Hardest song ever sung on 'The Voice': 'Why did John pick this?'

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The socially distanced The Voice Battle Rounds continued apace Tuesday evening, and as per usual, the episode saved the best for last, with an astounding, standing-ovation-garnering duet that coach John Legend described as “musical-expert-level, Ph.D. professor-level.” (One of the contestants, Team Legend opera singer John Holiday, is an actual music professor, so that made sense.) Legend gave Holiday and Julia Cooper the most difficult song ever performed on The Voice — Stevie Wonder’s “Summer Soft,” an advanced Songs in the Key of Life vocal workout packed with twists and turns and key changes and unorthodox chords — but he was confident that these prodigies were up for the challenge.

“When a song is this complex, you start with, ‘Can I learn it and just execute it technically?’ ... These two artists, with their level of musicianship and artistry, they can handle it,” asserted Legend. He acknowledged that both daunted contestants were probably thinking to themselves, “Why did John pick this?” — and his guest adviser, alternative R&B star Miguel, said, “I'm sure the first time you heard it, you were like, ‘Yo, what is going on?’” But, like, Legend, Miguel was “blown away” by what he heard during rehearsals, telling them, “Anyone who knows anything about music is going to be impressed. … Just that you’re able to handle the song speaks volumes.”

Both John H. and Julia were both major standouts during Season 19’s Blind Auditions. Legend turned around literally within the first three seconds of hearing superstar song stylist Holiday deliver what he called “one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on this show,” and he used his Block on rival coach Kelly Clarkson to ensure that he’d have Holiday all to himself. Meanwhile, Julia’s effortless, lackadaisically cool Lisa Stansfield vibe had Legend hailing her as a “revelation.” It seemed like 35-year-old Holiday might have the edge here due to his experience, but during rehearsals, Miguel preferred 21-year-old Julia, saying her choices were more “stylistically modern.” (“Sometimes if you’re so formally trained, you don’t do things that make it sound cool. So it’s awkward interesting for me coaching those kinds of artists, because I have to get them to dial back some of their training,” Legend also said of Holiday’s stuffier style.)

So, this seemed like an evenly matched Battle, one that could go either way. One thing was for certain, however: It was going to be epic. “I know this is going to be a moment for you,” declared Miguel.

And what a moment! This tour de force made me feel like I was watching the Grammy Awards, or like I was at the Playboy Jazz Festival with a fine glass of wine, as Kelly likes to say. Vocally, this was a master class, and John H. and Julia were also the only two contestants of Season 19 so far who seemed totally comfortable with the Battles’ new socially distanced stage setup. “Lordy, lordy, lordy!” gasped Legend. “That was so entertaining and so weird — in the best way ever! You two have such interesting voices!” raved Gwen Stefani. But while both voices were indeed interesting, it was obvious that Holiday’s had truly captured all of the coaches’ imaginations. “I don’t even understand how you’re real,” Gwen told him. “The vocal range, I don’t even know who to compare it to,” marveled Kelly. “You’re a force on this show. You have a gift,” added Blake Shelton.

In any other Battle, Julia would have been a shoo-in, but of course Legend had to go with Holiday. But Legend of course saved Julia too, dispatching her to the four-way Knockout against Team Blake’s Taryn Papa and two yet-to-be-determined singers representing Team Kelly and Team Gwen. And if Julia sings this amazingly in the Knockout Rounds, which she surely will, there’s no way it won’t be a total knockout, sending her through to the Live Playoffs. She too is a force, and she too has a gift,

So, after all that awesomeness, host Carson Daly was understandably already looking forward to the Knockout Rounds, so he closed Tuesday’s show by announcing the new “Mega-Mentor” for Season 19: familiar face Usher, who served as a full-time Voice coach alongside Adam Levine, Shakira, and Blake in 2013 and 2014. The reaction from the three coaches who’ve since filled the series’ red chairs — Kelly, Gwen, and John — was pretty amusing, with all of them mock-fearing that Usher would upstage them. Obviously they were joking, and Usher will likely get some more ribbing from Kelly, who recently gave him a hard time when he guested on her talk show. (She teased him about how he brought his own trailer to the Voice set; he explained that he was taking The Voice’s new COVID-19 protocols very seriously.)

But Usher’s track record on The Voice is no joke. Although he only coached for two seasons, he established an impressive track record — making it to second place with quirky indie-pop artist Michelle Chamuel his first time out, and then winning with neo-soul crooner Josh Kaufman in Season 6. (“Working with Usher was amazing, just in the fact that he seemed genuinely interested in working with me. It never seemed like, ‘OK, I’m doing this for the show, and now I’m going home and I’ll forget about you.’ He really seemed to have an interest in furthering my career and making me a better performer — which I know he did,” Josh told Yahoo Entertainment shortly after his victory.)

Perhaps Usher’s knack with reality TV contestants came from a place of empathy, since he got his own career start as a child on Star Search (interestingly, so did Josh). Or maybe he’s just a natural-born born professor, like John Holiday. Regardless, he will undoubtedly be dropping some knowledge when he returns to the show in a couple weeks’ time. In the meantime, below are the other contestants who survived Tuesday’s Battles and will soon get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with Usher one-on-one:

TEAM KELLY: DeSz vs. Joseph Soul, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”

I was unimpressed by Joseph’s Blind Audition, when he failed to live up his last name and sucked all of the soul out of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love.” This week, he was definitely more soulful, vastly improved, but the odds still seemed stacked against him when he was paired with four-chair Kanye choir singer DeSz. Even Joseph nervously admitted that was worried about being “left in the dust.” Up onstage, he held his own, but was no match for his “warrior vocalist” opponent. It was no surprise that Kelly, who jumped up out her red chair and whooped it up when DeSz hit a an especially massive power note, bid Joseph farewell. What was surprising was that Gwen bid Joseph hello, using (or, possibly, squandering) her one Steal on him, in what appeared to be a last-minute decision. “I was not planning this at all, but your voice is so beautiful. … I can’t let that voce walk away from this stage,” she explained. We will soon find out if Gwen’s impulse move was the right one.

WINNER: DeSz / STOLEN: Joseph Soul moves to Team Gwen

TEAM BLAKE: Jim Ranger vs. John Sullivan, “Good As You”

I wasn’t sure if John’s laidback SNL’s “The Mellow Show” grooviness would pair well with Jim’s brassy belting (even Jim admitted, “I definitely have a condition called ‘oversinging’”), but as it turned out, John and Jim’s voices blended so perfectly that I think Blake ought to consider taking them to the Knockouts as a duo. They could be the new Swon Brothers! (Kelly described them as “a beautiful marriage of Keith Urban and John Mayer.”) Jim, a minister-by-day that John Legend noted had the experience needed to “control the room,” reined it in just enough, though Gwen pointed out he was “ramping up and up” and Kelly said he “came in hot at the end.” Sullivan ramped it up too, but in the end, the soul and grit in Jim’s voice could not be denied.

WINNER: Jim Ranger

TEAM KELLY: Skylar Alyvia Mayton vs. Tanner Gomes, “Whiskey Lullaby”

TEAM GWEN: Chloe Hogan vs. Lain Roy, “Adore You”

Oh, how ironic that Kelly gushed, “I love the Battle Rounds, because you really start get to know your team” — and then we didn’t get to know these team members at all, because they were montaged! And we will never get to know Skylar or Lain, really, because they’re already gone. Based on the brief performance snippets that aired Tuesday, I don’t know if Kelly made the right decision with Tanner (he sounded harsh and sharp to me), and based on Lain’s great first audition, which showcased some boy-band-worthy pop-star quality, I don’t know if Gwen made the right decision with her Battle either. But Gwen said she thought Chloe was “amore in touch with her identity as an artist,” so hopefully we will get to know Chloe, and Tanner, a little bit better during the Knockouts.

WINNERS: Tanner, Chloe

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