The Voice has an Image Problem

I am a big fan of The Voice. I have downloaded nearly 50 songs from the show and, according to my iTunes, four of those appear on my top 25 most played. (That seems like a lot to me). Also, I’m still upset that Matthew Schuler didn’t make it past the top six in season five.

But what makes The Voice — a hit reality show aiming to find the best singer via “blind” auditions — special isn’t just the talent of the artists; it’s the premise of the show, namely these blind auditions. While I’m not naïve enough to overlook a gimmick, the blinds also serve the purpose of allowing the judges (a semi-rotating panel: regulars Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, joined this season by Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams) to choose singers based purely on talent, without being influenced one way or the other by someone’s appearance.

For a show that has deliberately removed appearance from the initial selection criteria, “The Voice” sure ends up focusing a great deal of attention on the physical attributes of those ultimately chosen.

And yet: “Beautiful.” “So cute.” “Adorable.” “Beautiful.” “Beautiful.” “Beautiful.”

I think I lost track of how many times the judges commented upon the faces and bodies of the show’s 24 contestants this past week. Yes, they also praised the singers’ talent but, quite often in the same sentence, how they looked.

For a show that has deliberately removed appearance from the initial selection criteria, “The Voice” sure ends up focusing a great deal of attention on the physical attributes of those ultimately chosen.

I don’t think there’s malice in this. After all, once the judges identify their team members, they are charged with cultivating them, with an ear (and eye) toward commercial potential — both for the sake of the show and, ideally, for the artists’ careers. And, like all of us, the judges are very much products of our culture but also steeped specifically in an industry that privileges certain appearance types. The fact is these men and women know all too well what happens if a public figure doesn’t meet a certain standard; we’ve all seen the shaming photos of celebrities with and without makeup, in sweatpants, having gained or lost weight.

Which actually makes what the show is trying to do all the more complicated and, arguably, important.

Each season there are contestants — often more than one — who share personal stories of having struggled as young people (some are still struggling), of not quite fitting in, some who have been bullied for their appearance, gender or sexuality. And the judges are extremely sensitive to those stories, recognizing the potential of this show to truly transform these individuals’ lives and provide role models and encouragement to viewers.

So what does it mean when a show that has recognized, and is actively mitigating, the role appearance plays when it comes to opportunity in the entertainment industry, continues placing such value on it? To the point that the beauty of a (very talented) contestant is listed among the reasons to want her on a team and contestants are performing without their glasses, to the detriment of their ability to see.

Somewhat interestingly, the viewing audience seems (largely, with a caveat to follow) capable of voting based on their voice preferences. Earlier this week was the first live show of this season, where America was able for the first time to weigh in on the contestants. The viewers voted via text, app and iTunes downloads for their favorites, ultimately picking their top two from each team (each judge selected their third member), culling the final 24 down to 12.

Presumably, viewers downloaded songs because they actually wanted to listen to them, not (only) because a singer was their favorite for other reasons. And the singers who won the viewers’ overall top votes were, with one exception, the same ones who ranked most highly on iTunes downloads (#s 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 16, as of 11/12/16). Only one singer chosen by the viewers did not rank in the top 18 of iTunes downloads. Notably, Jordan Smith, a fan and judge favorite, appeared three times in the top 18.

(I’m a little hesitant to suggest America should wholly lead the way because, of the eight America chose, 75% were male and 100% were white. So that speaks to another set of issues, though one I’m not engaging here.)

The question, then, is how could The Voice further reduce the influence of appearance in as visually dependent a medium as television? Since it’s not really viable do a whole television show blind, perhaps the judges could actively aim to stop talking about contestants’ faces and bodies. They might comment exclusively on the contestants’ performance — which could include words like sexy, hot, and racy if called for (yes, I’m thinking about the gyrating hips.)

I’m not trying to suggest that there’s no element of attraction or appeal involved in performance; rather, that calling a person beautiful is very different than talking about whether he or she engaged the audience. Because who an individual judge finds beautiful, or not, shouldn’t be relevant.

As is, one would think, the point of the voice in the first place.

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