Inside Stage 16 on Burbank's Warner Bros. lot, two young hopefuls are battling it out for a knockout-round spot on Team Shakira. But because this is The Voice, the coaches will trade just as many shots as the competitors.
No sooner have the aspiring divas finished a melisma-mad rendition of a Spanish-language ballad penned by their coach than Usher declares the song choice "narcissistic." While the quip is delivered with a smile, Shakira is not about to sit idly by and let Adam Levine, who quickly jumps to her defense, have all the fun. Especially when the Latin-music crossover star can deliver a smackdown in more than one language — which she handily does, to resounding cheers from the packed live audience.
And the winner of that battle is...viewers of The Voice, which, thanks to the lively chemistry of its revamped judging panel (so long for now, Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo!) and a diverse crop of talented contestants, is having one of its best seasons yet.
Of course, another big victor is NBC, which had until recently been in a ratings free fall. With the March return of its hit singing competition, however, the network is making gains. Not only did the numbers for Season 4's premiere top those of Season 3's — bucking the conventional TV wisdom that judging-panel shake-ups can equal ratings erosion (see American Idol, America's Got Talent and The X Factor) — but the show has continued to grow. The first week of the battle rounds (when coaches pair teammates for duets, then select one to advance, at which point another coach can "steal" the loser) drew more than 14 million viewers — a clear sign that fans consider the blend of charismatic newbies Usher and Shakira with vets Levine and Blake Shelton pitch-perfect.
"Obviously, we're thrilled," says Paul Telegdy, NBC's president of alternative and late-night programming, who acknowledges that replacing half of the show's winning panel at once was a risk. "We've watched transitions on other singing shows and seen them done right, half-right and really wrong. The impact of someone leaving is something we wanted to be prepared for and were very proactive about." In fact, executive producer Mark Burnett anticipated the scenario when the show first became a smash two years ago. Call it the price of doing business with current chart-toppers: "If you want big stars," he says, "the consequence is they can't all be there all the time."
When, during Season 3, both Aguilera and Cee Lo expressed a desire to get back to their day jobs, the producers zeroed in on two A-list candidates with mass appeal who could also retain the panel's diversity. Pop and R&B powerhouse Usher had originally been approached about joining Season 1 but turned it down. This time, host and producer Carson Daly, whose relationship with the singer goes back to his days on MTV's Total Request Live, pushed hard. After the singer completed an interview on Daly's Los Angeles-based radio show, the host recalls, "I asked my producer to leave the room and had a good 20 minutes with him. I just said, 'Me, Adam, Christina — we all had the same feeling you have now about singing competitions on TV. But, I promise this is a great show for you.'"
After checking out some episodes, an impressed Usher agreed. "It's an opportunity for me to give some lessons about how to be an artist and what it takes to nurture yourself to be a winner," says the self-proclaimed perfectionist, who mentors Justin Bieber. "I've had to come off my square and come out of my natural cool demeanor to really get my hands dirty working with my talent. I'm serious about being a coach."
So is Colombian singer-songwriter Shakira, who resides in Barcelona with soccer-star beau Gerard Pique. She nearly passed on The Voice because of the months-long shooting commitment in L.A. Becoming a mother in January isn't the sole reason for her recent exhaustion. "During the battle rounds, I couldn't sleep," she says. "I was thinking of one of the contestants I had to let go. I seriously thought he was gonna get a steal, but he didn't, and I had it in my mind all night. I felt horrible. I know it's a TV show, but we're talking about people's lives and dreams."
That anxiety seems likely to increase with the knockout rounds, beginning April 29, when coaches will pit two of their team members against each other for sudden-death sing-offs that will ultimately cut the number of contestants in half and determine who moves on to the live shows — and becomes a candidate for viewer votes. (Pity the poor soul who gets tossed into the ring with Team Adam front-runner Judith Hill.)
While this season's winner won't be crowned until June, casting for Season 5's blind auditions has already been completed, and contestant scouting for Season 6 is well under way. Burnett is less prepared to discuss who will be coaching all that talent. "At this point, it's all about figuring out schedules," says the producer. "There are a lot of moving parts."
Shakira confirms there have been early discussions about doing another season. "But my life is quite complicated right now with the baby," she says, "so I can't say what's gonna happen." Telegdy does cop to wanting to keep popular "key players" Shelton and Levine on board, but the country singer and the Maroon 5 front man haven't yet officially signed on.
"Adam and I have talked about it," Shelton reports, "and I've said, 'Listen, if you're ever out of here, let me know, because I'm out of here, too.' That might be 20 years or a year from now — who knows. But I don't wanna do it unless he's there."
Levine says that the feeling is mutual. "Blake's become one of my best friends in the world," he says. "For now, I'm just taking it day by day." And note by note.