I was convinced that Taylor Hicks would not only win the 2006 season of “American Idol,” but would also become wildly successful as a recording artist. I was so convinced of his ability to appeal to a range of audiences, that I told anyone who would listen he’d be the most popular “Idol” of all time.
History has shown what a dope I am. But not all reality singing show competitors suffer the fate of the hapless Soul Patrol. “AI” has produced a couple of superstars—Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood—as well as scads of mildly successful pop drones—Daughtry, Phillip Phillips, Kellie Pickler. Indeed, the show has cranked out a good number of musicians, winners or no, who are not entirely repulsive.
NBC’s “The Voice” is a different story. The show with the revolving judges’ chairs, which has largely taken over as the most popular singing competition in the world, has somehow failed to produce any notable stars. Even with the likes of Blake Shelton, Adam Levine, CeeLo, Christina Aguilera, Usher, and Shakira “coaching” competitors through the show’s concerts, the most successful alumni is probably Cassadee Pope. And very few people reading this know who the hell Cassadee Pope is.
So what should we expect when Melanie Martinez, the funky indie chick who was bounced from “The Voice” after making the top six in 2012, plays the Southern Café and Music Hall on June 14? She’s arguably the most interesting contestant ever to run through the show, with her two-tone hair and melancholy rearrangements of the day’s biggest hits, but there’s something inherently odd about glorified karaoke singers taking the stage to do their own material.
Martinez doesn’t have much of her own material yet, but the lead single on her EP Dollhouse is compelling. While the concept is predictable—a cynical look into an ostensibly perfect American family—the melody is catchy and the hook sticks in your head. USA Today has gone so far as to compare the 19-year-old New York native to New Zealand’s international sensation Lorde.
“I’m just excited to be putting out original music,” Martinez said. “This is like a new slate for me.”
This tour is the second headlining road show for Martinez, who took her acoustic act around the country after “The Voice” ended. On that tour, she played covers, mostly those that she had made popular during the competition.
But don’t go to the Southern expecting to hear Martinez’s “Voice” covers this time around. The singer and guitar player is determined to leave her reality show roots behind and expects to play mostly originals.
“When I did the acoustic tour, that was all I was singing, because the audience just wanted to hear ‘The Voice” stuff,” she said. “I am kind of past that point.”
Martinez wants to position herself as a singer-songwriter, not a teen pop star. (“The audience is a lot of teenage girls, but these are really cool girls,” she said.)
The verdict is still out on whether she can pull it off. So far, she’s only produced the EP, a four-track teaser for the full-length she expects to release in July. Like the lead single, the three also-ran tunes riff on the same good girl-with-an-edge melancholia established by “Dollhouse,” a motif that is possibly the only thing Martinez contributed to the record entirely on her own.
“It’s always about concept, about story,” she said. “Then I get inspired by the music.”
Martinez calls herself a “lyrics girl,” someone who’s looking to tell a story with her music. The story is not necessarily her own, though. She grew up in a happy household, she said, a fact that’s obscured by her macabre lyrics.
“I just like telling stories in general. It doesn’t matter if I have been through them,” she said. “I write about everything. When I was younger, I used to write about sex trafficking and domestic violence. I love telling stories to make people aware of these issues. It is really sad music but covered up with this cotton candy facade.”
The facade is enhanced by Martinez’s eye for the aesthetic. She’s an amateur photographer in addition to a musician, and her sense of what looks cool goes beyond dyeing her hair two distinct shades.
“I take my own artist pictures,” she said. “The look of everything is very close to my heart, and that is what I am putting into my music.”
As far as melody and musicality, Martinez gets some help from a few veteran songwriters and will be joined onstage by Mike Squillante and Chris Miles. And while the young star clearly doesn’t want to talk about “The Voice” these days, she does claim at least one other well-known rockstar in her corner.
“Me and Adam [Levine] are still friends. We talk, and he is really supportive,” she said. “Early on in the show, you don’t really know your coach that well—you don’t have as many rehearsals with them—but at the end, that is when you get to know your coach and see them more often.”
Hopefully Levine has given Martinez enough tools to avoid becoming the next Taylor Hicks.
Do reality TV contestants have a shot at indie success? Tell us in the comments section below.