Two things could happen with the BBC’s new Saturday night singing show I Can See Your Voice. It could be cancelled after a season. Or it could signal the death of the TV talent contest, making it hard for something that takes itself as seriously as The Voice to survive. No one believes, any more, that these programmes make stars out of ordinary people, as they throw themselves at the feet of their celebrity coaches and languish, forgotten, in terrible contracts if they win. So it’s time to unveil the craziest music show on television, which seems, in some pantomime, postmodern and super-camp way, to be sticking two fingers up to all of it.
Six people with strange aliases (The Club King, Pitch Perfect, Queen of Clubs) stand on a podium claiming to be singers. A celebrity panel and a pair of ordinary contestants then make assumptions, based on the way people look, about how they will sing. Some singers are good and some are appalling – properly so, not just poor (so far it’s less of the weedy, bleaty voice and more of the airhorn). If the contestants guess the bad singers correctly, they win £10,000. If they guess incorrectly, the singer wins £10,000.
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There are several baroque stages to the investigation process. There is a round where they lip sync: if they are good, they’re syncing to their own voice, but if they are bad, they’re syncing to someone else’s. There is a round where they’re quizzed on their career: half of them lie about their professional experience while photographic evidence, some of it fake, flashes up on a screen. Paddy McGuinness, fresh from ITV, riddles the audience further with a Macbethian reminder that “bad is good and good is bad…” And at the end, there is a duet in which the token musical panel member (say, Danny from McFly) engages in a serious performance with someone who – there’s a 50-50 chance – will just be shouting into the microphone.
The show has a strong tang of the 1990s. There is a potential minefield in terms of the stereotyping it requires, as panellists such as Jimmy Carr guess how someone will sound based on their physical appearance. And there is a sense of free-for-all on stage. Its energy called me back to Chris Tarrant’s Man O Man, which ran in the late Nineties, where men in small trunks lined up alongside a swimming pool, dancing, while an attractive female guest pushed the ones she didn’t like into the water.
I Can See Your Voice, somewhat disappointingly, comes from Korea – disappointing, because it’s nice to think that the BBC had sat down and designed it as a kiss-off to The Voice. It is as though the creators have asked themselves: what is most stupid and horrible about these TV singing competitions? How about the moment the singer opens their mouth and everyone starts clapping immediately, even when they don’t actually sound very good? I Can See Your Voice pulls that moment of tension even further forward, to the first micro-second that reveals a soar or a bellow. Literally nothing matters after that.
Most importantly, it rewards bad singing. There’s not much interest in the good singers – they are not here to win a record contract – but the bad singers, in what is unquestionably the greatest innovation of the show, get to perform the entirety of a song badly, while the celebrity panel and audience clap along delighted. It is an exact reversal of “next!”, of the buzzer, and a meta-celebration of the 15 (or three) minutes of fame. The best bad singer to have featured so far is the lady who used to go clubbing a lot in the Nineties (they stressed that) and is now a fitness instructor. She chose Black Box’s “Ride on Time”, whose opening scream was a fantastic vehicle for her utter non-voice.
Television has, in many ways, become extremely basic in response to the pandemic – consider the success of Grayson’s Art Club, in which people draw pictures at home and send them to Grayson Perry to judge. Recently the ITV show The Masked Singer put a celebrity in a vegetable or animal costume and made them sing while people guessed who they were. But I Can See Your Voice isn’t talking down to its audience. Rather, it effectively extinguishes the celebrity judge and puts the power in the hands of ordinary people with bugger all talent. In doing so, it unravels the false promises and unrealistic hopes built up by other TV talent contests, which have done so much to change how music is made. The show’s good singers are often already in music careers of a sort, trundling along with a few albums under their belt, or on the stage, or, in one case, teaching. The bad singers, meanwhile, are so bad that no amount of following their dreams will get them anywhere, and they seem to be fine with that.