Admittedly, I am a singing reality show junkie, someone addicted to watching hopeful singers step on to the televised stage in a battle for votes. Week after week, I appraise a cavalcade of vocalists whose voices often blare on indistinguishably one from the other. I marvel at neophyte prodigies who bring gifts far beyond their years, and I cheer seasoned veterans who have cultivated their craft with precise yet surprising musicality. All this I do from my living room couch with improvised authority.
The Voice, for those who don't necessarily watch, is the reigning ratings queen of singing competitions. Closed for the seventh season this past December, its eighth season has been up and running since the end of February, providing relief for any withdrawal symptoms I may have been experiencing. The show's unique angle is set up at the start: celebrity musical coaches turn their royal red chairs, throne-like in stature, to judge contestants based on voice alone. The show’s creators attest to the integrity of this practice with pride: judges listen solely for vocal quality, whether it is unique timbre or tone, musical or technical agility, or soulfulness. Come the live rounds, however, viewers take charge, voting for their favorite singer not only for vocal quality but for the package deal, the magical mix of voice, image, and stage persona that seemingly spell – s t a r.
The show debuts each performer by stripping the contestants down to their vocal essence before building the performers back up in full-bodied, high-definition color. No unfair advantage there. In fact, the stage is primed for drama or a maudlin imitation of it as contestants reveal hard luck and trauma as back story. Our empathy is summoned for contenders who have undergone recent loss, but who, nonetheless, possess unremitting hope, the commodity that attracts the young and aspiring to the show.
Real behind-the-scenes work happens during the coaching segments. Consummate singers and musicians like Usher, Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera have facilitated transitional moments, divulging what the NBC web site page calls “secrets of their success.” Building rapport with his team members, Blake Shelton’s gentle manner invites viewers in. But teaching and the relationships we build with students is a complex dichotomy. While teachers and coaches model and impart their knowledge and values, they must step back to give the learners ample space and credit for what meaning they make on their own. What happens when those coaches are celebrities whose careers are hitched to a high-rating show or, at the very least, are enhanced by weekly exposure on that show? Might they not be inclined to share the platform with their students as a self-promotional tool and take more credit than they deserve? How much instrumental change can the coaches on The Voice realistically enact in a short period of time?
Over the course of a season, interaction with a live audience steels performers’ nerves, and the best contenders adapt to the pressure, harnessing stage anxiety to their advantage. Contestants on The Voice can become more confident and poised performers, and the songs coaches choose are often winning choices. But vocal technique and style develop incrementally – not on schedule. Singers must be patient and disciplined as they shape their style and train their instrument to complement that style. And while the coaches heighten their singers’ awareness of the need to interpret a lyric, coaches aren’t likely to infuse a singer with a genuine sense of drama where none existed. Then there are singers like Tessanne Chin or Judith Hill who need no coaching in the first place, having entered the competition with a refined sense of their musical selves. Yet, we witness a hoopla of self-congratulations and ego-stroking on the show as if the coaches were catalysts for change delivered via Fed Ex. Star coaches bring in other star co-coaches, prone to mouth obvious feedback, until the whole troupe compliments one another on the astonishing growth of their respective singers. Once transported into celebrity kingdom, the contestants stand awe-struck, professing immeasurable gratitude to their mentors for all they have earned and learned. It's a regular feast for sycophants.
Coaches acknowledge the innate capacities of their team singers as rationale for their support. It would be self-defeating to do otherwise. But the very premise of the show is a fallacy. The coaches are less transformers than surrogate mentors for prime time - part and parcel of an entertainment vehicle that exposes their singers under intense scrutiny to the widest audience possible with the allure of recognition, temporary as that recognition may be.
Lest we forget that The Voice is a high-stakes competition, NBC writers of the show dive into battleground metaphors with “knockout rounds,” and team members “pitting against one another” while coaches agonize over which deserving contestant has to leave the fight. (This after coaches must pair off either equally able singers or singers whose different styles make them odd couples). Providing constructive feedback after performances becomes increasingly difficult since the coaches are rivals with bias for their own performers. Like hucksters, the coaches are propelled to bring in the populist vote, to push for their team players in a numbers game.
Those unfortunate singers ruled out need not despair. The invitation is open for them to come back the following season and try again. Some do. And those who have been remorsefully abandoned by their original mentors can be stolen in split-second countdowns by other coaches vying for the opportunity to snatch them away. On this show, coaches are bidders, and their singers, assets in a television auction - a mix of raw euphoric relief and exhaustion etched on their faces as they are spirited away to safety.
As a performer pursues a life's vocation in the arts, the elusive door either nudges open or remains shut. On The Voice, a singer could feasibly be vocalizing in the shower one day and recording on a major label a year later. However, even after clinching a record deal, past winners of The Voice like Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul, Cassadee Pope, and Danielle Bradbury have failed to score success on Billboard charts. The music biz is a tough industry, and no singing reality show can guarantee future success. What The Voice can do is entertain us and feed our illusions by speeding performers down the yellow brick road they breathlessly follow. In network time, the show bypasses the slow chain of contacts performers cultivate and the cycle of failures and successes out of which artists evolve. Instead, the show designs a pseudo-compact training ground with flashes of light and hands waving in the air, high tension close-ups in a contest of nerves, and the reward of instant, replaceable fame. That’s entertainment.
Have I stopped watching The Voice this season? Well, I’ll have to wean myself off in true addict fashion: slowly, but surely.
Once a professional singer, Carol Lipszyc is an associate professor in the English Department at SUNY Plattsburgh teaching English teacher education and writing arts. Her collection, The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories, was published by Inanna in October, 2014.