Man, what a difference a day — or a pronoun — can make. Up until this Monday’s Voice Battle Rounds, Kawan DeBose had seemed like a frontrunner. His coach, Adam Levine, had even once compared him to Prince! But after Kawan struggled during rehearsals — even screwing up the lyrics to “Love Me Now” by John Legend in front of team advisor John Legend — he quickly went from a Prince to a pauper.
“When you change a pronoun, it changes the meaning of the song. It’s ‘Who’s gonna kiss you when I’m gone?’” John grumbled. (Kawan had accidentally sung, “Who’s gonna kiss me?”) “You want to get those pronouns right.”
Kawan’s Battle partner, Malik Davage, didn’t have a totally easy time of it either, and John, usually such a sweet and mellow fellow, griped that the duo’s performance was not tight — and that their second day of rehearsing was even worse than the first. “I expected them to have made some progress … but they did not; it was almost like they regressed,” he said. Adam was even more disgruntled, and in what Malik called a “tough love moment,” he barked at the pair: “You guys are great singers, but it seems to me you aren’t totally prepared. That’s what it sounds like to me. And that upsets me, because that’s a big deal.”
Wow. This was a rare moment of harsh, almost Simon Cowell-style criticism for The Voice — usually a coddling, everyone-gets-a-cookie show on which the wimpy coaches tend to lavish praise on everyone, even the auditioners who fail to turn any chairs. But I was glad that Adam and John were so brutally honest with Kawan and Malik. This is Season 12 already. At this point, there is no room for singers who don’t take rehearsals seriously or can’t figure out the difference between you and me.
But when it came down to it, another pronoun was the real problem here. Apparently Kawan and Malik really did think there was an I in Team Adam. They shared very little chemistry and seemed too absorbed in their individual performances to gel either in the rehearsal room or onstage. While their actual “Love Me Now” in the Battle Rounds ring was much better than their disastrous rehearsals might have foretold, it still didn’t feel like a dynamic duet. Their lack of teamwork made the overall performance fall flat.
“This was definitely not easy to get this together,” groused Adam, grumpy in his grandpa sweater and red-tempered in his red chair. “It didn’t work really the first day, and it didn’t really work the second day, and I was worried … We have a lot of people to work with on the show, and how people collaborate, that’s A-number one, you know? There’s a lot of talent out there, but when you want to make it and you want to succeed, the way you collaborate with people dictates so much of what happens in your life and in your career.”
Honestly, Adam didn’t seem like he wanted to collaborate any further with either singer — but eventually he picked Malik, who he noted had the better attitude. However, unless Malik has a major turnaround the next time he enters the rehearsal room, he will likely be eliminated in the Knockout Rounds by his grudge-holding coach. And in the meantime, Kawan, someone I’d had pegged as a shoo-in for the top 12, is already out of the running. Who’s going to love him when he’s gone, indeed.
Thankfully, Monday’s other Battles — those that were not montaged, that is — went much more smoothly.
TEAM BLAKE: Josh Hoyer vs. TSoul
I’ve been a TSoldier ever since he auditioned with Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” and I knew he’d be amazing doing Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” Josh was no slouch — the throwback song suited his bar-band style, and he was a solid vocalist throughout — but he just didn’t have TSoul’s charisma and sparkle. TSoul was such a flashy, thrilling performer, while Josh’s approach was more workmanlike, frills-free… and ultimately forgettable.
Gwen Stefani did praise Josh’s stage presence, and Blake Shelton praised Josh, who normally plays piano, for getting out of his comfort zone. (“You need to spend a little more time out here. Maybe we can get you a keytar,” Blake said — a suggestion I wholeheartedly co-signed. I still want a subscription to the Keytar magazine Alicia Keys was reading on that fake Voice sitcom!) But to be honest, by the end of the song, I barely even noticed that Josh was still in the ring. This Battle was all about TSoul; poor Josh, with or without a keytar, never stood a chance.
TEAM ALICIA: Autumn Turner vs. Vanessa Ferguson
Alicia described the younger Autumn as “R&B/pop” and Vanessa as “R&B/soul,” so “Killing Me Softly With His Song” seemed a better fit for the latter, more-experienced singer. Vanessa even mastered both the Roberta Flack melodies and Fugees-inspired reggae/rap adlibs; she simply oozed laid-back, Lauryn Hill-circa-’97 cool. Meanwhile, Autumn, though she possessed the bigger and boomier voice, came across as a bit miseducated — with a shaky start and none of Vanessa’s originality or swagger.
Interestingly, though, while Alicia rightfully saved Vanessa, both Adam and Gwen fought to steal the rather unexciting Autumn. Autumn ultimately went with Adam, and then Alicia’s bizarre Adam Levine puppet (which looks absolutely nothing like him, I might note) came out of nowhere and Adam got all freaked out. I’m convinced that this is Alicia’s crazy new strategy: shake Adam’s confidence by preying upon his pupaphobia. However, with someone as great as Vanessa on her team, Alicia may not have to resort to such random tactics to win this season.
WINNER: Vanessa Ferguson
STOLEN: Autumn Turner moves to Team Adam
TEAM ADAM: Johnny Hayes vs. Julien Martinez
Here was a Battle of the underdogs: Johnny, a failed auditioner from Season 11, and one-chair-pony Julien, who almost failed this season. Doing Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” (as popularized by bell-bottomed Southern rockers the Black Crowes), it was obvious that Johnny was way more comfortable; he channeled his inner Chris Robinson, worked that mic stand, and delivered an easy, confident, swaggering performance. Meanwhile, even though Julien had shown a lot of rock ’n’ soul potential auditioning with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” (that scream was everything, and it was what earned him a last-minute turn), he didn’t have much grit, gravitas, or growl. He admitted that his theater training was difficult to shake, and much of the time he seemed to be just playing the part of a “rocker.” It didn’t come naturally to him.
“Johnny, rock is your thing … Julien, I felt like you would tend to shy away from some of the bigger vocal moments of the song, and it was frustrating for me as a viewer of this Battle,” said Blake. (What? Another rare moment of actual criticism on The Voice? What is going on???) Gwen said Johnny was “already a star.” Obviously, this decision would not be hard to handle for Adam.
WINNER: Johnny Hayes
TEAM GWEN: Caroline Sky vs. Stephanie Rice
Caroline is 16 and from a stable family-band background. Stephanie is 27 and was disowned by her religious family after she came out as a lesbian. It seemed pretty clear which singer would bring more pathos, pain, and life experience to Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” But instead, Caroline was a totally unexpected revelation. Her tenderness and fragility of were magical (“Your voice is delicate and beautiful, and it kind of shreds at the same time,” Blake told her), while Stephanie’s stylized, affected growling felt surprisingly disingenuous to me. I was shocked to find myself rooting for Caroline, especially since Stephanie’s backstory was so moving, and her “Piece by Piece” audition had been one of my favorites of the season. But Caroline’s beyond-her-years poise and passion were undeniable.
In the end, what I was really rooting for was a steal. And I got my wish! There would be no deep cuts for these girls tonight. Gwen saved Stephanie, but as Carson Daly amusingly put it, Caroline “went from Team Gwen to Team Gwen” when she was stolen by Gwen’s boyfriend, Blake. I was relieved, because I think Caroline showed some serious potential. She could be Season 12’s dark horse.
WINNER: Stephanie Rice
STOLEN: Caroline Sky moves to Team Blake
TEAM BLAKE: Enid Ortiz vs. Valerie Ponzio
TEAM ADAM: Hanna Eyre vs. Sheena Brook
TEAM GWEN: Jozy Bernadette vs. Troy Ramey
OK, these were the cuts that went deepest — the ones that left hours of rehearsal room footage on NBC’s cutting-room floor. We didn’t get to see much, but I was most dismayed that Americana crooner Valerie, a standout in the Blinds, was eliminated this week without any explanation or context. And I bet Blake’s old Season 2 protégé, RaeLynn, was bummed out by this montage as well. (In case you couldn’t tell from the three seconds that made it to air, Enid and Valerie were singing RaeLynn’s 2016 single “Love Triangle.”)
But as it turns out, all three of these Battles were posted in full online. (This was not the case with last week’s two montages, oddly.) Watching them all, I can see why Valerie didn’t make it. I loved her quirky, reedy vocals, but I have to admit that Enid dug deeper and went bolder; she just seemed to want it more, while Valerie came across a little sleepy and loopy. Still, this was a solid performance from both women, one that deserved more substantial airtime.
As for Monday’s other two truncated Battles, Hanna and Sheena’s cover of P!nk’s “Try” was generic and, for lack of a better word, montage-able; however, I thought Sheena was just a tad more fiery and should have stayed. Doing Jeff Healey’s “Angel Eyes,” Troy was supremely soulful and definitely should have made it to prime time. Hopefully when the Knockouts come around, all three surviving singers will get more than just an afterthought YouTube upload for their troubles.
WINNERS: Enid Ortiz, Hanna Eyre, and Troy Ramey, respectively
TEAM ALICIA: Hunter Plake vs. Jack Cassidy
I would not have expected two worship leaders covering Swedish electropop provocateur Robyn to be my favorite Battle of the night, but The Voice was full of surprises this Monday. And back to the subject of pronouns, kudos to Hunter and Jack for keeping Robyn’s intact. (Well, they did change “girl” to “guy,” but at least they didn’t mess with the iconic “watching you kiss her” line in “Dancing on My Own.”) And extra-special kudos to the exquisitely talented Hunter, my new favorite, for delivering every heartbreaking pronoun, noun, adjective, adverb, and verb with such conviction and devastating sincerity. I loved his haunting, slightly Thom Yorke-ish vocals and storytelling style. Jack, a member of the Cassidy (i.e., Partridge) family, was more believable than I’d expected, but he still held back; he just didn’t have Hunter’s vulnerability, openness, or sense of longing.
For some odd reason, Alicia picked Jack, explaining she was on a mission to “untame” the buttoned-up, wholesome Cassidy kid. What a massive mistake. But that was when Adam and Gwen became untamed themselves, and they both ferociously went in for the steal. “Hunter, you have to make a record. I mean, my God, your voice is so beautiful, and you are so emotional when you sing,” raved Gwen. “Your voice is one of those things that isn’t around enough and that we need more of,” declared Adam. But when Gwen pointed out that Adam hadn’t turned around for Hunter in the Blinds, Hunter’s decision was clear. And Adam’s (and Alicia’s) loss was Gwen’s gain.
WINNER: Jack Cassidy
STOLEN: Hunter Plake moves to Team Gwen
Come back Tuesday for more Battles — and hopefully fewer montages and fewer awkward, lyric-flubbing, Adam-infuriating “tough love” moments. See you then.