Morgan Wallen in a baseball shirt
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‘The One That Got Away’; What We Can Learn From Morgan Wallen's Run on ‘The Voice’

February 22, 2024 6:33 pm GMT
Last Edited April 15, 2024 10:38 am GMT

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Ten years ago at the famous Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, we watched a shy, long-haired 20-year-old boy from Sneedville, Tennessee step onto The Voice stage to sing a raspy, soft-rock rendition of Howie Day's ‘Collide’. That boy, whose name was Morgan Wallen, made it through the first stages of the competition, before being eliminated in the fiercely contested playoffs a few weeks later.

That tends to be the last we hear of the vast majority of contestants that have their journeys terminated at this stage. But in the ten years since his audition on Season 6, Episode 4 of The Voice, Morgan Wallen has become one of the most successful artists in the US - and undoubtedly the biggest artist in country music. Throughout 2023, his sprawling, eclectic One Thing At A Time earned him a plethora of accolades, including a staggering 11 Billboard Music Awards, while spawning the most streamed song of the year, the sultry, beat-driven ‘Last Night’.

The fact that one of Morgan's closest rivals within country, Luke Combs, was rejected for The Voice before even making it to the TV auditions has led many to pose the question: are these kinds of commercialised singing competitions actually any good at finding the ‘next big thing’, as they all seem to promise in one shape or form?

After both Shakira and Usher turned their chairs on that fateful day back in 2014, Morgan Wallen opted to join the latter's team, before being ‘stolen’ by Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine later in the competition. Ironically, the panel's only country artist, Blake Shelton, was unable to turn for Morgan, due to his team being full. Blake ruefully described Morgan in a later interview as “The one that got away”.

Morgan Wallen promptly exited the competition during the battle stages, after - crucially - choosing to sing a country song for the first time, Florida Georgia Line's balladic ‘Stay’.

Speaking about his experience on The Voice in an interview with Country Countdown USA, Morgan shared how the release of the chart-topping ‘Up Down’ with Florida Georgia Line in 2017 felt like a poetic moment, “I made the top 20. When I made it there, I got a list of songs to choose from. A Florida Georgia Line song was the only country song on the list, so I sang their song and got kicked off. It shows you how things come full circle. Now I have a song with them”.

Although American Idol has birthed stars such as Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert, the way that Morgan slipped through the net is pointed to as an example of the format's ineptitude at spotting raw talent.

While The Voice's producers will be kicking themselves for not keeping Morgan in the show for longer, the criticisms levelled at these compeitions don't feel entirely fair.

Watching Morgan Wallen's audition back now, along with his subsequent performances of One Direction's ‘Story Of My Life’, Avicii's ‘Hey Brother’ and Florida Georgia Line's ‘Stay’, it's striking just how far Morgan has come in the decade since.

His vocals throughout The Voice were underpinned by a rock-leaning sensibility and a rough-around-the-edges quality that he hadn't yet sharpened into the lethal, charismatic delivery he showcases on his latest release, ‘Spin You Around (1/24)’.

If anything, Morgan's progression from leaving The Voice to being the global figurehead he is today is a testament to the ‘Everything I Love’ crooner's artistic evolution, rather than being a symbol of The Voice's failure to uncover this diamond in the rough.

Having said this, there is a fascinating comparison to be made between the treatment of ‘country’ as a whole on these TV competitions ten years ago and today, especially as we gear up for the 2024 season of The Voice, which kicks off on Monday, February 26.

Throughout Morgan's performances on The Voice, there is a clear attempt to de-countrify his aesthetic. It's no accident that, as soon as he chose to perform a country song, he was eliminated. Today, by stark contrast, you have the unapologetically neo-traditional, mullet-adorned Bryce Leatherwood winning Season 22 of The Voice, while Iam Tongi triumphs in Season 21 of American Idol and subsequently releases a cover of none other than Morgan Wallen.

It seems Lainey Wilson put it best on her new single - ‘Country's Cool Again’. Post Malone, Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey - three titans of mainstream Pop, R&B and Hip Hop - are capitalising on country's explosion in popularity by venturing into the genre in 2024.

As a result, The Voice's rejection of Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs should not be viewed as a slight at them personally or even as signs of the format's irrelevance.

If anything, it's the opposite - it's because these shows are so interwoven with mainstream tastes that a country artist didn't succeed in 2014. Morgan failed to progress both because he was still honing his vocals, and because country just wasn't in at that time.

The Voice and American Idol provide snapshots as to which styles of music are fashionable and which aren't at any point in term. It definitely feels telling that, in the first episode of American Idol in 2024, there were two stripped-back, alt-country singers in the mould of Zach Bryan receiving high praise - Jack Blocker and Triston Harper.

So really, there are two key takeaways when viewing Morgan Wallen's run on The Voice in light of the immense success he's enjoying in 2024. Firstly, that Morgan is a completely different artist now than he was ten years ago, incorporating a satisfyingly disparate blend of genres into his unashamedly country sound, all while establishing himself as one of the leading vocalists in the genre today. Secondly, that country is back in the mainstream - and it's back with a twang.

Although Morgan Wallen described his rip-roaring collaboration with Florida Georgia Line as his ‘full circle moment’, it seems if we zoom out a little more, there's an even more powerful cyclicality to be found. After being eliminated all those years ago for seemingly being too country, now, there is a noticeable inclination towards country music on The Voice and American Idol and other singing competitions.

And who do we have to thank for this? It's difficult to look any further than Morgan Wallen himself, who - alongside Zach Bryan - has put country back on the mainstream map.

For more on Morgan Wallen, see below:

Written by Maxim Mower
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