So after what has seemed like, oh, 17 weeks of Blinds, Battles, and Knockouts, not to mention at least one “Best of the Blinds” clip show, the final Knockout Rounds of The Voice Season 12 took place Monday night. There weren’t as many shocking eliminations as last week, when the fan-favorite contestants were dropping like formerly frontrunning flies, and, thanks to spoiler-y host Carson Daly (who’s almost as bad as this Kristen Wiig character when it comes to keeping secrets), we already knew that the final Knockout would end in a Steal. But there were still a few twists and turns during Monday’s two-hour episode.
Let’s get to the recap … and then start circulating our conspiracy theories predictions for next week’s long-awaited Live Playoffs!
TEAM BLAKE: Andrea Thomas vs. Lauren Duski
Blake Shelton explained that he’d pitted his two “pop-leaning country artists” against each other, but Andrea and Lauren brought very different sensibilities to the ring. Andrea went with Faith Hill’s “Cry” — a bleating, chest-beating, utterly unsubtle ballad with a climactic dog-whistle-decibel power note (which Andrea obviously hoped would be her Kelly Clarkson-doing-“Natural Woman” showoff moment). I must admit, that note was impressive. Andrea did “the Mariah Carey thing,” as Blake put it. But this performance was all surface and showboating to me; I know I was supposed to feel something, but I didn’t. It felt actress-y and overwrought; as Alicia Keys explained when she critiqued Andrea, “There was a lot of power in your voice, but sometimes it felt you were singing more than you were feeling.” One big money note does not a knockout performance make. (Side note: This was the first Andrea performance shown in full this season; her previous two songs were montaged. Unfortunately, Andrea’s “Cry” performance was not enough to make up for lost screen time.)
Lauren, on the other hand, delivered a much more inward-facing, low-key take on Alison Krauss’s “When You Say Nothing at All” — a gorgeously goosebumpy song choice that displayed her elevated taste level, as they say on Project Runway. While her stage presence was a little too inward at times — she spent much of her plaintive performance staring down at the floor, eyes nearly closed, either because she was focusing intently on the lyrics or because she was just plain nervous — this overall effort felt less like, well, an effort. Everything came naturally to Lauren, and everyone in the studio was at rapt attention; even Andrea, sitting in the corner, was singing along, and Alicia was sitting up straight in her red chair, eyes wide and shining. “I felt that maybe Lauren was feeling even more than she was singing. You felt very genuine and authentic, and I was attracted to that,” Alicia said.
Adam Levine summed it up with: “Andrea, you impress me. And Lauren, you comfort me.” And in this case, the show was built for comfort. Lauren, the girl who sings softly and carries a big microphone, prevailed.
WINNER: Lauren Duski
TEAM ALICIA: Jack Cassidy vs. Vanessa Ferguson
Jack, a worship leader with Partridge Family ties, has been pretty safe and snoozy this season, so for the Knockouts his coach Alicia wanted him to really “let go.” She asked for more “abandon,” more “recklessness.” And it was a case of “be careful what you wish for.” Jack assured Alicia that he could tap into his church-singing background to really take X Ambassadors’ “Unsteady” to church, so to speak, but he ended up pushing things too far, ultimately delivering a downright unsteady performance. I’ll give him credit for trying, but his crazy, pained facial expressions were distracting, and his harsh, whiny tone was unpleasant to the ear. Adam told him, “I did notice a struggle, because you have a really strong voice [normally]. It was a little bit off.”
Vanessa, on the other hand, took similar notes from Alicia but had very different results. One of this season’s most unique talents, Vanessa stepped up her usual laid-back style and gave a sultry, sexy, supremely self-assured performance of Gladys Knight’s “If I Were Your Woman” that was the standout Monday moment. Alicia could not contain her excitement — she was positively beaming, slapping her desk, and whooping it up. And who could blame Alicia? She knew she had a potential winner on her hands with Vanessa, whose performance was both classic and current, edgy but smooth. Even Jack enjoyed this. In fact, Jack looked like he was having way more fun and “letting go” while watching Vanessa, grooving and swaying along on his stool, than when he was performing his own song.
Alicia tried to pretend this was an agonizing decision, but in the end she declared, “Vanessa, there is no way in the world, on Planet Anywhere, that one couldn’t say you didn’t rise to the occasion in every way.” Indeed, Vanessa’s number felt finale-worthy, and even Blake cracked, “Saying that was phenomenal is like saying water is wet. The only thing I would say: You should’ve saved that for the finale, where you could’ve just won the whole thing.”
WINNER: Vanessa Ferguson
TEAM ADAM: Davina Leone vs. Jesse Larson
It was déjà vu all over again! Seriously, this face-off was giving me all sorts of flashbacks to Voice seasons past. First up was YouTube star Davina, doing a dark, semi-acoustic rendition of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” (a song she’s covered for her own channel before). And while Adam praised “Toxic” for “not being a cookie-cutter choice” and Alicia loved Davina’s “innovation,” this sounded a lot like the version by Season 3 Team Adam darling Melanie Martinez (the most successful Voice alumnus of all time). Wow, first Adam forgets Team Adam singer Will Champlin’s Imagine Dragons cover, and now he forgets Melanie’s landmark “Toxic” audition? (And Alex & Sierra’s X Factor audition, too?) I think some of that bleach might be seeping into Adam’s skull.
But anyway, Davina’s “Toxic” remake was an amateurish mess, with flailing arm motions, bundles of nerves, and breath-control issues galore. Plus, it was kind of pitchy, dawg. Davina may have 40,000 YouTube subscribers, and her original “Toxic” cover may have racked up 12,000 views (compare that to Melanie’s 4.6 million subscribers and 17 million views for “Toxic,” just sayin’), but she’s not ready for prime time.
Jesse’s rowdy cover of the Box Tops’ “The Letter” was better (hey, that rhymes!), but again, it was a copycat performance: Ever since Jesse showed up on The Voice, he has reminded me of bluesy Season 10 top four finalist Laith Al-Saadi (also a Team Adam contestant), and “The Letter” was the song Laith did for his audition! Seriously, NBC really needs to pony up some cash and clear some more songs. But anyway, while Jesse/Laith comparisons were inevitable and unavoidable (for me, at least; forgetful blond Adam didn’t say a word), Jesse’s fiery guitar-playing, even more fiery pipes, and overall onstage professionalism easily gave him the edge over Davina.
“Jesse, I’ve never heard you sing like that. What a great time to just burn the house down. Man, you just sang the crap out of that song,” raved Blake. Then Adam likened Jesse’s singing to that of disgraced original coach CeeLo Green. And this wasn’t the first time Adam had made that remark! If Adam wants to endear Jesse to America’s TV-viewing housewives, he may want to lay off that icky comparison. Just a suggestion.
WINNER: Jesse Larson
TEAM ADAM: Malik Davage vs. Mark Isaiah
You may recall that Malik, the emotional new father trying to catch a break and make a better life for his daughter, was one of the standout auditioners of the Blinds. All of America was rooting for the guy. But after he and his Battle Rounds partner, another onetime frontrunner named Kawan DeBose, somehow pissed off both Adam and the usually cool and collected John Legend, Malik seemed to go from hero to zero. (Yes, I just quoted Cool as Ice. So?) This week, he landed in the only montage of the Season 12 Knockout Rounds. And while his opponent Mark received a decent amount of screen time, Malik’s performance was not shown at all. We will never know quite what happened behind the scenes (during the Battles, it appeared that Kawan was more at fault for that performance gone awry), but Malik must have made John Legend or some other powerful person very angry.
Mark’s cover of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” wasn’t too original — he has stuck with predictable teen idol fare (Shawn Mendes, Zayn) all season, so he needs to display more artistry and diversity going forward — but he showcased a nice, warm, rounded tone. And he certainly looked the teen-idol part; this is one contestant that can blow up phones, just like the Biebs’ song says.
Not a note of Malik’s performance of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” made it to air, but I guess he hadn’t burned all of his bridges with Burnett Productions, because NBC did upload the full song to The Voice’s YouTube channel. Honestly, I understand why producers didn’t want to devote two whole minutes of valuable sponsored airtime to this. Michael Jackson’s original recording was so sparkling and vivacious, but Malik’s version was sluggish, in an awkwardly lowered key, and packed with pitch issues. This was just bad MJ karaoke. No one was rocking with Malik. Regardless of what may have happened in the past to affect producers’ editing decisions this week, and regardless of whether such a ruthless edit was warranted, Adam made the right decision in keeping Mark.
WINNER: Mark Isaiah
TEAM GWEN: Brandon Royal vs. JChosen
Virgin Islands native Brandon pulled off a respectful rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” that — like Lauren Duski’s Alison Krauss cover — was not a powerhouse performance, but was tasteful and personal. The simple acoustic arrangement was a risk in this go-for-broke round, but in a night filled with needless shoutiness, I appreciated Brandon’s less-is-more aesthetic.
But then, JChosen did go for broke. Doing Usher & David Guetta’s “Without You” (a very tough song), dedicated to his mother who was recently paralyzed by a stroke, he pulled out all of his vocals tricks: runs, falsettos, the works. I hated the wedding-band arrangement, which sucked all of the EDM out of the track and made it sound like something released to Quiet Storm radio in 1979, but that wasn’t JChosen’s fault, and I couldn’t fault the guy’s vocals.
I would have gone with Brandon, but this was a close one. In the end, Gwen — who for some odd reason felt she could only have one male R&B singer on her team, hence the reason for this competitive pairing — chose JChosen. I guess the man knew what he was doing when he adopted that silly stage name.
TEAM BLAKE: Aliyah Moulden vs. Caroline Sky
Caroline totally wowed me in the Battles, when she came out of nowhere and unexpectedly upstaged the older and wiser Stephanie Rice with her lovely take on “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” That performance earned her a Steal by Blake, but it turns out the second cut is the deepest. Caroline unfortunately didn’t live up to that early promise in this week’s Knockouts.
Aliyah was up first, doing Carrie Underwood’s woman-scorned revenge anthem “Before He Cheats.” The 15-year-old had never identified as a country artist before; “I’m still trying to figure out what genre I am,” she admitted, and that lack of self-awareness has always been an issue with younger, greener contestants. Another statement Aliyah made — “I’ve never had a boyfriend before, but I’ve taken some high school drama classes, so I’m pretty sure I can put myself in Carrie Underwood’s shoes!” — was actually more troubling; a lack of life experience is another common problem with these youngsters. Aliyah sang Carrie’s song, basically, like a 15-year-old drama student, compensating for her performance’s absence of believable bunny-boiling anger with a whole lot of sassy hairography and pointy posturing. She hit a few flat notes, too. Maybe next time she’ll think before she does a song as mature and big as this.
The aforementioned former favorite Caroline, age 16, also struggled with an even more mature song, national treasure Etta James’s perennial inauguration/wedding ballad “At Last.” She started off wobbly and never entirely recovered, and her performance lacked any sense of joy, wonder, triumph, or romance. This too felt like high school theater. Given the sophistication and emotion Caroline showed in the Battles, I thought she might have been able to handle “At Last,” but perhaps it was too much to expect a high school sophomore to convincingly convey what it’s like to wait an entire lifetime for that one true love. Songs like “At Last” are better left to seasoned thirtysomethings like last year’s champ, Sundance Head.
Both girls’ performances missed the mark, and really, I might have been OK with either getting the Malik Davage treatment and being montaged. Blake ultimately picked Aliyah. I would have gone with Caroline, based solely on past performances and pure potential, but I don’t think either girl would last beyond the top 20, anyway.
WINNER: Aliyah Moulden
TEAM GWEN: Stephanie Rice vs. Troy Ramey
As I said earlier, we already knew this final Knockout would culminate in a Steal. But — spoiler alert! — I would have never guessed that Stephanie would be the stolen contestant making the move to Team Alicia.
Stephanie’s previous performance, the above-mentioned “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” had been overly stylized and growly. But doing Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars’ “Safe and Sound” this week, she seemed more grounded, connected, and altogether authentic. I preferred this softer side of Stephanie, and I think she should stay in this lane. A little bit of rock ’n’ roll growl goes a long way, and it seems with this performance she got a better grasp on when to use her growl and when to pull back.
Speaking of rock ’n’ roll growling, Troy did a lot of that during his bluesy, gutsy remake of Sia’s “Chandelier.” He couldn’t exactly replicate those sky-high Sia notes, and he for the most part turned “Chandelier” into a Bruce Hornsby song, but this performance was also compelling in its own pretension-free way. He definitely gave Alicia that “recklessness” she’d craved earlier, so I figured he’d wind up being Alicia’s Steal.
But surprisingly, Gwen saved Troy –– instead of going with Stephanie, the only indie-rock girl left in Season 12. Thankfully, Stephanie ended up safe and sound on Alicia’s team. “Stephanie has a feel about her — you can’t buy it, you can’t learn it, you can’t teach it. And she deserves to be showcased,” Alicia explained.
WINNER: Troy Ramey / STOLEN: Stephanie Rice moves to Team Alicia
So now, we finally have our top 20! Below, I have ranked the contestants — first ordering the teams from the strongest to weakest, and then ranking the contestants from best to worst within each team lineup. Let’s see if these rankings remain steady as the top 20 move on to next week’s Live Playoffs… or if they become a top 24, thanks to the rumored reinstatement of the controversial Coach Comeback. See you then.