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Following American Idol making TV history as the first major talent show to switch to an at-home production format due to the coronavirus pandemic, this Monday it was rival show The Voice’s turn to go remote, with the top 17 semifinalists performing for the public’s votes for the first time this season. Comparisons were inevitable, and in some ways The Voice didn’t measure up to the surprisingly high production standards already established by the home version of Idol. But in the end, Monday’s two-hour episode still felt like The Voice.
After a feel-good remote acoustic performance by Season 18 Mega-Mentor James Taylor and the contestants, the show got underway with host Carson Daly standing on a scaled-down soundstage in front of the coaches’ vacant red chairs. But enthusiastic rookie coach Nick Jonas, who surely never expected to be experiencing his very first Live Playoffs (or, in this case, live-to-tape Playoffs) in lockdown, managed to bring a bit of the Voice set into his Los Angeles room by ingeniously creating his own DIY chair. (He had his trusty notepad with him, too.) Kelly Clarkson, sheltering in place on her Montana ranch, got in the spirit by donning one of her signature Team Kelly satin jackets, while Blake Shelton, in Oklahoma, showed off his girlfriend Gwen Stefani’s on-the-fly hair-and-makeup skills (and his rapidly regrowing mullet) while freely admitting that he was delighted to be working from home. Meanwhile, the urbane John Legend, also in L.A., fantasized about wanting to get out of house and take his wife to an Italian restaurant for date night. So yeah, all of the coaches were pretty much on-brand this Monday.
Unfortunately, though, it seemed like all of the show’s production budget went towards making the coaches look good, so — also on brand with The Voice, come to think of it — the contestants got short shrift. Although the top 17 had supposedly been shipped “state-of-the-art” video equipment to shoot their performances at their homes, their footage looked cheap and fuzzy — a cross between ‘80s-Valley-condo porn footage, green-screen Zoom background, make-your-own-music-video mall kiosk, public access cable TV, and bad Snapchat filter. Everything was so gauzy and grainy — were ring lights not included in those “state-of-the-art” video kits? — that it created a weird disconnect for me. American Idol definitely did a better job at making contestants’ performances feel intimate and direct.
That being said, it was still nice to see The Voice soldier on under such crazy and unforeseeable circumstances. “As you know, the entire world changed dramatically since we taped the Knockouts. But just because we are all separated, it doesn't mean we can't come together from across the nation and celebrate and hear some great music,” said Carson. And there were some great, if gauzy, performances this evening. Let’s check them out:
Thunderstorm Artis (Portland, Ore.), “Summertime”
This was one of the more professional-looking performances of the night, and the Hawaiian troubadour sounded as good as he looked. That whistle solo even practically rivaled Axl Rose’s in “Patience” or Peter Bjorn & John’s in “Young Folks”! It was an artsy and sophisticated effort, a quiet ‘Storm, described by Nick as “joyful.” I hope this guy, who’s already been knocked around from team to team, doesn’t get lost in the shuffle because he performed first on a busy night, but I think he did enough to stand out.
Allegra Miles (West Palm Beach, Fla.), “New York State of Mind”
Allegra’s beige Pottery Barn background didn’t provide much visual interest, but that was the only thing beige about this performance. While she could have worked the camera little more — she kept staring ceiling-ward, for some reason — her vocal was stunning. Nick called Allegra “a force in this competition,” and Blake thought she was even better at home than onstage, saying, “I feel like maybe we can never go back from here.”
Arei Moon, (Tampa, Fla.), “Finesse”
OK, this looked like a retro-disco karaoke video, but in the best possible way. The cheap-and-cheerful VHS aesthetic actually worked in the context of this funky Bruno Mars song, and Arei, who performed with (wait for it) finesse had absolutely no fear when it came to breaking of the fourth wall and playing up to the camera lens. “I'm a '90s chick when it comes to music, and that, straight-up, was '90s, your whole vibe,” said Kelly. “We talked about finding new and creative ways to embrace this format, and you did exactly that, making this your own, bringing that fun vibe to it, the '90s influence,” said Nick.
Roderick Chambers (Orange, Calif.), “Lost Without U”
Roderick is a solid singer (his falsetto was admittedly impressive this week), but this combination of lo-fi production and low-key ballad will likely lead to his downfall this week. There was just no simmer or smolder here. Nick, however, predicted that this would be “one of the performances where Twitter just blows up after.” We shall see.
Michael Williams (Mason, Ohio), “Sign of the Times”
Michael was the most vanilla and forgettable contestant going into this season’s new four-way Knockout a couple weeks ago (against rocker Todd Michael Hall, bluesman Nelson Cade III, and country ingenue Samantha Howell). But somehow, he won anyway. I don’t this week’s strained performance, which seemed right at the edge or even just outside of his range, proved that he deserved to make the top 17. And as for Kelly bizarrely, insanely calling this Ken Doll “so rock ‘n’ roll”? Methinks she’s been shut in the house too long.
Zan Fiskum (Maple Valley, Wash.), “Blowin’ in the Wind”
Well, props to Zan for at least trying to do some creative art direction in her quaint tiny hippie house, even if her Stevie Nicks/Celtic Woman twirly-dress shtick in the forest bordered on SNL parody. Her voice was no joke, though. And I appreciated that Zan had the guts to take on an iconic Bob Dylan song; that risk paid off more that her wood-nymph act, with Kelly even declaring this the best version of the song she’d ever heard (aside from Dylan’s, I would assume). “Such a journey you took us on with this song. You showed us every part of your voice; you had so much nuance and subtlety in all of the choices you made. Everything felt so intentional and purposeful, and it was a gorgeous, gorgeous performance,” raved John.
Mike Jerel (Columbia, Ga.), “All My Life”
Mike gained access to an actual college-campus theater, and that setting lent his performance gravitas. But his vocal was shaky, and his pacing and phrasing were off. It felt like he was rushing the song. But of course, his coach offered nothing but praise (most of the contestants, due to time constraints, only received feedback from their own coach and maybe one other panelist, so the softball critiques were especially soft this week). “I love how you took this song that we've all heard a thousand-million times and made it your own,” said John.
Mandi Castillo (Carlsbad, Calif.), “Corre”
This performance was safe and staid, without a lot of dynamics in terms to show-woman-ship, but Mandi stood out by doing a song in Spanish, and vocally, this was fairly flawless. “You execute so perfectly and you are so humble and unassuming… but then when you sing, so much passion and power comes from you,” said John.
Cammwess (Bythwood, S.C.), "Ain't No Sunshine”
This was one of my favorite performances of the night. It was such pure understated elegance, even with that chintzy Silk Stalkings backdrop. It was a risk for Cammwess to do an oft-covered (I would even say over-covered) song by the late, great Bill Withers, but he pulled it off. I can’t imagine he could have done a better job even on a big stage; in fact, he was one contestant who benefited from this scaled-down production. “Your tone, it's so buttery — oh, it’s honey-butter — so sweet and beautiful,” said John.
Megan Danielle (Winston, Ga.), "Anyone"
Megan went all Southern Gothic with her styling here, and I was kind of feeling it. It helped her tap into the darkness of this despairing, cry-for-help Demi Lovato ballad. I was definitely feeling her raspy, growly vocal, which reminding me of Season 8 American Idol contestant Allison Iraheta. “You are so special. Your tone, how you can float through different genres. … I know Demi Lovato probably heard that and was like, ‘Whoa, all right!’” said Kelly.
Mandi Thomas (Memphis, Tenn.), "I Hope You Dance"
This was so dreary. It looked and felt like something from an ‘80s rerun of The 700 Club. Sure, Mandi sang it well — she is a trained opera soloist, after all — but there was nothing daring or interesting or relevant about this, despite Kelly’s claim that it was “such a cool vibe.” I know the Voice audience leans towards the conservative side, but I can’t imagine viewers leaning into this.
Micah Iverson (Atlanta), “Your Song”
OK, now this was a cool vibe. It was very Sam Fender, very Bastille. Micah managed to take an extremely familiar song and give it a little indie twist, while still being respectful to the original. And his voice was pure velvet. “You are one of the best vocalists in this entire competition. You are so gifted, it is insane. That is a big song, and you were just so effortless about it, jumping all around in your range,” said Kelly.
Cedrice (San Diego), “Everything I Wanted”
This was the one home performance of the evening that truly dazzled visually. Cedrice apparently lives on the set of Liquid Sky or that strobelit mime dance sequence from Flashdance, or in Demi Moore’s loft from St. Elmo’s Fire. And she looked like a Patrick Nagel painting come to life. She looked like the future and the past, all at once. The next-level visuals jibed with the haunting Billie Eilish hyperballad, and everything just worked. Viewers just tuning in might have even mistaken this for the real Voice stage. “You're so crazy cool… you do not need a show. You are such a standalone artist and human being,” an awestruck Kelly declared.
Toneisha Harris (Roswell, Ga.), “Stronger”
Toneisha didn’t have a fancy space-set, but she didn’t need one. Her out-of-this-world vocals were more than enough. Even Kelly was floored by this cover of her own hit, exclaiming, “If you need a background singer, call me!” Said John: “It's always a bold move to sing a Kelly Clarkson song on this show, and very few singers have the chops to pull it off in the way that you do. I've been telling you from the beginning that I thought we would see you in the finale, and everything about this performance confirmed what I've been saying.”
Joei Fulco (Lancaster, Calif.), “Runaway”
I appreciated the outside-the-box song choice here, but the arrangement was so Alannah Myles/”Black Velvet” that Joei probably would have sounded hipper and less dated if she’d just straight-up done the original Del Shannon arrangement from 1961. And that NAMM/Guitar Center backdrop wasn’t helping any, either. Nick called the performance “so unique, so special,” and Blake told Joei she “killed it,” but I don’t think she’s going to run away with the competition after this.
Joanna Serenko (St. Louis), “Rich Girl”
I love me some Hall & Oates, and I love me some Joanna right now. This vocal was so sexy, so soulful, so sultry, so laid-back yet with just the right amount of ‘tude. Joanna may have the most distinctive tone in the competition aside from Megan. “It's funny. You didn't really change up the groove of the song- it's basically the track was similar to how Hall & Oates did it — but this a clear case of how unique you are. Your voice is so different from anybody else's, so it literally became your song,” said Blake.
Todd Tilghman (Meridian, Miss.), “Glory of Love”
Argh. Ugh. Gag. Are you kidding me? A church performance of a Peter Cetera prom ballad? Middle America will probably love it, but this was cheesier than the entire annual dairy output of the state of Wisconsin. Also, Blake needs to stop using “literally” as an emphasis word, because contrary to what he said tonight, Todd is not “literally the Karate Kid.” This was not Ralph Macchio, people. If it had been, that would have been much cooler.
So now, it is prediction time. On Tuesday’s brutal live (yes — apparently actually, truly live!) results show, one contestant from each team will be voted through by America, and then each coach will save a contestant. The top nine will then be rounded out by the winner of the Instant Save. It’s tricky to predict just how those top nine will be determined, but — keeping the team quotas in mind — I predict the ones with the best shot at survival are Thunderstorm Artis, Arei Moon, Mandi Castillo, Cammwess, Megan Danielle, Micah Iverson, Cedrice, Toneisha Harris, Joanna Serenko, and Todd Tilghman. Whoever makes it through, how the show handles the live format will certainly be interesting television, and I hope all of the contestants have strong WiFi. See you then.
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