The Voice Season 12 finally went live this Monday with the top 24 Playoffs, but when it came to the voting, it was really only “live” for the East Coast. After six contestants each — five regular semifinalists, plus one returning “Coach Comeback” pick — from Team Blake and Team Alicia competed, viewers voted in real time for two contestants per team to move on to next week’s top 12. (Blake Shelton and Alicia Keys then each selected a third team member to also advance.) Factor in the twist that voting was conducted via Twitter and the show’s official app — meaning mainly technically savvy (read: younger, wealthier) East Coasters likely participated — and you have to wonder if the six contestants that made it through truly represented the, um, voice of the people.
But hey, what am I complaining about? With the exception of one contestant, I was actually satisfied with how the real-time voting panned out. So good job, East Coast! Keep it up Tuesday, when it’s time for Team Adam and Team Gwen to take the stage.
Instead, in my full recap below I will reserve my complaining for other maddening matters, like Alicia’s waste of a Comeback and a couple of ridiculous song selections. Let it rip!
This sassy small-town girl’s cover of Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” could have positioned her as country’s new lady-rebel la Tanya Tucker or Gretchen Wilson, but aside from her RuPaul’s Drag Race-worthy runway strut, Casi’s usual sparkling personality was surprisingly subdued. I’m not sure what happened — maybe she was nervous going first — but she didn’t have her usual nod-and-wink, sense of humor, and rough-around-the-edges aesthetic that made her past numbers so much darn fun. She delivered a strong vocal, but she just wasn’t memorable. While Blake insisted, “It’s hard for me to imagine you not moving forward,” really the best part of this segment was when he sang her name to the tune of Ren & Stimpy’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy.” That was awesome. I just wish Casi has exhibited more joy onstage.
“Felicia Keys,” who started off as a frontrunner on Alicia’s team before losing momentum and going home in the Knockout Rounds, arguably deserved to be Blake’s Coach Comeback, considering that she was always one of this season’s strongest singers (and one of the few female contestants representing the R&B genre, strangely). But just as her tired “My Heart Will Go On” song pick sabotaged her in the Knockouts, the Wicked ballad “Defying Gravity” was Felicia’s downfall in the Live Playoffs. The woman is only 27 — why is she always singing old-fashioned, conservative tunes that make her seem 50? (And don’t even get me started on those mother-of-the-bride outfits she keeps wearing.) While “Defying Gravity” was a fight song that the cancer survivor could connect with, and it was ambitious song presumably chosen to showcase her pipes, she experienced some pitch problems and didn’t seem current or cool. Blake loved Felicia’s performance, telling her, “You just killed it, and the message with your background and your story, this is incredible; I’m glad to be on this journey with you.” But it seemed Felicia’s journey would soon be over, just when it seemed she was back on track.
OK, Blake was certifiably insane for giving this 14-year-old Disney-princess type — whom he actually compared to Shirley Temple — the Pretenders’ attitudinal and inappropriate “Brass in Pocket,” one of the sexiest songs of all time. He clearly had no understanding of its brazen and lustful lyrics (this is a time when he really should have consulted his more knowledgeable alt-rock girlfriend, Gwen Stefani), and neither did Aaliyah, a YouTube starlet who thought the song was about how everyone is special little snowflake and online bullying is bad. Ugh. How did badass Chrissie Hynde allow this to happen? Aaliyah did her best with “Brass,” but she was clearly out of her depth, and this felt icky to witness. “You couldn’t be cuter,” Blake gushed, obliviously. Gross.
This dynamite number by TSoul, an actual adult with some real stage chops, was a much-needed palate-cleanser after that “Brass in Pocket” debacle (and the two disappointingly generic performances that preceded Aaliyah). There was absolutely nothing disappointing or generic about TSoul. Digging into Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” with grunting gospel gusto, the consummate entertainer evoked the great soul showmen of the past while still coming across as a modern-day original. Blake’s Bruno Mars comparison wasn’t even that far off. This is when Monday’s episode finally kicked into gear. “The energy that you brought to that stage just now, if people out there didn’t like that then there is something wrong with them. That was so much fun. That is what performing is supposed to be all about,” raved Blake. Blake’s odd “if people didn’t like it” comment may have been foreshadowing — TSoul might be too kooky to click with some mainstream viewers — but at least TSoul is never, ever boring.
And then amateur hour resumed with this 15-year-old. This Aliyah didn’t get as head-scratching a song choice as the one with two A’s; the old-school girl-group vibe of Duffy’s “Mercy” made more sense for her style and range than last week’s shouty “Before He Cheats.” However, I found her giggly ad-libbing at the beginning and end of the song silly, contrived, and pageant-y. Between the giggles, though, there was a strong voice in there somewhere, and Blake was impressed, saying, “That was a great, great song for you to perform live. It shows your love for vintage-sounding music. You bring a whole new youthfulness to your performance… That’s the best I’ve seen you sing so far on this show.”
Team Blake finished up with the exquisite Lauren, who never comes across as silly or forced; the woman just oozes effortless authenticity. The sad, wistful unrequited-love ballad “Someone Else’s Star” (most famously recorded by Bryan White) was a perfect fit for her vulnerable and inward vibe, and she seemed to ache with every word. “You are going to see from that performance a tidal wave of support from country music fans, mark my words. Being a great country artist is all about being believable and giving a solid performance,” asserted Blake.
My three picks would have been TSoul, Lauren, and (based more on her overall body of work) Casi. America instead voted for Lauren and, in a bit of a shocker, the Aliyah with one A (the one that sang “Mercy”). Blake then saved TSoul, proving that even after that “Brass in Pocket” fail he is still capable of making a sensible decision when the stakes are high.
So it turned out that the Coach Comeback twist had no effect on Blake’s team lineup. Bye, Felicia, indeed.
Alicia was blown away that Chris chose to sing Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” — a tough song for any male vocalist — in the original key as Rihanna. My mind was blown to bits as well. Forget about what Adam Levine ever said about the fallen Kawan DeBose — it’s Chris who has a falsetto reminiscent of the almighty Prince. This was a stupendous, Grammy-level performance. Chris absolutely attacked the song, fearlessly and fiercely, adding creative ad-libs and runs that never felt fussy or forced. And he somehow managed to sound current and vintage at the same time. (TSoul better watch out, because Chris will be his stiffest competition this season.) “I just was so impressed hearing you take this song and choosing something you had never sung before and make it completely your own… There is not a soul on this planet that can deny the gift that you are offering here,” raved Alicia.
Anatalia, who competed on American Idol last year, dedicated Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” to her stage mom, and it felt very American Idol Season 3. This was not a good thing. While I appreciated her attempt to pull back on her sometimes obnoxious showboating, she pulled back too much, and the result was a soulless, not-very-relevant, power-ballad snoozer that got lost in the shuffle. Despite Alicia’s insistence that this “little spitfire” was still a “burst of energy and light,” this performance actually could have used some more fire.
Alicia could have brought back anyone for the Live Playoffs. She didn’t even have to stick with a castoff from her own team! But instead of giving a second chance to a worthy contestant like, say, Sammie Zonana or Taylor Alexander, she went with Jack, probably so NBC producers could exploit his Partridge Family connections one last time. While I thought there was a possibility that “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” could work for Jack — he’s a piano man like Elton John, and George Michael’s recent tragic death could have given this performance a sweet sentimental vibe — it turned out to be the disaster of the night. Jack’s pitch and pacing were all over the place, and his harsh, grating tone made him sound like he was in pain. (I know I was. My poor ears!) “If nothing else, you rose to your greatness here tonight on that stage, and that is the most important incredible thing,” Alicia said diplomatically. She knew she’d made a mistake — unless, of course, she’d deliberately brought back someone she knew would pose zero threat to her favorite existing team members.
Things thankfully took a wonderful 180 when Vanessa, my Team Alicia favorite and one of my favorites of the entire season, transformed Major Lazer & DJ Snake’s club banger “Lean On” into cool-cat jazzbo number that sounded like Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu throwing a party at Digable Planets’ house. This is a woman that could sing anything and I’d be smitten; I bet “Stand by Me” or “Brass in Pocket” would sound fantastic coming out of Vanessa’s mouth. She’s simply a true original. “I love how you are breaking all the rules. I love how you can show girls and women and people everywhere that you can be yourself. You can have your own swag, your own style. You can wear sneakers and chill and just be who you are. I love that you have no limits,” Alicia said proudly.
This country diva also got an unexpected song assignment, Ann Peebles’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” (“I know Blake wouldn’t have thought of this,” Alicia gloated. She had a point. Casi probably could have done a great job with this tune.) Ashley convincingly captured that country-soul spirit of Alicia’s recent duet with Maren Morris at the CMA Awards and showcased some powerful pipes. “I love your delivery [of this song]. I love you bringing it into the world like that. It is not an easy song to sing. It is difficult to give all that emotion and all that power and all that desperation. I think you did incredible job tonight,” said Alicia.
Playing her own gorgeous piano arrangement of Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Stephanie created pure magic on the Voice stage. She took just the right amount of artistic liberties with the iconic stalker song (which totally worked with her signature growl; she sounded truly agonized), and unlike most talent-show piano performances in which the contestants annoyingly abandon the piano by the first chorus, Stephanie remained seated and focused on her keyboard the entire time. This was riveting. “Every time you perform, you transport me. You take me to some place that only you know and somehow only I know… That’s what an artist does. You are a pure, beautiful artist,” said Alicia.
It’s too bad that the each of the coaches has a three-contestant quota at this stage of the game, because I would have happily let Aliyah go home so that Team Alicia could fill four spots with Chris, Vanessa, Stephanie, and Ashley. As it turned out, America picked the first two, and then Alicia saved Stephanie for the second time. (Stephanie was a Steal, originally on Team Gwen.) As is the case with TSoul, I worry that Stephanie might be too quirky to connect with America once the coaches no longer have any input — but suffice to say, if either of them are ever up for elimination, I’ll be ready to tweet #VoiceSaveStephanie and #VoiceSaveTSoul till my fingers fall off.
Oh, and by the way — once again, the Coach Comeback was a total waste of time. Hit the road, Jack, indeed.
But, on the subject of comebacks, do come back Tuesday, when Adam and Gwen’s team members compete. Hopefully Gwen won’t make 15-year-old Brennley Brown sing some inappropriate ‘80s classic like “I Touch Myself” or “Raspberry Beret,” and hopefully Tuesday’s two actually worthy Comeback picks, Johnny Hayes and Johnny Gates, will get a fair shot. See you then!