America’s Got…

This post is a total digression into pop culture. I started out writing something else, but I kept veering towards the following subject, so I’m just going to post it in case anyone’s interested. I really ought to have my own blog for this sort of thing.

Yesterday, curious as to why Gwendolyn D. Pough’s white students were offended by Alice Walker’s “Each One, Pull One,” I took another look at the poem. I didn’t find it offensive, of course—far from it, but I did think about what a powerful poetic image the whiteness of the White House is in this and other poems and literary works (cf Tupac), and the effect that Obama’s election and reelection has had on the impact of those works. I’m sure plenty has been written about this subject, but as I was mulling over ways to approach it, last night’s episode of The Voice came on and cleared matters up for me.

I sometimes get invested in talent shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent, maybe because I have a network TV antenna and no cable, or maybe because these shows are an antidote to graduate school—but I think the real reason is the pleasure of watching a performance, forming my own opinion, and then immediately getting to see four different critical reviews of that performance. I get to compare my own tentative, half-formed thoughts about aspects of the performance (e.g., Miccichi’s “but something about this bothers me”) with those of the judges right away, which is a fun and productive process. I keep trying to think of ways I can incorporate something similar into my teaching. I also enjoy watching the judges’ often fine execution of what graduate students call “shaped speech”—structured, economical, critical interpretation designed to be both candid and kind, brutally insightful yet encouraging, taking into account all the nuances the speaker needs to recognize to be sufficiently thorough. The speech appears to be authentically extemporaneous given the live format, but who knows. As a scholar, I find it a fascinating window into a contemporary mode of popular rhetoric. I generally like the example that Adam, Pharrell, Gwen (though frankly I prefer Christina’s insights), and Blake set for how to be both honest and kind on the fly. “Honest and kind on the fly” sounds easy, but I’d argue it’s a skill, and one that requires study and practice closely tied to our goals in the composition classroom.

But more to the point. Last night, the 24 judge-selected semi-finalists were cut down to 12 finalists; viewers voted on 8 finalists, and the judges chose the other 4. In spite of the diverse races and balanced representation of gender among the judge-selected semi-finalists, all 8 of the viewer-selected finalists were white and 6 out of 8 were men. It’s too complicated to get into the details, but suffice to say that the voters passed over some extraordinarily talented women and African Americans in favor of young white men. It was obvious and egregious, although I’m not inclined to blame the show itself. While NBC is certainly pulling the show’s strings, the fault seems to lie squarely with the voters; I don’t know statistics on the show’s voting demographic these days, but it would seem to be largely adolescent, white, and heterosexual. Is it also female, and this group is voting for the youngest, whitest boys it finds the most sexually attractive (or accessible)? Incidentally, all 10 acts in the finals of this summer’s season of America’s Got Talent consisted of men, and 9 of them were white (viewers also voted for these). Are the demographics of these audiences askew because these shows have been on for so many seasons and significant portions of initially interested viewers have moved on? Could this be a red state/blue state phenomenon somehow?

Oddly enough, these shows arguably also offer a forum for some marginalized groups to gain more acceptance. Drew Lynch, a comedian with a rather severe stammer, was first runner up in this year’s America’s Got Talent, and I daresay his success challenged mainstream perceptions about disability for anyone watching. At least two current The Voice finalists diverge from traditional, rail-thin pop-star body types. One of these two, Jordan Smith, is also a white man who defies gender norms in multiple ways, most notably by singing Beyonce and Adele songs, and he’s the clear frontrunner. On the other hand, Jordan Smith’s skill is so irrefutably superior to the competition, perhaps he’s an example of someone who has had to work twice as hard and be twice as good as the heteronormative, more conventionally-embodied contestants. At the same time, both Drew Lynch and Jordan Smith are white men, and I wonder if they would have been washed out the door if they were not. Or, would they simply never have tried to walk in the door in the first place?

The point is that the White House may be less white, but whoever out there (besides me) with the time and interest (and dorkiness) to vote on prime-time American talent shows still votes white and male. Of course, massive institutionalized forms of racism and sexism continue to pervade society and the nation has much bigger problems than who wins The Voice. But this voting audience probably includes people who are sitting in our classrooms, and people who will eventually grow up to create and implement policy. Plus, Shelley was right when he said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; now instead of poets, we have pop stars and people on TV.

Why am I writing about The Voice instead of other examples of primetime network TV that suffer from far more racism and sexism? The Voice really seems to be making an admirable effort to not be racist or sexist, so when the voting public violates the show’s own ethos so outrageously, it feels really sinister. And the show really does make an effort. The judges initially admit contestants onto the program via “blind audition” where they accept or reject each singer before seeing her face and body. The most famous judges are Pharrell and Gwen Stefani—the black man and the woman—and their star power easily outshines that of Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, who have to ham it up to get attention. Before the show jumps the shark in the hands of viewer votes, races and sexes are represented quite well, and the show depicts so much mutual respect and admiration between different categories of people, it’s almost a little utopian. Plus, unlike American Idol or America’s Got Talent, the show takes a decidedly feminine approach to competition. The judges are coaches before they are arbiters, and a good deal of the show focuses on the interactive, intersubjective coaching process itself (process pedagogy, anyone?). Contestants have some power to choose their coaches; selection is mutual, rather than top-down, and the show suggests that the coaches participate in winning and losing alongside their “team” members. The judges/coaches repeatedly advise their contestants to find their confidence, trust themselves, let go, take risks—e.g., find their Voices. Wait, is this show really a composition class?

Which is all to say that when “America” took over last night and decided that THE Voice is The White Male Voice, the judges’ faces seemed to register significant disappointment, and that was at least some consolation. I wonder why the viewers don’t get it.

Wow, much longer ramble than I intended! Much more to say, but I’ll take it to a different forum.