The Voice of Another World

Amber Carrington sings Sad on the Voice
Amber Carrington sings Sad on the Voice

By Sean Callaghan

Marketing The Voice

I know all the reasons why I should hate a show like The Voice.  As a show premised on the search for singing talent based solely on vocal ability The Voice falls victim too easily to the glittering bedazzlement of televised spectacle.  It’s over-produced.  It magnifies the cult of personality by mixing in “real” people with celebrity stars to make us feel as though we too could have our day in the limelight, if only we work hard enough.   We all know this is an illusion.  Most following a life in the arts will never be rich or famous.  Not in this economic climate.  We need only note how many thousands of top-level (and not-so top-level) musicians that have appeared on shows like The Voice and American Idol have actually gone on to make a name for themselves: at present, only a handful with Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood as the most notable.  That’s a one in a thousand chance, and though its better odds than the lottery it doesn’t include the millions of others we don’t see on TV working as music teachers, waitresses, and buskers.  Worst of all, it turns the creative process into one more cog in a system bent on turning all experience into a marketable product.  I should really hate The Voice, and I do, but it’s a love-hate relationship.

Thankfully, last night I had more reason to cultivate the love than the hate.

Because in spite of it all, last night we were witness to something that seemed to transcend all the perversity of reality television.  Transcendence had a name and it was Amber Carrington.  It really doesn’t matter what her name was, though.  What matters was what happened for two minutes and forty-one seconds on my screen as she took the stage to sing the second song of her set, Maroon 5’s Sad.  It was everything The Voice purported to be and more.  Ms. Carrington was given a single spot.  No flashy backup visuals.  No band.  Just a woman, her voice, and the camera.  And it was mesmerizing.  The thing is the performance defied all the logic of the spectacle that runs through the veins of the show.  Amber Carrington isn’t some rail-thin tween with a sparkling smile.  She doesn’t sing cutesy songs that tug at the heartstrings. Her mother sadly died during the filming of the show, and though there have been a few mentions here and there, she never played it up for votes.  Meanwhile, she is the only single-chair-turn singer left on stage (only Adam Levine turned his chair for her during the auditions), and her first song of the night – Katy Perry’s Firework – was mediocre at best.  After the stellar performances that preceded her by the Swon Brothers and the show favorite Michelle Chamuel, she seemed the likeliest candidate to get dumped for the finals.  But then she sang Sad.

And then it’s gone

There is something that happens in live performances that just doesn’t happen anywhere else, and it’s the reason why I will always and forever love stage theatre, ballet, live music, and classical concerts over film, video games, and television.  Sometimes there is a magical convergence of elements that casts its spell over a performance and you are left breathless and spellbound.  What heightens the experience is that it only happens that one time, and there is nothing physical left of its trace once it passes.  It is the moment that every performance artist strives after.  It can also be the source of a performer’s mad depression.  What do you do after you hit nirvana and discover the transformation was only fleeting?  As a spectator I’ve only witnessed this kind of moment a few times – once while watching reknowned dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov perform in The White Oak Project, and another watching Canadian stage actor Brent Carver in a title performance of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Film and television are designed almost in opposition to the creation of these moments.  Programs like The Voice are meant to be consumed en masse.  Its performances are repeated ad nauseum on youtube, iTunes, in retrospectives, and in “previously on last week’s show” film clips.  The kind of live transcendence we witness on stage – that singularity of the moment that can never be repeated – is anathema to televised performances.  And yet, for some reason, it happened last night.

Maybe it was because Amber Carrington was not considered a front-runner, and we didn’t feel we had to think about the competitive aspect of the show when she took the stage.  Maybe it was because her first performance was pretty mediocre (although, mediocre for her is still pretty astounding, and she was apparently fighting a cold).  Or maybe it was just something that happened here in my own home at the time – the effect of a mystic combination of solar flares, tectonic shifts at the earth’s core, and a dietary perturbation.  Whatever it was, it was beautiful.  It took me out of this world, if only for a moment, and then, some two minutes later, it was gone.  After it happened, I did what everyone does watching The Voice.  I searched for the clip on youtube and played it.  I bought the single on iTunes.

None of it sounded the same.  The moment had occurred.  The singularity had passed. Anyone else watching the performance might wonder “What the heck are you talking about?  It’s just a freaking TV show!”  But for a brief moment, it wasn’t.

It leaves me wondering, though.  What would be a world that privileged these kinds of moments over those that are too easily turned into something to be reproduced, packaged and sold on the market?  How would we live if what drove us was that singular moment when all our artistic – and they could only be artistic – endeavors bore fruit beyond our capability to capture them on film or even in memory?  It would be a world built on a logic that was not human.  The time and space of art defies humanity as we know it.  It defies anything that would tie us to this modern world with its infinitely expansive dreams of time and space.  To live in its world would be to live in wait of the fleeting, to appreciate the too subtle reverberations that disturb the world and vanish, and to cultivate the non-human, or to borrow from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche – the glorious over-human that subsists both somewhere always otherwise than ourselves and yet intrinsically connected to our life.

I know it’s a strange rumination to happen upon while watching something like The Voice, but I think it is precisely because this Amber Voice came from the belly of the reality TV beast that I am given hope that other worlds are still indeed possible, even if they are only temporary.

And our artists, not our politicians, our intellectuals, or our economists are the ones that will show us the way, because this is the world in which they live and breathe and strive.

We should all only be so lucky.

Sean Callaghan has his PhD in Modern Japanese History and Literature from the University of Toronto.  He has written several plays for the small stage, and is currently working on a two act play, and a YA novel.  He currently lives with his wife and two guinea pigs in sunny Vancouver.

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