"The Voice" Season 4 premiered this Monday, with new cast members Shakira and Usher replacing on-hiatus regulars Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green--and let me tell you, these newbie coaches came to compete. And they came to win. Just one example of their shrewd gameplay: Even old-school-judges Adam Levine and Blake Shelton were impressed by Shakira's advanced poker-face technique, when she managed to register zero reaction as she turned her chair for one particularly surprising contestant. And the usually fiery singer's ability to play it cool totally paid off in the end.
What happened was a contestant unisexily named Kris Thomas belted out the Whitney Houston standard "Saving All My Love For You" during Monday's Blind Auditions--and despite the fact that he altered the song's "no other man's gonna do" line to say "no other girl," which should have been a tipoff, none of the judges picked up on that gender switch; Kris's prepubescently high-pitched voice clearly had all four coaches convinced that they were listening to a female vocalist. Shakira was the first and only coach to hit her red button for Kris--and when she spun around and saw a ruggedly handsome 27-year-old man singing in front of her, instead of gasping in shock (and thus stirring up her castmates' curiosity and causing them to turn their chairs as well), she kept quiet. None of the other judges had any idea what was going on, until Kris's song was over and they turned around themselves.
"Hey…you're a DUDE!" Usher exclaimed when he finally got a gander at Kris, confessing that he would've hit his button if he'd known the truth, because "women go crazy over a guy with a falsetto." Adam also admitted, "I would have turned, if I'd known!" But it was too late. Kris was now officially on Team Shakira.
Well-played, Shakira. Well-played.
In general, Shakira and Usher fit right in on "The Voice," showing no signs of being intimidated by their more seasoned castmates, longtime bromancers Adam and Blake (both of whom already have "Voice" victories under their belts). Shakira frequently joked that Adam and Blake were "jaded" judges who'd only won before due to "beginner's luck," and she strategically played what the other judges called "the female card," trying to recruit promising lady auditioners by arguing that they needed a fellow woman on their side. Usher, meanwhile, shamelessly played "the Bieber card" every chance he got--constantly pointing out that, despite being a newcomer to "The Voice," he's already a proven starmaker, having helped discover and launch the one and only Justin Bieber. At one point, Usher practically promised one 16-year-old girl Bieber backstage passes if she joined his team. Wow. The hyper-competitive Adam Levine just may have met his match.
One way the new coaches were perfectly matched--and one way in which they played nice--was Monday's fantastic opening number, when they all came together, so to speak, for a rousing and rocking cover of the Beatles' barnstormer "Come Together." With Adam on drums, Blake on guitar, Shakira on harmonica, Usher on bass (who knew Shakira played harmonica and Usher played bass?), and plenty of pyro, this fab four totally owned the stage. It was actually enough to make me not even miss Xtina and Cee Lo. (Okay, okay, I missed Cee Lo just a little bit…but this was very awesome nonetheless.)
But of course, for any talent show to succeed, the performances by the contestants have to be just as wowing as the ones by any revolving cast of superstar judges. Thankfully, "The Voice"--which really stepped it up in Season 3, with its best array of talent yet--didn't disappoint with its first episode of Season 4, and the Blind Auditioners once again proved that "The Voice" is so much more than the sum of its coaches.
Here's who also successfully tried out on Monday:
The Morgan Twins - Obviously, even if Cara and Rhian Morgan couldn't sing a lick, the show's three male coaches would have wanted them anyway, once they got an eyeful of these bombshells' identical hotness. Pretty twins with matchy-matchy bandage dresses and big blonde hair? Sheesh, I could practically imagine Adam or Blake writing to Penthouse Forum about this particular audition. ("I never thought it would happen to me…") And if Cee Lo was watching this episode from his "Loberace" Vegas suite Monday night, he was probably very, very bummed that he took this season off. (Personally, I preferred the Morgans' former cutesy-retro look, when they got their start in a '60s-style girl group, but that's just me.) "Is this for real? This is a dream come true for most men! This is a damn Doublemint commercial!" exclaimed Blake when he turned around. Thankfully, these girls could also sing, possessing the kind of perfect honeyed harmonies that only siblings, especially twins, can pull off. ("That's like DNA," Adam noted.) All four coaches fought hard for the sisters--with sassy Shakira, playing the "female card" of course, pointing out that she was probably the only judge not interested solely in the Morgans' sexy twinsiness. But the girls eventually chose to join Team Blake. "Your wife's gonna kill you, man," Adam teased Blake--an interesting and amusing comment in light of recent tabloid rumors about Blake's supposedly rocky marriage to Miranda Lambert. Adam was just stirring up you-know-what, of course, but we'll see if Miranda makes any surprise visits to the "Voice" set during the Morgans' mentoring sessions.
MEMBER OF: Team Blake
Jess Kellner - Every "Voice" season needs an ethereal indie girl (one of my favorite "Voice" archetypes), and this 21-year-old Austin hairdresser could very well be Season 4's Lindsey Pavao or Melanie Martinez. I couldn't help falling in love with her gorgeously torchy, goosebump-raising cover of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love," and neither could Usher and Shakira, who had to directly face off for the first time when they both turned around. "The newbies are gonna fight, which is going to be so exciting to watch!" Adam devilishly declared. Shakira admitted that Jess had some vocal "obstacles" and confidence issues to overcome, but the ultra-competitive Usher went in for the hard sell (he even flirted a bit, too). "I'm so glad you're gonna be on my team," he drawled, prematurely and overconfidently. "You wanna last forever? Come rock with me." Unsurprisingly, Jess went with Usher. I think Adam (who passed on Jess because he, somewhat wrongly, thought she sounded too Adele-esque) would have been the best mentor for Jess--and if he has a chance later, I wouldn't be surprised if he goes in for the Steal. But clearly Jess has aligned herself with a very supportive coach for now.
MEMBER OF: Team Usher
Mark Andrew - This 27-year-old Minnesota roofer had one of the first big sob stories of the season: He once was a member of a very tight-knit rock trio, but his drummer and guitarist recently died, leaving him to sadly and reluctantly go solo. Mark couldn't even get through his pre-performance interview about this ordeal without sobbing. But he pulled it together for his Blind Audition, fittingly of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," with his "guardian angels" watching over the NBC soundstage. I thought it was a terrible song choice, despite the sentimental lyrics (and the fact that Mark picked it because it was the song on which he first learned to play guitar). The meandering ballad just didn't allow Mark's voice to go anywhere. But Adam and Shakira heard his raw potential and hit their buttons anyway. "You didn't sound like anybody else," Adam noted. Shakira was surprisingly enthusiastic, stating, "I am so passionate about you! I haven't felt this way about anyone before--well, I am this passionate about my boyfriend, of course!" Adam seemed like the better fit for Mark--as the Maroon 5 frontman pointed out, he has the same "skill set"--but Mark explained, "I don't think my wife would ever forgive me if I didn't pick Shakira." Apparently Mrs. Andrew doesn't grapple with the same jealousy issues that Adam claims Miranda Lambert has.
MEMBER OF: Team Shakira
Danielle Bradbery - This 16-year-old Texan cutie had some sort of sob story about being teased in school for having crooked teeth, which frankly didn't seem like that much of a sob story following Mark's incredibly tragic tale. But really, Danielle didn't need any sob story to win over America or the coaches. (Plus, her teeth looked just fine to me.) Her rendition of Taylor Swift's anti-bullying anthem "Mean" was a delight--she had a fantastic voice, a certain quiet confidence, even a lackadaisically cool Emma Stone vibe--and I felt like I was listening to a budding country sensation. It was almost impossible to believe that this was her first big public performance. Usher, Blake, and Adam all quickly spun around for Danielle, and Blake didn't seem too thrilled to have such competition. ("What are you doing? Turn back around!" Blake shouted, when his old rival Adam turned.) Blake fought hard for Danielle, telling her it would be a "feather in his cap" if he could introduce her to Nashville. The geographically challenged Usher, attempting to explain that Danielle could have a crossover career beyond straight-up country, then argued that "Nashville is just a state." (Facepalm. Hopefully he meant state of mind. But I don't think he did.) Usher also whipped out his Bieber card, naturally. ("I'm not promising if you'll be at every concert," he began...while Adam incredulously exclaimed, "You have no soul! Are you bribing her with Justin Bieber tickets?") But Danielle, either unimpressed with Usher's unfamiliarity with the Tennessee map or just proving she's not a Belieber, didn't take the Bieber bait. She went with Blake, of course, and Blake was so thrilled, he did a football-style victory dance, right up in Usher's face. Could Danielle help Blake score a third consecutive "Voice" victory? Possibly. Regardless, I think she could be huge in the "state" of Nashville!
MEMBER OF: Team Blake
VEDO - This 19-year-old had a sob story that almost made Mark's look like nothin'. His family used to be homeless, but his mother always took care of him, even bathing him in gas station restrooms when they had nowhere else to go. Now she has stage 4 lung cancer and only two months to live, and VEDO has become her caretaker. But supportive till the very end, his mother encouraged him to pursue his "Voice" dream anyway, and she even accompanied him to his audition. This was some serious five-hanky television here. However, when VEDO (sorry for the all-caps) got onstage, the mood was more celebratory; instead of doing a sappy ballad, he did the Justin Bieber club banger "Boyfriend." His version was very switched-up (he crooned the parts that the Biebs originally whisper-rapped), but Justin's mentor Usher appreciated the performance nonetheless. Certainly Usher could not ignore the fact that VEDO had a killer singing voice that, let's be honest, was way better than Bieber's. Usher was actually the only coach who spun around--but Adam pointed out that he'd only refrained from turning because he didn't feel like hearing Usher brag about how he discovered Justin Bieber for the umpteenth time. (And I am sure Adam spoke for the equally fed-up Shakira and Blake.) So Usher scored VEDO by default, but I think this will be a good match. Will Usher do for VEDO what he did for Bieber? That remains to be seen, but I hope he does VEDO's mama proud.
MEMBER OF: Team Usher
Christian Porter - This guy could be the Phillip Phillips, David Cook, or Kris Allen of "The Voice" Season 4. The humble WGWG/bar singer pulled a well-worn page from the classic singing-show playbook and turned LMFAO's "Sexy And I Know It" into an acoustic coffeehouse jam, and his performance was as inventive as it was hilarious. (It kind of reminded me of the version "X Factor U.K." champ James Arthur did last year, but I'll cut Christian some slack and assume he never saw that.) It was difficult to believe that this dude never spoke as a child and was once presumed deaf, because now he was coming through loud and clear (especially when he broke out his falsetto), simply oozing personality. This was great entertainment; if a bar singer started doing something like this at my local watering hole, I'd totally buy him a drink. All the coaches except, surprisingly, Adam turned around (Adam later confessed he was just too confused by the song choice to react). Usher called Christian "Magic Mike" and Shakira thought Christian was sexy indeed, but Blake's musicianship-focused glowing compliments about the "imagination that went into that arrangement" seemed to seal the deal, and so Blake scored yet another valuable player for his team.
MEMBER OF: Team Blake
Judith Hill - "The Voice" has had a long history of alums with serious showbiz experience, but Judith just may have the most impressive résumé yet. The 28-year-old diva was hired to be Michael Jackson's "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" duet partner for his This Is It tour in 2009, and after that tour was cancelled due to MJ's shocking death, she performed "Heal The World" at his memorial, which was viewed by more than a billion people globally. Judith's "phone went crazy" with offers from record labels after that, but she thought the timing was wrong and it would have been in poor taste to capitalize on Michael's passing. Now, however, it seems like her time to shine. Her jaw-dropping, show-stopping cover of former judge Xtina's "What A Girl Wants" inspired all four coaches to spin their chairs (Usher literally hit his button before Judith had even gotten past the first line of the first verse). And then those judges got out of their chairs in a unison standing ovation. Adam even stood on top of his chair in an attempt to persuade Judith to join his team, telling her, "You're the first person who's come on this show and done a Christina Aguilera song as well as Christina Aguilera." (Oh snap. I wonder how Xtina would have reacted if she'd still been sitting next to Adam. But hey, he was right.) All of the judges laid it on thick for Judith, understandably; they knew this was Season 4's potential champion. "If you pick me as your coach, not only will you win 'The Voice,' you'll win the world over," declared Usher. "It's like a star hatched out of a shell right now," raved Blake. "My heart is beating fast, because I feel I'm in front of a star," agreed Shakira. But Adam was especially over-the-top, practically screaming, "I'm a monster, and I will claw people's faces off to get you on my team...I'm gonna have a panic attack if you don't pick me, because I know you're going to win!" The cat-that-ate-cream expression on Adam's face when Judith did eventually choose him was just priceless. I need to make a GIF of that, stat.
MEMBER OF: Team Adam
So, thus far, the already-very-strong Team Blake comprises the Morgan Twins, country teen Danielle Bradbery, and bar-band goofball Christian Porter; Team Usher has indie girl Jess Kellner and soul showman VEDO; and Team Shakira has the girly-sounding Kris Thomas and gruff rocker Mark Andrew. Team Adam consists of just one member right now, the phenomenal Judith Hill--but hey, there can ultimately be only one winner of "The Voice" Season 4, and Adam may have already found her. So he needn't worry.
But obviously there will be many other auditions that follow Judith's, and if Monday's episode is any indication of what's in store for Season 4, she will face some stiff competition. Come back Tuesday night to see if anyone else can raise the bar even higher, and if the ambitious and aggressive Shakira and Usher can slow any of Adam and Blake's early momentum.