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).
Cee Lo gets a makeover for the live rounds
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.
Jermaine sings "Livin' On A Prayer"
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.
Raelynn sings "Wake Up Call"
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.
Naia sings "Turning Tables"
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?
Jordis sings "Alone"
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.
Erin sings "Living For The City"
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.
Charlotte sings "Misery Business"