Even within that finite lifespan, The Voice is not the pure meritocracy it would like to present itself as. “You could win this whole thing,” Levine, with his transparent smarm, promises almost everyone he turns for during the auditions, and it’s the same promise that draws the contestants to the show, that drives any person with a dream. Sure, you could technically win “the whole thing,” whatever “the whole thing” is to you, just like you do have a chance at winning the lottery. But the contestants don’t necessarily realize that he’s diluting that statement through endless repetition. Surely they’re taking some of these promises with a grain of salt, but even for experienced singers, it must be hard not to be disarmed when Levine compares you to Prince and says “you are the number-one priority on Team Adam if you come to me,” as he did to Kawan DeBose this season. DeBose picked him, and Levine’s promise turned out to be an empty one—DeBose was eliminated in the battle rounds, when Adam chose Davage over him.
In the way the audition broadcasts are edited, the show is already privileging some contestants over others by giving them more screen time. Some auditions don’t get shown in full on TV, whether because the performances are less compelling, or the backstories are insufficiently sad, or the coaches’ post-performance banter is insufficiently interesting. You’ll get just a snippet of these contestants singing, and a “Gwen also picked up So-and-So,” before the show moves on. The same is true for the battles, where some get a summary, but aren’t actually shown. This hurts those barely seen contestants, even if they do make it to the live shows where viewers vote for their favorites—the audience hasn’t gotten the same chance to love them. Although “America” ultimately chooses the winner, the machinations of the auditions, battles, and knockout rounds before voting even starts keep it from being a completely democratic process.
And in the battle and knockout rounds, there’s a dissonance between the warm and fuzzy mentorship of both the coaches and the celebrity advisers they bring in (like John Legend and Céline Dion), and the fact that these rounds are designed to have two team members face off, and make their coach choose between them. The Voice is a competition, sure, but the meritocracy is again undermined by the fact that these battles aren’t always a fair fight. In one of Shelton’s battles, 14-year-old Brennley Brown was paired with the more experienced 25-year-old Lauren Duski—who, according to her website, has opened for established country acts in the past with her band. (Brown lost, but was stolen by another coach.) Emily Yahr at The Washington Post has previously pointed out that because, unlike American Idol, The Voice doesn’t require contestants to be amateur singers, “people with lots of show business experience have an unfair advantage.” The Voice, much like the real world, offers some an easier path to the fairytale ending than others.
Of course, after 11 seasons of fizzle-outs, it doesn’t look like The Voice is in the business of really making superstar dreams come true. But it has perfected the art of selling the glittering El Dorado promise of the American Dream, a myth so enticing that it still draws seekers, though all evidence suggests they probably won’t find what they’re looking for.