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The Voice Season 20 Live Playoffs commenced Monday, and although the season had gotten off to a slow start, this episode was surprisingly one of the strongest in recent Voice memory, with all but a few of the top 17 semifinalists delivering stellar performances. One of the night’s top moments came courtesy of Team Blake soul-pop belter Cam Anthony, who took all of the coaches to church and received a standing ovation for his dynamic rendition of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” But when Blake Shelton gushingly praised Cam, he (inadvertently?) threw shade at The Voice, proclaiming, “I've never had more people asking me about an artist on my team in 20 seasons of doing this show, man. You could be the first superstar that we launch off the show.” (Italics mine, of course.)
Gee… the first, huh? Host Carson Daly had just mentioned that The Voice was celebrating its 10th anniversary, and you’d think in all that time the show could have spawned at least a couple superstars on the level of, say, Kelly Clarkson or Jennifer Hudson — who of course got their start on rival series American Idol and have ironically both served as Voice coaches. Sure, there have been some Voice success stories, like Blake’s own winners Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery (who probably feel a bit slighted right now), or Team Adam’s Jordan Smith. But the show can’t even take credit for its biggest stars: Morgan Wallen, who only made it to the top 20 in 2014; Melanie Martinez, who after stalling in sixth place in 2012 forged an indie path for herself on YouTube and eventually signed to a label with no Voice affiliation, Atlantic Records; and Season 2’s Chris Mann, who reinvented himself during the 2020 pandemic as a viral musical comedian.
It’s doubtful that Blake’s remark was just a careless slip of the tongue. Several of the Voice coaches, including Blake’s mouthy former costar Adam Levine and Blake himself, have been vocal about the show’s shoddy track record — or, more specifically, Universal Records’ shoddy track record — when it comes to launching viable recording artists. For instance, during the Season 11 finale press conference in 2016, Blake memorably sat next to newly crowned winner Sundance Head and declared, “I want to personally issue a challenge to Universal Records. … This is the guy that I think can break the mold and become a star out of this show. And I give my word that I’ll put my work in, and I know he will. This guy deserves to be a star, and there’s no excuses anymore. We need to make the record and put the work in that he deserves, to have this success that he deserves. And that has to start with Universal Records getting involved and behind him.” Blake’s frank comments echoed similar stern sentiments expressed by Adam at the Season 9 finale press conference exactly a year earlier, when Adam demanded that Universal “do right by Jordan Smith.”
While Jordan went on to moderate success, Sundance became one of 11 Universal-signed Voice winners who never released albums or EPs while still under contract with the show. (In December 2017, about a year and a half before original coach Adam acrimoniously left The Voice after 16 seasons, Adam also blasted Universal/Republic’s lack of support in an interview with Parade magazine, saying, “Once we pass the torch, it is the record label that completely destroys that. My last two winners never even had an album released.”) And now, almost five years after that awkward Sundance Head press conference and a full decade after the Voice series premiere, the New York Post is running an article with the title “Won and done: Why ‘The Voice’ hasn’t produced a big star in its 10 years.” Maybe Blake, the only coach to have served on the panel for all 20 Voice seasons, perused that Post story before Monday’s Live Playoffs.
Regardless, it’s kind of endearing to see that Blake apparently still clings to the narrative that The Voice is in the business of promoting any “superstars” other than, well, Blake and his current costars: the aforementioned Kelly Clarkson (who goes to great pains to never utter the words “American Idol” while sitting in her red chair), John Legend, and Nick Jonas. But as I mentioned several paragraphs ago, Monday’s Live Playoffs were packed with talent across all four teams, and there were certainly a few contestants with superstar potential. While it might be putting the cart before the never-to-arrive horse to speculate if any of them can break the decade-long Voice curse, let’s assess the top 17 performances and predict who’ll at least make it to Season 20’s top nine.
Corey Ward, “Bruises”
The alt-pop balladeer set a high bar with this compelling and super-dramatic performance, pulling out all the stops to ensure that he wouldn’t be forgotten by the end of the night. He worked that falsetto, belted at the top of his lungs (admittedly to the point of shoutiness sometimes), and even dropped to his knees. Both Nick and Kelly noted that he sacrificed some technique in the moment, but it was worth it. “Forget technique — it's all passion, and I love that. … You can't teach someone to be emotional, you just can't teach that, and it just exudes from your pores. It's like watching an actor in like the best scene of the movie,” said Kelly.
Gihanna Zoë, “Always Remember Us This Way”
Gihanna’s gospel-tinged version of the A Star Is Born ballad showcased her immense range, especially her impressive upper register, although I fear her distinctive, heavy vibrato might be an acquired taste for some viewers. But she definitely commanded the stage like an Ally Maine-in-training. John once again compared the 17-year-old to Beyoncé and praised her “elite-level professionalism,” and Kelly added, “I was tearing up at the end. You do things others don't do. … You have the biggest voice on the show right now.”
Zae Romeo, “When I Look at You”
Zae is another power-belter on Kelly’s stacked team, and since his slightly pitchy performance wasn’t as technically polished as Gihanna’s or emotionally intense as Corey’s, either of those two could edge him out. Or, perhaps, he could cancel them out. “You're actually a beautiful mix of how Corey sounds and Gihanna. You have similar vibes going on with the mixture of what you have going on,” Kelly observed. Team Kelly voters will have a tough decision this week.
Kenzie Wheeler, “Red Dirt”
Kenzie has his own lane in the competition, as Kelly’s only country singer — and actually the only straight-up country singer in the entire top 17 — so he will surely sail through on genre alone. But this pro earned his spot tonight. This was such a mature and self-assured performance (once again, it’s hard to believe he’s a high school kid), like something from the 1990 CMT Awards. Blake, who’d once predicted that Kenzie will win the show, didn’t back away from that prophecy now. (Apparently he is expecting Kenzie and Cam to be the top two?) Kelly, who blocked Blake during the auditions to secure Kenzie for her team, declared, “I'm so blessed. It's the best Block I've used in my entire existence on this show.”
Ryleigh Modig, “Driver’s License”
Ryleigh is the quirky girl of Season 20 (every season has one), and she put her own stamp on Olivia Rodrigo’s ubiquitous teen-angst anthem, sounding like she wrote it herself. She didn’t sound perfect, but the little verge-of-tears breaks and yelps in her voice, intentional or not, added authenticity. And she looked like a relevant Gen Z pop star. “You put so much heart and soul and sadness and beauty and emotion into the song. … It was just stunning,” said John.
Zania Alaké, “Dangerous Woman”
Zania has always seemed like a dangerous competitor, a true threat, but this performance was disappointing. Perhaps she would have been better off sticking with jazzy, classic material. The performance started off wobbly and flat, and while she did sell the sensual song, it was her worst vocal to date. She may be in danger this week, although John seemed pleased, saying, “This is like extra-level star power, the way you approach the song. You just embody that dangerous woman to the fullest. It was sultry, sexy, beautiful, powerful, confident.”
Pia Renee, “Need U Bad”
Pia raised the bar and threw down the gauntlet and everything in between with this tour de force, proving that Cam Anthony and Kenzie Wheeler shouldn’t get too complacent just yet. The diva strutted out looking like a Prince protégé and sounding like Grammy-winner, making taking on a Jazmine Sullivan song seem like the easiest thing in the world. Blake called it a “breakout, awesome performance,” and John said, “You just give everything — the outfit, the energy, the runs, the high notes. It was incredible.”
Victor Solomon, “I Wish”
Stevie Wonder songs can easily turn into old-fashioned wedding-band fare when performed on reality shows, but this pink-suited showman was pure dynamite tonight, somehow seeming current, cool, and classic, all at once. He had the coaches up out of their chairs dancing, and they stayed out of those chairs to give him the first standing ovation of the night. “Victor, that was flawless. Perfect physical performance, vocal performance, so much energy and charisma. Wow, you were a superstar,” said John.
Dana Monique, “Free Your Mind”
There was so much diva deliciousness on the show tonight! And Dana just may have out-diva’d everyone else. Serving En Vogue-at-the-1992-VMAs realness during this this fiery rock ‘n’ soul number, Dana was a force. And she shall be reckoned with in the top nine semifinals. Kelly threw almost all of her earthly possessions at the stage, then raved, “My whole life I've been waiting for someone like you; you have such a gift, it's crazy!” Said Nick, “I'm just going to say it's an honor to be your coach. … You just blew that out of the park. It was unbelievable. You're incredible.”
Andrew Marshall, “Put Your Records On”
Andrew always seemed like fodder on this show: He was a one-chair turn, then Nick gave him up in the Battles and stole him back in the Knockouts. And Andrew didn’t upgrade his also-ran status with this bland performance, which guaranteed he’d be outshined by the bigger power-singers of the season. He did go for some power moments at the end, but it was all so try-hard, and it just didn’t work with the light, placid Corinne Bailey Rae song. Nick pretty much say goodbye to Andrew right then and there, telling him he’d “had an incredible journey on this show” but “not everything came together perfectly during this performance. I think we both know that.” Ouch.
José Figueroa Jr., “Talking to the Moon”
José is more of a gospel type, so he didn’t have the swag or sex appeal to pull off Bruno Mars. This entire performance felt a bit stuffy and recital-y, and his falsetto was underwhelming. However, Nick appreciated that José took a risk, even if voters will likely be turned off. “You pushed yourself during this performance with the song choice. I thought you were unbelievable tonight. Your best vocal performance I've heard on this show with you so far. I'm very, very proud of you for that,” Nick claimed.
Devan Blake Jones, “Shape of My Heart”
Devan won the Four-Way Knockout as voted by America — and I don’t think he expected to. That would explain this mess of a seemingly unrehearsed performance. The Backstreet Boys song started off way too low for him, sitting in an uncomfortable spot in his chest, and he never quite got into the groove. I guess Devan was fodder all along. Nick faintly praised him by saying, “This song makes me so happy. To hear you sing it makes me so happy. To see you still in the competition is so personal.” But I think both Nick and Devan knew this was the end.
Rachel Mac, “Rainbow”
This songbird’s Kacey Musgraves cover ticked all the boxes: a perfectly pristine and crystalline vocal, a deeply connected and heartfelt delivery (she shed real tears, as did easy crier Kelly), and a Vampire’s Wife-style maxidress that made her look like a chic country-folk style icon. Blake told the winsome warbler she “really set the bar pretty high,” and Nick called her a “special artist” that was “born for this stage.” Nick better be relieved that he has Dana and Rachel on his team, because even though he supposedly had an advantage with his extra contestant, his team had an overall weak showing tonight.
Jordan Matthew Young, “Gold Dust Woman”
This was a very cool performance — “way too cool to be on Blake's team,” as Kelly joked. I loved everything about this: the slow-burn slide guitar that evoked Ennio Morricone and David Lynch film scores, the craggy pack-a-day voice, the Midland country-rock couture. Jordan looked and sounded like he should be playing the Americana tent at the Stagecoach festival or the Palomino club in 1972. Kelly said Jordan’s performance had “the right amount of mystery,” and Blake told him, “There's nobody anywhere near what you do in this competition.”
Anna Grace, “Let Her Go”
Anna is usually so mousy and quiet that I’d feared, or expected, that she would fade into the background tonight. But this was her finest moment yet — elegant, sophisticated, classy, classic. She seemed to have blossomed from a sweet teen to a promising young woman since the Knockouts were taped not long ago. “Nobody tonight has sung with so much artistry and just finesse and control and just a calmness and confidence. … I can't even believe I have a chance to work with you,” marveled Blake.
Pete Mroz, “We Belong”
Obviously Pete has never been the best singer of Season 20, and he’s never claimed to be. But he’s always been the best storyteller and a real natural onstage, with his years of professional experience, and just life experience, working to his advantage. I’m not sure if that will be enough to get the 45-year-old folk singer through to the next round, especially with him doing a laid-back rendition of an operatic Pat Benatar song. But this was very pleasant and soothing performance, and Pete is the kind of everyman viewers root for. So, he could be this season’s Todd Tilghman. Said a nostalgic Blake, who used to know Peter 25 years ago when they were both starting out in Nashville, “To see you still have the same raw talent and passion for singing, great job.”
Cam Anthony, “Take Me to Church”
And then former child star Cam closed the night in grand fashion and established himself as Season 20’s one to beat. Hozier’s hit had been covered so many times and has received so much radio play that I’d assumed I’d never want to hear it again, not even by Hozier himself... but Cam’s vivacious, soulful, youthful delivery and effervescent star quality made the song seem fresh again. Maybe Blake was right about Cam. He could be a superstar. Do right by Cam Anthony, Universal/Republic!
So now, it is prediction time. Unfortunately, team quotas are still in place this week, which means coaches with especially strong teams — i.e., Kelly and John — will have to bid premature farewells to some very worthy contenders. On Tuesday’s live results show, one contestant per team will be voted through by America, one contestant per team will be saved by their respective coaches, and then each team’s remaining highest vote-getter will sing for the Instant Save.
I predict for Team Kelly, Kenzie will get the most votes, and Kelly will then save Corey (or possibly Gihanna). For Team Legend, Pia will make it, and then John will save Victor. For Team Jonas, it’ll be Dana and then Rachel. And for Team Blake, it’ll be Cam and Jordan. The middle-packer contestants likely to compete for that ninth sport are Gihanna/Corey, Ryleigh, José, and Pete (in which case, I’ll be speed-voting for Ryleigh), but this could go many different ways. See you then.
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