FINDING THE VOICE IN POPULAR MUSIC
The Voice is a global phenomenon. Originally a Dutch program in 2010, The Voice of Holland, it has since been adapted in 129 different regions and nations worldwide. For this project, I’m specifically examining the American version of The Voice, which debuted in 2011 and is currently in its 14th cycle. Because much of the program is live and thus historically situated, each cycle of the program is unique and culturally rich, even within the formulaic structure of its reality TV format. Therefore, I can’t address everything today that I would like to. Instead, I’m going to point out some of the broader recurring patterns of the show in relation to genre and identity, and identify what I see as the show’s central paradox in this regard. To some extent I do want to provide an introduction to the program as well, so this presentation will contain a lot of visual material. Please see the online version of the journal to view the video clips discussed in this article.
Despite its tremendous popularity, The Voice has actually been understudied, not only because it falls along the media/music studies scholarly divide but because it reflects the U.S. cultural divide as well. Although likely the most socially diverse program on network TV, one which foregrounds socially marginalized people, particularly people of color and the white working class, The Voice is largely ignored by critics and those they serve because of its low cultural capital: its focus on popular music covers, its baldly commercial aims, its status as a reality competition program on network television (as “low quality” a genre and placement as you can get), its personal narratives of hardship intended to provoke affective responses, and its popularity in the red states all mark it as a program with a “mass” rather than a “class” audience.1 Yet it is in large part for precisely these reasons that I argue The Voice is such a rich, valuable text for cultural examination. This program tells us a lot about how understandings of popular music cultures are constructed and circulate within music industries and in the mass media, and it reveals how such understandings in turn shed light on the broader politics of division within the country.
On the one hand, The Voice exposes and often explicitly rejects the essentializing discourses regarding race, gender, and sexuality that have shaped American vocal culture and the music industry for decades. The show offers a national platform to a tremendous diversity of talented performers who continually prove the porous, intersectional nature of music genres and vocal identities. Audition performances are known as “the Blinds,” because the judge’s chairs are turned away so they can’t see who is auditioning, foregrounding voice rather than image as the basis for moving forward in the competition. In doing so, The Blinds’ process continually exposes how expectations of identity are based on decades-old categories of industrial segregation and commercial interest, rather than vocal capability. At the same time, although the judges (called “coaches”) continually celebrate the undercutting of these expectations through the Blinds’ process, The Voice is ultimately entrenched in the very system of industrial divisions and social hierarchies it repeatedly disavows. This denaturalizing of genre and identity boundaries ultimately most benefits white working class straight male contestants who can “sound” like people of color and/or sing powerfully in the falsetto “girl” range; as a result, contestants of color and queer contestants are increasingly marginalized as each particular cycle progresses. This continual hegemonic slippage is most evident in the coaches’ discussions of vocal performance both within and surrounding the text, which is my focus here.
Although voices have been subject to the same kinds of social construction as bodies, they have received much less scholarly attention. It is still quite common to associate certain kinds of vocal aesthetics and delivery styles with specific raced or gendered bodies in essentializing ways (in other words, as biological or “authentic” rather than as products of acculturation, training, social hierarchies, and marketing). Industrial practices have reinforced these distinctions for so long that they have become naturalized. This was not always the case. As musicologists such as Karl Hagstrom Miller have argued, a “musical color line” was developed in the 1920s that largely erased public memory of the performance world that existed before it, one in which popular voices, unlike bodies, were not raced or gendered or, in today’s understanding of the term “straight.” Miller’s work in Segregating Sound on musicians across the South in the 1920s and my own on urban northern music culture of the same period in Real Men Don’t Sing reveal that every kind of music was sung by every kind of performer.2 The American music world had always been hybrid and mixed, and became even more so with the advent of mass outlets for distribution such as Tin Pan Alley, acoustic recording, and radio, as well as national touring groups of increasingly diverse minstrels and vaudevillians.
Just like today, people performed what they heard around them, from all kinds of sources: mass media, traveling performers, their parents and grandparents, their religious communities, and their ethnic, racial, class, sexual, ability, and political groups. They then made artistic choices based on these intersectional affiliations. Singers and songwriters of all backgrounds collaborated and shared work; performers of every sex and race crooned, sang the blues, scatted, yodeled, and employed falsetto – indeed, singers were valued in part for their ability to master different styles. Black singers in the South sang pop music, and what would later be called “country” or “folk” music. Male singers in northern urban environments sang blues and torch songs across race and gender lines. But commercial imperatives and increasing concern about racial mixing and gender transgression, especially, in the national popular culture of the time, led to the development of essentializing vocal codes as part of a more rigidly raced and gendered performance culture by the early 1930s. These codes have largely persisted since. Industrial and generic boundaries and top-down discourses of authenticity have been frequently invoked to keep these social hierarchies in place.
Thus, white men who sing in high-pitched voices or falsetto and/or sing songs associated with women have often been stigmatized as unacceptably effeminate. Soul singers are so commonly assumed to be black that the term “blue-eyed soul” has long been employed by music critics to distinguish them, as if white singers’ ability to sing soul music is freakish while a black person’s ability to do so is perceived as natural (and authentic) rather than learned through practice and effort. Likewise, people of color with acoustic guitars who sing folk or country or those singing “straight” pop are not encouraged to pursue such sounds in the music industry because they don’t fit the right expected cultural and generic boxes, and therefore are not considered commercially viable. As such, queer people and people of color, especially, have been cut off from major sources of revenue and visibility in mainstream music.
Enter The Voice and its “blind auditions,” which continually reveal the fallacy of such vocally essentialist codes; indeed, the program’s success has depended on it. The Voice’s “hook” is the popular Blinds, in which the coaches listen to the voices of the contestants and then turn their chairs around if they decide they want to mentor that person and have them join their “team.”
The show markets itself by promoting the idea that a contestant’s identity, appearance and background will not affect the coach’s decisions about choosing them—that they will be judged on their voice alone. In this way, The Voice originally positioned itself as the anti-American Idol, representative of America’s “true” social diversity by embracing older, less conventionally attractive, “packaged” performers than other competitions, as well as celebrating a variety of genres and interpretations.
And indeed, The Voice has represented a significant shift in media representations of American popular singing by revealing and celebrating the kind of vocal diversity rarely acknowledged on a national media platform. This shift did not come out of nowhere. Both American Idol’s first run on the Fox Network and the popularity of fictional musical programs such as High School Musical (Disney) and, especially, Glee (Fox) made clear that more diverse voices would be welcomed by network audiences. But the inclusive, community feeling promoted by The Voice also reflected an older ideal of a liberal coalition that can cross boundaries of race, age, class, gender, region, religion, sexuality, and ability. The logo of The Voice doubles literally as a peace sign:
The four mentoring coaches in each cycle of the show also represent diversity in genre and identity: all 14 cycles have featured white Jewish pop star Adam Levine and white country singer Blake Shelton, with the other two chairs rotating between a notably blond, white-passing female pop star (Latinas Christina Aguilara and Shakira, then Gwen Stefanni, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson) and a black r&b or hip hop star/producer (CeeLo Green, Usher, Pharrell Williams, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson). The conversations and ribbing among the coaches reproduce the kind of good-hearted intra-familial bickering of those who we are assured generally love and feel bonded to each other across lines of difference.
The initial advertised hook and draw of the Blind Auditions were their shock value: the disjunction between the sound and the unexpected body that produced it. Frequently, contestants’ voices belied these experienced industry vets’ expectations of the individual singer’s race and sex (exclamations were “woah!” “I thought you were black!” “I could have sworn that was a girl!”) and such “surprises” were signaled in show teasers beforehand. While this setup could easily have resulted in the unexpected contestants being distanced as freaks or novelties and humiliated—and thus re-enforcing social codes in an overt way—this is not what happened on The Voice. Instead, the sheer number of such transgressions in the Blind Auditions quickly normalized these boundary crossings. Such performers formed a critical mass and instead served to regularly expose and disrupt vocal essentialism. Indeed, contestants’ difference from the norm—their collapse of genre boundaries and identity expectations—became part of the show’s DNA. Such performers are embraced and celebrated by the coaches in the Blinds, who make fun of their own ignorant assumptions—and therefore those of the industry and society at large—and beg the contestants to join their team.
In this Blind Audition, white contestant Stevie Joe sing’s Usher’s “There Goes My Baby,” in front of coach Usher, and is mistaken for a black man by the coaches.
In this one, mixed race contestant Preston Pohl, a Texas singer with multiple influences, sings “Electric Feel,” a song by white hipsters MGMT and stumps coach Blake Shelton, who professes not to have known there were hip hop or rap singers from Texas.
Audiences and performers love the Blind Audition process because it not only gives unheralded voices a national platform but also presents the stories of the people behind them.Voice contestants are given subjectivity right away to the viewing audience, notably before we see them sing. They are introduced through affective personal narratives that encourage audience identification and empathy, and their stories largely reflect the lives of people who are otherwise invisible or demonized in neoliberal America: people of color (especially urban blacks), first generation immigrants, rural people and those from small towns, overtly religious people, older people (post 35), the disabled, veterans, and the white working class. Producers also recruit people from music schools and young YouTube performers. Historically, mass media singing contests—which have existed since the beginning of radio—have featured and targeted working class audiences and other marginalized groups. From the 1930s-1950s, this meant primarily working class Jewish and Italian performers from urban areas, and eventually black performers on major networks, with regional and rural stations featuring more local groups. Representational diversity is the core of The Voice during the Blind Auditions and in the early rounds of judging.
Most of the contestants are living with precarity. They tell stories of unemployment, debilitating illness, family tragedy, prejudice, and thwarted ambitions. Older people recount finally pursuing a dream that has been long deferred because of family obligations and deprivation. Still others hope to perhaps provide for their families through this opportunity, their appearance on the show suggesting an act of desperation rather than the fulfillment of a dream. These contestants also reflect a lot of The Voice’s audience: the culturally devalued and economically exploitable mass rather than class audience, those who still watch network TV and who still listen to the radio—in other words, largely not the white middle class who consume quality TV programs and music streaming services at their leisure. And the program initially offers these maligned audiences multiple narratives with which to identify and performers to champion.
Singers who might have been initially perceived as novelties are thus instead introduced as representatives of America’s vocal and social diversity: the Chinese-American girl who sings the bluegrass that she learned from her white adoptive parents; the white gay rodeo singer who’s a country-soul-rocker; the African/Chinese/Jamaican woman who sings pop; the mature cabaret artist, folkie, and backup singers who bring the weight of their life experience to every performance; the white butch lesbian from New England who loves country music; and the African American or white Southern Christian man who sings Whitney Huston songs in her key. Almost of them indicate that their performance styles and tastes have been developed through exposure to various kinds of music during their lives. The show’s aspirational rhetoric (“you can achieve your American Dream through vocal talent no matter what you look like”) has real weight and efficacy for both performers and audiences who are inspired by seeing people who are normally marginalized take center stage.
This is a representative introduction and Blind Audition narrative for one young singer, Chicago native De’Borah Garner from Season 2 of the show. De’Borah suggests the importance of the show’s mantra of accepting those performers who differ from social norms, which she does as an openly gay woman in her black Christian church. De’Borah grew up singing gospel, but has also been deeply influenced by the pop music of strong women, especially Christina Aguilera, and also comes out as “gay” in her narrative (view both parts for her complete narrative before and after her performance).
Because of the intense popularity of the Blind Auditions, the show extended them more and more in successive seasons, ensuring that the majority of the “pre-live” show arc now consists of these auditions, team and community building, and mentoring sessions with coaches, before the top 12 contestants begin performing live for “America’s votes.” The progressive aspects of the show continue after the Blinds through the formation of teams, which bond performers across lines of difference but also—most crucially for black and queer contestants—provide intra-community support that is acknowledged by the team members through their continuing testimonies. Although team members compete with each other in “Battle” and “Knockout” rounds during this pre-live period, these are often presented as moments of mutual love and support among coach and team members rather than as contests. By having the camera include the reactions of the entire team, the show’s narrative foregrounds an affective progressive, community politics that eclipses and overshadows its competitive aspects.
In Season 3, for example, 18-year old Trevin Hunt, a shy and sensitive black man from Harlem (who reads as gay and/or feminine-identified) was mentored and supported by the older black women on his team with whom he regularly competed, as well as by his coach CeeLo Green, who he regularly reduced to tears. In this clip, Trevin sings “Against All Odds” in a “Knockout” performance contest with his teammate and mentor Terisa Griffin in front of their coach CeeLo Green and observed by other team members from backstage. The camera’s focus on Terisa’s supportive reaction and coach CeeLo’s tearful response emphasizes a circuit of caring and emotional investment among black performers rather than competitive feelings or judgment.
In doing so, the bulk of The Voice emphasizes what we media scholars identify as culturally “feminine” as well as “liberal” values: process over product, porous rather than rigid industrial and generic boundaries, community and team building over individualism, sincere self-exposure (lots of weeping), diversity over homogeneity, affect and emotional realism (“feeling!”) over perfect technique in singing, and mentorship over ridicule and judgment. This grounding in a kind of populist utopian space enables the program’s hegemonic disruption to be more than just a gimmick. Indeed, the popularity of early parts of the program with audiences have routinely outstripped the latter competitive portions (the live Final 12): the ratings for the Blind Auditions and Battles have, with only one exception, been higher than those for the later live shows. In this way, Voice audiences have remarkably inverted the usual trajectory of a competition reality show in which ratings usually grow as the competition intensifies; with The Voice, however, ratings usually decline over the season as viewers drop out when their favorites are eliminated. The ultimate winner doesn’t matter as much and is often a disappointment in relation to the range of potential outcomes presented by the Blind Auditions.
Those winners (and the top contenders generally) are usually white, straight-identified men and normative white feminine women whose sound is just novel enough—but whose narrative trajectories on the show reflect the historical pattern of popular music since the 1930s, in which masculine-coded white men, in particular, have been able to cross musical genre lines in ways other groups have not.
Now, I want to focus on and briefly outline three of the ways the ascendance of white, straight masculinity happens on the show:
The re-establishment of genre boundaries.
The re-establishment of gender norms and heteronormativity.
The exploitation, appropriation, and marginalization of black women.
First, the re-establishment of genre boundaries. Although the dominant discourse of The Voice advocates breaking down industrial and genre boundaries, and coaches initially praise contestants who cross these lines in the Blinds, it is clear as the show progresses that certain contestants are able to cross these boundaries long-term more easily than others. White men are accepted singing songs associated with black people, particularly soul music, because this has been long established in the music industry; both coaches and the public—which begins voting off contestants in the live shows—are familiar with such singers. But contestants of color crossing boundaries in the reverse direction are eliminated because the music business is so narrowly defined. This inequality of movement was articulated by coach Adam Levine in his comments to black performer, Rayshan Lamarr, who sang Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” Levine notes that 99.9% of the time, their surprise is whites singing songs associated with black singers rather than the reverse
Even when the coaches champion black singers’ movement from black associated songs and genres to more white-associated ones in the Blind Auditions, such singers rarely move forward, unlike their white counterparts. Black contestant Stephanie Anne Johnson (Cycle 5), an excellent cruise-ship singer who sang a variety of genres including country and indie rock—and who noted that the artist she “most wanted to be like is Bonnie Raitt”—was eliminated in the Knockout round by judges because they found her acoustic guitar performance of Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” too “unfocused” and unpredictable (“What was she doing there?” asked Shelton).3 They ultimately supported other black contestants in her season from more traditional black-associated genres and performance practices going forward because, they reasoned, they would be more likely to “win” with the broad public. Popular online critics Michael Slezak and Idol alum Melinda Doolittle at TVLine.com (also a black woman), by contrast, praised Johnson’s original and accomplished interpretation in their recap of the show, and they took issue with the judge’s dismissal. A bewildered Doolittle said “I did not even understand how they couldn’t connect with what she was doing.” Both critics concluded that the judges still cannot handle “a black woman with an acoustic guitar.”4
Just as significantly, successive cycles of the show have exhibited an increasing backlash to genre-crossing, most obviously the result of country coach Blake Shelton’s increasingly dominant fan base. While the other three coaches (Jewish, black and female) regularly emphasize the constructed and fluid nature of genre boundaries, insisting that authenticity is a matter of feeling and sincerity rather than background, appearance, or generic affiliation, Shelton has consistency rejected this view. This makes sense, given that the other coaches represent groups most affected by the way industrial music boundaries are rooted in and have functioned as tools of white male privilege, whereas Shelton represents those who are primarily racially privileged: the white, straight, working class, Christian, southern country audience. Although Shelton supports contestants from all genres on the show, he also continually reiterates the importance of country as a specifically bounded genre and the “authenticity” of its performers as based on their embodied accents, regional affiliations, and backgrounds. This bias keeps the country field pretty narrow, white and straight.
Shelton’s views are bolstered by the fact that the country music industry, unlike these other genres, is specifically based in Nashville and that country music radio play (not streaming services) is the primary way country hits are made. When Shelton promises contestants commercial success, he is thus more likely to be able to follow through—and, to his credit, he does. Over successive seasons, therefore, the charismatic Shelton has become the most powerful coach on the show for these very reasons. He has galvanized this constituency, which is arguably the largest and certainly the most self-contained viewing block. And because of the other coaches’ rejection of genre boundaries and affiliations, they don’t individually benefit from one certain base of support as Shelton does.
The foundation of these tensions in hierarchies of race, in particular, has stood out in even more relief during and since the election year of 2016, given that many in Shelton’s constituency are Trump supporters. This situation led to his awkward neutrality during the campaign but made him even more defensive than usual pre-election about building a wall around the boundaries of country music as a genre. This put him at odds with the other judges, especially Alicia Keys, a new judge that year (and the first black woman), who regularly took issue with Shelton on this subject. In this clip, they both try to woo white country singer Josh Gallagher through these opposing positions. Gallagher’s choice of Shelton reflected his comfort with Shelton’s closed view of country, a position that reflected his discomfort with Keys, and her advocacy for a genre fluidity and mixing that would inevitably include crossing boundaries of race and gender.
Secondly, The Voice coaches have difficulties overcoming long-rooted gender norms (especially if they are historically tied to sexual transgression), with a particular anxiety around male singers who are high pitched or “sing girls’ songs.” Perhaps the most frequent category of “surprise” contestant that is teased on The Voice are the boys and men, almost always white, who, in the coach’s words (and sometimes their own), “sound like girls.” This description, again, reflects the fact that such voices are largely not represented in the mainstream music industry and they’re not familiar with them. On the one hand, the show is progressive in its celebration of aspects of these voices, especially of the male falsetto, and all the coaches champion singers who can do it well.
At the same time, however, the male falsetto has, historically been stigmatized as feminine, gay or queer, especially in relation to white men, and this connection is constantly present in the reception of such contestants.5Shelton regularly invokes this stigma by using these moments to disavow any femininity on the part of the contestants and reassure them that they are, in fact, acceptably masculine (“a stud” “a man”). Instead of criticizing the contestants on this score, he displaces the feminizing ridicule onto his fellow coach and “bromantic partner” Adam Levine, famous for his falsetto voice and his past title as the “sexiest man alive.” When discussing one such contestant’s high notes, for example, Usher observes that he sounds like Adam when he holds the notes and Shelton says: “if he (Adam) were a man, that’s what he would sound like.” All the coaches also reinforce heteronormativity by reassuring such contestants that “ladies love the falsetto,” thereby interpellating all such contestants (and the viewing audience) as straight, which is often not the case.
Equally troubling to male coaches are men who sing “girl’s” songs (especially if they don’t change the pronouns). This bias is particularly acute for queer singers because many do want to sing such songs for any variety of reasons. This leads to a double bind for such contestants: if they come out officially on the show, they may be seen as “authentic” and “living their truth” (something the rhetoric of the show generally supports) but risk alienating a broad chunk of the voting audience (which has occurred); if they don’t, they may retain viewers but their gender-bending performances will be suspect, seen as “inauthentic,” “confusing,” or somehow dishonest (which has also happened). Such “confusing” singers are also less likely than others to survive the Blind Auditions because the judges cannot read their sex, which causes anxiety for the men, in particular. While the coaches regularly celebrate a white male contestant singing a song associated with black performance or is mistaken for black, it is problematic for white men who sing songs associated with female performers. This clip of singer Brendan Ryan’s Blind Audition is a case in point. He sings a “girl’s song,” Beyoncé’s “Love on Top” and is mistaken for a female singer, hence he gets no chair turns and doesn’t make it on this show. Usher said Ryan confused him: “I found it difficult to capture who you were. This is Beyoncé’s record, but it’s in a lower rage so I’m like, ‘is this like a woman? Who is just taking a different direction?”His comment indicates the problems for coaches in moving beyond gendered and raced industrial categories; they are thinking in terms of identity as well, even when the point of the show is to muddy those categories and offer everyone an equal change based on the quality of their vocals. Usher continued, “Next time, pick a record that represents who you are as an artist,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that performing Beyoncé may be exactly reflective of who Ryan is as an artist.
Such gender (and tacit) sexual transgressions can be problematic for female singers as well, although usually later in the process, since white male coaches are generally less threatened by women in this way. Rather, such transgressions make it more difficult for them to move forward in the live shows (dependent on audience votes) despite an acknowledged talent and often immense support from all the coaches. Normatively white femme women and girls have won the show, but women who present as butch (literally, those with short hair) or openly queer have had a progressively much harder time as the show has developed and the Shelton constituency has taken firmer hold.6Black female rocker Kimberly Nichole was the frontrunner in Season 8 until she sang two men’s songs without changing the pronouns: Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin,” which she amusingly dedicated to her mother for Mother’s Day, and an erotically-charged version of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” The fact that black women are still associated with hypersexuality in the culture allows them more room regarding sensual vocal expression (the presence of the body in the voice) than white women—which has always been true, historically—but not if such sensuality fuels an explicitly eroticized and queer performance, thus doubling down on the “otherness” and “sexual deviance” of black women from the white standard. Nichole did not move forward after that performance, and the viewers at TV Line (a more liberal group than most) reacted with hostility to Nichole’s now readable “lesbianism” and the inappropriateness of such behavior for a “family” audience. The performance itself also disappeared, and was not uploaded by NBC to YouTube as is common practice.
It is also worth noting here that in the coaches’ comments, Nichole is referred to as “from another planet” and an “alien,” which was not an unusual descriptor for her nor for black women more generally on the show, who are clearly marked as “other” even when the term is being used in a complimentary way.
Indeed, to segue to my third point: Black women have, throughout each cycle, been the strongest group of singers on The Voice, but no black woman has yet won (only one woman of color has), and they usually do not make it past the top 8. Part of the reason for this is the white country voting block. But The Voice’s treatment of black women before the live shows is perhaps its most obvious and troubling demonstration of the broader exploitation of marginalized groups and the ultimate reaffirmation of vocal essentialism through their devaluation. In the early weeks of the show, black women are often used as openers or chasers to attract viewers because of the strength of their performances and, as on-line viewers have also noted, in the Battle Rounds to add heft to the white male voices that generally prevail.
But what’s most striking is that although black women are given credit as major talents and “entertainers” by the coaches, they are invariably referred to as, paradoxically, both “alien” and “authentic” in ways that suggest their performances are natural for them rather than learned and thus representing training and skill. At one point, Adam says to leading black contestant Sisaundra Lewis that she sings in the technically perfect and emotionally intense way she does because, “you don’t know any other way.” Coaches also underline the “entertainment” value of singers of color, particularly black singers. In comparison, the coach’s perception seems to be that if a white man has a similarly wide range to a black performer or the ability to perform with equivalent “authenticity” and “soul,” then he’s doing something that’s extraordinary and unique, even ennobling and spiritual rather than merely commercial and pleasurable. In this way, the discourse of “authenticity” and artistic “quality” serves white men (as such discourse generally has historically) by affirming industry divisions based on essentialist ideas about “natural” black singing abilities and industrial traditions of commercial exploitation, which puts the black singers at a clear disadvantage. A good example of these distinctions is the coaches’ reaction to two mature black singers, Lewis and Biff Gore, in their Battle Round (Lewis would make it to the top 10, but not beyond).
White male queer singers generally don’t make it out of the gate on The Voice. Although black women make it much further (for example, coaches repeatedly said that singers such as Nichole and Lewis could have won The Voice), their rhetoric for white straight males they consider extraordinary singers is quite different than it is for these groups. The apotheosis of transcendent white, straight male superiority was the ascendance (in the Christian sense) of cycle 9 winner Jordan Smith. An explicitly, safely straight Christian Southerner from a small town with an extraordinary range, Jordan sang songs by women, white and black—often in their original key—with no queer or gender stigma because of his Christianity, his ever-present female fiancée and his lack of “sex object” pop star looks. Although he was very talented, he was no more so, arguably, than many of the top black or queer performers, and yet he was anointed by the judges as having something beyond mere commercial appeal; this “difference” from the expected was valued, unlike that of Kimberly Nichole or Brendan Ryan, and represents a key way in which white supremacy gets maintained on The Voice. His performance of Beyoncé’s “Halo” on the show, and his reception by the judges, is a great example of this rhetorical distinction, in which the coaches pronounce him “beyond a singer” and literally “godlike” (not an “alien”) transcending his body in a way that singers of color and overtly queer singers cannot. Pharrell observes that, “God has signed your voice,” while Gwen Stefani exclaims: “All I can think of is God as well! All I can think of is God when he sings!” Rhapsodized his coach Levine, “You’re not a singer. You’re a figure.” None of the black performers on The Voice have ever been spoken about this way, as Smith continually was, as literal saviors of their generation.
Finally, I went to conclude with a brief discussion of the show in relation to national politics during and since the election of 2016. One of the advantages of The Voice for scholars of American culture is the way national events play out live on the show, allowing for an immediacy of reception that is unusual on TV nowadays beyond the 24-hour news programs. As I noted above, The Voice has become Blake Shelton’s show to lose. He started as the least-known judge, one often branded by the others lovingly as an ignorant good ol’ boy—a position he thoroughly enjoyed and endorsed—but he has become the largest presence on the show, as the coach with the most wins and the most viewer support.
Shelton was a controversial figure on the show pre-Trump’s election within the broader public, although he remained neutral about his politics. But the division between him and the other coaches in this regard became obvious in the post-election live episode, where the liberal block of coaches expressed their distress. Alicia Keys changed her planned song “Blended Family” from her new album to do an anthem of protest and activism from it instead, “Holy War,” (“maybe we should love somebody instead of polishing the bombs of holy war”) with fellow coach Adam Levine backing her up and coach Miley Cyrus singing along from her chair. Likewise, Levine performed Buffalo Springfield’s protest song “For What it’s Worth,” on the show and Cyrus performed Dolly Parton’s “We Still Have the Music.” Shelton, notably, did not perform that night, nor back up anyone. A summary of the evening from Yahoo News is illuminating in its attempts to diffuse these rifts, focusing on the competitive aspects of the show in a way that make obvious its continued raced and gendered hierarchies.7
As usual, this clip ends with the white man moving forward and the black woman eliminated, with coach Miley celebrating the victory of her team member. As much as the show tried to get back to its routine, however, the narrative shifted in key ways post-election that have mirrored the country’s political state. The election buoyed Shelton’s country base still further and gave him even more power in the show, and the sense of heightened national stakes has been reflected in the new sense of urgency attached to the liberal coaches beating Blake Shelton, but on his terms and those of his base. The narrative aspects of The Voice have thus shifted from foregrounding the bromance between Levine and Shelton, to besting Shelton by persuading a country artist to join their team. The debates about genre with Shelton and the other coaches have become a regular part of the show and are now tied more obviously to a national discourse, in which the liberal judges have to prove that they understand and can work with the country contestants. But the contestants—who feel represented by Shelton and depend on his support for their careers—aren’t buying it, and Shelton’s fans remain loyal to him regardless of his contestant (an allegiance that other coaches do not enjoy). Cycle 13 of the show was driven by Coach Miley Cyrus trying so hard to create her own country star that she neglected her white female rocker team member Chloe Kohanski, who Shelton then picked up and with whom he won the cycle. While Keys was able to prevail with a Christian black male winner in the next cycle (with Blake’s stars second and third), the most recent season 14’s producers tried to promote black female winners by having them join Shelton’s team (rather than their more likely mentor Keys), who, in an unprecedented occurrence, managed to get both into the top 4. The dependence of contestants on Shelton’s largesse has exposed the fault lines in the show’s utopian politics, making conversations about popular music and performance more obviously reflective of national political divides and hierarchies.
This current narrative trajectory, however, could again shift, and, in any event, it would be a mistake to evaluate this show as a whole primarily through its winners or the particulars of any one episode or season. The Voice is most of all about the process over the product, and The Voice does serve the interests of a diversity of viewers through its Blind Auditions, far more than other reality competition programs, even altering the structure of the show to do so. Equally important, the show represents and reflects – increasingly overtly – the way in which “blind” auditions are never really blind because musical genres and performance are and have always been politicized. In its legitimation of America’s vocal variety, its aspirational impulses, its generic tensions, its active viewers and its well-entrenched limitations, The Voice offers a particularly complex, revealing, and insightful portrait of current American music culture and political life.