On The Voice’s live top 12 show this Monday, history was made when for the first time in the series’ dozen seasons, there was a fifth red chair on the set.
So … who was sitting in that extra seat? Usher, possibly the best Voice coach ever, whose return I’ve been eagerly awaiting since he led Josh Kaufman to victory in Season 6? Christina Milian, wanting her old “social media correspondent” job back? Purrfect the Cat? Nope. Instead, it was this week’s guest mentor, Shania Twain.
Well, although Shania looked lovely and had a fantastic attitude, she was no Usher. During the two-hour episode, she offered little in the way of “critique,” basically behaving like a millennial-era parent as she doled out empty compliments like participation trophies and gold stars. True, The Voice has never been about harsh (read: honest) criticism — they’re called “coaches,” not “judges,” remember? — but Shania was so nice, she made even America’s sweetheart, Gwen Stefani, look like Simon Cowell.
And of course, the presence of a fifth superstar on the panel — one who has sold 85 million records (which is about 84,999,000 more records than most Voice contestants can hope to sell after this show, sadly) — only detracted attention from the top 12 semifinalists, just as they were supposed to be coming into their own in only the second week of Live Playoffs. But although some of these semifinalists struggled Monday and truly could have benefited from some constructive commentary from Shania and the four regular coaches, others did seem like budding superstars. Here’s how everyone did.
Jesse Larson (Team Adam)
Adam Levine explained to Jesse that this “Adele” song would be “the kiss of death for a female, but as a male vocalist, you have the ability to make it something else.” Eventually, Adam did acknowledge that “Make You Feel My Love” was originally by the decidedly male Bob Dylan. (Garth Brooks, Billy Joel, and Bryan Ferry have also famously covered it.) Honestly, I thought Jesse’s real kiss of death here would be the fact that Adam took away his guitar. Why strip Jesse of his signature style so early in the competition? Blues-guitar jamming is Jesse’s shtick! He’s the Laith Al-Saadi of Season 12! It seemed too soon for Jesse to do this sort of 180.
But maybe there was a method to Adam’s madness. Adam wanted Jesse to be more vulnerable and not hide behind his instrument, and Jesse did deliver an impressive vocal, aside from a couple of moments at the end when his voice strained. But even in the strained moments, Jesse sounded raw and authentic. He was going for it, and he likely made America feel his love tonight.
Shania certainly felt Jesse’s love. (She felt everyone’s love, all night long, but I digress.) “You’re just a stunning vocalist,” she said. “I really saw, without your guitar, your body language. I could read that emotion. I love you without the guitar. I love you with the guitar! It was really coming from down within you, and I was very moved.”
“It’s just shocking that you’re so good both as a guitar player and maybe even better as a singer. I hate to knock your guitar skills, but you’re the best pure singer in this competition,” said the hyperbole-prone Adam. “I believe that. I don’t know if anyone can surpass your ability.”
Mark Isaiah (Team Adam)
Mark is Season 12’s great heartthrob hope, but since he had to be saved by his coach, Adam, last week, it doesn’t seem like the little girls out there in TV Land, or their moms, are voting for this kid. Adam promised last week that he would do right by Mark and give him better tunes (last week’s “All Time Low” was not a high point), and this Monday, Drake’s “One Dance” did seem like an appropriate, current-but-not-too-on-the-nose song choice for the 18-year-old pop singer.
But Mark just didn’t have the confidence or swagger to pull it off. His performance was tentative, timid, and very deer-in-headlights; he honestly would have been better off breaking out some of Drake’s notoriously meme-able “Hotline Bling” dance moves. When Mark did try to move and work the stage, it seemed to throw him off vocally, so the performance never quite came together. Mark simply did not seem like a pop star, despite his obvious marketability.
Shania disagreed, of course, saying, “Mark, you have a natural star quality. There is no doubt about it. You present yourself with dynamics. You move at the right times. You have a really good sense of where you are in the song, and it is just really nice to see you come to life here on this stage.” OK, then.
Adam laid it on even thicker: “I am blown away right now, because I was concerned; I didn’t feel like [voters] got you yet; I had to save this guy last week. It was for this reason. I knew you had this potential. … This kid just came out here and acted like he was just visiting The Voice and doing a performance and he has a record coming out.”
Stephanie Rice (Team Alicia)
Stephanie declared her intention to do an “eerie, dark, haunting version” of Dido’s “White Flag” — which made sense, because eerie/dark/haunting is Stephanie’s stock-in-trade. I would have preferred it if she’d done this song at the piano, like last week’s riveting “Every Breath You Take”; but Monday night, some of Stephanie’s bad habits (melodramatic growling and keening, flaily/point hand gestures, snarling facial expressions) came out and distracted from what was otherwise a genuinely emotional effort. But, hey, I have to commend Stephanie for fully committing to the performance; she never does anything halfway or half-assed, and she’s always memorable.
“Wow, your emotion was just pouring out of you. Your voice was crying. You were extremely convincing about your emotions and how you felt that song. I was very moved,” said Shania. Added Alicia Keys: “I know for a fact that you are the purest artist on this show, period. … That song was arranged by you, created by you, and the way that you do that, it really brings people into your world. You can’t help but feel the goosebumps.”
Troy Ramey (Team Gwen)
Gwen and Shania both warned Troy not to stray too far from the melody of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”; he’s had that tendency in the past, and it can be off-putting to mess with an iconic, beloved song too much. Troy for the most part ignored their advice and performed a version of “Free Fallin’” that I barely recognized until he got to the second chorus. His interpretation was pleasant and his vocal was solid, but until he started belting the “freeeeeeeee” line, the performance had little payoff for me. I’m all for contestants “making songs their own” — in fact, I believe that’s what separates the true artists from the karaoke singers on shows like The Voice. And I do believe that Troy is an artist. But I’m a big Petty fan, and I think Troy took too many liberties with one of Petty’s biggest hits.
Guess what? Shania disagreed! “I really think you captured it. I know he does take the melody and make it his own — you do it so beautifully and tastefully. I love that. I was very captivated by your style. I think you’re a true stylist,” she said.
Adam admitted, at least, that at first he hadn’t been onboard with Troy’s version. “I was hoping in the second chorus, once you did the first ones, that you would go up into the big note. I can’t handle that song without that. It was really pretty in the beginning. I wondered, ‘Is he is going to go there?’ I am glad you did.” Gwen concurred, saying, “My favorite thing about the whole [performance] was that first chorus and how you went up the second time. I didn’t know that was going to happen. It was creative and cool, and you did a great job.”
Aliyah Moulden (Team Blake)
Nigel Lythgoe must be ghost-producing The Voice these days, judging by all the recent performances that seem to have been ripped straight off a VHS tape of American Idol Season 1’s Motown Night. No one needs to hear a cover of Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in 2017, especially by a cutesy 15-year-old like Aliyah. The girl managed to drum up some confidence despite her admitted nerves and deliver a decent vocal (with a couple of pitch issues here and there), but she did nothing to modernize the song. Maybe this song could have benefited from some liberties with the melody. Maybe Troy Ramey could have done something interesting with it. Maybe Aliyah, being so young, didn’t have the experience or sense of authority to switch it up and put her own stamp on it. So, in the end, this was flat and boring.
But … Shania loved it! “You come out and command the stage. You have such poise. You are a professional. You really are,” she raved. Blake was equally impressed, saying, “You just took it all in stride and came out here and rocked the stage. … You have taken another step towards being a complete artist. You are such an incredible singer, and you have this incredible charisma and this smile that lights up the room. You are becoming a performer in front of America’s eyes. It’s so exciting.”
Chris Blue (Team Alicia)
All right, this was a performance that separated the boys from the men, the amateurs from the professionals. Chris also got an old-fashioned song, Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” but he still gave one of the most dynamic, dynamite performances of the night. He was funky and fresh, soulful as hell, and oozing love and happiness and his passion for performing all over the stage. He was giving me a little bit of Terence Trent D’Arby, a little bit of Prince (I’d actually love to hear Chris sing that “new” Prince track, “Deliverance”) … this guy was a total superstar, and very much in his element.
“You do make it look so easy,” said Shania, who loved Chris’s “wild man” persona. “This is just what you do. … You can sing anything. So you can sing anything all day long. But you brought everybody from a real cool, collective place and built the room up and exploded. I think everybody exploded with you.”
“It is just incredible to watch you,” said Alicia. “You have this uncanny ability to make things electric. This song is a very difficult song to deliver — it is Al Green’s song for a reason. And you came up here and you made it Chris Blue’s song.”
Lauren Duski (Team Blake)
Lauren sang “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” by Don Williams — not “My Neck, My Back,” as some Wikipedia-hacking prankster might have claimed, although Lauren, with her effortless storytelling quality, probably could make even that Khia track work for her. Anyway, Lauren took the Williams song, which has been memorably covered by Anne Murray and Lee Ann Womack, and made magic out of it, giving another restrained, refined performance that drew the audience in. It was a good day for her, indeed.
“I think this song was so perfect for you. You have a real true spirit, an honest spirit. This is a song you could have written. I felt that,” said Shania. “I felt your truth in this song. Your voice is so pure. I love just way you stay true to your voice. You don’t try to be something that you are not. I really appreciated that purity.”
“Country music fans, we have one here with Lauren,” Blake proclaimed. “This girl is the artist that we’ve been waiting for on this show! All this girl needs is a microphone and a country song, and she lights the place up. I’ve been waiting on somebody like this here.”
Lilli Passero (Team Adam)
Lilli is a professional and a real trouper, so even after being so sick this week that she had to go to urgent care and miss her mentoring session with Shania, she loaded up on IV fluids and made it onto that stage. It’s a shame, then, that Adam didn’t reward Lilli with a better song choice. He gave her Shania’s own “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” and man, was it ever corny. I’ve always thought this was a novelty song or Coyote Ugly bachelorette party sing-along, with its trying-too-hard sassy asides and dumb puns — not “one of the most anthemic, coolest songs ever,” as Adam insanely claimed. Maybe Adam thought the horn-laden tune would work with Lilli’s jazzy cabaret style. But if he had to give her a Shania song because it was in Shania’s contract or something, then any Shania song, even that terrible duet with Mark McGrath, would have been a better bet. Lilli did her best, despite her illness and the subpar material, but being overtly sexy and silly isn’t her forte, and this was not her finest moment.
Of course Shania liked this. “I think it was awesome. It was a huge compliment to me. You really do have the sass, right? I am just so happy that you are better. It’s really fun to hear it in person and a huge compliment to hear it done so well.” Adam added: “I am just amazed that you are alive. When I saw you that day, I was like, ‘This girl is sick.’ She was literally bedridden and then we gave her the ambitious task of doing this. … I’m impressed that you can kind of do whatever you want to do. As we figure that out as this process continues, we’re going to get into it. We’re going to do some amazing things. This is the beginning for you.”
I don’t think even Lilli was convinced she’d done well; she had a questioning expression on her face the entire time the coaches were praising her. She’d better rest and hook herself up to an IV drip right away, because I am afraid this performance might land her in the bottom three this week. She’s going to need her strength for Tuesday’s Instant Save performance.
Brennley Brown (Team Gwen)
No, Brennley didn’t do “My Humps,” despite what the show’s doctored Wiki page might have you believe. Gwen must have learned from her boyfriend Blake’s mistake last week, when Blake made a 14-year-old sing “Brass in Pocket,” because she stuck with suitable material for 15-year-old Brennley.
Then again, Brennley is mature beyond her years. She’s kind of like Lauren Duski’s not-much-younger sister. Doing Linda Ronstadt’s “Long, Long Time,” she pulled off a sweet, sincere performance, heeding Gwen’s and Shania’s advice to be restrained with the runs and vocal tricks and cutting straight to the heart of the rustic ballad. For a girl so young, Brennley really has a good sense of her artistry and the kind of music she wants to make. The maturity gulf between her and this season’s other remaining teen girl, Aliyah, is massive.
After giving Brennley a standing ovation, Shania gushed, “Wow, Brennley, the emotion came all the way through. Your technique was amazing all the way around. I don’t really know what to say. This really is as good as it gets, no matter what age you are.” Gwen said, “I feel like I spend my whole life thinking about you these days — all day long listening to country music, trying to find the right song. That was perfect. I don’t really know what I would do different. The opening was unbelievable. Your dynamics and intuition, to know when to be emotional and loud and not loud, it was just beautiful. I am so happy you are on my team.”
TSoul (Team Blake)
TSoul has been one of my Season 12 favorites (how did it take him seven attempts to finally make it onto this show?) because of his distinct vibrato and fearless style. And he definitely made Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” his own. However, the big, belty song wasn’t quite suited for his range, and he did struggle, most noticeably at the beginning. But, like Stephanie, he did commit. He held nothing back. And his vocal improved as the song went on. I just hope TSoul did enough to make it through to next week, because I think this season would be a lot less interesting without him.
“I felt your soul. You really do put your soul into what you sing. You get really lost in your own world, and that is very captivating and touching. You have a true soul, voice, and heart,” said Shania. “I have never seen anybody that gets lost in their performances like you do. I admire that as a fellow artist, and I love that as a fan. I’m calling on all the TSouldiers out there, vote for this guy. He deserves to be here,” said Blake.
Hunter Plake (Team Gwen)
Hunter is possibly my favorite Voice contestant (Kanye voice) of all time. OF ALL TIME! This week, doing a surprisingly upbeat EDM arrangement — his own arrangement — of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” on a moody neon stage, he was a total rock star and, more important, a total artist. This was his most energetic performance yet, and after weeks of inward-looking, melancholy efforts, this was just the twist he needed to keep viewers interested and keep him atop the iTunes chart. “Thanks for letting me win The Voice,” Gwen joked during rehearsal. But she wasn’t really joking, nor was she being cocky. Hunter actually could — and should — win.
“Hunter, I love the way you have this beautiful, mild, calm personality, but when you dig into the song, it turns into, like, a full blown-out concert just now. Your voice can do anything. You have all this incredible range. I just really believed you. I think you really delivered well,” said Shania. Added proud Gwen: “I think it was so interesting to see you do something like that. We know you as this emotional singer; to be able to actually have the energy of that song, the way you produced that. … He did that. He made that song that song. He made up the melody for the post-chorus. He is such a creative creator, musician, singer, everything.”
(Side note, since I mentioned Kanye West just now: Hunter really needs to do something off 808s & Heartbreak. Just a suggestion — not that Hunter really needs my help, of course.)
Vanessa Ferguson (Team Alicia)
Vanessa confessed that she’d avoided doing Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You” for years because it intimidated her. Well, she conquered her fears and made up for lost time this week. “A Song for You” should be regular part of her repertoire from now on. This was a magnificent end to the evening, with Vanessa, looking like a star in a white pantsuit (#ImWithHer, indeed), delivering an elegant, sophisticated, yet gritty performance. She was intense and connected throughout, and she positively leapt off the screen.
“You are just pure class, inside and out. You just have a sense of style about you. … I think you really know who you are, and that comes out in your voice and your delivery,” said Shania. “Vanessa, you are breaking down these walls that are inside of all of us. You are breaking it down and you are committing to yourself every time, and it comes off so beautifully. All I have to say to America is, if you want magic on this show, you vote for Vanessa,” Alicia asserted.
So now it’s prediction time. My favorite contestants of the night were Hunter, Chris, Vanessa, Lauren, Brennley, and Stephanie, in that order — and I believe America will agree with me, and all those singers will be safe. As for who will land in the bottom three, I think Aliyah, Mark, and Lilli are most at risk. If I’m right, then I’m fully prepared to hashtag #VoiceSaveLilli till my thumbs fall off on Tuesday night’s elimination show. See you then.