“The Voice” never explicitly pitched itself as the anti-”American Idol,” but arriving on the heels of a key transition season for “Idol,” and in advance of the fall arrival of “The X Factor,” helmed by former “Idol” center of gravity Simon Cowell, “The Voice” had a narrow window of time to justify its existence, to demonstrate that it could do things that “Idol” could and would not.
Quite by accident, it achieved that with this week’s finale, which celebrated two constituencies historically underserved by “Idol.” Two of the four finalists were major label refugees: Javier Colon, onetime neo-soul footnote, and Dia Frampton, late of the pop-punk band Meg & Dia. The other two finalists, Beverly McClellan and Vicci Martinez, were openly gay, notable because of how silent the “Idol” universe has been on homosexuality.
In the end, on Wednesday night’s result show, the second chance beat out the big break. Mr. Colon was the winner, and Ms. Frampton placed second: two professionals given a chance to be professional once more. Each of them, though, are fighting in a different weight class than they used to.
Ms. Frampton, whose outfits became more flapper-like as the season progressed, traded the transgressive sass she displayed in Meg & Dia for understated soft-rock balladeering, delivering covers with intelligence but no edge. Mr. Colon, who released two albums of tender but tepid soul on Capitol, refashioned as a gentle lite-rocker, added flair to his renditions of songs by Coldplay and Sarah McLachlan.
Of the top four - better than most top fours in “Idol” history - Mr. Colon was the most predictable and benign. Ms. McClellan and Ms. Martinez, powerhouse singers and raucous performers, were this season’s true breakout stars.
On Tuesday’s final performance show, Ms. Martinez’s duet with Cee-lo Green, of Pat Benatar’s “Love Is A Battlefield,” was the standout, with the two squaring off in warrior outfits while surrounded by what could have been the Thunderdome pre-school dance troupe. Ms. McClellan’s astonishingly restrained version of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” sung with Ms. Aguilera, wasn’t far behind.
In the way that dog owners come to resemble their dogs, or vice versa, these celebrity coaches ended up with personality and attitude matches: Ms. Martinez, an unpredictable firebrand like Mr. Green; Ms. McClellan, an unalloyed vocal powerhouse like Ms. Aguilera; Ms. Frampton, with the polite confidence of Blake Shelton; and Mr. Colon a feather-light slickster like Adam Levine.
How these pairings were formed over the course of the very compact season - only about two months from first audition round to finale -often had the thrill of the random. Structurally, “The Voice” has been a frenzy, with rules and segments that appeared to be cut from whole cloth each week, or culled from the discard pile of could-have-been “Idol” improvements. Blind auditions! Face-offs in a boxing ring that were really just duets! Early-round performances with Broadway production values! Some rounds allowed for days of voting, some just one. Some eliminations were broad and brutal, wheat sent off with the chaff, and other contestants overstayed their welcome. (Sorry, Thompson sisters.)
Most importantly, “Idol” is at root an adversarial show, judges vs. contestants. “The Voice” privileges collaboration between the aspirants and the judges, who also serve as mentors, participating in the week to week song selections and arrangements, and appearing side by side on the finale. This is a no-hurt zone. Over the course of the season, the coaches went out of their way not to say anything negative to any contestant, even ones coached by others.
Those judges were all at different stages of their careers - Ms. Aguilera and Mr. Levine on the decline, and Mr. Green and Mr. Shelton on the rise - but they each remained invested throughout the season. That meant that on any given week, “The Voice” deployed more legitimate talent than “Idol” would, even in its most recent, star-heavy season. Without the coaches as anchors, “The Voice” would have slipped off the rails several times. (There’s no need, though, to continue the garish all-judge performance numbers next year - no one deserves those.)
Mr. Green, as it happens, is a mystic poet in addition to being one of the most vibrant and dangerous singers in contemporary soul. Ms. Aguilera had more of a sense of humor than she’s ever shown before, and Mr. Shelton was simultaneously wide-eyed and cheekily curmudgeonly. By contrast, Mr. Levine only revealed that he has narrow taste - he admitted to not recognizing hits by Rascal Flatts, Adam Lambert and the Script sung by the contestants.
Presumably Mr. Levine will have acquired a radio before next season. And for a show that thrived on strange twists, there should be room for more. How about letting the coaches steal contestants from each others’ discard piles? Or having viewers vote for singers they can’t see, just as the judges do? And how about giving the host Carson Daly — squarer than ever, not nearly as comfortable as he is on his late night show — a massage before each show?
“The Voice” initially relied heavily on its blind audition gimmick to stand out — who wouldn’t want a spinning chair to enter and exit conversations at will? — but the show sustained interest long after identities were revealed. In making Mr. Colon the show’s winner, America didn’t just vote for the voice - it voted for the most obvious pop star of its finalists, something even “Idol” doesn’t always do. For now, “The Voice” is just a new model for proving the old rules, but it’s risky and surprising: it could be much more.
The top 8 finalists from “The Voice” will perform at the Beacon Theater August 6