The second season of The Voice Nigeria started with a bang and ended with a whimper.
Sunday 25 September 2017, things changed, perhaps forever, for twenty-two year old Daniel ‘Idyl’ Diongoli when he was announced winner of the Nigerian version of the popular reality singing competition. For this singular feat Diongoli secured for himself, a recording contract with Universal Music Africa, a brand new GS4 SUV, and an all-expense paid trip tour of Dubai.
This announcement was met with rumbles heard from Lagos to Lokoja.
It isn’t that Diongoli was a less than worthy winner. Indeed all the complaints levelled at the show cannot- and should not- erode the fact that the Bayelsa native deserved everything that came his way. From the season’s debut episode, when Idyl first showed up at the blind auditions singing a confident version of Bez’ Zuciya Daya, instantly convincing all four of the judges to turn their chairs and hit their buzzers, he has always been a contender. And a strong one at that.
But a combination of factors that include an undeserving co-finalist, dismal live performances, increasing audience apathy, weird song choices, disinterested, ineffective judges, and a general sense of poor judgement in terms of production choices, befell the show in its second season and invariably helped undermine Idyl’s big moment.
It’s show business
To get a feel of everything that was wrong with The Voice Nigeria in its second season, look no further than the tedious season finale. Because voting lines have closed to the public, and the main competition is more or less wrapped up by the time the final episodes of these singing competitions roll around, they are usually presented as event television, concerned less about competing for votes, than delivering the spectacle, while securing the big ratings.
The 12th season of The Voice (US) had non-competition performances from R&B legend, Gladys Knight as well as sometime judges- Jennifer Hudson, Cee Lo Green and Usher. For American Idol, a precursor and later, rival to The Voice in terms of ratings; finales usually play like a high profile concert, with enough big name guest stars, flashing bulbs and superstar pairings to light up a room in hell. The X Factor (UK) finale of last season had guest stars The Weeknd and pop diva Kylie Minogue.
All of these top draw performances serve to mark the time until the auditors make a show of verifying the results and the coronation can be performed. Apart from the compulsory performances from the judges, the main superstar draw for The Voice Nigeria’s season 2`was DNA Twins, who were signed to Mavin Records following their participation in season one. They were plugging a new single.
Incidentally the only performance Sunday night that felt like it deserved a place on the finale of a high profile event such as The Voice was Idyll’s close out, a rousing cover of John Legend’s This Time from his Evolver album. Perhaps that and #TeamYemi’s (Syemca, Chris Rio) sassy delivery of Ms Alade’s new single, Knack am. The rest of the night felt like an ultra-long episode of a bad karaoke outing with faulty singing, unimpressive dancing and a surprising commitment to mediocrity. Anyone who came to The Voice Nigeria for the first time that night would be forgiven for assuming the show was still in the preliminary stages.
To make matters worse, the judges, comprising an all-star cast of top flight performers- Waje, Timi Dakolo, Patoranking and Yemi Alade- replacing 2baba Idibia from last season- simply refused to do much in terms of actual criticism of the talent available to them.
The Voice (U.S) which that of Nigeria is directly modelled after, is structured such that at every point in time, there are two battles going on during the season; one amongst the contestants and the other among the judges, vying for bragging rights. The air of competition is usually thick but good natured.
Unlike American Idol that has minted superstars by the numbers- Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, from both winners and participants alike, especially in its earlier seasons, The Voice hasn’t quite managed to find such relevance even after 13 seasons. All it promises is a transient taste of the spotlight, gift items and nothing more really. But even that in this environment is more than enough.
A’rese Emokpae who won last season’s The Voice Nigeria released a single that wasn’t particularly promoted, and then jumped ship to be cast in the Africa Magic series Jemeji. Still Ms Emokpae has fared better than the contestants from previous or similar reality television shows. Only the MTN sponsored Project Fame has succeeded in making more superstars from its alumni base.
While the contestants on Season 2 acted at least like they were hungry for something, the judges could not really be bothered. It is difficult to assume what was running through their minds but the lack of urgency they displayed manifested in the quality of singers that were selected and presented to the audience to vote. There seemed to be a consensus to not hurt participants’ feelings and even truly terrible performances were rewarded with generous compliments.
For a prime example, look no further than improbable runner up and last man standing from #TeamPato, Ebube with his migraine inducing interpretation of the Wizkid-Drake single, Come Closer at the finals. Instead of letting him know just how terribly off the mark his singing was, Patoranking, who genuinely, may not know any better, thanked Ebube for ‘striving’ and ‘putting in work.’ Timi Dakolo who should actually know better, told him ‘You deserve to be here’ (at the finals) even when his presence there was simply one expensive joke taken too far.
This kind of lax and imprecise judgement was a recurrent theme throughout the show and at best, reinforces the idea that the show is set up to encourage warm and cuddly mentorship, as opposed to real hard charging criticism in the mould of Simon Cowell.
At the second live show, Obichi sang a mostly off version of Beyonce’s Freedom and her mentor Waje observed she had no flat notes. Oge slummed through Jennifer Lopez’s Love Don’t Cost a Thing and Yemi Alade thanked her for the effort. In the Battles round, Timi Dakolo after saving a particular candidate gave his reasons as, ‘…because one person left it too late to open voice.’
Beyond the inadequate advice, a larger picture emerged as the season progressed. The judges for one reason or the other, did not understand the talents that were assigned to them and as a result kept coming up with songs that were ill suited to the performers, some of whom are non-professional singers.
When contestants are selected to participate, they are usually given a list comprising about 4000 songs and asked to whittle it down by genre or personal choice to about twenty. From this list, judges now guide the song selection process based on the singer’s strengths, preferences and direction the judge decides to go.
Timi Dakolo for instance seemed to connect with Emmanuel Precious as they both gravitate towards big booming R&B/Gospel anthems that showcase the entire extent of their vocal registers. It isn’t any wonder that Precious’ song choices (I Have Nothing, When a Man Loves a Woman) reflected this strength, helping him stay longer in competition.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dakolo constantly undermined Kendris Ologidi, an exciting singer who peaked prematurely with a blind audition consisting of a spectacular arrangement of Christina Aguilera’s What a Girl Wants. Ologidi was punished particularly- and rightly so- for struggling with, and failing to conquer Bruno Mars’ 24 Carat Magic. Ms Alade on her part, didn’t know what to do with Wilson and for most of the time, he seemed like an ill fit for the show.
Shooting in a foreign country (South Africa) took its toll as busy schedules and conflicting demands made it impossible for less motivated judges to familiarize themselves with their team members. According to insiders who prefer not to be named because of a non-disclosure commitment, Yemi Alade and Waje were most quite guilty of this as they were constantly away tending to personal matters.
The result was a general failure of the contestants to thrive. This was manifest in the general quality of performances that took a nosedive every week, each one, worse than the last. This, despite the assistance of a superb live band and hardworking backup singers. Many of the contestants left the show as they came in, some perhaps even worse, and by the time they were down to the Top 4 final episode, only Syemca succeeded in putting out a solid performance. He was still booted out. J’Dess who showed some improvement and blossomed into a confident performer appeared to do so on her own, with little help from her mentor.
Winner takes it all
A significant portion of the ire directed at The Voice Nigeria this past season is because the set of finalists the show delivered was not the lineup audiences were expecting, neither was it the strongest it could have been. The worst offender as far as most were concerned was Ebube Joshua, the eventual runner up.
Having arrived with a passable rendition of Alex Carr’s Too Close in the Blinds, Ebube went on to fumble through all of his other performances including a difficult cover of Justin Timberlake’s Suit &Tie at the battle stages that remains awkward to look at. In fact, the only reason he survived that stage at all was because his partner, Grey was just as bad, maybe even worse.
Improbably, the viewers and his mentor, Patoranking considered him good enough and somehow, he kept surviving brutal eviction rounds. Even when Ebube had just one performance (Adele’s One and Only) that can be considered competitive the entire season.
At the point that voting lines are opened up to the public, only the viewers can directly influence which way the pendulum swings and this is managed through cold, calculated votes, in the millions preferably. All the talent in the world, and all the conversation on and offline cannot deliver a winner if they aren’t accompanied by real votes. Ebube’s team rallied and pulled out the vote regardless.
More instructively, for a show structured in the manner of The Voice Nigeria, a winner can only emerge if they are a hit with both the judges and the audience alike. This is something both Idyl and Ebube had in common. They were both redeemed at various points by the judges sure enough, but also by times when it mattered by the all-important audience votes. Critical and commercial success working hand in hand.
Season one had its critics but the loudest dissenters did not query the quality of the contestants nor the music churned out. The outrage revolved around the choice of the producers to shoot a seeming Nigerian franchise in South Africa.
A’rese Emokpae may not have been everybody’s choice for a winner- indeed nobody is- but her charismatic and confident set of performances at the season finale- she performed Think by Aretha Franklin and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah– left no one in doubt that she was the real deal. So were her talented co-finalists- Brenda, Cornel and Chike who made it a fight to the finish.
Made for TV
With 10million votes cast at the end of season two, The Voice remains quite popular. Adapted from the worldwide franchise which started with The Voice of Holland and became a global phenomenon with the North American version which debuted in 2011.
In order to keep the sponsors happy, and the show on the national consciousness, producers have to meet the challenge of not only seeking out quality contestants, but putting on a show worth talking about long after the last episode has aired. This involves selecting contestants that can get viewers excited and glued to their seats all season long.
With this in mind, producers, who meet the wannabe contestants, interview them and hear them sing long before the judges do, make it their business to select candidates that can translate effectively on television. This involves welcoming talented persons, charismatic persons, and those with relatable back stories that audiences can sink their teeth into and rally behind at the appropriate time. Idyl, Syemca, and even Ebube had some of this going on for them.
The second season of The Voice Nigeria isn’t quite the outrage some are making it out to be. Underwhelming, yes. Undercooked, certainly but it did serve its entertainment purposes at every turn. The writing could have been better, especially with the hosts- IK Osakioduwa repeating howlers like “’You are still in the runnings” does not speak well of the show. The judges need to step up their act too, widen their vocabulary and learn to dish out useful advice. And it doesn’t even have to be negative.
The Voice has one of the most interesting formats on television, one that was set up to entertain and help reduce bias, especially in the early stages. But it isn’t entirely without faults. The seasons start with the Blind Auditions, where contestants fight to make an impression to the judges whose backs are turned with hands ready to press the buzzer for the most striking voices that they hear. Performers who get only one turn from a single judge subsequently goes with the judge while those who get more than one have to make their choice after listening to the judges pitch.
READ: Why The Coaches of The Voice Nigeria Suck
While building their teams, the judges say whatever it is they need to to attract candidates they covet. One of the immediate drawbacks is that the judges will eventually disappoint these team members as the next round- the Battles- demands that judges pair the singers to compete in a face off and then pick a winner. Some of these pairings are unfair and good singers are occasionally let go by the same coaches who promised to help nurture their talent. See Grace who lost out a supreme diva off battle with Precious. By the Live rounds, judges can save only one person out of four team members while the voters decide the other lucky person. Life never promised to be fair.
All publicity is good so there is plenty of time to salvage The Voice Nigeria in its early days, before it goes the way of the dozens that have come before. A little fixing and tweaking should do the trick.
* The writer was informed after this piece was published that the show’s format prevents judges from criticizing contestants during the live shows.
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