After weeks and weeks of blind-auditioning and boxing-ring battling, Season 2 of "The Voice" finally went live this Monday, as the half of the top 24 (the six singers on Team Xtina and the six representing Team Blake) competed for America's votes for the first time. And just like Season 1, when the competition was dominated by women (six of last year's top eight, and three of last year's top four, were female), the ladies mostly stole the show this time around, too. That is, they stole the show when they weren't being drowned out by the obnoxiously cranked-to-11 house band. Or when they weren't being overshadowed by the outlandishly theatrical staging that seemed like it'd been masterminded by "The X Factor's" creative director Brian Friedman (or by Nicole Scherzinger, or by whoever was responsible for once putting poor "X Factor" finalist Josh Krajcik in a cage).
Yes, "The Voice" is supposedly supersized this season, supposedly bigger and better, and so it seemed this week that producer Mark Burnett had come down with Simon Cowell Syndrome, overloading every elaborately crafted performance with unitarded acrobats, dancing fembots, belching fog machines, kitchen sinks, and even some Chippendales strippers that seriously spooked self-consciously macho coach Blake Shelton. But, as was the case with "The X Factor," all these bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors (what Christina Aguilera called "VMA-style staging") didn't always work. Sometimes, on shows like these, less is more--and more is just, well, too much. And on a show like "The Voice," a show that's supposed to be all about VOICES (duh), the gratuitous use of so many gimmicks seemed particularly at odds with the series' entire premise at times.
And what about the voices? Well, let's just say that a few of this week's contestants were probably thankful that they had all those stagey stunts to distract from their pitchy notes and peculiar song selections. Some of this episode was indeed a letdown, especially coming off of last week's amazing "American Idol" top nine show (one of the best "Idol" performance episodes in ages). But then I had to take a step back and remember that this is only the top 24, not the top nine, and at this early stage in any singing competition, there are bound to be some weak links. And a third of these "Voice" singers will be gone by Tuesday night anyway. (On each team, three contestants will get through via public vote, then the coaches will each keep one additional singer. So if you're doing the math, that means four singers--two on Team Xtina and two on Team Blake--will get the boot Tuesday.)
But if America votes wisely and the coaches choose wisely this week, the eight that remain will be a pretty strong bunch. And at least five of that bunch will be women. Anyway, without further ado, here's how everyone did this Monday...
Jermaine Paul - Jermaine opened the show with Bon Jovi's "Livin' On A Prayer"--an odd song choice that seemed more fitting for, say, the Shields Brothers than for Alicia Keys's ex-backup singer. I was kind of hoping Jermaine would put a creative R&B spin on the hair-metal anthem, but instead this was just an unfocused mess. As Jermaine made his grand entrance on a hydraulic platform shrouded in dry-ice smoke while flanked by female tribal drummers and giant fist-shaped monuments, then descended an illuminated staircase that looked like it was straight out of Adam Lambert's "Ring Of Fire" and Siobhan Magnus's "Paint It Black" performances on "Idol," there was just way too much going on from the get-go, and it didn't suit him. (For Tony Vincent, this would have been fine. For Jermaine? Not so much.) Jermaine seemed to get winded working his way through the studio audience to the stage, and when it came time for the key change at the end, I earned new respect for Jon Bon Jovi, because Jermaine really struggled to nail it. "Ohhhhh..."--no, he wasn't even halfway there. Christina was as flummoxed as I was by Jermaine's song choice ("I didn't see the connection with the song at all," she said), but Jermaine's mentor Blake was unwaveringly convinced that Jermaine's cover would soon make it to the top the iTunes chart. I'm not so sure about that, nor am I sure that Jermaine will even make it to the top 16.
RaeLynn - As the youngest contestant in the competition, the only country singer left on the show, and perhaps one of the top 24's most controversial singers after Blake bafflingly picked her over the more capable Adley Stump in the Battle Rounds, 17-year-old RaeLynn had a lot to prove this evening. Adding to the pressure was the fact that Blake had her cover "Wake Up Call" by Maroon 5, either as some sort of homage or some sort of affront to his bromance buddy, fellow coach Adam Levine. So RaeLynn stomped onto the stage, seemingly on a mission--but it was a bit of a suicide mission. All I could think was, "Hey, RaeLynn isn't 21 yet--who served her booze backstage?" Why? Because the girl totally came across like she was doing drunken karaoke. Fun, fearless, entertaining karaoke, of course, in some sort of old-timey Western saloon...but still. Actually, the stunned expression on Adam's face as she ruined his song right in front of him on live TV was the most fun and entertaining thing about this performance. "You broke my heart twice," Adam told RaeLynn. "You broke my heart when you didn't pick me, and then you broke my heart again when you did my song--and you did it so well!" Hmm, I bet that wasn't what Adam was really thinking. Anyhoo, Blake claimed RaeLynn is some sort of posterchild for "the new sound of country," a declaration that I'm sure sent shudders down many Music Row executives' spines. To be fair, RaeLynn did deliver one of the most vivacious performances of the night. But this show is called "The VOICE," and vocally, RaeLynn was clearly lacking.
Naia Kete - This breathy street busker took a massive risk by covering "Turning Tables" by Adele--an artist who has already been covered way too much on various singing shows, and whose impeccable vocals are nearly impossible to measure up to. Was it a risk that paid off? Well, yes and no. But mostly no. On the plus side, I enjoyed Naia's pretty, folksy arrangement; she definitely made the iconic song fit her distinctive hippie style. But it was inevitable that an Adele song would focus a giant spotlight on all the vocal shortcomings that had already unfortunately been on full display during her shaky Battle Round last week. Christina couldn't even pretend to like this. "Um...er...it was...cool?" Xtina said in her best Mean Girl voice, before adding, "There were some moments in there that weren't great." Sigh. I wanted to like this a lot more than I actually did. Naia has potential, and I do think she's cool--but this uneven performance once again proved that she's not quite ready to make the transition from the street corner to the national stage.
Jordis Unga - Finally, a real power-singer! Jordis, clearly one of this season's frontrunners despite her ongoing issues with nerves, powered through Heart's "Alone"--not an easy song to take on--and while she was still lacking some stage presence, there was nothing lacking about her stupendous vocals. She looked like a star (like the "Rock Star" she was aspiring to be when she competed years ago on "Rock Star: INXS"), she sounded like a star...now she just needs to harness the confidence of star, and then she will be unstoppable. Why doesn't Jordis realize just how amazing she truly is?
Erin Willett - One of this year's dark horses, and another big, belty power-singer, Erin performed another advanced master-class song, Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City." I didn't really care for the hokey staging, which had Erin tickling the ivories in some sort of Smokey Joe's Café piano bar--but once she stepped away from the piano and moved centerstage, all those silly backup dancers and extras immediately faded into the background, and Erin became a star. Cee Lo called her a "champion," and Blake, while obviously biased, declared this "technically and passionately the best vocal performance of the night." Erin did her late father--her biggest cheerleader, who sadly died shortly after her Battle Rounds episode was taped--very proud with this solid performance.
Charlotte Sometimes - Charlotte is definitely one of this season's coolest contestants, but I had mixed feelings about her cover of Paramore's "Misery Business." I appreciated the drastically different orchestral arrangement, which Blake proudly pointed out was entirely her idea. ("She's a true artist," he beamed.) However, she came across as very pretentious and affected at times (this is always the problem with Charlotte), and while the altered chorus worked, the fussy verses didn't translate nearly as well. Adam loved Charlotte's "unique" voice but cited "some flatness, some pitch stuff." Blake told Adam he was deluded and hearing things, of course. And Christina sided with Blake. I absolutely don't think this was a perfect performance, but it was definitely interesting, and unique, and I think Charlotte would definitely give "The Voice" a needed element of unpredictability if she made the top 16. So I'm still rooting for her.
Chris Mann - The show's resident opera singer took on Clay Aiken's big "Idol" signature song, Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and he sang the hell out of it. He was pretty much vocally flawless, and with his ailing mother in the audience watching him through misty eyes, he brought more palpable emotion to the stage than he had in the past. Christina gave him a standing ovation, and even her rival coach Cee Lo could not be a hater. "I came here to be really critical, especially to those who aren't on my team--but there's nothing bad I can say about that," admitted Cee Lo. Was Chris's performance hip and current? Well, no, not really. But so what? Last time I checked, artists like Susan Boyle, Il Divo, Josh Groban, and Michael Buble all sell albums by the boatload. And I could totally see Chris doing the same, whether or not he wins "The Voice."
Moses Stone - Moses, "The Voice's" first and only rapper, impressed me last week during the Battle Rounds with his out-of-nowhere legit singing skills. But this week, I found his shouting less impressive. Moses neither rapped nor sang his Kanye West medley of "Stronger"/"Power"; instead he just yelled it, unmodulated, like he'd learned his MC technique from the DMX School Of Hip-Hop. Equally distracting were all the "America's Got Talent"-style gymnasts flipping around him as he squatted awkwardly on the floor. As was the case with the aforementioned RaeLynn, I had to give Moses some props for his commitment to his performance, for the way he tore into it and held nothing back. But as was the case with the equally manic RaeLynn, the end result was scattershot and weird, and just plain unpleasant to the ear. It almost bordered on parody at times. 'When you did 'Satisfaction' last week, I thought, 'Man, this dude can really sing.' I think you have more potential as a singer than a rapper," Adam said. And I one-hundred percent agreed with Adam. Moses does have talent, but this performance didn't really showcase his rapping OR singing abilities. And he's just not that good of a shouter, unfortunately.
Lindsey Pavao - Okay, here was one instance when all the bizarre staging totally worked. Doing a trip-hop/dubstep-inspired remake of Gotye's "Someone That I Used To Know" while surrounded by creepy kabuki dancers in "Nip/Tuck" Carver masks, this season's resident quirky girl came across like a crazy-eyed Tim Burton movie heroine as she stalked the stage. She sang the bitter breakup song not so much from the point of view of a wronged victim but in the character of a tire-slashing, bunny-boiling psycho-girlfriend, and I loved the sense of menace she brought to her performance. Charlotte Sometimes was probably wishing her Paramore cover could have been this cool. "Where can I buy your album right now? I could listen to you all day," said Christina. I certainly plan to buy Lindsey's album and listen to it all day after she hopefully wins "The Voice" in a few weeks' time. She's still my favorite.
Sera Hill - This diva (a full-fledged, readymade diva, not a "diva-in-training" as Christina worded it) put fellow contestant James Massone's feeble cover of Drake's "Find Your Love" to shame, when she took on that same song this evening. With her white Tony Manero suit, slicked Josephine Baker hairdo, and Mary J. Blige 'tude, Sera totally owned the stage--she didn't even need all those half-naked himbos gyrating all around her. I didn't even notice her hunky backup dancers, because my eyes (and ears) were entirely on her. Blake seemed too irked by the male dancers onstage to comment on Sera's actual performance ("I was waiting for Christina to start stuffing some one-dollar bills in some guy's pants," he grumbled). But honestly, Blake should have been more threatened by Sera's skills than by a few shirtless boy-toys, because Sera could be a real force to be reckoned with on this show.
Ashley De La Rosa - Belting out Alanis Morissette's "Right Through You," the young and sweet ADLR really rocked out--at least I think she did. You see, Ashley perhaps suffered the most from the "Voice" band's over-amplification, as she valiantly struggled to be heard over the din and much of the time sounded buried in the music's echoey mix. (Hey, maybe that's why Moses was shouting earlier. At least we heard him!) But what I could actually make out of Ashley's performance, I dug. She was a surprisingly convincing angst-rocker, and she performed with enough conviction to give Jordis confidence lessons. Adam declared her the "biggest surprise of the night" and "most improved. You could see the 17-year-old in previous performances, and tonight we saw a woman. My opinion of you has totally changed." Christina smiled and looked smug, and I didn't blame her. But I just wished she'd instructed the band to turn it down a bit. Ashley deserved to be heard.
Jesse Campbell - Wow. Just wow. There's a reason they put this guy in the pimp spot. Crooning the perennial Louis Armstrong classic "What A Wonderful World," Jesse gave an absolutely wonderful performance, full of heart and class, and it was definitely the kind of performance that'd have America picking up the phone for this formerly homeless single dad. "Your voice is almost as beautiful as my hair," quipped the wig-wearing Cee Lo. "You're that one dude that if someone on my team doesn't win, I'm looking for you to win the show." Adam also proclaimed Jesse "the dude to beat." It's true that I think women will dominate this season, but Jesse may very well still win it all, just like Javier Colon did last year.
So now it is prediction time, and this is a rare case in which my predictions are also my personal picks. I think for Team Xtina the top vote-getters will Lindsey Pavao, Jesse Campbell, and Sera Hill, with Christina wisely saving Chris Mann as her fourth team member. For Team Blake, it will (and should) be Jordis Unga, Erin Willett, and Charlotte Sometimes, though I am afraid that when it comes time for Blake to save a fourth contestant, he'll choose his pet RaeLynn over the slightly-more-worthy Jermaine or Naia.
Tune in Tuesday, for the first live results show of this season, to find out if I'm right!
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