"The Voice" traded in one awesome gimmick for an even awesome-er one this week, as the chair-spinning Blind Auditions segued into the head-spinning Battle Rounds, aka the reality-TV singing world's own version of the UFC. Because if there's one thing that's cooler than watching Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green sit on motorized thrones and fight over prospective contestants, it's watching those contestants fight each other in a neon boxing ring--"singing in harmony and secretly trying to destroy each other," as Adam Levine so excitingly worded it on this Monday's first Battle Rounds episode.
For all you "Voice" newbies, the Battle Rounds are to "The Voice" as Hollywood Week is to "American Idol" and the Judges' Houses are to "The X Factor." It's the part of the season when the top 48 (four teams of 12) are whittled down to the top 24 that will eventually compete for public votes. So how do the Battle Rounds work? Well, on each team, during each battle, two singers (typically of the same musical genre) enter the ring...and, after an epic singoff, only one of them survives. Excitement, drama, awesomeness, and sometimes controversy ensue.
Adding to this awesomeness this supersized second season are a slew of new celebrity guest mentors: Kelly Clarkson and Miranda Lambert working with Blake Shelton, Alanis Morissette and Robin Thicke with Adam, Lionel Richie and Jewel with Christina, and Ne-Yo and Babyface with Cee Lo. Going into this week, Team Blake seemed to have the most valuable mentors--after all, Kelly is still the queen supreme of all vocal competitions ("If anyone could help you on a singing reality show, it'd be Kelly," Blake reasoned), and Miranda got her start on "Nashville Star." But as it turned out, having fantastic advisors didn't mean Blake always made fantastic decisions this Monday.
Because, about 20 minutes into the show...this happened:
TEAM BLAKE: Adley Stump vs. RaeLynn
This showdown between Blake's two "firecracker country girls," big-haired sorority gal Adley and little 17-year-old RaeLynn (this season's youngest contestant), seemed easy to call. OR SO I THOUGHT. Singing Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" (Blake loves making his ladies croon a bit of Petty--he dueted with Dia Frampton on "I Won't Back Down" last season), RaeLynn pretty much struggled from the minute she opened her beestung mouth. I could practically see the flower wilting in her hair as she tried to keep up with Adley, the FAR superior belter of this duo. And when Adley got her turn to sing solo, the crazy crowd response made it clear whom the studio audience was rooting for. Yes, RaeLynn had the attitude and the spunk, and the overall Swifty adorableness, but not, well, the voice. So it was a SHOCK when Blake chose "the stylist" and "the storyteller," RaeLynn, over "powerhouse" Adley. But then again, Blake clearly has a soft spot for waify, mousy, feathery-voiced girly-girls (as evidenced by his utterly unwavering loyalty to Dia and Xenia last year), so maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised after all. But still...isn't this show called "THE VOICE"? I truly questioned Blake's verdict here. I was stumped that he did not pick Adley Stump.
Oh well. Here's how the rest Season 2's first "Voice" battles played out. Which other singers put up the best fight?
TEAM ADAM: Tony Lucca vs. Chris Cauley
It was the ultimate battle of good against good (a former Mouseketeer versus a grandma-loving family man), and WGWG against WGWG (white guys with guitars, that is), as the first two singers stepped into the ring. And they were ironically singing the coronation song of past "Idol" WGWG Lee DeWyze, "Beautiful Day" by U2. As this battle began, I was rooting for Chris, who technically had the better voice, but Tony's past experience as a member of the Mickey Mouse Club helped him onstage, so he unsurprisingly came across as way more of a pro. And so, Adam chose to keep Tony on his team--cutting Chris, a guy I was once certain had what it took to go far on this show, maybe even all the way to the top four. This was the first of what will surely be many close battles this season, and I was already beginning to regret getting so attached, so soon, to so many of the top 48. Really now, who would have ever thought Chris Cauley would be the FIRST contestant to get eliminated this season?
WINNER: Tony Lucca
TEAM XTINA: Chris Mann vs. Monique Benabou
For her team's battle of the night, big blowhard belter Christina pitted two of her biggest, blowhardiest belters, Chris the opera singer/"Glee" Warbler and Monique the wannabe Mariah, against each other. And honestly, I wanted her to vote them both off. Yes, solo, they'd already proven they were great singers...but together, their duet just sounded like a lot of obnoxious shouting and showing off. (They clearly both studied at the Xtina School Of Singing, which teaches that loud = good.) Sing-shouting Celine Dion's "Power Of Love" (ugh, seriously?), Chris and Monique did their darnedest to drown each other out, and they nearly blew out my TV speakers in the process. But Christina did have to choose one of them for the live rounds, and while I thought Monique brought more real, raw emotion to the song (Chris, with his years of classical training, can sometimes seem too robotic and controlled), it was obvious going into this round that Christina already favored Chris. So it wasn't a huge surprise that she saved him over Monique. However, if Chris wants to be a valuable member of Team Xtina, he needs to learn how to loosen up--and, when appropriate, rein it in--when it comes time to perform for America's votes.
WINNER: Chris Mann
TEAM CEE LO: Cheesa vs. Angie Johnson
Cee Lo chose to have two of his dynamite divas face off in the ring: Hawaiian R&B belter Cheesa and Air Force veteran/YouTube sensation Angie. And then he had them wail Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse Of The Heart." Nope, Cee Lo has never been one to go for subtlety. This duet also had its many shouty, volume-control-challenged moments, but overall, these two ladies were well-matched. This battle too was a close call, perhaps even closer than the Lucca/Cauley singoff. I thought Angie, as a professional soldier, seemed better prepared for battle (she exhibited more confidence onstage), and I thought that strategically, Cee Lo would figure an Air Force vet would be more likely to earn America's votes later this season. But Cee Lo went with Cheesa. Whatever. I think Cee Lo has many more strong people on his team that we haven't even seen battle yet, so I have a feeling that neither of these girls would have made it past the top 24 in the end, anyway.
TEAM BLAKE: Jordis Unga vs. Brian Fuente
So Blake pitted his strongest team member, "Rock Star: INXS" vet Jordis, against some rocker dude who didn't even have his entire audition shown this season. Then Blake gave them Alanis's "Ironic," a song originally intended for a female vocalist. And then he had Jordis start off the song, practically demoting Brian to backup-singer status for the first 90 seconds of the number. Gee, I wonder who'd win this one? Luckily, this time Blake made a sensible decision and went with Jordis. Yes, Brian did do a decent job, holding his own, but it was obvious who the real "Rock Star" was here, even if Jordis suffered quite a few emotionally shaky moments onstage. I still think Jordis is Blake's only real hope to win "The Voice" this season, so I was relieved he didn't make another silly mistake. But if Jordis wants to maintain her frontrunner status and do Blake proud, she'd better step it up on the live shows, and learn how to keep her stage nerves in check--because her performance this week was far from perfect.
WINNER: Jordis Unga
TEAM XTINA: Anthony Evans vs. Jesse Campbell
I wasn't all that impressed by Anthony's first audition (for a gospel-influenced singer, he didn't seem to possess much lung power), so I assumed Jesse would mop the boxing-ring floor with this underdog. But that didn't quite happen. This here was a real "heavyweight battle," as host Carson Daly put it, and when Anthony squared off against Jesse on Alicia Keys's "If I Ain't Got You," he was far more passionate and fierce than he'd been in his lackluster blind audition. But ultimately, Anthony was still no match for Jesse, who just let it rip. So Jesse prevailed in the end, but at least Anthony could walk out of the ring with his head held high.
WINNER: Jesse Campbell
So if you're having trouble keeping track--which would be understandable, since with all these gimmicks and smoke and mirrors and bells and whistles and spinning chairs and boxing rings, etc., "The Voice" can get pretty complicated--moving on to the live rounds so far are Tony Lucca, RaeLynn, Chris Mann, Cheesa, Jordis Unga, and Jesse Campbell. I still am conflicted about Chris Cauley, Angie Johnson, and Monique Benabou getting cut, but I suppose the only real obvious weak link among this week's six successful singers is RaeLynn. However, I do have my doubts as to how far Chris and Cheesa can really go this season, too.
But I guess Chris, Cheesa, and even RaeLynn's chances will depend on how the next three weeks of Battle Rounds pan out, and if the coaches choose wisely (or unwisely). So tune in next Monday for 12 more singers, six more battles...and, of course, a whole lot more drama.