Separate rings of fire: Let the socially distanced 'Voice' Battles begin!

The Voice Season 19’s Battle Rounds commenced this week, with guest advisers Kane Brown (assisting Team Blake), Miguel (Team Legend), Julia Michaels (Team Gwen) and Leon Bridges (Team Kelly). But Monday’s Battles weren’t exactly the dramatic face-to-face face-offs that Voice viewers have come to expect since the series started in 2011.

While John Legend’s grody rubber-glove-on-a-stick shtick had thankfully been cast aside — along with Gwen Stefani’s own socially distanced prop, her T-shirt gun — COVID-19 protocols were still very much in place for the Battles. During rehearsals, for instance, the contestants were separated in the studio from their coaches and advisers with prison-visit/taxicab-style glass partitions. And on the main stage, the singers were way more than six feet apart, performing in separate, roped-off rings that sometimes made them resemble zoo animals restlessly circling tiny cages. This awkward setup naturally changed the whole contact-sport vibe of the Battles phase, with Blake Shelton noting that the “energy level” would have to “step up a little bit” to compensate for the gaping physical distance, and Gwen acknowledging that it would be more difficult for the contestants to “connect and emote.”

The coaches faced their own Battle challenges, as they tried to take in the entirety of each Battle — an experience that John Legend compared to watching a “tennis match,” and that Gwen joking said gave her “whiplash.” Luckily for Kelly Clarkson, by the time the Battles took place on the NBC soundstage, she had recovered from an eye infection that had forced her to don a pirate/movie-villainess eyepatch during all of the rehearsals. Without any depth perception, there’s no way that Kelly could have made any informed decisions about which contestants to keep, save, or steal if she’d had to watch all of these whiplash-inducing performances on such a wide and spacious stage.

Kelly Clarkson rocks a "movie villain" look for a first night of bizarre Battle Rounds on 'The Voice.' (Photo: NBC)
Kelly Clarkson rocks a "movie villain" look for a first night of bizarre Battle Rounds on 'The Voice.' (Photo: NBC)

Despite these impediments, Monday’s contestants did well, adapting easily. But that doesn’t mean that the coaches always made informed decisions in the end. These were Monday night’s Battles:

TEAM BLAKE: Worth the Wait vs. Taryn Papa, “Little White Church”

It seemed like this song pick would favor Worth the Wait’s three-part harmonies, but once all four vocalists were onstage, the family trio came across like pro Nashville gigger Taryn’s backup singers. (The unavoidable staging, with Worth the Wait clustered off to one side on their own island, didn’t help matters.) Worth the Wait’s harmonies were indeed impressive (Kelly said they “sounded like one human”), but 15-year-old Mia could hardly relate to Little Big Town’s lyrics about desperately wanting to get married, and Kelly noted that Mia seemed to be holding back. (“Own that little lion inside you,” Kelly advised.) Thirty-year-old Taryn, however, was believable throughout. I was shocked when Blake saved Worth the Wait, but then relieved when he immediately whacked his Save button and told Taryn, “I’m not letting you leave. … Welcome back home!” Considering that he had pitted his final recruits of the season (four-chair threesome Worth the Wait), against the contestant for which he blocked Kelly (Taryn), I bet that this had been Blake’s master plan all along.

WINNER: Worth the Wait / SAVED: Taryn Papa moves to four-way Knockout

TEAM LEGEND: Tamara Jade vs. Olivia Reyes, “Hard Place”

This was an apples/oranges pairing, with churchy powerhouse Tamara’s round, resonant, vibrato-heavy tone starkly contrasting with Olivia’s pure-pop clarity. While I would have assumed that H.E.R.’s intense alt-soul ballad would lend itself better to Tamara’s style, I found myself drawn to Olivia’s distinctive vocals (which Kelly compared to Jessie J’s) throughout this Battle. However, the older Tamara definitely showcased more stage presence and storytelling skills, ultimately doing a better job of commanding her side of the stage. This was a Battle that I could have seen ending in a Save or Steal, but instead, Olivia found herself in a hard place and sadly went home.

WINNER: Tamara Jade

TEAM KELLY: Madeline Consoer vs. Eli Zamora, “Nobody Wants to Be Lonely”

Poor Madeline was at such a disadvantage here. She’s a Nashville-based country-rock singer, yet Kelly assigned her a bilingual soft-pop ballad that Madeline freely admitted was “100 percent out of her comfort zone.” Eli, who spent part of his childhood in Mexico and is a fluent Spanish-speaker, was a true team player, teaching Madeline the Spanish part of the Ricky Martin/Christina Aguilera song phonetically, and in the end this Battle worked much better than I’d expected. Blake called Madeline a “cliffhanger” singer who always seems on the brink of missing her high notes (this was a compliment, I think?), while John less backhandedly praised the “urgent and piercing” quality of Madeline’s voice. All of the coaches liked Eli’s “effortless” performance, but perhaps it was a bit too effortless, because Kelly ultimately appreciated Madeline’s ability to put in the work and adapt to any genre. “The sky’s the limit for her now,” Kelly declared.

WINNER: Madeline Consoer

TEAM GWEN: Lauren Frihauf vs. Payge Turner, “If the World Was Ending”

I would have assumed that 27-year-old dynamo Payge would annihilate sweet little 16-year-old Lauren in the ring — or, um, rings — since Payge came to The Voice with much more experience. (Blake had in fact already predicted that Payge would be Gwen’s last finalist standing.) But Lauren held her own, even in the nerve-wracking situation of having to sing a Julia Michaels song in front of Julia Michaels. The contestants’ voices complemented each other beautifully, with Payge taking on the duet’s male role in a lower octave, while Lauren’s delicate, angelic whisper brought out the lyrics’ devastating vulnerability. Onstage, Payge served the bold drama, sometimes almost to the point of overkill, while the more fragile Lauren tastefully reined it in. All in all, this was an exquisite display of yin and yang, so I understand why both John and Blake swooped in to steal Lauren after Gwen chose Payge. (I don’t, however, understand why Gwen didn’t want to save Lauren.) Considering that Blake hadn’t even turned around for Lauren during the Blind Auditions, her decision was clear.

WINNER: Payge Turner / STOLEN: Lauren Frihauf moves to Team Legend

TEAM BLAKE: Payton Lamar vs. Jus Jon, “Dancing With a Stranger”

Blake explained that he put these two together because they both occupied the “soul/pop lane” on his team, but I heard nothing similar between Jon’s warm, traditional sound (which Blake said had “built in reverb”) and Payton’s bright, cutting tone (which Kelly described as “very particular, a quality not many people have,” and Gwen said “shocked” her in a good way). During this Battle, Payton seemed especially hindered by the weirdly distanced stage setup, struggling to make use of her tightly enclosed space and fidgeting and pacing whenever she wasn’t singing. However, Jon seemed even more nervous, so much so that the coaches pointed this out twice. So, I was gobsmacked when Blake called this round for Jon and Payton was eliminated. Not only was this a major mistake, but I was certain that Gwen was ready to steal. I think Payton had the potential to deliver some very interesting and unique performances on this show. Oh well.


TEAM LEGEND: Sid Kingsley vs. Bailey Rae, “Tennessee Whiskey”

I easily assumed that 37-year-old Sid, one of the very best auditioners of Season 19, had this one in the bag. Bailey, at age 18, confessed that she’d never even tried whiskey (or any sort of booze) before, while the grizzled Sid sounded like he gargles with the stuff on the daily. Sid came storming into this classic country song with such force, and so completely upstaged Bailey in the process, that Kelly jumped right out of her red chair and stage-whispered, “You betta sannng!” But for some reason, John made the “impossible decision” to keep… Bailey. Maybe it was because he was excited to work with his first-ever “pure country” artist. Or maybe it was because Blake, who’d been unable to recruit Bailey during the Blinds because his team was already full, had threatened to steal Bailey from John if he ever got the chance — and John didn’t want to give Blake the satisfaction. Thankfully, Kelly did have the chance to steal Sid. And she did, without hesitation.

WINNER: Bailey Rae / STOLEN: Sid Kingsley moves to Team Kelly

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