The concept is so simple it's elegant -- if elegant can be used to describe a show that starred Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera. That concept of judging singers on their talent, not on hard-luck sagas or hard bodies, instantly caught on. Witness the copycat shows.
When NBC launched "The Voice" two years ago, there was a glut of singing contests, yet this one, based on a Dutch show, proved different. It returns for a fourth season Monday, March 25, with new coaches Usher and Shakira joining returnees Blake Shelton and Adam Levine.
"All of the competition shows were cut from the same cloth, no thank you," host Carson Daly recalls thinking when he heard about it. "I still remember when the music business was vibrant. Karaoke on TV isn't for me. Ours is. We are going to help people. ... The coaches, not judges, was a big sell."
The coaches, who dropped recording, touring and promoting their careers to do this, agree.
"This gave me the opportunity to show the other side of what I do as an artist, a developer," Usher tells Zap2it. "They are going to need developing."
Working on this show was also an ideal fit for him personally, "to be able to have a little bit more stability in my personal life," Usher says. "That was something that was perfectly timed. The credibility of the show is why I decided to go with this. It is real, and you get invested in the stories of the people."
The idea of the coaches initially listening -- but not seeing -- hopefully continues to appeal.
"We all are not as pretty in our latter years," Usher says. "And the one thing that allows us to sustain as an artist is our voice. In life you can't turn your chairs -- pun intended -- and be ushered into the industry."
Though the show's format remains the same this season, each coach has a dozen singers instead of last season's 16. And this season will be different just by dint of the personalities of the new coaches.
"Nobody is bringing a parrot or a cat on the set anymore," Shelton says, referring to Green's cockatiel and feline. "Christina is a television show within herself. She is an entertaining person. Shakira and Usher bring their own style."
"As viewers of 'The Voice,' people will find out quickly they are taking it way more seriously than Adam and I ever took it," Shelton acknowledges. "They are in it to win it."
Shelton has had two of the show's first three winners.
"I wouldn't be hitting the button if I didn't think they could win," he says.
Shelton tries to impress upon the contestants that they need to "be themselves and not be afraid to stand for whoever they are," he says. "It doesn't matter to me what that is. I just want them to have the confidence to be that."
Having successful singers on "The Voice" also means this is the one show where the coaches entertain.
"If we could do a coach performance every week, we would," says Daly, who's also an executive producer on the show. "What differentiates us from any other singing competition is we have coaches who can do this and do it super well. This is one of our best coach performances. Usher, he does something in the coach performance that he has never done onstage before. These guys are very musical."
Daly notes that the linchpin of "The Voice" -- having the coaches select singers sight unseen -- makes it a pure talent contest. But what he loves beyond that is it is also a very democratic one. If two or more judges want the same singer, the singer decides.
"It is a fun process, the power shift," Daly says. "You have a 24-year-old sandwich maker, and he gets three chairs to turn around; now they are in it for the right reason. And all of a sudden he gets to interview them. And where else do you get that shift in power? Multimillionaires interviewed by a kid who makes sandwiches for a living."
Once picked for the teams, however, the work to win the recording contract with Universal Republic is just beginning.
"I am not going to make this s*** easy for them," Usher says. "There is great sacrifice for the mettle that I have been able to sustain as long a career as I have had. It is very hard work. It should be eventually a breeze. They have got to prepare and study and understand it is not just about getting on the stage and singing, and it is a little bit of who we all are as artists, and one thing that is consistent is a dedication and passion: They want to get invested in you if you really believe in yourself.
"Some of our greatest moments come out of having great supporters and mentors," Usher continues. "Those are the most valuable moments. I consider myself a consigliere of life experience."
Photo/Video credit: NBC