When we last left The Voice, Season 18 had been completely thrown off-kilter by the coronavirus — forcing the finalists to remotely perform next to ring lights and green screens in their living rooms, with eventual champion Todd Tilghman celebrating his finale night victory at home in Mississippi via a wonky Google Teams connection. Five months later, the show returned to the Universal Studios lot this Monday… but things weren’t totally back to normal on the Season 19 premiere.
The red chairs were spaced much farther apart; the virtual audience was a wall-sized Brady Bunch grid of Zoom squares; and the coaches, unable to give their newly recruited team members congratulatory hugs (this was especially an existential struggle for the gregarious Kelly Clarkson), had to resort to more socially distanced displays of camaraderie. Blake Shelton had his contestants cuddle up to a man-sized Blake cardboard cutout. John Legend shook his contestants’ hands using some creepy rubber dishwashing glove affixed to a 6-foot wooden pole. And this season’s returning coach, Blake’s offscreen quarantine partner Gwen Stefani, shot old-school, KLOS-style “Team Gwen” tees at her contestants out of a T-shirt cannon.
— The Voice (@NBCTheVoice) October 20, 2020
But one thing that definitely had remained the same, after 18 seasons and counting, was the gender-flipped element of surprise. When 35-year-old John Holiday stridently belted the Ella Fitzgerald version of “Misty,” the slack-jawed, bug-eyed look of utter shock on Kelly’s face when she spun around and saw a man onstage was truly a classic Voice moment. “I didn’t know you were a dude!” she gasped. “Did you see my face? That will be a GIF.”
Of course, that was nothing compared to the look of anger on Kelly’s face once she realized that John Legend — who’d turned around literally within the first three seconds of hearing this song stylist’s exquisite, of-another-era tone — had used his one Block of the season on her. But surely she couldn’t blame John for wanting to secure the contestant who’d just delivered what he called “one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on this show.”
John Holiday, a professional Texas opera singer whose fans have included Ruth Bader Ginsburg, went on The Voice to cross over to jazz and gospel. As a gay man who was bullied as a child for his high, girlish voice, he also signed up to “inspire other young boys.” And he certainly succeeded in both missions. This flashy crooner’s performance was bold and stupendous and totally memorable; he looked and sounded like a superstar. As Holiday closed night one of Season 19, he really made it feel like The Voice was back in a big way. “You forget how much you miss hearing people sing live, till you get it taken away for a while,” mused the always-eloquent John Legend. And he was right. I missed this.
These were the other successful auditions of Monday night’s premiere:
Tamara Jade, 30: “’Cuz I Love You”
This diva from a big Caribbean musical family soared during that big a cappella opener, which caused Kelly to hit her button immediately. But that was a premature reaction. Tamara, who actually performed with Lizzo at the 2019 VMAs, struggled in all the rapped verses, quickly running out of air. This was definitely the wrong song choice. However, the coaches were still impressed with Tamara’s singing ability, with Kelly (again, prematurely) predicting that she will be in the finale. Blake went even farther and said, “In my heart, I think you can win this thing.”
Who turned? All four coaches.
Result: Team Legend. If Tamara wants to keep doing the rap-singing shtick, I think she would have been better off with Gwen, who knows how to do that right (as evidenced on “Hollaback Girl”). But clearly straight-up power-singing is more Tamara’s thing anyway.
Lauren Frihauf, 16: “Come to My Window”
This School of Rock-educated Colorado farmgirl chose Melissa Etheridge’s aching power ballad because she thought it expressed the COVID-era angst of yearning to be with someone. That was a nice sentiment and intention, but while Lauren had some Etheridge-esque grit in her voice, she didn’t have the maturity or life experience to make the lyrics believable. This felt very surface-y to me. But Gwen felt a connection to Lauren’s “wiggy vibrato,” telling her, “You’re like my dream person to work with on this show!”
Who turned? John and Gwen.
Result: Team Gwen, of course. Gwen does love her teen-girl contestants and has a similar vocal tone and rock sensibility, so maybe this will be a good match.
Joseph Soul, 34: “Is This Love”
This Hawaiian-born has won DJ battles and played clubs all over the world, but singing has always been his first love. With that background, I expected an edgy, dance-y performance, but Joseph, despite his last name, sucked all of the soul (and, notably, all of the reggae) out of this Bob Marley classic. The old-fashioned wedding-band arrangement here did him zero favors. There was a good voice in there somewhere – Kelly was drawn to the “sweetness” and “intimacy” of his falsetto — but this was pretty generic fodder.
Who turned? Blake and Kelly. “I thought if I was going to get one chair, it would be Gwen!” exclaimed Joseph. It was not a good sign that Gwen, the rocksteady enthusiast/expert on the panel, didn’t even turn around, though she later diplomatically described Joseph’s rendition as “creative.” (It wasn’t.)
Result: Team Kelly, because Kelly has “experience in multiple genres.”
Ian Flanigan, 30: “Colder Weather”
Up until recently, nomad troubadour Ian traveled the country with his family in an RV, playing gigs wherever the road took them. The pandemic. of course. put an end to all that, but The Voice could be the start of a whole new exciting journey for him. I absolutely did not expect that crusty, rusty Tom Waits/Charlie Rich/Joe Cocker baritone to emanate from this unassuming everyman, and while he does need to work a bit on his diction, projection, and range, his performance was still very special. Gwen told Ian, “Your voice sounds like it’s already on a record.” John said, “You sound like you’ve lived a thousand lives.” Blake described Ian’s voice as “like gargling broken glass”; this was a compliment, by the way, and strangely, Blake was the only coach who turned around.
Who turned? Blake. Those other coaches missed out on a “once-in-a-lifetime vocalist.”
Result: Team Blake, obviously.
Jim Ranger, 38: “Blue Ain’t Your Color”
This Arkansas-born, Bakersfield-based pastor started off slow, but when he let loose and got the gravel going, he brought a soulful energy and brought it on home. Kelly didn’t turn because she thought Jim “went too many places,” but I liked that he got a little unhinged. I think he could push that vibe even further. I agreed with John that Jim’s fire-and-brimstone “wailing” was a “revelation.”
Who turned? John, Gwen, and Blake.
Result: Team Blake, despite John trying to discredit him with a mudslinging campaign ad that was basically a supercut of all of the times Blake has lied on The Voice. I think John, with his churchy background, actually would have been the better pick for Jim.
Eli Zamore, 25: “Ya Lo Se Que Tu Te Vas”
Kelly has long declared her fondness for bilingual contestants, so it was no surprise that she turned around for Eli. It was a surprise that it took her a rather long time to do so, and that she was the only coach who turned, since this smooth crooner’s performance has a lot of personality and range, if not a lot of edge. But this was the best match anyway; Kelly was “fighting tears” when she found out that Eli is from her home state of Texas, shouting, “This was meant to be!”
Who turned? Just Kelly.
Result: Team Kelly, of course.
Payge Turner, 27: “Call Out My Name”
Along with Ian and John Holiday, Payge was the big Monday standout for me. The Trindad and Tobago-born rock ‘n’ soul goddess looked like a superstar (like, if Nick Jonas were still a coach on this show, he would have written “STAR” on his famous notepad and underlined it thrice), like some sort of Prince-protégé goddess. And that deep, velvety, sexy low note at the beginning of this Weeknd cover was everything.
Who turned? Blake and Gwen.
Result: Team Gwen, of course! I can’t wait to see what these two dynamite ladies get up to.
Marisa Corvo, 33: “Perfect”
This sassy Staten Island girl (and former American Idol Season 11 contestant) was shunned by her family when she came out as a lesbian at age 21, but they’ve since come around and become her biggest fans, and they were there virtually to root for her during her audition. (Another change this season is there are no friends and relatives cheering next to Carson Daly in the stage wings.) Marisa showcased a set of pipes as big as her personality on P!nk’s empowerment anthem – a perfect song choice, indeed – with Kelly praising her “amazing finish,” “range for days,” and “insanely big voice.”
Who turned? Gwen, Blake, and Kelly.
Result: Team Kelly. Marisa seemed be fangirling for Gwen a bit, brightening and even waving in a cutesy, giggly way when Gwen turned around, but Marisa is basically the “Staten Island version of Kelly,” so these two will undoubtedly get up to some great fun together.
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