I have been sucked into this talent show called The Voice by my young cousin. Initially I resisted it, literally leaning away from the screen. So much Carson Daly. Endless Katy Perry covers. And I really hate tragedy packaging, despite my own side hustle teaching young college applicants exactly how to package their “tragedies” to epiphanic effect. So in that first show, when all these beautiful slickies wept to the cameras that they wanted to win The Voice because they were born prematurely, or they had been in a hostage situation like a decade ago, I was not having it. You want to be famous, you mongering fakers! Next!
Now I love The Voice. I love the redneck-dad, drunken ineptitude of Blake Shelton, the faint praise that Xtina rations her hungry little songbirds, Cee-Lo’s satiny just-do-you mantras, and even Adam Levine’s (oddly) passionate stump speeches. I really think he cares. (I still recoil from Carson, though. Why not Charles Grodin or RuPaul?) I love critiquing the singing, since I can’t sing for shit. But The Voice offers more than talent. There are issues afoot, complex narratives of class, gender, and ambivalent feminism! In my pajamas, with my pudding cup, I am eager to unload any unspent critical faculties.
Five Moments of Complicated Feminism on The Voice
1) Battle: Alessandra Geurcio vs. Kayla Nevarez
They’re both 17. Alessandra goes to LaGuardia High, the Fame school, and her audition b-roll shows her singing scales while an old guy plays the piano in front of some giant windows. Kayla wears open jackets, like Mariah Carey in 1993. She sleeps on the couch in a crowded apartment, and her dad has liver disease. She sang “American Boy” at her audition; she always plays it cool.
For the battle, Alessandra shows up in tight gold jeans and robo-emotes her way through Katy Perry’s “Concrete,” falling to her knees and imploring invisible forces. Kayla is so seventeen, both cynical and fragile, unsteady in heels. They both sing beautifully.
I’m eating a pudding cup and chanting Kayla-Kayla-Kayla to myself while Carson goes down the coach’s line. As Blake says, this choice is “a sucky one.” But then Adam Levine, who will choose between these girls, tells Alessandra, “I felt this insecurity in you that, honestly, made me sad.” Sad? That she’s obviously been trained to please pros and bros is making this boner sad? Adam then says that Kayla isn’t humble enough.
Adam picks Kayla, but I’m too pissed at him for negging Alessandra to be completely pleased. Thankfully for Alessandra, Xtina has been down this road herself. She snatches up Alessandra and says, gesturing toward Adam, that “no woman should have to feel not confident.” Alessandra weeps and fans herself. But who would have thought that it would be Dirrty Aguilera, so profoundly chilly toward the female contestants, saving this girl from humiliation?
Adam prefers to be the Good Guy, and he knows he screwed the pooch on this one. “Good job,” he tells Xtina. “You can teach her a lot.”
“I know,” Xtina says tiredly.
2) Xtina Chooses Adriana over De’Borah
Where Xtina stands ideologically is complicated, because she is building her version of a Lou Perlman team. She chooses the newly adrift Disney child-stars and all the skinny teenage girls with tight skirts and big hair. By the live show, she’s got three such gals, plus one potato chip named Dez Duron and the inimitable, astonishing De’Borah, who dresses like Carlton Banks and sings like no one else on the planet.
I yawn through prom-dressed Devyn’s choreographed shove of her mic-stand, Adriana’s flitty and underdetermined “Firework,” and Sylvia singing the season’s hundredth Katy Perry cover, though accompanying herself on the piano makes for a nice change. Dez croons me to sleep. Then, De’Borah: she sings as though she’s just been released from the mental institution, and I mean that as a compliment. She dances like someone lit the soles of her sneakers on fire.
“America” chooses Dez and Sylvia, and Xtina “saves” the sobbing Adriana.
Oh, come on! Adriana, Devyn, and Sylvia are the same person. Sylvia’s a little better, okay, but Adriana and Devyn are totally the same. They are the same because they are prom queens who belt and tremble, who challenge nothing and no one. They have checked off every box on the pop-tart template. They have no original ideas, and, I think bitchily, they look like Bratz dolls. Is it because De’Borah’s gay? Can America not take it?
But then I wonder if I’m the close-minded one. I’m ready to toss these girls like a cheap bouquet, which means that I fully accept them as the simulacra they have worked so hard to become, probably because they recognize that’s their best chance for success. Am I, sitting on my couch with my empty pudding cup, the real Mean Girl here?
It’s true. I am being totally antifeminist.
3) Domestic Violence Song and Dance
The coaches often compare the contestants’ renditions to the original artists’, and at no time was this more awkward than when the sweet metal-grandpa Rudy Parris sang Chris Brown’s “Forever,” which he chose to connect with “a young audience.” He spectacularly fails to win the judges. “What an interesting song choice!” Xtina says. “I wasn’t really sure of your connection with it. I didn’t know how to digest it.” Poor Rudy obviously has no idea. He is sent home.
Taboo domestic violence appears again in the live show that aired the night before Election Day. Country amalgamation Liz Davis, who I just loathe, switches from her lighter-fluid n’ hotpants archetype to diva mode. She dons a silky white gown (a little too post-Grammy– not yet, Liz!) to sing Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” which is about a battered woman burning down her house. Liz is nothing if not calculating. She’s been singing Miranda Lambert songs to Blake, Miranda’s husband, for weeks now. She does okay. There’s a too-hostile yell to the crowd.
“Perfect time for that song!” Xtina says.
“It makes me proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free,” Cee-Lo says ironically, though not in the direction of the song’s irony. “Independence Day” is the “Born in the USA” of pop country music. It’s not a national anthem.
I realize that Liz only sings songs about acts of vindication toward bad men. This is her thing. I’ve been so busy sniping about her Tanfastic addiction and unseemly, naked ambition to notice what she sings about. Liz Davis is the Trojan horse of The Voice.
Liz goes home, though Blake appreciates her “softer side,” which I can only take to mean her outfit.
4) The Ascent of Amanda Brown
Amanda Brown is my favorite to win. Until the live show, she wore wide-leg trousers and loose blouses. Her voice is everything, but she also has incredible style, her sexiness all leather pants and unruffled intelligence. She communicates her difference from Xtina’s girls at every opportunity, through her clothes, her bobbed hair, her song choices, her unwillingness to play any single type.
At the live show, she growls and hand-dances through Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” her voice so supple and elastic that when she lifts off into to last high note, I think she may have made a deal with the devil. I adore her. “I love her trousers,” I keep saying to no one.
But I hate to think that I’m that simple, that I have been won over by pants. Would I register the wonder of Amanda’s voice if she wore hair extensions and bandage dresses? If Liz Davis had an agenda, I wish she had signaled it visually, instead of trying to pass as a type. This is network TV, guys. Your finer points are lost in the lights.
5) America Speaks
America gives Adriana the boot after she makes the "sporadical" decision to serenade Adam up close and personal. America doesn't like this flagrant sexy stuff, even though Xtina does it all the time. Is she allowed to leer because she’s an established star, and not some spangled waitress getting too big for her britches? America then axes Michaela, the smizing mall punk who brings Blake to tears. "I love this little girl," he often reminds us. But America does not. America is getting hip to these typey-types, more than the judges are– even if America is quicker to reject female types than their flat male counterparts (Dez and Bryan, that guy in the fedora).
I understand that a woman has not yet won The Voice, but if America doesn't choose Amanda in the next election, I'm moving to Canada. The Voice has already asked more of me than I bargained for.
Previously: The Best Time I Found Bits of Hair on a Shelf.
Rebecca Scherm usually writes fiction, bless her heart.