The Voice has always been a show about second chances. From Season 1’s Javier Colon and Dia Frampton (both former major-label signees), to onetime Michael Jackson background singer Judith Hill, to the series’ most recent winner, ex-Curly Sue child star Alisan Porter, many industry veterans have turned to the show for a career reboot. But perhaps no professional contestant has a story as interesting as that of Billy Gilman, the openly gay former country music preteen prodigy, who auditioned for The Voice Season 11 this Tuesday.
Billy, now 28, made history in 2000, when at age 11 he became the youngest artist to have a Top 40 hit on the country charts with his first single, the gold-certified “One Voice.” He earned a double-platinum album for his full-length debut (which went to #2 on Billboard’s Country Chart), as well as two subsequent gold albums. But a rocky road lay ahead for Billy, who had to relearn how to sing after his post-puberty voice changed. Nashville lost eventually interest in him, and he even took a five-year hiatus from music, returning in 2014 with the independent “Say You Will.”
But more importantly, that same year, Billy came out as gay — a rare act in the conservative country music world — via a personal YouTube video, after being inspired by a similar announcement by gay country singer Ty Herndon. In his post, Billy implied that gossip about his sexuality may have been the real reason for his career slump, saying: “In recent years when I did come back to Nashville, there were rumors and whispers — is he or isn’t he? For many that know Nashville and how much I love the industry… being a gay male country artist is not the best thing. You know, if people don’t like your music, that’s one thing. But after having sold over 5 million records and having a wonderful life in the music industry, I knew something was wrong when no major label wanted to sit down and have a meeting and listen to the new stuff. I’d do a showcase in Nashville and no major label showed.”
Billy then added, “It’s difficult for me to make this video. Not because I’m ashamed of being a gay male artist, or a gay artist, or a gay person. But it’s pretty silly to know that I’m ashamed of doing this knowing that because I’m in a genre, and in an industry, that is ashamed of me for being me.”
So now Billy is back, on The Voice, a GLAAD Media Award-winning show that has a long and admirable history of welcoming openly LGBT contestants — ever since its first season, when four of the top eight finalists (and two of the top four) were gay or bisexual. And Billy is, interestingly, also leaving the country world behind and going pop.
“Within the quiet moments, I found who I was as a person,” he told Voice host Carson Daly backstageTuesday, as he reflected on his time away from the spotlight. “I had to come to grips with being gay… I took a long time to rebuild vocally, but it was coming back, and then coming to grips with who I was personally, I also came to grips with who I was as a singer. You know, I love my country music roots, but deep down, I really always wanted to be a pop singer.
“It’s actually nerve-racking to stand here and just be 100 percent me. There’s only one shot to reinvent myself.”
Billy hit the stage doing Adele’s tearjerker “When We Were Young” — a tough song, as is any Adele song, but one brimming with bittersweet meaning for a former, fallen child star. He delivered a beautiful, emotional, understated performance (you would have never guessed that he had ever suffered from any vocal issues), and all four coaches turned around. Blake Shelton instantly recognized him, and Miley Cyrus remembered him opening for her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, in concert. “I know who the hell you are! Let me take care of you… I’d love to help you now become The New Billy, ’cause I had to make that decision [to change genres], and I know how I want people to see me, and I’m very clear about that. So I would love to help you be clear to people about who you are,” Miley asserted.
With a sales pitch like that, it seemed like Miley had this one in the bag. But Adam’s declaration — “That intangible quality that you possess is exactly what embodies the person that wins this show. You really could be the guy. I am blown away!” — surprisingly swayed Billy to Team Adam.
I think Miley would have been the better coach to guide Billy on his transition from country to gay-friendly pop — a transition Miley successfully made herself with Bangerz — but hopefully The Voice will finally give the all-grown-up Billy a place where he feels accepted, even by good ol’ country boy Blake (who recently came under fire for his old homophobic tweets). Watch this space, and find out if The Voice will give this “One Voice” veteran one more chance.
These were the other successful Blind Auditions of the night:
This single mom, who grew up in Chicago’s housing projects with a crack-addicted (but now sober) mother, brought all her pain, heartache, and life experience to her powerhouse, gauntlet-tossing performance of Ray Charles’s “Drown in My Own Tears.” (“I don’t know how to hold it in,” Sa’Rayah later explained.) This lady really sang the blues, and she was the whole package: massive voice, massive stage presence, massive hair, massive talent. This was really the first “wow moment” of the season. “What just happened?”exclaimed Alicia Keys. Only Alicia and Miley turned around, surprisingly, but Adam explained that he’d refrained because he knew he had no chance against Alicia in particular.
“What I believe is that music is the ability to share what it is — that’s the truth, the light, the real. You blew me all the way back to the whole end of the galaxy with your voice… Where is all of this deeply rooted, passionate, take-you-out-of-your-whole skin music and voice coming from?” raved Alicia. “You brought hope and love into the room and filled the space with your voice, and I want to be your coach so bad,” said Miley, claiming that she’d work extra-hard for Sa’Rayah because she knew she was not the most obvious coach choice.
Interestingly, Sa’Rayah went with… Miley! Alicia may have seemed like the no-brainer option, but the Sa’Rayah/Miley combo just might work. If there’s one thing that could hold Sa’Rayah back in this competition, it’s her old-fashionedness, but Miley could be the perfect coach to put a fresh, sassy, modern spin on Sa’Rayah’s classic sound.
MEMBER OF: Team Miley
This 26-year-old, a longtime professional touring musician who’s opened for Steve Miller, Jimmy Cliff, Buddy Guy, and Ziggy Marley, took on the Police’s “Roxanne” — a real upper-octave toughie that has felled many an over-ambitious singing show contestant in the past. (There was one guy on Rock Star: Supernova whose disastrous version still haunts my nightmares.) However, by coaxing out the new wave classic’s reggae feel and dropping the key way, way down, Ethan delivered a growly, husky version that was very much his own. It felt authentic, hip, and even a bit sexy. Adam’s eyebrows immediately perked up, but despite his seeming interest, he hemmed and hawed, and didn’t push his button until the very last minute. Blake buzzed in too, just as Ethan was finishing up his final note, but Adam still seemed like the most natural fit.
“Musically, we get along,” Adam pointed out, after Ethan rattled off his many musical influences (none of which, it should be noted, were country). “You made a reggae-infused rock ‘n’ roll tune more reggae. That was cool… And that last note showed me that it wasn’t just a gimmick. You have chops, as well.”
Blake’s sales pitch wasn’t quite as effective as Adam’s (he told Ethan he sounded like he’d “gargled with broken glass or something”), but then Blake shamelessly “played the Gwen Stefani card” and quipped, “I do have some serious connections in the reggae/ska world nowadays.” Huh? I can’t believe that line ACTUALLY WORKED.
MEMBER OF: Team Blake
This 17-year-old spitfire was actually the first Season 11 auditioner America ever saw, on NBC’s post-Olympics preview mini-episode last month. I personally didn’t mind watching her booming, mostly a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” again. Yes, she was that good.
Miley was the first to buzz in during what was ultimately a worthy four-chair audition, and she talked a good game, calling Wé (pronounced “Way”) a “total star” and empathizing with Wé’s bullying backstory. But Alicia laid it on so thick, you would have thought she’d cribbed a page from the playbook of Adam Levine himself. “I cannot believe this voice… You’re so perfectly yourself,” Alicia gushed. “That’s what we need in music… You came to this show to meet me. I’m not playing.” Said Adam, who has become increasingly intimidated in the new coaches’ presence this season: “Alicia just dropped the mic on us.”
MEMBER OF: Team Alicia
This former special education teacher and member of popular festival-circuit band the Shades sang “Vienna” (the Billy Joel song, sadly, not the one by Ultravox, which would have been awesome). I thought his performance was a bit generic. I understand why it took Blake and Adam so long to finally turn around – for a moment, it looked like no chairs would turn at all.
Adam and Andrew bonded over their shared fondness for Billy Joel (a better strategy than Blake’s trashing of Adam’s Voice track record, since Adam has only won one less championship than Blake himself). Adam prevailed in the end, but I suspect Andrew will wind up being Battle Rounds fodder. He didn’t wow me.
MEMBER OF: Team Adam
OK, this girl wowed me, big-time! Look up “rock star” in your Funk & Wagnalls and you’ll likely see a photo of this badass burlesque performer. The faux-hawked 31-year-old sizzled while belting and snarling her way through the Beatles’ “Come Together,” channeling “Janis Joplin and Tina Turner” (according to Alicia) and a “rock ‘n’ roll Dolly Parton” (according to Miley). Only Miley and Alicia turned for Sophia, shockingly, but Blake admitted he was “intimidated” by Sophia’s badassery. (I’m not sure what Adam’s silly excuse was.)
“I feel like that’s why we need to be together — so that we can continue to scare all the men in the world who need to be shown that a woman’s power cannot be contained!” shouted Alicia, who declared Sophia “the future of music.” But then Miley trotted out a pre-recorded video of her godmother, the one and only Dolly Parton herself, and that won Sophia over. Because who can say no to Dolly?
Anyway, I think Sophia made the right decision here. Putting two mavericks like Sophia and Miley together will be a total party in the USA this season.
MEMBER OF: Team Miley
This 26-year-old Brooklyn bartender did “Jolene” (not the Dolly Parton song, but the Ray LaMontagne tune by the same title), filling this season’s token indie hipster role with his pleasantly gruff vocals and Jakob-Dylanesque good looks. It wasn’t a mind-blowing audition, but it was worthy of its three-chair turn. (Blake was the only coach not to spin around.)
“I’m about classic, timeless music that lives forever, after TV shows are long gone. Like, they stand tried-and-true because they are authentic. And that’s what I see in you,” gushed Alicia. Miley lapsed into Valley Girl-speak and called Brendan “radical.” But Adam, who was the first to turn, really went for it, saying, “This voice can be the voice. A lot of people don’t understand that it’s not about someone that can sing 8,000 different notes. It’s about somebody who can connect with an audience and make people feel something that is genuine. Everybody felt what was happening in here.”
I guess Brendan was feeling Adam, because that’s who he picked. The pairing makes sense. Maybe Brendan could be this season’s Joshua Davis.
MEMBER OF: Team Adam
At age has, Dan is one of the oldest auditioners to grace this show’s stage, but thankfully, he’s taken good care of his voice. (And his looks! The man has aged well.) The former commercial jingle singer, who put his showbiz career to care on hold for his ailing son, showcased a wonderfully pure and impressively controlled falsetto on Train’s “Marry Me” — a voice that many contestants half his age would be thrilled to possess.
I was worried that no one would turn for my man Dan, but thankfully, Blake heard the potential – and he was certainly shocked when he saw this silver fox in front of him instead of the expected “19- or 20-year-old.” One-chair contestants can be surprise dark horses on The Voice sometimes, so I’m totally rooting for Dan.
MEMBER OF: Team Blake
This Alicia Keys fangirl, who used to dress up like Alicia in her childhood bedroom, won America’s Most Talented Kids a decade ago singing Alicia’s “If I Ain’t Got You.” Since that victory didn’t lead to a record deal, the now-24-year-old decided to reprise that performance for The Voice. Looking like a gorgeous, perfect pop star, she delivered a polished performance, though I personally found it a little lacking in passion and grit. (Alicia later gushed that Lauren sang the song better than she did. That was nice of Alicia to say that. I disagreed, though.)
Anyway, Alicia buzzed in first. I don’t even know why Blake and Miley even bothered to turn as well, but they seemed undeterred. “I am willing to make an ass out of myself to show you how badly I want to be your coach,” said Blake. “If you want to sing Alicia and then go with me and confuse everybody, that would make Voice history,” Miley joked. But Blake and Miley had no shot. Alicia hugged a sobbing Lauren, told her they were “meant to be together,” and beggingly serenaded her with a personalized version of “If I Ain’t Got You.” Team Alicia for the win.
Oh, and then Lauren’s boyfriend proposed to her backstage. Lauren had a pretty good day Tuesday, it’s safe to say.
MEMBER OF: Team Alicia
So to recap, right now Team Alicia consists of We McDonald, Lauren Diaz, Jason Warrior, Dave Moisan, and Christian Cuevas. Team Miley has Sa’Rayah, Sophia Urista, Courtnie Ramirez, Ali Caldwell, and a recruit from last month’s mini-premiere, Darby Walker. Team Blake has Ethan Tucker, Dan Shafer, Sundance Head, Gabe Broussard, and Dana Harper. And after only picking up one contestant on Monday, Riley Elmore, Team Adam picked up the pace on Tuesday by adding Billy Gilman, Andrew DeMuro, and Brendan Fletcher.
So far, Season 11 seems like a girls’ season – Miley’s all-female team in particular is looking very strong. But come back next Monday, as The Voice Season 11 Blind Auditions continue apace, and see what happens.