Monday’s Voice top 10 competitive episode was one of the best in recent memory, with Christian Cuevas, Brendan Fletcher, and Sundance Head all delivering phenomenal, even potentially gamechanging performances. But breaking up that Season 11 boys’ club was old girl wonder Wé McDonald, who continued to step up her own game and prove that her memorably awesome Blind Audition was absolutely not a fluke. This 17-year-old has a one-Wé ticket to the finale, for sure.
Let’s get to the recap!
Billy Gilman (Team Adam)
Adam Levine described ex-country child star Billy’s Martina McBride cover this week as a “return to his roots.” (McBride was instrumental in helping Billy land a Sony Nashville record deal when he was just 10 years old.) Billy, who’s been trying to reinvent himself as some sort of vague pop star all season with varying degrees of success, made a point of saying the Martina song was Adam’s idea. Adam then called Billy the most “diverse” contestant this season — which was a backhanded-complimentary way of saying Billy has been all over the place this season. Billy has covered Adele (twice), Rachel Platten, Roy Orbison, and even Queen, and while he’s been vocally stellar every time, his inability to consistently define himself could ultimately be his undoing on The Voice. Will the real Billy Gilman please stand up?
Perhaps Adam knew McBride’s “Anyway,” grandly backed by an orchestra, was the right song at the right time, in this all-important first double-elimination week of the season. It’s a popular song, a sentimental and inspirational song that mentions God — and it’s a country song, which, frankly, is probably what Billy’s diehard fans have wanted to hear from him all along. As Blake Shelton later told Billy: “I’m happy to see you go back to the well… country music, that’s still what I think of you.”
Billy admittedly sang the hell out of “Anyway,” but I actually preferred him doing Adele’s “All I Ask” last week, which felt more authentic and connected than this autopilot performance of a song Billy probably knows all too well. However, I am sure America will adore “Anyway,” which Adam called a “remarkable feat.” Miley Cyrus spent most of her critique time babbling about Alicia Keys’s turtleneck, for some reason, but she did eventually call Billy “maybe the winner” of Season 11. And maybe Billy will win. I just don’t know what kind of album he’ll release after that.
Courtney Harrell (Team Blake)
I’m not sure why Blake thought Courtney needed a “big ‘80s moment” this week, when her other retro power ballads of the season (Roxette, Aerosmith) have been embarrassing, plodding mistakes. Why hasn’t Courtney, a music biz veteran, ever covered one of the modern R&B/pop hits that she actually co-wrote? But, no. Instead, this Monday she bafflingly performed “If I Could Turn Back Time” by former Team Blake mentor Cher.
Ugh. Honestly, if Courtney really could turn back time, she should probably go back and choose a different song.
First, the positive — because if these singing shows have taught us anything, it’s that if you can’t say something nice about a contestant’s performance, you can always compliment that contestant’s clothes. So, yes, Courtney looked fierce. She wasn’t wearing a sailor-baiting see-through bodysuit (much to the relief of NBC censors, I am sure), but she was rocking a whole lotta leather that did NOT look like it came from Kohl’s, paired with a sculptural Grace Jones hairdo. The Voice stylists did a good job with her this week.
But Courtney’s voice? That was not so fierce. In the verses, she wavered, with her lines awkwardly trailing off. And whenever she let out a wild rock ‘n’ roll scream, it was off-key and unpleasant. Alicia and Miley seemed too distracted by the onstage pyro to say much about Courtney’s lack of vocal fireworks, but Alicia offered some bland, diplomatic praise. Blake seemed more excited, raving, “A new contestant just stepped into the top 10! Your stage presence and personality just came out like never before.”
I agreed to some extent: Courtney looked and acted like a star, albeit a star circa 1989. She just didn’t sound like a star — from any decade. She’s going to be in big trouble this week.
Josh Gallagher (Team Adam)
I don’t know why I keep hoping, week after week, that Josh will finally take a risk. I guess I thought after his previous predictable Brett Eldredge karaoke performance was one of last week’s lowest iTunes-charters, he might try to rejigger his game plan this week. But instead he again played it super-safe, and did “Real Good Man” by Season 11 advisor Tim McGraw. Sigh.
I will say, Josh’s “Real Good Man” was pretty good. Real good, even. He performed with more gusto, confidence, personality, and even sex appeal than he ever had before. But I think Josh has shown is all he can do this season. He has no surprises left in him — if he ever had any in him to begin with, that is. This simply wasn’t the performance he needed to catapult him to the finale that is taking place in just two short weeks.
Alicia and Blake disagreed with me, however. “That was fantastic… I felt like you were really in your element,” said Alicia. “I’m so happy for you… tonight, a country star was on that stage,” said Blake. We will see if America agrees.
Aaron Gibson (Team Miley)
Along with Courtney, Aaron is the most at-risk contestant this week, since he’s been in the bottom two twice already. Both times, he was Instant-Saved by America with more than 70 percent of the public Twitter vote — so clearly some viewers out there like the guy. But as Miley noted, Aaron’s “Save Me” songs have been poppier than his mopey Monday-night song choices by the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Father John Misty. So this week she decided to lighten things up, by assigning Aaron Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” a song everyone knows and loves.
This was a smart choice, in theory, but Aaron’s jazzy, jammy “Rocket Man” wasn’t exactly explosive. It was so laid-back — maybe even a little bit lazy — that I thought I was watching an episode of SNL’s “The Mellow Show” or maybe a semifinals Phillip Phillips performance from American Idol.
There was nothing bad about this, but I missed Aaron’s darkness, his edge, his sense of menace. Apparently that’s not what most Voice viewers want to see and hear, but I always thought Aaron stood out, in a good way, from this season’s shiny, happy singers.
Adam, a longtime avowed Aaron fan, may have been equally underwhelmed — or maybe he just sees the writing on the NBC Studios wall at this point — because his critique sounded like one long passive-aggressive goodbye. “Regardless of how you go on from here, I just feel that you’re establishing yourself… I’m a fan of yours, and I’m going to be after the show,” Adam said, congratulating Aaron for even making it into the top 10 at all. Welp.
Christian Cuevas (Team Alicia)
Christian may have crooned, “You’re giving me a million reasons to quit the show” — but quitting is the only way he’ll be leaving The Voice in the near future, after this script-flipping tour de force. Now, this was an example of the right contestant singing the right song at exactly the right time. Passionately belting Lady Gaga’s countrified Joanne ballad “Million Reasons,” Christian seemed more connected to his material than he had in weeks — certainly more so than when he confusingly dedicated breakup songs like Coldplay’s “The Scientist” and Toto’s “Rosanna” to his fiancée, Elaine. (Actually, Christian may be trying to tell Elaine something. “Million Reasons” is a breakup song, too!) Finally, Christian, on the brink of tears by the song’s tastefully restrained but earnest ending, seemed to be paying attention to meaning behind his lyrics.
And boy, did Christian have a moment here. Even presumably neutral host Carson Daly had to interject some praise, declaring, “When you get a performance like this on the show, things can change.” Blake added, “We’ve been waiting for that incredible moment, and I think you may have just had it.”
Even Lady Gaga herself was impressed:
— xoxo, Joanne (@ladygaga) November 29, 2016
And proud Alicia, who’d been joyously testifying during Christian’s performance and was probably already mentally clearing some mantel space in her mansion for her first fist-shaped Voice trophy, said, “That’s what an artist does… Tonight, an artist was born.” I expect a very high iTunes position for Christian this week. Heck, he might even help Gaga’s Joanne album inch its way back up the charts. This was that good.
Austin Allsup (Team Blake)
Austin has established himself as the lanky country outlaw of Season 11, so it was interesting this week that he did John Waite’s soft-rocker “Missing You” in a dinner-theater blazer and slicked teen-idol hair. To be honest, I was missing Austin’s true grit; this was a little milquetoast compared to his past fiery performances like last week’s intense, Seger-sanctioned “Turn the Page.” And his vocals were a little goaty, though that may have been because he was sick this week.
But, overall, this was an ‘80s cover song that I could get behind. The cry-in-your-beer heartbreak lyrics worked well with Austin’s storyteller delivery and within the country genre in general, and Austin seemed sincere. “Congratulations on taking classic song and making it your own, man. That’s hard to do,” marveled Blake.
“I just got teary-eyed… When I believe somebody and what they’re saying, I put myself in their shoes and in those lyrics… I really believed you, and it was really powerful,” gushed Miley, before getting distracted by Austin’s daughter’s cute pom-pom headband. I personally got distracted by the Adam Lambert sighting that took place shortly thereafter. (Adam was sitting in the studio audience with last season’s winner, his BFF Alisan Porter.) I just hope viewers don’t get distracted by flashier performances this week and forget to vote for Austin. He truly deserves to be in the top eight.
Wé McDonald (Team Alicia)
God bless this 17-year-old child. She sang “God Bless the Child,” and she was giving me some baby-J.Hud realness. She was adlibbing. She was sassing and stankfacing. She was calling-and-responding. Damn! Wé had total command of the stage. This felt like a Grammy-night performance from start to big, big finish.
Wé was, granted, doing a lot — from the attitudinal talky bits to those crazy Mariah-high opera notes. Lesser contestants might not have been able pull off something so bold and ambitious; it would have felt forced, affected, inauthentic, trying-too-hard. But Wé made it all look and sound charming and effortless. I loved every second of this. It might go down in history as one of the best Voice performances of all time, or at least of Season 11.
“There’s nobody like you, period,” proclaimed an elated Alicia. “It’s just really a beautiful thing to appreciate and to honor the way that you’re bringing so much to it. There’s so many different sides of who you are — the opera side and the jazz side and the soul side and the pop side and the individual side.” Then Alicia added, “There is no boundary for you” — with Adam Lambert in the audience! Serious American Idol Season 8 flashbacks, there. (Let’s just hope if Wé wins and she gets her own coronation song, it’s better than “No Boundaries.” Please.)
Brendan Fletcher (Team Adam)
Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” is a song that can make me cry. (Here’s proof.) So I knew when Adam suggested that Brendan sing an “earthy,” “superorganic” version in the gruff-but-soulful style of his everyman idol, Bruce Springsteen, I’d soon be reduced to a blubbering saline puddle. Brendan’s rendition was so tender, so vulnerable and earnest; he made me feel every lump-in-throat syllable of Lauper’s sweet lyrics.
Wow. I cannot believe I ever wrote this guy off as some filler contestant who’d never make it past the Battles. Now that he’s showing his true colors on this show, I could actually see Brendan making it to the finale.
“You just sang about a rainbow! I’m so happy… You just made ‘True Colors,’ which I never really thought about — and your version of it, specifically — my new favorite song that I’m going to listen to on repeat… I can’t wait to download that,” raved Miley. “We talk a lot about how The Voice has all this bombast and big giant things and explosions and fireworks, and those are great. We love that. But you’re the first artist this season to take a song and artistically create a version that didn’t exist before,” said Adam. I don’t know if that’s entirely true — Austin and especially Sundance have had some pretty creative moments this season — but I am predicting a big iTunes showing for Brendan this week.
Sundance Head (Team Blake)
It’s hard to believe that cross-network reality TV history might be made in two weeks’ time, when a former American Idol contestant just might win The Voice. Sundance competed on Idol 10 years ago and wasn’t quite ready for prime time then, although he did make it to the top 16. This year, I see him easily making The Voice’s top four. His knee-slapping, hooting-and-hollering, barn-storming rendition of Tom T. Hall’s “Me and Jesus” was an enjoyable bluegrass romp (“We might have a religious moshpit,” Sundance joked), and it was the triumphant performance of an Opry-worthy star.
“You got my heart, and I think you will take people’s heart wherever you go… bluegrass, the blues, gospel, country, soul, it’s all in that same wheelhouse… I think that’s such a beautiful message the way that music just brings us all together no matter what,” said Alicia. “We’ve never experienced any kind of performance like that ever, in 11 seasons of doing this show,” raved a hyperbolic Blake. Again, I’m not so sure about that statement. But I do believe that Sundance’s time is now.
Ali Caldwell (Team Miley)
Ali faltered last week with an ill-advisedly chosen novelty song, Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” that fell entirely outside the iTunes top 200. Luckily, the former frontrunner survived to sing another week — and this week, in the pimp spot doing what she called a “back-to-basics” performance, she earned back some of her early hype.
Belting the Mariah Carey powerhouse version of Badfinger’s “Without You” in a pink, princessy, Gwyneth-goes-to-the-Oscars gown, while standing in backlit cloud of smoke, Ali was pure drama, pure talent. This was an old-fashioned performance, yes, but not in a hokey way — this felt classic. And classy. And Ali’s vocal was master-class perfect. At this point, it’s unclear if Ali can regain her momentum after some of this season’s boys — Christian, Sundance, Brendan — have made such stridesand upstaged her. But this was the go-for-broke, swing-for-the-fences performances she needed right now.
“I haven’t seen anything like Ali in my life. I’m so honored to be your coach. Every time I sit here and watch you perform, it takes me back to the Blinds, when you chose me. That was my first time on this show, and I felt like I had won — just by Ali choosing me as her coach,” Miley began. “My goal in my life isn’t just to make you the biggest star in the world, because you already are. I just want to see you shine the way you deserve to. You are so incredible.”
So who is in trouble this double-elimination week? That prediction is glaringly obvious. Barring any major shocker upset, it seems Courtney and Aaron have little chance of surviving this week. Rounding out the bottom three will probably be Josh, who didn’t take enough of a risk this Monday, or Austin, who may have taken too much of a risk — but either of those guys will likely win Tuesday’s Instant Save Twitter vote.
Tune in Tuesday to see if I’m right, when the top 10 become the top eight.