When The Voice implemented the Steal — a gimmick rule allowing coaches to give an eliminated contestant a second chance — back in Season 3, the Battle Rounds got a whole lot more dramatic. But three-way Steals have always been uncommon; Amanda Brown, Meghan Linsey, and Malik Heard are the only singers to hold that honor. Now we can add Ashley Levin to that esteemed list. While she lost her climactic, episode-ending Battle against Team Blake’s Casi Joy on Monday’s Season 12 Battle Rounds premiere, she ended up having her pick of alternate coaches, when Alicia Keys, Adam Levine, and Gwen Stefani all hit their red buttons to save her.
It’s understandable why Blake Shelton’s fellow panelists were so impressed by this Battle royale. It really could have gone either way. From the instant Ashley and Casi’s harmonies blended during the exquisite a cappella opening of Reba McEntire’s “How Blue,” it was obvious that this would be one of the best, and most evenly matched, Battles in Voice history. Casi may have upstaged the more subdued Ashley with her vivacious stage presence and bold hairography — and, according to Gwen, Casi was more “professional” and “seasoned” — but Ashley’s voice was undeniably glorious. This duet made me feel like I was already watching the 2017 Academy of Country Music Awards, even though the ACMs won’t air on rival network CBS until April 2.
“You’re both big-time singers here. I don’t know how you wound up in the same pairing. That probably has something to do with dum-dum,” Adam quipped, gesturing in Blake’s direction. But Blake couldn’t even argue with Adam this time, readily admitting that this match-up had been a mistake. “I told you girls from the second I heard you singing together, I wish I hadn’t put you together. … I hope that everybody stays on the show, ’cause it’s undeniable how badly the other coaches want to beat me with a country artist,” Blake said.
Well, Blake got his wish. He kept sassy Casi (“She just has this electric energy when she’s onstage”), Alicia stole Ashley, and a relieved Blake excitedly high-fived Ashley. And Alicia might get her wish, too, because it is possible that she could beat Blake with Ashley on her team.
Below, I recap the rest of the night’s Battles, which were assisted by guest mentors Luke Bryan (for Team Blake), DJ Khaled (Team Alicia), John Legend (Team Adam), and Celine Dion (Team Gwen). None of Monday’s other singers were three-way-Steal-worthy, but Celine actually stole my heart, because every second of her screen time was trés awesome.
TEAM BLAKE: Brennley Brown vs. Lauren Duski
The night began just as it eventually ended, with a showdown between two Team Blake country-crooning ladies. Like Casi and Ashley, these contestants were both standouts during the Blind Auditions (they’re Danielle Bradbery 2.0 and Alisan Porter 2.0, basically), but Blake obviously has quite a few “pop-country girls” this season, so he explained, “I’m excited about both of them, but I need their lane to be clear for whichever one I choose.” (Apparently he forgot all about Season 4, when he had a team packed with country contenders and did just fine, but I guess his strategy has changed since then.)
Anyway, at age 25, Lauren had a full decade of additional, valuable life experience to draw from — when warbling Little Big Town’s bittersweet breakup ballad “Better Man” — than sweet teen Brennley, who admitted that she’s never even had a boyfriend before. Brennley seemed to overcompensate for her lack of real-life emotional connection with some off-putting showboating and scenery-chewing. Adam diplomatically described this as “frantic emotional energy,” but I preferred Lauren’s subtler, more mature, more authentic approach. And so did Alicia, who praised Lauren’s “honey, raspy, strong, beautiful thing.” However, Gwen, who’s been unabashedly girl-crushing on youngster contestants all season, sided with Brennley, saying, “There something about your innocence that I would want to work with.”
Maybe Blake and his girlfriend were in cahoots all along, because he chose Lauren, which cleared the way for Gwen to make good on her promise and steal Brennley. But then Blake’s onetime bromance partner, Adam, thwarted that plan by going in for the Steal as well — and even trying to one-up Gwen by serenading Brennley, who’d just turned 15, with an impromptu Carson Daly duet of “Happy Birthday.” (“Adam is evil,” Blake snickered.)
Brennley was filled with frantic emotional energy, indeed, trying to make her decision. But eventually, after a cliffhanging commercial break, she joined Team Gwen. Hopefully Gwen, who started at a young age herself and certainly knows her way around a good breakup song, can help Brennley calm down and grow up a bit.
WINNER: Lauren Duski / STOLEN: Brennley Brown moves to Team Gwen
TEAM GWEN: JChosen vs. Kenny P
It was a Battle of the initials! J vs. P! But I thought this pairing was more OK than OMG. JChosen was a bit nervous in the rehearsal room, but he had more charisma and better rapport with the immensely likable Celine — who, as I mentioned earlier, completely stole the show from everyone. (“Look at how much joy that this woman brings into the room,” marveled Gwen.) Kenny, on the other hand, had confidence and that curly Pringles mustache. Still, neither, really wowed me with their karaoke duet of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her.” Gwen chose JChosen, which made sense. But I would have chosen to just watch some outtakes of Celine joking around in French and modeling her stylishly baggy jumpsuit, if that had been an option. That would be some must-see TV.
TEAM ALICIA: Anatalia Villaranda vs. Missy Robertson
At 34, Missy is literally, exactly twice Anatalia’s age. But I thought that — unlike the aforementioned situation with green teen Brennley — Anatalia’s youthful, crazy energy and massive personality would serve her well in this particular Battle. The song Alicia gave them, Janelle Monae’s frenetic, breathless, polysyllabic “Tightrope,” just seemed more suited for Anatalia. And I was right. Missy did an admirable job keeping up with her whirling dervish of a duet partner (I probably would have hyperventilated and passed out before I even made it to the chorus), but Anatalia definitely dominated the entire performance.
“That was like a whole two-hour concert packed into two minutes,” quipped Adam. “Anatalia, I’m not convinced that you’re not a wind-up toy. I feel like you’re the fastest person in the world. … What I hope doesn’t get lost on you guys is how good Missy is, because this is The Voice, and Missy, you have a tremendous voice.”
Well, it did get lost, of course. It was hard to remember Missy was even onstage, Anatalia pulled so much focus. So Missy was swiftly and unsurprisingly eliminated, as Alicia went with the girl she dubbed “the female Bruno Mars.” While I do think Anatalia’s boisterous, over-the-top style could grate on viewers’ nerves over time, she is quite a little dynamo of a performer — so for now, I think Alicia made the right decision.
WINNER: Anatalia Villaranda
TEAM ADAM: Gaby Borromeo vs. Mark Isaiah
Gaby used to work with Adam’s team advisor, John Legend, back in her production-deal days, so a big lovey-dovey reunion ensued when she walked into the rehearsal room and saw her old boss standing there. (“What a small world!” exclaimed Adam, proving he’s a much better singer than actor. Yeah, right. No one will ever convince me this was some wacky, random coincidence.)
This setup didn’t seem fair to Mark at first — but it turned out I needn’t have worried that Gaby would have an unfair advantage. If anything, the song assignment for this Battle, Zayn’s “Pillowtalk,” absolutely favored the teen-idol-esque Mark, who you might remember got his start winning a Justin Bieber-sponsored talent contest. While Mark didn’t exhibit a huge amount of sexy onstage chemistry with Gaby, the tune was definitely in his wheelhouse, and the performance came effortlessly to him. Meanwhile, Gaby’s desperation was showing, as she oversang the slinky bedroom ballad.
“Mark, it feels like that was probably something that you were very comfortable singing, or at least you made it seem that way. … You really had a grasp on the syncopation of that song, and it just felt like you were really feeling what you were singing,” said Blake. Gwen preferred Mark as well. And so did Adam. So now, technically, Gaby has been rejected by John Legend-associated projects twice. Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.
WINNER: Mark Isaiah
TEAM ALICIA: Felicia Temple vs. Quizz Swanigan
This had to be the most surprising Battle pairing of the evening, even more so than Casi vs. Ashley. Felicia (the cancer survivor nicknamed “Felicia Keys” who dueted with Alicia on the Blind Auditions stage) and 13-year-old Quizz were two much-hyped early frontrunners of Season 12. Why sacrifice either of them? Alicia tried to explain — “I paired Quizz and Felicia because they both have very soulful voices, but they’re so different from each other that they have the space to be themselves” — but her explanation made little sense.
The song selection here, “Titanium,” definitely favored Felicia, or so it seemed: The 28-year-old used to sing the anthemic Sia song when she was sick, so she had a deep emotional connection to the material. Meanwhile, Quizz — a Michael Jackson impersonator who’d first auditioned with a Jackson 5 song — sounded like he was auditioning to be in the Brady 6, because his mid-puberty voice change was reminiscent of Peter Brady’s croaking on “Time to Change.” (This is another reason why lowering the age limit on The Voice this season might not have been the best idea. A 13-year-old’s voice could change before the season is even over!)
Anyway, Quizz handled the big, passionate song pretty well once he got in the ring, even though he was totally mismatched with the older, stronger, wiser Felicia. It was impossible for these two to conjure up any convincing chemistry, but they soldiered through the performance as best they could. In the end, it would just come down to what Alicia’s (or the producers’) agenda was. Did she want a super-young protégé she could mold and shape, or a contemporary that she could connect with on a more equal level?
Alicia’s fellow coaches leaned toward the more experienced candidate. “Felicia, the only thing that you don’t have going for you is that you’re not 13 years old because you guys are just super-duper different,” said Adam. “Quizz, as long as you’re on this show, you’re going to be constantly reminded that you’re 13 years old. … but Felicia has been 13 before, too, and I can’t say enough about Felicia’s voice. You can just hear the warmth and that rounder tone that she has. It’s just a more developed voice,” stressed Blake.
However, Alicia went with Quizz, who “took direction really well” and, let’s face it, might draw younger viewers to The Voice. I’m sure producers didn’t want the “YOUNGEST CONTESTANT IN VOICE HISTORY!!!” to leave the show this soon. But thankfully, Blake did steal Felicia. He may end up with a new frontrunner — and Alicia may eventually regret her decision.
WINNER: Quizz Swanigan / STOLEN: Felicia Temple moves to Team Blake
Come back Tuesday, when the Battle Rounds continue apace. Contestants will be stolen, hearts will be broken, and TV drama will undoubtedly ensue. See you then!