meritocracy despite the fact that the judges will often recklessly promise that they alone can transform the competitors into stars.
Which is why, during the premiere, when Grande mentioned her mammoth follower count on Instagram while convincing contestant Wendy Moten to join her team, it felt like the show inadvertently exposed the realities of modern fame that prevent a show of this format, on top of other structural issues, from ever truly working. Moten can sing her heart out before all of America week-to-week, fighting for her place in a competition that probably won’t reward her properly, or as easily as Grande can give her a shout-out on Instagram with a more guaranteed outcome. A new chart-topping star on the coach roster may bring the mega-watt star power and some occasionally funny moments, but The Voice can’t obscure its empty promises.