‘The Voice’ Premiere: A Cut Above The Rest?

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks (New)

Back at the 2011 Super Bowl, Christina Aguilera flubbed the national anthem, one of many setbacks she suffered in a year that include a divorce, an arrest, and both box-office and Billboard flops. Now, just a year later, her hit show "The Voice" has premiered on NBC right after the Super Bowl, in arguably the most coveted TV timeslot of the year. Christina is nothing if not an example that artists can get second chances.

And many second chances were handed out during Sunday's hour-long "Voice" premiere, as it turned out that four of the five singers chosen for the judges' teams came to the show with long and impressive résumés (just like last season's former major label signings, Javier Colon and Dia Frampton). There was a frontwoman for a Sony Music punk band; an opera crooner who's worked with Babyface, Heather Headley, India.Arie, Idina Menzel, and David Foster; and a gospel powerhouse who's sang with the Winans and was signed to Capitol/Underworld Records, along with brief clips of an Alicia Keys backup singer who received a special videotaped message of encouragement from Alicia herself, and an actor from Green Day's American Idiot Broadway musical. And that was all just in the first 45 minutes of Season 2.

On other singing competitions, contestants with such storied pasts would immediately draw controversy, like Stacy Francis on "The X Factor" last year or Carly Smithson on "American Idol's" Season 7. But this is not the case with "The Voice." During the show, host Carson Daly cleverly pointed out, "The singers we've invited are already a cut above the rest"--i.e., they're not amateurs. "The Voice" isn't trying to convince viewers that its contestants are fresh-off-the-turnip-truck total unknowns who've never rocked a mic outside of a school auditorium or karaoke bar. The point with "The Voice" is these are singers poised on the edge of greatness, who just need the little extra push that Christina, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, and Blake Shelton can provide.

So, were these singers really a cut above those on other talent shows? I'm not ready to determine that for sure, but some of them certainly seemed to have the potential to go far. The most interesting showbiz veteran of the night had to be pimp-spot auditioner Tony Lucca, a former member of the Mickey Mouse Club. While Tony didn't exactly go on to the success of his MMC castmates like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Keri Russell, JC Chasez, or Christina herself, he clearly still has a fanbase from those days, judging from his 500,000-plus followers on Twitter. Of course, Tony has changed a lot since the MMC--as evidenced not only by his all-grown-up rendition of Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble," which inspired all four judges to hit their red buttons and swivel their chairs, but by the fact that Christina totally did not recognize him when she turned around. Perhaps to avoid an awkward "don't you know who I am?" moment, Tony said nothing (and chose to join Team Adam instead of Team Xtina, ha), but then Christina suddenly bolted out of her spinning chair and chased after Tony, exclaiming, "Oh my God, do you know how that guy is? That is so weird!" (Whether this epiphany was real or staged, it made for great TV.) She even told him backstage, "Britney had such a crush on you!" Oh, I have a feeling lots of girls in the "Voice" viewing audience will crush on this dude, whether they remember him from the MMC or not.

Here's who else got through during Season 2's first blind auditions round:

RaeLynn - This 17-year-old, guitar-strumming country cutie, who lives on a farm, was the least experienced auditioner who got through, and she definitely took a risk by singing "Hell On Heels," a song by Pistol Annies (the band fronted by Blake's wife, Miranda Lambert). She did a good job with the song, though--good enough to get Blake to spin his chair around, although it was Adam who spun first. "I can't wait for Miranda to hear your version of that song," Blake gushed. "I can make you a country star." To that, Adam snapped back, "Why would you want to be just a country star?" (Oooh, burn!) But Adam's argument was unconvincing. Of course RaeLynn picked the man married to her idol. And so, Team Blake recruited its first member.

Jesse Campbell - Jesse has a very illustrious professional background. He's been featured on the recordings of gospel legends like the Winans and Timothy Wright, has had songs on the soundtracks of Dead Presidents and The Prince Of Egypt, and has appeared on shows like "Showtime At The Apollo" and "Soul Train." But he apparently still ended up a struggling musician, which caused his wife to leave him, and now he's the single parent of an 11-year-old. (He and his daughter were even homeless at one point.) It's hard to believe he hasn't been more successful, actually, based on his stunning "A Song For You" audition on Sunday, one that had all four judges fighting over him and one that easily established him as an early frontrunner. "Congratulations. What an impact you've made on the show already," said Blake. "The competition is ON!" declared Christina. "The minute you opened up your mouth, I said, 'That's my man, that's my brother!'" said Cee Lo. Cee Lo, the only R&B singer on the panel, seemed like the obvious mentor choice for this throwback soulman, but Jesse instead went with Christina, who might be an even better match for his powerhouse style of singing. "You said you would fight for me, and I'm ready to fight," Jesse told Christina, as her anthem "Fighter" blasted in the background. I think Christina might be able to put up a pretty good fight on this show, with Jesse on her team.

Juliet Simms - Well, call me Romeo, because I love Juliet. She's just COOL. The frontgoddess of established Warped Tour emo band Automatic Love Letter (who knows, they may have crossed paths with Dia Frampton's Meg & Dia at one point), this rock chick came out and killed it solo-style, belting out a bloozy version of the Beatles' "Oh! Darling" while decked out in leather bellbottoms, shredded denim, and ragged Marianne Faithfull bangs. I know this show is supposed to be all about the "voice," and Juliet's whiskey-ravaged vocals were awesome--but she looked like a total rock star too, and she worked the stage like one, even dropping to her leather-sheathed knees mid-song. All the judges except Blake wanted her (total Blake fail, there), but Juliet decided to go with Cee Lo. Good choice. Cee Lo guided the similarly bitchen Vicci Martinez to the finals last season, and he seems to have a knack for handling "quirky" contestants. Unless he has the bright idea to put her in a sailor outfit and make her sing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," I think Cee Lo will be a good match for Juliet.

Chris Mann - This established opera singer, who studied at Nashville's Vanderbilt University, has worked not only with the aforementioned Babyface,  Heather Headley, India.Arie, Idina Menzel, and David Foster, but also with "Idol"/"Smash" star Katharine McPhee and even as a Warbler on "Glee." He tried out with a big, belty rendition of Andrea Bocelli's "Because We Believe," and while that might not seem too hip or in touch with the kids, take a look at how many albums artists like Bocelli, Susan Boyle, and Il Divo have sold, and it may not seem like such a bad idea for "The Voice" to take someone on like Chris. Cee Lo and Christina were both impressed by Chris (Cee Lo called Chris's performance "exceptionally beautiful"), but Chris was smart to go with Xtina, the closet thing to an opera singer on the panel. (Say what you will about Christina's oversinging, but the girl's got some pipes.)

So if you're keeping track, or even if you're not, so far Team Adam has Tony Lucca, Team Cee Lo has Juliet Simms, Team Blake has RaeLynn, and Team Xtina consists of Jesse Campbell and Chris Mann. With expanded teams of 12, not eight, entering the voting rounds this season, all four judges have a ways to go, but they're definitely off to a great start.

Tune in Monday when "The Voice" settles into its regular Monday night schedule!

Related links:

Dia Frampton performs at Yahoo! Music

Cee Lo performs with Madonna at Super Bowl

More on "The Voice"

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