It was down to four on last night's season two finale of The Voice: Team Christina's mom-popper Chris Mann, Team Cee-Lo's Juliet Simms, Team Blake's soul crooner Jermaine Paul, and Team Adam's wind-up dancing troubadour Tony Lucca. One won. It was...
(Spoiler alert. Drumroll. Kazoo. Burp.)
Jermaine Paul, whom I'd never heard before this week, was the obvious choice just seconds into his performance of R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" on Monday's episode. Paul is plainly handsome and has an incredibly strong chest voice that he isn't afraid of screaming through for effect. He carried that volatility offstage, too: When pop barely-was Christina Milian interviewed him after the performance, he wept. That he was clearly moved by himself was slightly distasteful, although not off the mark for a burgeoning pop star, whose self-investment will be key to his success: He was just respecting his own brand.
Now the question is: will American actually hire him as its superstar? After one season, The Voice's track record for creating stars is laughable: last season's winner, Javier Colon (I know, right: who?) peaked at No. 134 on the Billboard 200 with his post-Voice album, Come Through for You. In contrast, an album that he released nine years earlier (before American Idol redefined the music industry) peaked at No. 91.
Paul faces an uphill battle in terms of format, too, as the grown and sexy soul singer is not so in vogue these days, not even on the R&B charts, really. Usher and R. Kelly are basically the only soulful superstars who can actually sing and sell. That Chris Brown represents to some kids what Teddy Pendergrass once did makes me want to stab out my eardrums and eyeballs. Trends come and go, and it's not ridiculous to imagine a church-invoking soul singer once again ascending to the top of the charts, especially in this time of supposed investment in vocal prowess. If Paul is lucky, he'll be that guy. If he isn't, he'll be America's next top Ruben Studdard. I'm rooting for the former scenario.
But of course I am — I was able to swoop in this week, evaluate the four finalists completely out of context and pick my favorite just based on my taste. They were all so compartmentalized by genre that I wouldn't be surprised at all to find out that this thing is rigged. The spread of styles was just too perfect.
It's strange, this emphasis we put on context and watching ascents to fame. It's an intensifying of our tabloid interests and pop's general lack of mystique in the first place (typically in pop music, outside factors like life story and music videos and public antics only enhance the listening experience). But it also betrays the simple, visceral connection one can make to a song. In the end, I wonder if context doesn't obscure more than it enhances.
As impartial of an observer to this overblown, low-energy spectacle of a finale that sparkle-trotted on for four hours this week and featured Darryl Hall & John Oates doing "Rich Girl" and Justin Bieber somnambulist-swagging through "Girlfriend," Christina Aguilera's protege Chris Mann seems the most likely to succeed. The Grobans and Bublés and Adeles of the world — those who appeal to an older audience — are the ones who move units, especially in the long run. That's the world Mann is looking to penetrate. Smart guy (although his cover of the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" skewed too Broadway to appeal to the masses). Adam Levine's Tony Lucca seemed way too vague of a performer when he wasn't just being douchebag (please, white people, stop making rap songs into sung songs, as Lucca did with a pandering, bluesy riff on Jay-Z's "99 Problems"). Cee-Lo Green's Juliet Simms is one of those pseudo-rowdy Joplin-esque types that only seems to exist on these shows (and even worse, her thin pipes were an inadequate backup to her image). Where do broken bad girls go when the season ends?
All the while, we were inundated with in-jokes: Blake Shelton/Adam Levine bromance, Cee-Lo's cat, Aguilera's inability to get along with anyone. It all seemed so half-hearted, as though the pointlessness of it all had settled in to those giant-backed chairs long ago. All reality-competition shows emphasize the means while the end remains kind of elusive — will the winner make something of this, and will we even care if he or she doesn't? Now with his prize of a Universal Republic recording contract (good luck with that), the 32-year-old Paul is looking to reverse that process, like everyone else who's won before him has attempted. I'm hoping that his end, in particular, is a happy one.