LOS ANGELES - As Usher critiques a Voice singer, praising her power but worrying about her confidence, her team coach Shakira interrupts to defend.
"You're bringing down my girls," she says. "You're being super-negative."
The coaches are ultra-competitive as the hit singing competition tapes a battle round for its sixth season (NBC, beginning Monday, 7 p.m. MT). With last spring's cycle under their belts, Shakira and Usher now have experience facing perennials Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.
"Having had the opportunity to make it through a season successfully, having someone in the finals, it makes me excited about what could potentially happen," Usher says.
NBC reality chief Paul Telegdy has high hopes for the recombined panel, in which Shakira and Usher for a second time take the seats of Christina Aguilera and CeeLo Green, who said last week he won't return.
"It's frequently the case that the second season in which a panel is together is kind of golden. They've learned each other," he says, promising a "big surprise" in the show's format.
In a recent interview with the coaches and host Carson Daly during a break in taping, a combative camaraderie is evident.
Usher takes a dig at Levine's status as People's "Sexiest Man Alive." When Daly jokingly tells Shelton that nobody knew who he was before The Voice, the popular country singer shoots back, "Well, I was never on TRL," referring to Daly's past hosting MTV's teenybopper music-video show. After Shelton makes a funny visual gesture, Levine says, "When somebody is less mature than me, it's an amazing achievement." Shakira, in between complimenting her colleagues, acknowledges: "Adam is 12 and Blake is, like, 11."
"The cordial, nicey-nice (of last season) is gone. It's full-on, 'What's your problem?' this go-round," Shelton says of the coaches' give-and-take.
That tenacity might apply in a larger sense to the singing competition's rise against the longtime king of the genre, Fox's American Idol, which has seen another ratings decline since beginning its 13th season in January.
The Voice beat Idol last spring among young adults, and trailed by just 5% in total viewers (14.2 million to 15 million), winning the Emmy that has eluded Idol. Last fall, The Voice rose to 14.8 million, clobbering Simon Cowell's recently canceled The X Factor.
Levine praises Idol, which has produced stars such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, but says he prefers The Voice.
"American Idol is a classic institution, but it's a very different institution. They've launched so many amazing careers, they've done such a good job with that, sometimes a better job than we have. I believe that's something we have to improve upon," he says.
Levine believes The Voice has influenced Idol, from this season's all-performer judges' lineup to their more supportive tone. "They started to sing a different tune, no pun intended, about how they want to be nicer," he says.
The Voice coaches say their show gives them the advantage of getting to work with singers they pick for their teams, rather than just judging them. "We're artists ourselves, singers and songwriters, and we've been in their shoes more than once. We know exactly how it feels to be up there and to be judged by every single person in the audience," Shakira says.
Although The Voice hasn't produced a major star, the coaches and Daly point to singers who have gone on to music careers, including Cassadee Pope, Danielle Bradbery, the Swon Brothers, Gwen Sebastian and RaeLynn.
"We never got together and said 'we're going to make stars,'" Daly says. "Is Kelly Clarkson the only identifiable prism of success, or is Jamie Lono, who doesn't have to make sandwiches in Chicago anymore," because he's touring? "Or the Swon Brothers, who don't have three jobs (and) are actually making music for a living thanks to you guys? That's success."
Here's what each coach had to say, in a joint interview, about the upcoming season.
Adam Levine, sixth season (two team wins), frontman for three-time Grammy winner Maroon 5.
Blake Shelton, sixth season (three team wins), CMA Entertainer of the Year.
Shakira, second season, two Grammys and nine Latin Grammys.
Usher, second season , eight Grammys.
When you were coming up, as Voice singers are, who did you look up to?
Adam Levine: "When I was a kid, I loved Pearl Jam because they kind of stuck it to the man a little bit and did things their way. They did things on their own terms, and that was the way they had to do it. ... (Also) The Beatles, bands that tried different things and went in different directions and were unafraid to experiment.
Blake Shelton: "Growing up in Oklahoma, it was Reba McEntire. She was from the same area that I was born and raised, and just knowing that someone from a nowhere town in Oklahoma could go on and become Reba was inspirational."
Shakira: "I really didn't have a role model. I grew up loving alternative rock from Seattle, like Nirvana, and also classic rock bands like Zeppelin and Depeche Mode, which is like my No. 1. I knew that I was not going to become one of those artists," in terms of similarity of style.
Usher: "Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway and many others."
What does the musical adviser you're working with bring to the show?
Levine: "Aloe Blacc is amazing. What's great about him (is) he's been doing this for a while, but he's just now breaking and making it for the first time, which is very inspirational for these guys, too, to see. That's a very valuable perspective to have."
Shelton: "Being a solo artist trying to coach these artists through battles, my weakness is harmonies. I'm just not good singing them. So, I wanted somebody who could help me divvy up those parts and be an expert. The Band Perry is a family harmony group with a lot of success and experience."
Shakira: "Miranda Lambert (Shelton's wife) is just one of the most down-to-earth artists I've ever met but also very knowledgeable. It's very refreshing to find such an expert, but at the same time (have her) be so humble about it, so unpretentious." Did she share secrets about how to beat her husband, Shelton? "Hell, yeah. I'm just not going to bring them out."
Usher: Jill Scott "helped me identify with some of the things that I would have never been able to explain," such as her ability to advise female singers. And she gave her perspective based off great musicianship. I had artists from different genres I'd never experienced - country, rock - and being able to have her to bounce ideas off of was 100% helpful."
What do you admire in one of your fellow coaches?
Shelton: "When Usher hits his button and the rest of the three of us hit our buttons, too, and he's just sitting there purposely not saying anything, just giving this (singer) the Usher eyes, it's absolutely devastating to anybody that tries to" compete for the performer.
Levine: "Shakira is one of the most unique-sounding artists. It's so distinguishable. I think that's really special."
Shakira: "I just feel so honored to be surrounded by these guys. They're so, all jokes aside, really talented and smart and hard-working. I think I'm working with the biggest stars on the planet, but at the same time they are so cool to hang out with."
Usher: "Adam is witty, he takes risks, he's well-versed in many different genres of music. As for Blake, what an incredible personality. He's more of the authority given that he's won this three times, but it never goes to his head."
(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)