The “blind audition” portion of the reality-show singing competition The Voice can be broken into three portions: the contestant’s story; the contestant singing; and the judges or “coaches” vying for the contestant to choose their team. As the season progresses, the latter portion is replaced with the familiar voting system of televised singing competitions. What each portion has in common are that they hinge on the rhetoric of persuasion.
In 335 BC Aristotle, in The Rhetoric, defined rhetoric as the “power of discovering the means of persuasion in any given situation.” The various uses of rhetoric in The Voice fit various and specific situations. The stories about the contestants aired before they perform are meant to persuade viewers to feel a certain emotion towards them—usually sadness—with the ultimate goal that the viewer forms an attachment or roots for the contestant. The contestant then attempts to persuade the coaches to “turn around” using their singing ability, which the judges can only hear, hence the term “Blind Auditions.” If a coach wants a contestant on their team they hit a red button that turns their chair around.
Finally the coaches square off in an attempt to persuade the contestants that they turned around for to pick their team. For me, this is the most interesting part of the program, since it deviates from your typical talent reality show: it forces the coaches to become debate team members, testing their skills of rhetoric.
Within the tableau of the coaches (Alicia Keys, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine, and Gwen Stefani) there is a faux conflict that reverberates through the selection process. The judges playfully and exaggeratedly put each other down as a way to assert they are the best coach to pick. This trope mainly exists between Blake and Adam, what started as an innocuous tête-à-tête has led to an overzealous act that distracts from their persuasive prowess.
Aside from the comedic trope of fighting judges, there are many persuasive tropes used to woo contestants to a particular coach’s team. These include, but are not limited to: I have no one like you on my team; your voice is like nothing I’ve heard before; I think we could win this; promises of grandeur; a standing ovation. When the contestant leans country, resident-country boy Blake Shelton uses the tried-and-true rhetoric of mentioning his Nashville connections; promising that, win or lose, he will help the aspiring singers “make it.”
Relying solely on compliments is not an effective way to persuade, since after the third or fourth cycle the compliment comes across as disingenuous. What is happening when coaches use this rhetorical style is that they are relying on contestants preemptively choosing them based on genre or fandom.
But not Gwen Stefani. Gwen does something different. Gwen says: “Who cares about the genre? I’ve done all kinds of music.” She uses a mode of persuasion that outshines the other coaches and she knows it: “I feel like I’ve been winning a lot of Blake’s people,” she said on one episode. When asked to clarify she added, “Like people that I thought you [Blake] were gonna get, I got.”
Gwen is the debate team queen. She goes a step above simply telling the contestant what’s great about them, she puts into words what she will do for them as a coach and backs up these promises with supporting material. Answering the question “What is Rhetoric?” in the essay of the same name, professors Jim Kuypers and Andrew King explain, “rhetoric involves proper interpretation, construction, and use of supporting materials to back assertions and gain audience acceptance.” This is exactly what Gwen is doing when she builds her arguments—first she makes an assertion based on an interpretation of what angle to compliment the singer on. Then, she zeroes in on how she would coach them, using supporting material in the form of personal experience to back up the assertion that she is the best coach to choose.
Herbert W. Simons, author of Persuasion in Society, writes on methods to achieve coactive persuasion, which is “a process of bridging differences—reducing psychological distances—to secure preferred outcomes.” More than any other coaches this is what Gwen does—she recognizes that the gap between her and a contestant is perceivably large. Whether the difference is in age, genre, or fame, Gwen uses rhetoric to close this gap, namely by what Simons explains as combining “images of similarity between persuader and persuadee while promoting images of the persuader’s unique expertise and trustworthiness.”
Take for example Gwen’s response to rock singer Johnny Gates: “What I think we have in common is that whole band world, that whole mentality. I started off in a ska band. It’s hard to believe I know, cause I’m wearing a sparkly dress, but I swear to you… that is where I came from. I just think we could work really well together.”
With this statement, Gwen effectively sways Johnny to her team by using at least two persuasive rhetorical devices: first, she establishes herself as an expert in the genre that the contestant favors by sharing her personal experience, effectively bridging distance by demonstrating what they have in common. Then, immediately after, she preemptively dismisses any hesitation the contestant might have (about her not looking the role of a rock musician). Johnny doesn’t miss a beat before declaring: “I feel like us garage band kids have to stick together... I pick Gwen!”
I want to break down one more of Gwen’s monologues, in which she attempts to persuade the contestant Brandan Royal to her team. “Can we get serious for a second?” she says. “There’s something about what you do that’s so natural and so pure. I started off with this music called ska but then through the years I got to work with Dr.Dre and Eve and hip-hop, and now I’ve got to work with country artists. I feel like I’ve gone all over the place. I feel different kinds of style in what you do. I think that, if we worked together, we could pick the songs that show your personality. I want to work with you so bad.”
This statement is the epitome of what Gwen is doing right. She sets the tone right away by asking if they can get serious, in doing so subtly suggesting that the other coaches weren’t serious. She follows up with a compliment that’s more unusual than the typical tropes I mentioned above. And then she launches into what she does best: bridging differences. She has interpreted, through Brandan’s performance, that he sings in multiple genres, so she backs up her claim that she would be the best judge by proving that, she too, works in an array of genres. To seal the deal she offers a concrete example of how she will do this (by helping him pick songs) and then a strong assertion: I want you so bad. It always feels nice to hear you’re wanted, especially from a mega-star like Gwen, making it a strong note to end on.
Of course Brandan chose Gwen, and so would I.
Tatum Dooley is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Hairpin, Real Life Mag, the White Wall Review, and elsewhere.