How to make Pharrell Williams unhappy: Ask him why The Voice hasn't produced a star

Judges on this season of The Voice are (from far left) Blake Shelton, Pharrell Williams, Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine. -- PHOTO: SPE NETWORKS – ASIA
Judges on this season of The Voice are (from far left) Blake Shelton, Pharrell Williams, Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine. -- PHOTO: SPE NETWORKS – ASIA

Judges say the singing competition show is about mentoring budding artists

Want to see Pharrell Williams rip someone's head off?

All you need to do is ask him why The Voice - the television talent competition that he is a judge on - has not produced a big commercial success like American Idol's Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood.

The 41-year-old singer and songwriter behind chart-toppers such as 2013's triple-platinum-selling hit Happy was anything but when a reporter put this question to him recently.

At a press conference with fellow judges Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton ahead of the show's eighth season, Williams turned what started as an amiable, banter-filled session into an awkward and tense affair.

Following on from a comment by Maroon 5 frontman Levine, who had claimed The Voice has had a "profound impact on the music industry", a journalist asks the judges why, if that is true, they "still haven't had a breakout artist like a Kelly Clarkson or a Carrie Underwood" and whether this is because the industry has changed since the early days of such reality TV talent shows.

Levine, 35, laughs and says: "You devil, you went there", but Williams fails to see the humour, snapping: "I don't understand why we have these interviews and people ask that same question every time. And I think it's because you're looking for something... that you can take back that's going to really bite.

"That's not why we're here to do this interview, we're here to do this interview because we want to explain to you what this is and what it means to us."

What it means to him and the other judges - who first select contestants based on their singing abilities alone, without seeing what they look like, before personally coaching them through the rest of the competition - is that they can pass on some of their experience as musicians.

Williams continues: "It's a gift to be able to pay forward everything that you've learnt. So every time you ask us the same question every interview, 'How come you never produce stars?', well, when was the last star you produced?

"When's the last time you gave someone mentoring or took the time out of your schedule to tutor and to actually deal with people's real emotions? Those kids... those tears are not fake. These are people - not robots - and so are we."

Admonishing the entire group of journalists to ask questions "that really deal with the show", he asserts that "the show is not about someone signing a record deal and getting signed", but about "a bunch of people who really care about people that they encounter, and make sure that they're changed when they walk off".

"Amen," says Levine as Aguilera and Shelton nod.

Levine and Aguilera go on to offer a more measured response to the original prickly question, arguing that the charts cannot be the only yardstick by which to judge the show, which they say achieves many less tangible successes.

While Levine says he believes the show will eventually birth a breakout success, he adds: "People kind of judge success like it's this all-or-nothing thing, and that's not the case. Being successful is really, really difficult. A lot of things have to come together at the right moment, whether it's on a television show or it's on a record label."

And a lot of the budding artists they mentor "are all better off and are at another level of their careers as a result of being on The Voice".

Aguilera, 34, adds that the coaching offered by the judges - which in previous seasons have included big names such as Gwen Stefani, Shakira, Usher and CeeLo Green - provides for "an amazing training camp" that will prepare the contestants "for what comes in the future, once they are not on the show".

Where the four-year-old talent competition does have a measurable impact, though, is in the lives of its celebrity judges, who often use it as a platform to launch their own music or boost a flagging career.

And this batch of coaches seems to have no qualms admitting it.

Levine has been open about the fact that the fortunes of his band Maroon 5 were in the doldrums when he first became a judge in 2011, while the show undeniably introduced 38-year-old country singer Shelton, who had been a big star only in the United States, to a much wider global audience.

On top of this, Levine points out that Aguilera's hit song Say Something, which partnered her with the duo A Great Big World, was launched on The Voice. "And they all won a Grammy for it this year," he says.

Aguilera nods. "Exposure," she says.

Levine continues: "The song was great, but it was also the exposure of the show."

The judges' chemistry at the press event is often seen on the show - they play up their on-screen rivalry and pretend to fight over how many wins each has. Williams praises the others as "the funniest people ever" and hints that the best stuff happens off-camera.

Yet Aguilera is quick to say "it's not just about us".

"It's great that you can share and feel proud of somebody that you've supported... all through this journey, which is crazy, and it's a lot of work for them."

For Williams, the show is a reminder, too, "that there's a lot of talent in America" and that some of the discoveries they make on the new season astonish even a professional like him.

"A lot of these kids are really good. I think you're going to be really surprised at how young these kids are. When they start singing, you stare at them. You're just like, 'What are you? Do you have a tail or three ears?' You would think that they've been singing for 30, 40 years," he says.

Levine adds: "They're not even old enough to be in the kind of pain they're singing about."

And for young talent such as the ones on the show, the road to success is bound to be a long one, notes Aguilera. Although she herself was discovered on The Mickey Mouse Club when she was a teenager, she says she had to wait many more years before she hit it big.

"So just to retrace that question, sometimes when the journey on the show ends, we don't need instant gratification for their success right away. Their journey is kind of just beginning."

stlife@sph.com.sg

The second part of The Voice Season 8 premiere airs tonight. It will continue to air on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7.55pm exclusively on AXN (StarHub TV Channel 511).