'The Voice' and sob stories: Struggling with reality competitions and grief

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Image Credit: Trae Patton/NBC

Last night, R&B singer Vedo took the stage during The Voice’s knockout rounds. He sang Bryan Adams “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” and impressed Usher enough to advance to next week’s live rounds. He also talked a lot about his mother, who recently died — something Usher acknowledged in his comments after the performance; and something that’s been mentioned on the show every single time Vedo appears. I wrote about how this makes me feel in last night’s recap: a combination of annoyed, deeply moved, and deeply apathetic. But many commenters disagreed. I still feel that way, and I’m assuming a lot of you still disagree with me.

So what are we really talking about when we talk about someone’s dead mom?

It’s a common enough trope — a contestant whose intense personal struggles and setbacks typify their contestant-ness: The Biggest Loser loser who overcomes bad genetics; the aspiring model with Asperger’s; the fashion designer with HIV. But at a certain point, an invisible line is crossed. The mechanics of most reality competitions require them to show people competing, and succeeding or failing based on their ability to compete. Enriching or complicating someone’s skill-set by giving them a handicap or advantage is just grist for the mill. Heather Mills danced with one leg! Amanda Swafford was blind! On this season of The Bachelor we met Sarah Herron, who lost one of her arms as a result of  amniotic band syndrome. She was “the one-armed woman.” It was her defining characteristic when she could have easily been the “friendly ad executive,” the “fun, blonde L.A. girl.”

The Voice is following and continuing this trend, distinguishing its big group of amateur singers with bite-sized backstories. Some are forgivable (“firefighter and single dad Warren Stone”) while others are even acceptable (XOXO, Memphis barfly Patrick Dodd). But the show has gone too far in this. A dead mother doesn’t grind up so easily.

Vedo is, I think, a good test for the don’ts: He’s an appealing performer whose appeal has been hijacked by a personal tragedy. Every success is covered over by the effect of his mother’s death, which happened off-screen between the blind auditions and the battle rounds. As some viewers pointed out, we got to “meet” her, briefly, during his first audition. That makes her absence more painful, but it was burned up as fuel for each of his subsequent performances, often leaving him in tears. Unfortunately the vocabulary of The Voice – its only minutes-long shots of contestants talking about their dreams and prepping to take the stage — isn’t big enough to handle Vedo’s pain, but the show keeps insisting we feel it the only way it knows how: by presenting the death as an obstacle to overcome, as fodder for triumph. And what of Amber Carrington’s dead mother, who was mentioned only once, or anyone else’s? Vedo’s rises to the top. It’s an icky mixture of manipulation and compassion, marketing the personal as spectacle.

Meanwhile, Vedo continues to build a fan base on the strength of his soulful voice and looks. He’s a real talent, performing on a real talent show! But The Voice missteps every time it tries to market his talent as an extension of his grief. The catharsis of that gesture — he’s singing for his mom — gets swallowed up by the bigness of the machine that produced it. After all, his singing for her is also meant to help him win the biggest singing competition in America.

What do you think: Are reality competitions really the place for any and all struggles? Which examples stuck out in your memory? And at what point do you start to feel uncomfortable?

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Read more:
‘The Voice’ Recaps and Episode Guide
‘American Idol': Name your Top 4 Power List…
‘DWTS’ eliminated contestant: ‘To stay this long doing something that is not me is weird’

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