Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Voice and the Object Cause of Desire


On typical talent contest shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and The X Factor, competitors walk out in front of the judges, show their stuff, and then find out whether they will advance to the next round. Between performances, personal interest segments highlight the performer’s tragic personal history and their desire to become a star. Successful contestants are those who combine a show-stopping performance on stage with a heart-wrenching sob story in the personal interest segment. There is no better example of this than Susan Boyle, the “never-been-kissed” British woman who became an overnight sensation after she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables on Britain’s Got Talent. It wasn’t Susan Boyle’s singing ability alone that made her (sort of) famous – it was her singing ability plus her tear-jerking back story.

Cases like Susan Boyle’s make it seem that TV talent contests are all about the contestants – who they are and what they want. In truth, however, the contestants never rise above mere objects. The subjects on such shows are actually the judges, who select and reject performers as objects of desire. Quite simply, Susan Boyle had nothing to do with her own success; it was the judges who made her a star.

NBC’s The Voice, with its innovative format, makes the objectification of contestants absolutely clear. The Voice doesn’t follow the simple old formula of whittling down the field of contestants until a winner is finally found; rather, singers are grouped into four teams that are coached by each of the judges.

In order to make it onto one of the four teams, contestants must make it through the first round’s Blind Auditions. Judges listen with their backs turned, and if they like what they hear they can push a button that spins their chair around so they are facing the performer on stage. Notably, when this happens, the chair also lights up with the words I WANT YOU. Frequently, one judge turning their chair and signaling I WANT YOU will cause another judge, and then another, to do the same – kind of like how when Tom tells Jane that he likes her, Dick suddenly feels compelled to tell Jane that he likes her too. Like jealous suitors, the judges compete for the performer’s affection, usually by complimenting the singer’s appearance and making remarks about how similar the singer is to themselves.

We can see that the Blind Auditions are an adapted form of courtship, with the judges as subjects and the performers as objects of desire. The question then is: Why do the judges have to have their backs turned? Shouldn’t the judges be facing the performers so that they can “fall in love at first sight”? Before I explain why the judges' backs are turned on The Voice, check out this TV commercial for

In the commercial and on The Voice, desire is set in motion by a voice without a body. This disembodied voice is what Lacanians call objet a, an “imaginary part-object, an element imagined as separable from the rest of the body.” Objet a is “the cause of desire,” and so whatever it is that objet a leads a subject to desire is the actual object of desire. In the commercial, the man desires the woman because of her voice and vice versa, and then and only then do they turn around to find out what their respective objects of desire look like. Likewise, on The Voice, the disembodied singer’s voice, “separable from the rest of the body,” leads the judges to spin around and declare I WANT YOU, thus objectifying the contestant on stage.

I suspect, then, that the reason for The Voice's success is that it is modeled on a type of romantic relationship that is currently en vogue. The wildly popular and mega-hip Catfish on MTV features millennials who oftentimes have never even seen a photo of their significant other. The only feature of their lover that they can associate with him or her is the sound of their voice. Without even seeing the face associated with the voice, these young people declare – just like the judges on The Voice – I WANT YOU.

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