“There are 7 billion voices, and very few of them are unique and special.” That quote from R&B star John Legend was supposed to sum up the difficulty of trying to find two amateur vocalists with whom he could share the stage on Duets, ABC’s new entry in the reality singing sweepstakes. But in a larger sense, Legend’s weary commentary might also reflect the uncertainty of a TV audience that’s trying to figure out if it needs — or even wants — the search for new radio and iTunes stars to be a 12-month-a-year endeavor.
Indeed, with American Idol and The Voice running January to May, The Voice and The X Factor running September to December, and now Duets occupying the summer months, the question becomes: Are there enough unique and special voices to keep all these machines humming along tunefully?
The good news for Duets is that whether or not it manages to unearth the next Kelly Clarkson, it has the actual Kelly Clarkson as one of its judges/mentors/vocalists, as well as Legend, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, and soul crooner Robin Thicke. Each of these stars has taken two amateur artists under their wings, and instead of merely mentoring their performances, they’ll join them on stage and carry half the weight. In other words, you shouldn’t ever have to sit through more than a few minutes of this show without hearing somebody with legit vocal talent.
Duets also takes a “let’s cut to the good stuff” approach to the genre that’s almost jarring in its efficiency. “No cattle calls, no panels — just intimate moments,” said lively and not-at-all-annoying host Quddus, describing the show’s audition process where the judges reviewed audition tapes, then set out for one-on-one meetings where they figured out which two singers they wanted to work with. That the audition rounds were reduced to brief highlight reels preceding each contestant’s debut performance was oddly refreshing, and resulted in far fewer “my mom got hit by a bus and my dad is trapped in a bear cave” contestant backstories.
My only big complaint is the show’s “secret” scoring system: After a contestant and his/her celebrity partner finish their song, the other three judges anonymously score the performance on a scale of 0 to 100; the contestant’s name then appears on the leaderboard, but while we see where they’re ranked, we don’t see their actual point totals. Even worse, because their scores are never revelaed, the judges could conceivably give lower scores to the best vocalists, in an attempt to eject singers that pose the biggest threat to their own proteges. The folks behind duets Duets to realize that audiences who’ve grown up on Idol are sophisticated — and cynical — enough to spot injustice and sabotage like hawks eyeing prairie dogs from 500 feet. And without full disclosure of vote totals and how they came to be, the urge to swoop down and rip that leaderboard to bits is almost overwhelming.
Anyhow, let’s do a quick assessment of how the eight contestants fared in Week 1, during which they had to cover one of their mentors’ hits:
J Rome (with Jennifer Nettles): “Tonight” | As Robin Thicke pointed out, Jennifer is a beast (vocally speaking), which made it all that much more impressive seeing J Rome stroll out on stage and match his mentor on a song that’s all about big, gut-busting glory notes and soaring “whoa-oh-oh-ohs.” That said, I’m not sure if J Rome is slightly lacking in stage presence, or if it was just my intesne dislike for his black jacket with silver studded patch and low-scooping tank top.
Johnny Gray (with John Legend): “Ordinary People” | Johnny definitely benefitted from getting assigned one of the night’s best songs — and from a stripped-down piano arrangement that put his voice front and center. There were moments — like the line “seems like we argue every day” — where the student might’ve actually outsung the teacher. And yet the question is, though, is the contestant most likely to need his brow mopped by Quddus just a one-hit wonder? When Legend asked Johnny to tackle a second song in his audition, his vocal shed weight like Kirstie Alley after a couple weeks of Dancing With the Stars.
Olivia Chisholm (pictured, with Robin Thicke) “Lost Without You” | A life-sized Bratz doll with a voice reminiscent of the late Aaliyah? File under: Heck, yeah! Olivia’s breathy tone isn’t the kind you hear much on reality singing competitions, but don’t underestimate her just because of her feathery tone. She hit every note this time around, and never lost her way with the loose, freewheeling vibe of her mentor’s big hit. I just wish one of the judges had encouraged her to spend a little less time singing to Robin, and a little more opening up to the audience and the TV cameras.
Jason Farol (with Kelly Clarkson): “Breaking Your Own Heart” | I was surprised Kelly picked Jason for her team after he broke down crying while dueting in front of her concert audience of 6,000, but as Robin pointed out, the kid is adorable. What wasn’t so adorable, though, was the way the pitch slipped from Jason’s hands like that chick getting dropped by Stallone at the start of Cliffhanger. In other words, it’s not good to end a song with a gaspy, pitchy warble, but it’s even worse when you’ve got Kelly Clarkson crushing it like a tin can right alongside you.
Bridget Carrington (with John Legend): “Tonight (Best You Ever Had)” | Jennifer described Bridget’s performance as “sophisticated,” but was that just code for a tiny bit boring? A couple of Bridget’s riffs toward the end of the tune were promising, but it’s probably not a good sign that I spent half the performance focusing on how the top of her strapless blue dress looked like an intricately folded dinner napkin.
John Glosson (with Jennifer Nettles): “Stay” | I loved that Jennifer discovered her second duet partner by trolling 4H’s national awards banquet for potential talent, that she burst into tears listening to John’s booming version of “How Great Thou Art” in her hotel room, and that dude turned out to be from her own hometown (where her aunt raves about John’s performances in the church choir)! With his wacky pompadour and big glasses, John kind of came across like a modern day Roy Orbison, and the comparison was even more pronounced when he busted out his bell-clear vocals for a mournful rendition of “Stay.” Jennifer’s elated finger-pointing toward John as they finished the number said it all: Dude has a shot to win this whole thing — if Duets’ secret-scoring doesn’t turn into an excuse for sabotage.
Alexis Foster (with Robin Thicke): “Magic” | Team Robin might turn out to be my favorite overall, as church mouse Alexis bloomed into a full-fledged club diva nailing the syncopated rhythms, then riffing over the chorus of this disco-flavoted jam. I dug this performance so much, I couldn’t even roll my eyes when Robin shouted “come to papa!” after Alexis got solid feedback from the judges. Yep, Alexis has got that m-a-g-i-c.
Jordan Meredith (with Kelly Clarkson): “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” | I didn’t actually measure the length of each pre-performance package, but it certainly felt like this Kelly Clarkson superfan got more screen time than her seven rivals, didn’t it? But hey, when it’s episode one of a new reality singing competition, and you’ve got Kelly Clarkson as one of your selling points, you kind of need to play to that angle, right? Kelly clearly saw a diamond in a rough pair of shredded white jeans and fuchsia hair coloring, but on the live stage, Jordan’s nerves seemed to get the better of her, resulting in a quaky, off-key opening verse. Jordan’s vocals improved over the course of the song, though, and by the end, I had to agree with Jennifer and John that it was hard to separate the contestant’s voice from her superstar mentor’s. No, the goal of the show isn’t to cast the lead in a Kelly Clarkson cover band, but there are worse critiques you could give to a pop-diva wannabe, right?
Anyhow, it turned out there were no eliminations this week, but next week someone will get booted based on the judges’ combined scores. Here’s how the leaderboard looked after Round 1 — which elicited a playful “that’s a little suspect!” from Kelly — followed by my own personal ranking for the night:
What did you think of the premiere of Duets? Who are your early favorites? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps and interviews, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!