By Steve Baltin
Season four of "The Voice," featuring Usher and Shakira filling in for Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera, taped blind auditions recently, and Rolling Stone had a chance to watch the new judges in action. What we saw in our brief glimpse into the new season was that there will be no messing around. All four judges, including returnees Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, mean business.
When we spoke to Usher at iHeart Radio in Las Vegas in September he promised to promote a competitive edge, but he isn't the only one bringing that attitude. At the audition we saw some friendly competition between Usher and Shakira over one contestant, and when Usher bested Levine for another vocalist at the audition, he playfully taunted his fellow judge.
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During a junket featuring all four judges and show creator Mark Burnett, Shelton confirmed this season will give new meaning to the term "battle rounds."
"I would say the competitiveness is up," he said. "We've replaced Cee Lo with somebody that's just that much more aggressive. And Christina was always competitive, [but] now you've got four that are just killers up here."
Levine agreed that Shakira might be the one they have to watch out for. "You have a pregnant, hormonal Colombian," he says. "She's ready to bust some heads. She ain't messing around."
Shakira said she is happy to be welcomed with humor, as it shows her she is part of the family. "Spending some time with these guys, I can only tell you that it is the best -- they joke all the time and make me laugh onstage, offstage," she said. "They have been such great hosts making us, Usher and me, feel at home at all times."
But the battle we witnessed over contestants was real, she insisted: "There's a lot of competitiveness, of course. Once we are in the process of trying to get a contestant recruited for our team, there's a lot of adrenalin, and there's a lot of tension, but the healthy kind."
Both of the new coaches believe they bring more than just a new intensity. "You can't really compare my style to anybody," Usher said. "My style is more military than anything, because I'm all about the preparation and have always been. I rehearse a million times to be prepared. My style is to make them understand the seriousness of the craft and that they have the very best opportunity to be the greatest or the worst, depending on how you take it."
As for Shakira's approach, she views it as very involved. "Besides being a singer, I'm also a producer and writer. Once I'm in the recording studio, I am so hands-on," she said. "While I'm coaching my team I tend to focus on the detail. I don't know if it's maybe because of the female condition, but men are more focused on the general aspects, and women tend to sort of focus on details a lot. And so when I'm giving directions to my contestants I'm particularly focused on details."
"She plays the female card quite a bit," Levine said. "That's one thing we can't compete with, really."
As the proven commodities, Levine and Shelton, who between them coached the winning contestants in all three previous seasons, feel they still have an edge. "There are many advantages to being the seasoned veteran, starting with we've seen about 4,000 more auditions," Levine says. "We fell into the traps that the newbloods will fall into and dig themselves out of because they are strong, and they will survive, but we know from experience where we've been, where we're going, how to get through this. But these guys are smart and quick studies, so they are probably going to get better quickly, and it's going to suck for us because then they will probably win this damn thing."
Usher brings in his own experience, having mentored Justin Bieber to the top of the charts, and Levine says that does count for a lot. "As much as I hate to say this about another coach in the beginning, Usher has done what this show has yet to do," he says. "You have launched a superstar, and that's our goal. That's the show's goal. That's something we want to do as an institution."
Usher agreed. "The one thing that I hope is to come into this show and be able to score an incredible entertainer that people will talk about for years and years and track it back," he says. "I am kind of a living example of that. I started on Star Search, and my career kind of launched from there."
How long he and Shakira will remain on the show is up in the air. "Everybody can't coach for life," said Burnett, "because when you have people with current recording in the game, this is not their job. Their job is their fans and making music and being live, and so we knew from the beginning that this would happen. They all have another life and their schedules."
Shakira concurred that while this is where she is now, her music comes first. "We are not judges. It's not what we do for a living," she said. "We have musical careers that we have to attend to, but we are embarking on this great adventure and enjoying it until we feel that we have to get back to our first and most important duties with music."