The Voice Season 12 Knockout Rounds commenced Monday, and the show wasted no time in knocking a couple of former frontrunners right out of the competition. Gwen Stefani’s fellow “garage band kid,” charismatic longhair Johnny Gates, and powerhouse Felicia Temple (aka “Felicia Keys”) were among the evening’s most shocking eliminations. And then two other favorites, Quizz “Youngest Contestant Ever” Swanigan and singing waitress Lilli Passero, almost got the boot as well, only to be stolen at the last minute.
Let’s get to the recap!
TEAM ALICIA: Chris Blue vs. Quizz Swanigan
This was an interesting and odd pairing: the boy-wonder darling of the season, 13-year-old Quizz, up against a grown-a** man literally twice his age. During the Battle Rounds, Chris had completely slayed Miguel’s “Adorn,” delivering one of Season 12’s most spectacular performances so far. Meanwhile, the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Quizz, though incredibly talented for his age, struggled during the Battles with a mid-puberty voice change indicating that he probably needs more time to mature. If only he could come back and try out for Season 17.
Anyway, first up was Chris, with Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” — a totally overdone song that honestly should’ve been blacklisted from all televised singing competitions back in American Idol Season 3. But Chris made “Superstition” sound as fresh and hot as a just-dropped Miguel single. The growling! The vamping! The dancing! The crouching that even consummate entertainer Gwen could not pull off! (Gwen tried, bless her.) This was incredible. To quote another famous TV talent show, Chris Blue had the X factor.
Next up was Quizz, doing his darnedest to pull off Nick Jonas’s “Chains.” Hmmm. This was a strange choice for such a young, clean-cut boy. “Chains” is a sexy song, after all, usually performed by himbo Nick — who definitely is not 13 anymore — in some state of undress. So this performance could have taken a weird and icky turn. It didn’t — Quizz kept things G-rated and Radio Disney-esque, of course, though he did display some swag when he dropped to his knees and performed a half-rap at the end. I commend the kid for trying. But he was trying too hard. The performed felt labored. Conversely, Chris made everything look effortless.
Agonizing over her decision, Alicia Keys said, “Quizz, you are very special. I’m terrified of what you’re going to become. You’re the youngest person that’s ever been on this show [italics mine], and there’s obviously a reason why. … On the other hand, Chris, I couldn’t believe there was somebody like you left back there to witness. You turned into a wild, crazy animal! I’ve never seen anything like it. It is so good to be that unleashed and unabashed and unafraid.”
Alicia eventually picked Chris, but then Gwen, who’s been collecting kiddie contestants like mini-Harajuku Lovers perfume bottles all season, used her one Steal on Quizz. Oh, of course she did. Of course the show’s powers-that-be weren’t going to let Quizz go before the Live Playoffs. Come on, he is THE YOUNGEST SINGER IN VOICE HISTORY! Surely you’ve heard Carson Daly mention that a few (or a few dozen) times.
WINNER: Chris Blue / STOLEN: Quizz Swanigan moves to Team Gwen
TEAM ADAM: Autumn Turner vs. Hanna Eyre
To be honest, I never got too excited about either of these singers. Autumn did a dated Donna Summer cover in the Blinds and was totally upstaged by the sassy Vanessa Ferguson in the Battles. I barely recall Hanna’s Blind Audition at all, and her Battle Round performance was montaged, which is rarely a good sign. This week, I had my doubts that Autumn could pull off a song by the mighty Aretha Franklin, or that sweet, gentle high-schooler Hanna could take on Leona Lewis’s massive power ballad “Bleeding Love.” My expectations were low, to say the least. And ultimately, they were not surpassed.
First Autumn barreled out demanding respect with “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.,” a song Blake Shelton later warned her was usually “untouchable.” Her performance had that same old-fashioned dinner-theater vibe as her first “Last Dance” audition. You know, Autumn is a young girl with a cool, edgy image and oodles of confidence. Why does she keep singing these tired karaoke classics?
Well, at least Autumn had confidence going for her. Hanna looked utterly terrified onstage, and “Bleeding Love” was way too big a song for this little girl. Her performance didn’t have any of Leona’s passion, sultriness, or vulnerability — how could it, really? — and it all came across as very community-theater.
So, what would prevail: dinner theater or community theater? Interestingly, Adam Levine picked Hanna. While neither contestant wowed me, and I doubt either could go very far in the Playoffs, I do think Autumn did a better job on Monday. I can only speculate that Adam harbored less loyalty to her because she was a Battle Rounds Steal, and had therefore been on Adam’s team for, like, a day. Damn, where’s the R.E.S.P.E.C.T., Adam?
WINNER: Hanna Eyre
TEAM GWEN: Hunter Plake vs. Johnny Gates
Shy indie-boy Hunter and rowdy rocker-boy Johnny have been two of my favorites of the season, so I was not happy about this pairing. Gwen’s “strategy” here made little sense. Did she not realize that women vote for The Voice and that Hunter and Johnny were both total cougar bait? Or did she not realize that music fans vote for The Voice, and that Hunter and Johnny were two of her best contestants? My mind’s still boggling over this one.
Up first was Hunter — who became my overall Season 12 favorite after his exquisite “Dancing on My Own” performance last week — transforming Foreigner’s once-cheesy power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is” into a raw indie piano anthem. This was beautiful. I loved the liberties Hunter took with the arrangement, boldly switching up the timing and, as Gwen put it, “modernizing it in a good way.” Yes, somehow he made a Foreigner weeper sound like Bastille fronted by James Blake, and that was a very, very good thing.
Hunter was a tough act to follow, but I think that Johnny, one of Season 12’s most likable and dynamic performers, could’ve had a shot if he’d just stuck to what he does best. Instead, he chose to go guitar-less and cover Lady Gaga’s “Million Reasons.” There was nothing particularly bad about this performance, but it was underwhelming, lacking the fire and sex appeal of Johnny’s previous efforts. He wasn’t exactly giving Gwen a million reasons for him to quit the show, but this wasn’t a good reason for him to stay, either.
Gwen tried to praise Johnny’s risky move, saying he was “in this commercial kind of place; it’s so different from everything you’ve done so far, and you’re handling it so well!” But she could not deny Hunter’s ethereal, delicate magic: “It’s unbelievable that you took a song that’s actually on my make-out playlist — to do what you did to it, it was so good.” (Side note: Gwen and Blake make out to Foreigner??? Really?)
Gwen wisely picked Hunter, saying, “Johnny’s got a great singing voice, but with Hunter, that creativity is hard to ignore. He just deserved to win that Knockout.” I agreed 100 percent with this verdict but felt Johnny deserved another chance. And I was utterly shocked that Adam didn’t steal him. Oh, well, I will dearly miss that dude’s raspy Rod the Mod vocals, perfect hair, and mile-wide smile.
TEAM BLAKE: Casi Joy vs. Felicia Temple
In the most mismatched and random Knockout pair-up of the night, we had country spitfire Casi doing a feisty and spirited rendition of Maren Morris’s “My Church” and diva Felicia sedately, snoozily crooning Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” (“What in the world made him pair the two of them together?” an incredulous Alicia asked Blake. Good question, Alicia.)
Casi was wildly entertaining doing a vivacious, Opry-worthy “My Church,” wowing with her big personality, big hair, and big pipes. Blake looked absolutely delighted. Felicia probably knew she didn’t stand a chance — she was a Steal in the Battle Rounds, and Blake’s fondness for the soulful, sassy Casi had already been evident all season. So maybe she thought picking the Celine classic was a go-for-broke, swing-for-the-fences strategy that could work for her. She was wrong.
Felicia’s performance felt so much more conservative, predictable, and staid than Casi’s; the energy in the room instantly dropped as she emerged in her pageant updo and mother-of-the-bride pantsuit. She nailed the power notes, as admittedly not an easy feat, but she did nothing special, creative, or new with the song. Maybe Celine Dion should have stuck around another week to mentor her.
Of course Blake picked Casi (“She has a youthful energy about her performances; I’m already thinking of the kind of music she needs to do moving forward,” he said excitedly), but I thought there might be a fun twist with Felicia’s original coach, Alicia, stealing Felicia back. That did not happen. Well, at least things still ended on an upbeat note for Felicia, when she announced that she is officially cancer-free.
WINNER: Casi Joy
TEAM ADAM: Johnny Hayes vs. Josh West
Wow, the rocker dudes were just dropping like flies this week, huh? Maybe the show’s producers were afraid that viewers would confuse Johnny and Johnny and Josh. I’m just confused why two of those three guys are already out of the running.
Johnny’s rollicking performance of the Allman Brothers’ “Statesboro Blues” was a fun, vigorous blues-rock romp. Johnny revealed that he’s performed this song with his band back home, and he definitely seemed comfortable with it, instantly settling into the tune’s skronky groove and working the stage like a total pro. This was his best performance yet.
Meanwhile, Josh’s “Carry on Wayward Son” (“the first real rock song that I get to do,” he said, puzzlingly) was total amateur-hour, high school battle-of-the-bands fodder. I’d loved his cover of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” in the Blinds and appreciated his proclaimed fondness for Soundgarden, so I don’t understand why he didn’t just stick with the ‘90s this week. Kansas’s indulgent ‘70s song sounded way too high for him; the truncated arrangement felt rushed and didn’t work (trying to fit a nearly six-minute prog song into 90 seconds is never a good idea); and his hair-flipping histrionics were a bit too Rock of Ages. Johnny’s performance had more ease and authenticity.
However, Adam was more impressed by Josh. “That’s got to be one of the hardest songs any male vocalist could ever attempt to sing; I don’t even know how you just did that and all in full voice, no falsetto,” he marveled. I was cool with Josh staying in the competition, based on his past track record, but Johnny deserved a Steal. Now Johnny is really singing the blues.
WINNER: Josh West
TEAM ALICIA: Ashley Levin vs. Lilli Passero
Ashley and Lilli are not only two of Season 12’s strongest female singers, but are also totally different, so this was another pairing that made zero sense. But I kind of knew that this Knockout was going to end in a Steal. Yeah, I’m psychic that way. Just call me Miss Cleo!
Ashley’s Bobbi Gentry-inspired rendition of Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” wasn’t nearly as fantastic as her version of Reba’s “How Blue” with Casi Joy in the Battles. She seemed to struggle with how to work the stage, remaining rigid behind the mic stand for most of the performance, not showing much emotion on her face, and flopping her left arm up and down in an awkward and stilted attempt to add lyrical emphasis. Her voice sounded sublime, but she didn’t seem like a star.
“Tears Dry on Their Own” by soul revivalist Amy Winehouse was a perfect choice for Lilli, who impressed earlier in the season with theatrical performances of ’60s songs by Carla Thomas and Brenda Holloway. The polished and pretty Lilli didn’t have Amy’s edge or raw energy, but she nailed the Spectorian girl-group vibe and did “what she is born to do,” according to Blake. Even country boy Blake preferred this performance over Ashley’s.
So here was another shocker: Alicia picked … Ashley! I am beginning to think she’s a very fair-weather coach. Not too long ago, she was dueting on “No One” at Felicia Temple’s audition — only to dump Felicia in the Battles. And also during the Blind Auditions, Alicia had earnestly serenaded Lilli, begging her to join Team Alicia. Alicia is beginning to flip-flop almost as much as Adam, who you might remember telling Kawan DeBose he’d be “the No. 1 priority on Team Adam,” only to cut Kawan a couple weeks later.
But I digress. Speaking of Adam, both he and Blake tried to steal Lilli, just as I’d predicted. “I can’t believe this actually happened, because the last time I saw you sing, I was like, ‘This girl can win.’ I believe that you have what it takes, and I want you on my team,” Adam pleaded. Blake pointed out that Adam didn’t even push his button for Lilli in the Blinds, but Lilli went with Adam anyway. Blake’s tears will surely dry on their own, or maybe with his sympathetic girlfriend Gwen’s help.
WINNER: Ashley Levin / STOLEN: Lilli Passero moves to Team Adam
Come back Tuesday, when the Knockouts continue apace — and Blake and Alicia possibly use up their remaining Steals. See you then!