This week during the Live Playoffs, The Voice reinstated the Coach Comeback — a gimmick twist, not unlike American Idol’s old Wild Card round, giving previously, prematurely eliminated singers another chance. It was all very exciting … and all very anticlimactic, since in the end it made absolutely no difference. None of this season’s four Coach Comeback hopefuls — Felicia Temple and Jack Cassidy for Teams Blake and Alicia on Monday night, and then on Tuesday’s Team Gwen/Team Adam showdown, two actually promising picks, seasoned rockers Johnny Gates and Johnny Hayes — made it through to the top 12.
And speaking of being seasoned, there’s something else worth mentioning: Despite producers’ verging-on-desperate attempts to skew the program younger — the lowered age limit, Gwen Stefani’s bizarre fetishizing of cute teen contestants, Carson Daly’s constant reminders that 13-year-old Quizz Swanigan is the show’s YOUNGEST CONTESTANT OF ALL TIME!!! — none of that mattered much in the end, either. Of the 12 singers now moving on to the semifinals, only three of them are teenagers … and one of those three didn’t even make it through via America’s vote. So it seems the audience that sent 37-year-old Sundance Head to the winner’s circle last season (or Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul, Josh Kaufman, Craig Wayne Boyd, and Alisan Porter in earlier seasons) is still the audience dominating the vote this year.
All that being said, now that the top 12 have been revealed, I must say this is a very strong group — with at least eight excellent contenders who have me totally excited for the continuing playoffs, three or four who deserve to win and one who I think is literally one of the greatest Voice contestants of all time. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s recap Tuesday’s show, then reassess.
When charismatic heartthrob Johnny got the boot during the Knockout Rounds, I was shocked. How could Gwen let her fellow “garage band kid” with the Pepsodent-commercial smile and Pantene-commercial hair go home so soon? So I was happy to see him return this week, and I thought when he ripped a page from the classic WGWG playbook by flipping a female pop hit and turning it into “a dirty badass rock song,” he’d be staying on the show for a while. His clever cover of Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself” gave me a Taylor Hanson fronting Kings of Leon vibe, all big soaring choruses and peppy smiling verses, and Gwen seemed confident that she’d made the right decision in bringing him back.
“I just think that you’re a great singer. You’re a great performer. You’re adorable,” Gwen gushed. “But besides that, you have such an incredible spirit and attitude. There’s just something that I’m just attracted to. I think you’re a great frontman and so creative with songs.”
But, since I’ve already pulled a Carson Daly and spoiled the results, you all know that Gwen sent Johnny home, again, at the end of the night. Maybe she was just worried that her “adorable” and “attracted” talk would make Blake Shelton jealous? Maybe Johnny’s fans took the title “Hands to Myself” too literally and didn’t pick up their phones to Twitter-vote for him? I do not know. I was genuinely baffled by this outcome.
Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” provided memorable breakthrough moments for Season 5’s James Wolpert and Season 9’s Madi Davis, and it was a smart choice for grizzled Troy as well. The world-weary, workmanlike singer-songwriter, one of this season’s sleeper contestants, gave the Joni classic a sort of Jackson Browne/“The Load-Out” vibe, and while Adam Levine thought Troy seemed nervous at first, Gwen disagreed (as did I).
“I felt like you conquered the melody in the beginning and you did your own thing, but it was like there was so much confidence,” said Gwen. “I saw you in a way I never saw you before, like I can see you at your own show, and it was really, really good, really tasteful. I think you’re incredible.”
I still can’t imagine Troy winning this show, but he could be the dark horse that slips into the top four, a la Season 8’s Joshua Davis.
Newsflash: Quizz is 14 now, not 13. But he’s still THE YOUNGEST CONTESTANT OF ALL TIME! I’ve been critical of Quizz all season, arguing that he should have waited a few years — after finding his own voice (he fronts a Jackson 5 tribute band) and getting past his pubescent voice change — to try out for the show. However, I think he fared pretty well this week. Sticking with the vintage Motown era by performing the Temptations’ “My Girl” in a snazzy suit, his act was very retro (he’d be a perfect casting in some Broadway jukebox musical), but he seemed comfortable and had some swag. He even gave me a few Tevin Campbell flashbacks.
Gwen seemed pleased, saying, “That was incredible. I cannot believe that you can do that. It’s the character that you brought out today — so different from anything else you’ve done so far. You’re magical.”
Gwen has been so excited this season to have a cute young female contestant that she can gussy up like some American Girl doll. (“All I wanted was a little girl that I could hang out with!”) So this week, Gwen dressed Brennley in a Kendall Jenner-at-Coachella costume (either that, or she stole the outfit Lana Del Rey is wearing on the Lust for Life album cover) — crotchet hippie-bride dress, flower crown, center-parted Jan Brady hair, etc. I found this distracted from Brennley’s wonderful and otherwise gimmick-free performance of Maddie & Tae’s “Fly,” though I suppose I should just be relieved that Gwen hasn’t bleached Brennley’s hair platinum yet.
But, back to the performance. Fifteen-year-old Brennley sounded lovely here — not lovely “for a 15-year-old,” but just plain lovely — flitting from the breathy, delicate verse to the big sustained notes in the chorus with ease and grace. This was a very mature performance, and everyone, including Brennley’s ex-coach Blake, was impressed.
“You know, I’ve been doing this show a long time, 12 seasons, and I’m man enough to sit here and say when I’ve made a mistake. And I think letting you go was a mistake,” Blake confessed. Gwen beamed as she added, “You were beautiful tonight. You have so much style, so much personality, and I know everyone’s going to vote for you. Amazing.”
Covering “Nothing Compares 2 U” would be a bold and risky move at any time of year. It’s an incredibly difficult song to sing. But this week marks the anniversary of Prince’s death, so JChosen really had to nail it; anything less than a flawless performance would seem almost blasphemous.
Well, he tried, but I don’t think JChosen would have chosen (no pun intended) this song for himself. He didn’t seem confident that he could pull it off, and though his performance was not a disaster, it was pitchy and unsteady. He soldiered through it as best he could, even striking a couple Jesus/Bono/Scott Stapp poses for dramatic effect, but I bet this would have been a wiser song choice for the other two R&B male artists still left in the competition, TSoul or Chris Blue — classic showmen who know their way around over-the-top soul ballads.
“Wow. I just know that that was superchallenging, emotionally, to sing that song. I know you felt like it was such a tall order — and it was,” Gwen admitted, though she stopped short of saying JChosen had failed or that she’d been wrong to pick this song for him. Instead, she insisted, “You are just so magical and so gifted. You tap into that place in your heart. Everyone sees that. I think you did an incredible job. I’m so grateful to get to know you. I’m so inspired by you. You are just such a sparkly guy.”
Hunter is the first Voice contestant to ever make the iTunes top 30 twice before the Live Playoffs, and with good reason: He’s @#^)%$ amazing. It’s amazing enough that he looks like a lost member of super-cool indie band the Drums, but beyond that, every single one of Hunter’s performances is so spellbinding and special. His voice is angelic and airy, and his emotional connection is so deep and intense that he gives my goose bumps every time he sings. I’ve never heard anyone like him on any singing competition. He may actually be too good for this show.
Anyway, Hunter leaves his unmistakable, ethereal indie-boy signature on every song, and this week, doing Sia’s “Elastic Heart,” he turned the big, belty ballad inward, making it sadder and sweeter. I suspect this will be his highest iTunes charter yet. And I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Adam was so impressed, he raved about Hunter more than he did about any of his own contestants (awkward!), gushing, “You’re so crazy-good. I don’t know if we’ve ever had anyone like you … You’re someone who I think truly reflects what’s happening right now in music, in the culture … This show is just a mere steppingstone for you. I don’t know how successful you’ll be on it. Maybe you’ll win. I believe that can definitely happen. But this is just the beginning for you.” Gwen called Hunter “unbelievable” and “the star on my team right now.” I agreed with both assessments: Hunter is a winner, and he is a budding star.
So then it was time for America — the East Coast of America, at least — to vote. My top picks were Hunter, Johnny, and Brennley. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Thankfully, viewers voted through Hunter and Brennley, but surprisingly, the nation’s cougars didn’t vote for dreamy Johnny. I then thought Gwen would save the Comeback kid, but no — in a bit of a shocker, she went with Troy instead, explaining that she wanted to reward the contestant making the most “progress.”
This other rocker Johnny was also a worthy Comeback pick. This was technically Johnny H.’s third chance on the show, since he was a rejected auditioner in Season 11, so maybe that’s why he connected so readily to a song like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” The guy was going for broke, because he had nothing left to lose. He gave it all he had, doing a sort of Nathaniel Rateliff/Chris Robison shtick as he peacock-strutted all over the stage and eventually dropped to his knees, practically begging America to save him. He looked like he was having a helluva lot of fun. I sure had fun watching his dynamite performance.
“This dude has been through more ups and downs on this show, probably more than any contestant out here. You came out here as if nothing ever happened in the negative. To be able to do that at this point is exactly what you want. You’re amazing, bro,” said Adam … shortly before shipping Johnny home again. D’oh!
Let’s face it: Hanna, while talented and likable, was clearly fodder from the start. It’s not like she was ever a dark horse; she was an invisible horse. I can barely even remember any of her past performances. Anyway, Hanna struggled to sing Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” in a weird Patti Simcox bobbysoxer costume, and while she did have some nice vocal moments, such moments were unfortunately few and far between. Adam then spent most of his “critique” emphasizing how Hanna is “the sweetest human being,” which was a sign that he was letting her down gently.
Josh started off so promisingly this season, expressing his love for ’90s alt-rock, competently covering Duran Duran, and rocking a beautiful head of hair that made Johnny Gates look like Jermaine Paul. But it was all downhill from there. His Battle was montaged; his Knockout performance of “Carry On, Wayward Son” was a shrieky mess; and this week, when he did Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” (“one of the hardest, scariest songs ever for a male to sing,” according to Adam), he was nowhere near a Terry McDermott level. (More like less than a feeling, amirite?)
The song was about 10 octaves out of Josh’s admittedly limited range, and in his desperate attempt to nail the song’s fist-pumping, anthemic vibe, he just ended up yelling the entire thing. Soon I was also yelling — at my TV, in anger, as Josh ruined one of the most beloved rock songs of the entire 1970s. (I’ll never understand why Josh didn’t sing more ’90s material on The Voice. Did Soundgarden refuse to clear “Spoonman” or something?)
Adam didn’t seem very enthused, never praising Josh’s actual performance and just muttering airtime-filling nonsense like “Dude, you’re 18!” and “You’re a badass and you’re so good for the show because you kick ass!” I see my Josh walking away, indeed.
Mark is the most contemporary pop contestant on the show this year, but Jon Bellion’s tricky and repetitive “All Time Low” wasn’t the best choice to demonstrate how Mark would sound on pop radio. He struggled with that “lowlowlowlowlowlow” chorus, which of course did nothing to showcase his range.
Adam seemed to realize he’d messed up by giving Mark this song, because he implored, “I’ll ask everybody at home who is voting, give me more time with this guy. Because if you give me more time with this guy, I am going to make this kid just the best version of himself. So please vote for him, because I will do good.”
“All Time Low” may have been a terrible song choice, but Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” was a perfect fit for Lilli’s retro/pop-soul/girl-group leanings, so at least Adam got something right. Lilli delivered a classic and classy performance, with gorgeous phrasing and pacing and a warm, honeyed tone, and she elegantly and easily made many other Season 12 contestants look like rank amateurs. Adam called her a “world-class singer,” and this performance was a definitely a master class.
Like his Season 10 doppelgänger, Laith Al-Saadi, Jesse considers himself “a guitar player first.” But he’s actually a great vocalist. This week, doing Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” he pulled back a bit on the bluesy guitar showboating and delivered a lively, playful version with some fun, jazzy scatting and ad-libbing. There were moments that were a bit corny and shticky for my taste, and I think Adam was exaggerating, as he is wont to do, when he described this as “by far the best vocal of the night.” I also don’t think dubbing Jesse “the white CeeLo” was the smartest PR move on Adam’s part. But it was probably smart for Jesse to show America a more lighthearted side of his personality at this point.
So my picks for this round were Johnny, Lilli, and Jesse. And you can probably notice a pattern here, because two of those singers, Lilli and Jesse, got voted through, while yet another Johnny fell by the wayside. Adam instead saved Mark, wanting to make good on his promise — which had apparently fallen on viewers’ deaf ears — to work with Mark and bring out the boy’s best.
So now that we have our official top 12, it’s time for my ranking of the remaining contestants. As I’ve already spoiled in my Daly-esque manner, Hunter comes out way on top — but what about the other 11? Here you go:
Not too shabby a list! Of course, this ranking could change next week, depending on whether anyone gets a Jon Bellion or Boston song or producers unveil yet another unnecessary “twist.” But I have a feeling that Hunter will be holding onto that No. 1 spot indefinitely. See you next week!