Dec. 16, 2013 at 12:06 PM ET
The tables have turned on “The Voice.” Last season, coach Blake Shelton had two singers in the finale, and Adam Levine was reduced to the role of spectator. This time, it's Levine with two acts remaining heading into Monday’s final performance episode, and Shelton who will be bantering with host Carson Daly.
What happened? Simple. The Maroon 5 frontman found the winning strategy: If you can’t beat Shelton, join him.
Not literally (sorry, extreme bromance fans). Instead, the rocker has spent this season utilizing a strategy that the country star worked to perfection during his three-season winning streak: Give your singers the right material, and look charming.
Put everyone in position to shine
For all of Shelton's folksy wisdom and image as a guy more interested in special lattes than strategizing, he’s been a brilliant coach. That's because more than anyone else, he understands how “The Voice” works. It’s not about stretching your artists to expand their musical horizons or showing the range of what they can do. It’s about giving your singers material they can sing and that the audience will love, and working with them to make their strengths even stronger.
Levine managed his final trio perfectly in that regard, even if James Wolpert bowed out in the semifinals. Tessanne Chin turned all four chairs, but she’s a singer who could easily have gotten lost because there’s no obvious niche for her on the radio. Levine took advantage of her vocal power to showcase everything she can do well — and nothing that she can’t. Going from “Redemption Song” to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” sent one clear message: This woman is made of awesome.
Will Champlin is another guy with an interesting and powerful voice, but no obvious path to commercial success. To combat that, Levine's had him sing Imagine Dragons twice – “Radioactive” in the Battle Rounds and “Demons” in the Top 12. It’s possible Will's career may go in a different direction, but those song choices make it easy for people to see him as a star down the road.
For an example of what not to do, look at coaches CeeLo Green with Caroline Pennell, and Christina Aguilera with Matthew Schuler. Green took a singer with an ethereal voice — who showed she could be memorable singing Justin Bieber, for crying out loud — and had her perform “Wake Me Up” by Avicii. Going up-tempo is fine, but how about a stripped-down Adele or anything else that suited her voice better?
And if you’re Aguilera, your job as a coach is to talk Matthew out of singing One Direction and pick something that plays to his strengths and doesn’t leave him looking out of synch and out of breath. If she'd done that, he might still be in the game.
The songstress probably has an easier job with Jacquie Lee, the lone non-Levine finalist, given that younger girls tend to find success on these shows. But even here, Aguilera's all over the place with what she’s had Jacquie sing, and the hopeful hasn’t stood out as she otherwise might have.
In contrast, look at how Shelton handled winner Danielle Bradbery last season: country all the way. Do one thing and do it great.
Levine’s always been likable as a coach, so this isn’t anything new. But he’s also seemed to take extra pleasure this season in turning on the charm.
From the beginning of the blind auditions, none of the coaches wanted Shelton to get his fourth straight win. How much of that is genuine competitive instincts? Who knows? But it could have made the country star a sympathetic figure who was being ganged up on by his jealous rivals.
It didn’t come across that way. Part of that’s because of how the show’s been framed: You can’t emphasize the bromance and also a bitter rivalry at the same time. But Levine’s been able to display his desire to win in a fun way. From the first four-chair turn he won, the message was clear: "Pick me! I think you’re awesome and I’ll make you even more awesome, and I really want to win!"
Remaining likable may be easier when you’re People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, but he’s been ruthless in calling attention to what makes his contestants worth voting for other than their talent. James, for example, was sick during one of his subpar performances. Will’s wife is going through health problems. Tessanne has unnamed but alluded-to issues in her personal life that apparently made “Bridge Over Troubled Water” even more poignant.
The big question now is the bromance: Is the affection between Shelton and Levine real? Or was Levine just trying to get close to Shelton in order to steal his secrets for success? If it’s the latter, he may be just hours away from pulling it off to perfection.
"The Voice" finale airs Monday at 8 p.m. and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NBC.