I must admit, “The Voice” makes me cringe. I'm well aware that it's a personal issue. Compared to its brethren “American Idol” and “The X Factor,” “The Voice” comes up smelling like roses. At least it purports to be about the music. “Idol” and “X” are simply nauseating displays of ego – overinflated on the part of the judges, and desperately seeking overinflation on the part of the contestants, most of whom raise the degrading practice of bootlicking to a high art form.
“The Voice” is better than the competition, but it still makes me incredibly uncomfortable when my wife and son gather in front of the television and crank the absurd spectacle at window-rattling volume, and in surround sound, each week. Not wanting to be a total Scrooge, I at least fight the urge to flee screaming for my basement full of musical instruments in search of refuge, and stay in the room, under protest. I'll read a book and nurse an after-dinner cold one, and try to keep my thoughts to myself, not wanting to spoil the fun for everyone else.
What's my issue?
If I had a shrink, he or she would probably tell me it had something to do with a deep-seated fear of mediocrity in my own doings. Watching semitalented people struggle to gain the affection of a bunch of divas makes my skin crawl, and located somewhere in that reaction is probably a repressed fear that I might do the same thing if given the opportunity. Or maybe I just find all the oversinging and overemoting tiresome and not at all related to the aspects of music-making that have filled my soul with wonder, pretty much from the moment I learned to crawl.
Inevitably, after suffering through a couple of seasons of this stuff, by osmosis, I have gotten a feel for the show. And to my complete horror, I've discovered that I actually like Cee Lo Green.
Granted, the competition ain't too steep, as the saying goes – that dude from Maroon 5 (Adam Levine) reminds me of the Ross Geller character from “Friends,” minus anything resembling charm; Christina Aguilera is so full of herself, and so condescending to everyone else, that she makes Mariah Carey look like a positively well-adjusted human being; the token country dude (Blake Shelton) seems nice enough, but I can't get a read on who he actually is, in a musical sense.
But Cee Lo? He sits there in that swivel chair with a big Cheshire Cat grin on his face, as if he's half hoping the contestants will kneel before him and kiss his ring. He looks like he might have had a drink or two prior to the show's taping. And his body language and facial expressions suggest to me that his opinion of his cohorts is probably very similar to my own.
Simply put, Cee Lo gives off an aura of “I'm in this for the money, and it's kinda fun, too,” which goes a long way toward deflating the sense of self-importance displayed by pretty much everyone else who sits in one of the judgment chairs, or cowers like a sycophant in front of those chairs. “The Voice” is a joke, and Cee Lo looks like he's the only one who gets that joke. This makes him attractive, a welcome pinprick to the narcissism-inflated balloon.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Cee Lo might actually be a bit of a musical genius. In fact, long before “The Voice,” I liked Goodie Mob, the Atlanta-based hip-hop collective that Cee Lo was a part of in the days before his number was in Aguilera's contacts list. Particularly awesome to me was that group's 1998 effort “Still Standing,” which was the first record that featured Cee Lo busting out that incredibly powerful singing voice, and bringing an immense soul music influence into hip-hop.
And then there's Gnarls Barkley, the duo Cee Lo formed with Danger Mouse. This was where things got incredibly interesting. “St. Elsewhere” and “The Odd Couple” were wonderfully bizarre albums that defied easy description. Cee Lo sang his butt off on both of them.
In 2010, when Cee Lo dropped “F--- You,” well, he sealed the deal, for me at least. Here was a deliciously infectious marriage of soul and pop, a record with “massive hit single” written all over it. I adored Cee Lo for giving such an accessible ditty such an irreverent and off-putting title. (The clean version, “Forget You,” is just not as awesome, let's face it.)
All of this music appealed to me, but when Cee Lo showed up on “The Voice,” I stopped caring. It felt an awful lot like Steven Tyler joining the panel on “American Idol.” For me, Tyler was the raunchy Caucasian answer to James Brown. He was a freak, and the best Aerosmith albums were dirty, irreverent funk blended with hard rock. Seeing Tyler on prime-time mainstream network television was a deal-breaker. It felt like a betrayal. The feeling with Cee Lo was less intense – he never struck me as someone who would turn down an opportunity to be seen and heard, so why not raise the profile with a steady TV gig? But it was a bummer, nonetheless.
If his increasingly bizarre and awesome “performances” on “The Voice” began to warm me to Cee Lo a little bit, the release this week of “Cee Lo's Magic Moment” has sealed the deal. A holiday-themed collection of soulful, Motown-esque romps, including duets with both the Muppets (awesome) and Rod Stewart (less so), this collection brings the freak show factor back into Cee Lo land. Cee Lo sounds like an absolute maniac here, and if the very notion of the man doing a “Christmas album” is odd enough in itself, the fact that it's the most deliciously oddball collection of good cheer anthems this side of Bob Dylan's similarly out-there effort is the clincher.
Even Aguilera, who shows up to oversing on “Baby It's Cold Outside,” can't subdue the “bats in the belfry” aspect of this album. And “Merry Christmas Baby,” with Rod Stewart, is far better in the headphones than it is on paper – surprisingly, perhaps, the two singers find common ground in their obvious love for Sam Cooke, and their performances complement each other pretty handily.
But it's Cee Lo who steals the show with his incredible voice and equally incredible penchant for freakishness.
I can't help wishing he'd bail on “The Voice,” and get back to making records full time. Just sayin'.