NBC’s The Voice finds Religion

John L. Crow

I don’t watch a lot of television. It’s not that I think TV is bad, it is just not a high priority for me. There was one exception these past few months, NBC’s The Voice. I, like millions of others, tuned into this singing competition weekly to hear the latest songs and watch the drama of contestants either surviving another week or leaving the show. I have been watching the voice for the last three or four seasons and I have never lost interest. A couple weeks ago season eight concluded with a new reigning artist who wins cash and a recording contract. This is how it is every season. In many ways, season eight was very much like season seven. However there was one way that season eight was different and that was the quantity of religious references, song choices, and appeals to religious constituency to support artists. This was such a change from the normally secular format of the show that one of the judges, Pharrell Williams, repeatedly thanked the show’s producers for allowing them “the freedom” to discuss religion.

Numerous artists performed songs with Christian themes. These included Meghan Lindsey performing “Amazing Grace” and Deanna Johnson performing “Down to the River to Pray”—made famous by the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. However the artist that was most overt about her Christian background was Koryn Hawthorne, a seventeen year old from a small town in Louisiana. While a number of songs generally spoke to her faith, it was her renditions of “How Great Thou Art” and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” that has attracted the most attention. After singing “Oh Mary,” her coach, Pharrell Williams, said, “After seeing that performance, it’s like you realize that the impossible is just a word, because it can be done, and dreams can come true, and honestly, what you just did showed everybody back home the reason why not only should they vote, but anything is possible when you put God first.” It was this kind of language by which Williams appealed directly to Christians and “those who love gospel” to support Hawthorne that really mobilized a religious base to support Hawthorne and vote her into the finale. Moreover, their renditions of these songs continue to be popular within the Christian community even after the show has ended. As I write this, Megan Lindsey’s “Amazing Grace” is #1 on Billboard’s chart for Christian Digital Songs and Koryn Hawthorne’s “How Great Thou Art” is #1 on the Gospel Digital Songs chart and has been at #1 for multiple weeks. For the finale, Williams wrote a song just for Hawthorne, he said it was inspired by her faith. Entitled “Bright Fire,” Williams said that the song “feels good” because “it feels like sunshine.” He added, “just like the lyrics say, He is our bright fire, God!”

Social media is a huge component of The Voice, including the use of Twitter to save contestants for elimination, and for the rallying of fans to vote and support artists to keep them in the show. Again, here we find the repeated references to God and Jesus, especially in the fan base of Hawthorne. In all her twitter posts Hawthorne includes the hashtag “#TeamJesus,” and so do her fans. Moreover, she is overt in her discussion of her religious background, making it the foundation of her identity. In doing so, fans have responded. For instance, when she was close to being eliminated, the appeal when out to the Christian fan base to support her and they did, saving her to continue on the show. Her Twitter reply again accentuated her religious identity.
Moreover, her fan base does not hesitate using religious language to discuss her appearance on the show and the inspiration she has given them. Fan comments on Facebook include:
  • “you have been blessed with an amazing voice , always be thankful and be true to God, yourself, family and friends and you will go far.”
  • “Voted..Purchased and ssTiiLLLL praying for ya...keep the Faith..the doors will open after this Voice journey...your Gift has made room for you!:)”
  • “God continue to lift you up and use this opportunity to propel you to use that Blessed Voice to touch people's lives and bring deeper inner healing to their souls. Be Blessed Chosen One!!!”
  • “Ur music is inspirational. You don't perform u inspire! I'm vote for u every week. I pray that GOD continues to bless you.”
To all these comments, Hawthorne returns the religious language, “Going through some of the comments on Instagram and Twitter and seeing lots of people saying how much I have inspired them and it makes me want to cry. That's all I live for, I'm so blessed and thankful for this opportunity! Thank you Jesus”

What is so significant is that this is the first time, to my knowledge, that a singing reality TV program has appealed to a religious constituency so directly. It is not uncommon in politics to see particular candidates appealing for certain religious community support, but competition reality shows generally remain quiet about religion, preferring to stay neutral religiously. This season of The Voice broke this model and it seems there was no backlash for its religiosity. In the end how did Hawthorne and the others do? Hawthorne came in fourth and Lindsey came in second. Lindsey already had a fan base from a previous musical career, but Hawthorne didn’t. There can be no doubt that it was her appeal to Christians that helped her reach the finals. Will others attempt to mobilize Christians in other reality competition shows? This remains to be seen, but if this season of The Voice is any indication, it is likely that other participants will call on a religious constituency to do well in the competition.


Anthony Petro at: May 30, 2015 at 5:42 PM said...

Fun post! American Idol has had a good dose of Christianity, too -- and there was at least one season when contestants sang "inspirational"-themed songs, which most of them took to mean Christian pop music (and which left the few non-Christians to some awkward choices!).

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