The Voice Season 11 Battle Rounds commenced Monday, with all the drama we’ve come to expect after 10-and-counting seasons: dramatic boxing-ring staging straight out of a WWE pay-per-view match, hyperbolic “critiques,” suspenseful Steals… and, on occasion, some genuinely awesome sanging.
We also had some genuinely awesome guest advisors. Adam Levine got multimillion-selling rocker Sammy Hagar. Blake Shelton, clearly a fan of badass, mouthy divas (his Season 5 advisor was the one and only Cher), got Bette Midler. And speaking of badass, Miley Cyrus joined forces with legendary rock goddess Joan Jett.
And Alicia Keys got… Charlie Puth. (Cue the sad trombone.)
No dis against Charlie, of course. His career is off to a very strong start. But he’s not exactly a legend, a la Jett and Bette. Alicia expressed excitement over the prospect of working with “fresh meat” like Charlie, as did her contestants — but I couldn’t help but wonder how cool it might’ve been if she’d teamed up with someone like, say, Aretha Franklin instead.
But in the end, it didn’t matter much; the advisors’ total combined screentime barely amounted to more than the average montaged Voice contestant receives, anyway. So let’s get to the recap, below, of the six Battles of Monday night.
TEAM ALICIA: Christian Cuevas vs. Jason Warrior
Producers wasted no time in pitting two standouts from the Season 11 premiere against each other. What were they thinking? And then they made these poor dudes sing “Hello” by Adele. Again, I ask, what were they thinking? Covering one of the greatest singers of this generation, or any generation, is almost never a good idea on singing competitions. Even Alicia readily admitted that this was “not an easy song to sing,” but added, “At the same time, I know they can handle it.” OK, then.
After getting some sort of generic advice from Charlie Puth (seriously, I can’t even remember what he said), Christian and Jason got in the ring. But Jason seemed like the only singer of the two who could truly handle “Hello.” He for the most part lived up to his surname. A theater kid by trade, he brought the drama; the grand ballad worked for him, and he was convincingly emotive. Christian, conversely, struggled from his first note. His delivery was tentative, and he kept looking down — which didn’t help him connect with the audience, the coaches, or the camera. His performance was the oddest combination of trying too hard and not trying hard enough.
But Alicia saw — or heard — something in Christian that I didn’t. Maybe the vibe was different in the room, compared to what America saw onscreen. “You really accessed a real place. You were brave enough to let us into your world, into your mind, into your heart,” Alicia told Christian. She was kind to Jason, too, calling him “riveting,” but in the end she chose Christian, because “I really believe America is going to fall in love with him.” Hmmm. We shall see. I’m not in love with Christian just yet.
Jason’s potential love affair with America isn’t over, however – because Adam ended up going in for the Steal. As much as I thought Jason had won this Battle, I thought Adam’s poaching move, in the first Battle of the season, was premature. The coaches only get two Steals each, after all. But Adam is nothing if not a hardcore game-player on this show, so we will soon find out what the method is behind his madness.
WINNER: Christian Cuevas
STOLEN: Jason Warrior moves to Team Adam
TEAM ADAM: Natasha Bure vs. Riley Elmore
Well, this certainly was not a faceoff between two frontrunners. Upon finding out that two of this season’s shyest, shakiest, and youngest contestants — swag-free crooner Riley, and Natasha, the nervous, nepotism-denying, one-chair-turning daughter of Full House star Candace Cameron — would sing against each other, I figured this was one Battle I actually wouldn’t mind seeing montaged.
And what on earth could these kiddos learn from Cabo Wabo rawker Sammy Hagar? Riley, at age 15, isn’t even old enough drive, let alone drive 55. (Side note: In a recent Yahoo Music Reality Rocks interview, Sammy confessed that he had trouble connecting with Riley, and he didn’t mention Natasha at all.)
Anyway, Adam assigned this pair “Cry Me a River,” a beloved standard that the show lamely attributed to Blake Shelton’s BFF, Michael Bublé (who covered it in 2009, 50-odd years after it was famously recorded by the likes of Julie London, Shirley Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, et al). But regardless of who recorded it first, or best, it seemed obvious that this song choice was skewed in favor of Sinatra impressionist Riley. Natasha, suddenly declaring herself the world’s biggest Ella fan, tried to show off in rehearsal, doing some Bond-theme shtick, but she sounded shouty and shrill. Shirley Bassey, she is not. Riley at least sounded smooth and relaxed, neither shaken nor stirred — even if he didn’t sound very original and pretty much came across as a baby Bublé.
I have to admit, though, that Riley impressed me in the ring. He seemed to have grown up a bit since the Blind Auditions. Natasha was more manic. She fared a lot better in this Battle than she did in rehearsals, but the exaggerated facial mugging that had distracted so much during her original audition still hadn’t been corrected. I just don’t think this song fit her. She tried, but the fix was in.
“Riley’s singing was right on the money technically, but I feel like Natasha really sold that performance,” said Blake, declaring Natasha the winner. Alicia and Miley, however, thought Riley had aced it. Adam agreed with Alicia and Miley; this was the right decision, if probably a pre-ordained one. Adam is clearly a man with a plan. As for Natasha, no one stole her, but all is not lost: Maybe her mom can get her another guest spot on The View.
WINNER: Riley Elmore
TEAM MILEY: Ali Caldwell vs. Courtnie Ramirez
The show really got going when Joan Jett showed up and started snarling her way through “Bad Reputation” with Miley. Seriously, could we just watch two hours of a Miley/Joan concert, instead of two hours of regular Battles? The few seconds we saw of this awesome musical combo was such a tease. Mark Burnett, kindly open the NBC faults and release that footage!
In the meantime, take a break from this recap and watch Miley and Joan in action, uninterrupted, right here:
Anyway, 35 years separate Miley and Joan in age, which may have been the inspiration behind Ali and Courtnie’s May/December pairing. Sure, Ali may be young, only 28, but at first she seemed much more mature and ready for prime time than bubbly, 17-year-old Courtnie – and more suited to the awesomely leftfield song selection Miley gave them, 1970’s “Hit or Miss” by folk/blues/jazz legend Odetta.
Miley was hoping for the “wildest, most epic Battle in Voice history.” This wasn’t quite that, but it was a great Battle — the first truly competitive Battle of the season, and the first that truly deserved to end in a Steal. Ali and Courtnie turned out to be surprisingly well matched. Ali was sexy and poised, but Courtnie brought the fire, sizzle, and sass — “strutting around like a little rooster,” according to Blake. At times, she reminded me of Season 8’s pint-sized powerhouse, Mia Z.
“Courtnie, if I were you, I would have been shivering in my boots getting up there with Ali — but you came out with just about as much confidence as anyone could ever have. You were amazing. You really stepped up and showed [Miley] that this ain’t gonna be an easy decision,” said Adam.
Miley seemed to have a pretty easy time picking Ali, actually. But Blake and Alicia had an equally easy time deciding to buzz in for a Steal. Courtnie obviously doesn’t enjoy being compared to feathered, male livestock, because she ultimately opted to join Team Alicia. And that’s something to really crow about.
WINNER: Ali Caldwell
STOLEN: Courtnie Ramirez moves to Team Alicia
TEAM BLAKE: Dan Shafer vs. Sundance Head
Veteran jingle singer Dan, one of the oldest contestants in Voice history at age 57, and 38-year-old American Idol veteran Sundanc, seemed like a good match. However, I’d been rooting for dark-horse Dan since his touching first audition, and my heart sank a little when I found out these two would be singing Bad Company’s hard-rock ballad “Feel Like Making Love.” The odds seemed stacked in Sundance’s favor with this song choice, and it was difficult to imagine that anyone would steal sweet, conservative Dan if Sundance prevailed.
Bette, the Divine Miss M herself, gave both men some sage advice – especially when she coached Dan on how to come out of his shell and smize while singing – quickly establishing herself as Season 11’s secret weapon. (I wish Burnett would release some Bette bonus footage, too.) Once Dan and Sundance hit the ring, they both benefited from Bette’s help and gelled extremely well. They almost seemed like a Swon Brotherly duo. Dan shook off his shyness, and he sounded great; the man has taken good care of his voice. However, in the end, this Battle was still Sundance’s show. The grizzled, bluesy country belter was a natural fit for the song, which unfortunately made Dan seem like Sundance’s mere background singer at times.
Blake picked Sundance, unsurprisingly — and sadly, no one stole Dan. Oh well. At the very least, I hope Dan’s short tenure on The Voice helps him get back in the jingle game. Maybe NBC can hire him to record a new version of that “THIS IS THE VOICE!” intro?
WINNER: Sundance Head
TEAM ADAM: Andrew DeMuro vs. Billy Gilman
Former country child star Billy — who struggled professionally in Nashville after his voice changed and he came out as gay, and who’s now reinvented himself as a pop singer – definitely seemed to have the edge over fodder-y Billy Joel fanboy Andrew. I just knew Billy was going to kill it on Michael Jackson’s sweet, sentimental pop ballad “Man in the Mirror.” Adam was already declaring Billy one of the best singers of this season before this Battle’s rehearsal was even over. Later, Adam realized he might have underestimated Andrew – “I felt like Billy had the upper hand, but now I feel like it’s pretty even keel… Andrew has become someone that I can’t ignore” — but this still seemed like Billy’s Battle to lose.
Billy hit the stage looking like a star – well, because he is a star. The guy has sold millions of records, literally. But Billy sounded like a star, too – all grown up, his Peter Brady-style voice-change issues clearly far behind him. Poor Andrew tried, and he did an admirable job. But even though Blake called this a tie, I don’t think Andrew ever had a chance. If Blake had really meant what he said, he would have gone in for the Steal. But he didn’t.
WINNER: Billy Gilman
TEAM ALICIA: Lauren Diaz vs. Wé McDonald
OK, this pairing shocked me. Both girls were much-hyped frontrunners at the start of this season. Lauren, an avowed Alicia fangirl, got the pimp spot on her episode and the opportunity to duet with Alicia herself. Wé actually appeared in the cold open of NBC’s special post-Olympics mini-premiere in August — so her audition has already aired twice in the past month and a half.
There was no way the show was going to let either of these girls go so soon. Seriously, if this didn’t Battle didn’t climax in a big commercial-cliffhanger Steal, I would eat ex-Voice coach Pharrell Williams’s hat. (And then Carson Daly spoiled, before the episode’s final commercial break, that a Steal was for sure coming up. So much for that cliffhanger, then. Why does Carson always do that?)
These dynamite girls definitely came to battle on “Maybe,” a soul-workout Chantels classic once covered by the dynamite Janis Joplin. No “maybes” about it – they both slayed. Lauren was a poised performer who looked like a perfect pop star, and she gave it all she had. Wé’s big, booming, beast-on-the-mic vocals, however, were more distinctive. I know one day if I ever hear Wé on the radio (OK, I know we never hear Voice contestants on the radio, sadly — but humor me), I would recognize her immediately.
“I feel for Alicia. This one’s gonna hurt her, I think,” said Blake. Alicia didn’t struggle or hurt too much, actually – she easily chose Wé, which probably bruised her number-one fan Lauren’s ego a bit. But Lauren hardly had any time to process Alicia’s rejection before Miley and Adam both tried to steal her. Lauren eventually signed up with Team Miley. And so, Lauren’s party in the USA rages on, for now.
WINNER: Wé McDonald
STOLEN: Lauren Diaz moves to Team Miley
Come back Tuesday, when the Battles continue apace, and we hopefully see more Miley Cyrus/Joan Jett jam session B-roll.