Well, I never thought I'd say this. Or type this. But I think CeeLo Green might have the weakest team on "The Voice" this season. Gulp.
I've always been a card-carrying member of the Red Zone, ever since Season 1, when CeeLo's finalists Vicci Martinez and Nakia captured my heart and ears. Season 2 was all about Team CeeLo's Juliet Simms and Jamar Rogers (and CeeLo's much-missed lap cat, Purrfect), and in Season 3, CeeLo coached two of the most unique "Voice" contestants ever, Nicholas David and Cody Belew. When CeeLo sat out Season 4, I eagerly awaited his triumphant return, excited to see what interesting choices he'd make when it came to his contestants and their songs this year.
But on Tuesday's Live Playoffs, when Team CeeLo and Team Xtina competed for spots in the top 12 — following very strong showings by Team Adam and Team Blake's contestants on Monday — CeeLo's singers were for the most part shockingly outclassed.
Maybe this is why, on Tuesday, all of CeeLo's five contestants sang first, followed by Christina Aguilera's — a different structure from the night before, when Adam Levine and Blake Shelton's contestants, who comprise this season's arguably two best teams, took turns performing. While a couple CeeLo disciples had breakout moments on Tuesday, by the time the final two amazing Team Xtina contestants took the stage, Team CeeLo was sadly all but forgotten.
What happened? How did the Red Zone become the danger zone this season? Maybe CeeLo just needs to bring Purrfect back to the show. Clearly that kitty was his furry good-luck charm all along.
Here's how Tuesday's 10 contestants fared:
Amber Nicole – Amber was an underdog from the start — montaged in the Blind Auditions, stolen in the Knockout Rounds — so when she got the death spot this week and had to sing a country song (Season 3 winner Cassadee Pope's "Wasting All These Tears"), I was worried for her. It seemed she was being set up to fail. And, well, the set-up kind of worked. Amber started out pretty strong, turning Cassadee's five-hanky country-pop weeper into a convincingly soulful R&B anthem, but then it all started to unravel, with a series of sharp and flat notes. The potential was there (remember how fantastic Amber was in the Battle Rounds, when she totally stole Timyra-Joi's thunder?), but tonight, that potential remained unrealized. And…then there was that big note at the end, which Amber missed by more country miles than even country boy Blake could imagine. She really shouldn't have gone there, and I was embarrassed for her. I think if she'd nailed the note, the rest of her performance's minor imperfections could've been forgiven or ignored, but that misstep was just plain unforgivable. And unignorable. Adam, Blake, and Christina all called her out on it, and Blake even sternly told her she was "treading on sacred ground" by covering his former protégé Cassadee. However, CeeLo assured Amber, "You rose to the occasion with such class." Yes, Amber kept it classy, but I don't think she rose. She fell…right under the bus that CeeLo threw her towards.
Jonny Gray – CeeLo chose the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" for Jonny, because Jonny "represents Americana." Never mind that the Verve are British, of course. That was a mere technicality, apparently, to the geographically challenged CeeLo. Still, I was delighted to learn about this song choice; it's a '90s classic, and it's not a clichéd tune that's been done to death on every talent show since "Star Search" was still on the air. It seemed like a good fit for the reedy-voiced rocker, whose vibrato-heavy, nasal tone isn't all that different from iconically cool Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft's. But that was the problem: Jonny ended up giving a soundalike performance. However, with his bounciness, smiley-ness, and general puppy-doggishness, he didn't exactly exude Ashcroft's dark, dangerous, kohl-eyed charisma. This was not bittersweet enough, is what I'm trying to say. Thankfully, Jonny started to rock out a little more as the song went on, but he ultimately left me wanting more. Adam wanted more power from Jonny too, although he pointed out that this was a "deceptively tough song." Christina called Jonny "consistent and accurate — almost too accurate. But towards the end, you did sort of let loose." CeeLo was of course more effusive, praising Jonny's "raw reality" and calling this "the right marriage of a song and a singer." I disagreed. I thought it was a great song choice on paper, but onstage, it didn't quite work.
Tamara Chauniece – CeeLo had sabotaged his first two contestants with questionable song choices, but this was the worst of the lot. "I Will Survive"? Really, CeeLo? Maybe if it was the Cake version. But not Gloria Gaynor's. Oh, don't get me wrong here. It's a great song. A classic. But it's a disco classic, from the 1970s. Tamara already suffered from an image problem, coming across as old-fashioned and conservative no matter what she sang, so "I Will Survive" wasn't, well, going to help her survive in this competition. CeeLo needed to give her something more youthful and current, to counteract her cabaret-diva vibe. He could have at least given her a modern disco tune, like Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" or Bruno Mars's "Treasure." Tamara sang "I Will Survive" well — the woman's got pipes, and probably could have been a major Donna Summer-esque disco diva if she'd been around in 1976, come to think of it — but she did absolutely nothing new with the song, nothing to make her seem relevant in 2013. Adam said, "CeeLo has the ability to take us into a time machine to the '70s," which apparently he thought was a good thing, since he declared this Tamara's best performance yet. But it won't be enough. Aside from all the above-mentioned relevance issues, disco songs never sell well on the all-important iTunes chart (Sasha Allen's low-charting cover of Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" was her downfall last season). So Tamara is basically toast.
Kat Robichaud – Glam-rocker Kat toned down her usual growling, Robi-shuffling shtick for a cover of "She Keeps Me Warm," the Mary Lambert ballad that provided the chorus to Macklemore & Lewis's hit "Same Love." It was a wonderfully heartfelt and emotional performance, dedicated to her husband (who hopefully wasn't too jealous that she called CeeLo her "soulmate"), and I loved seeing this softer side of Kat. I felt and believed every passionate note she was singing and thoroughly enjoyed her stomping-through-the-aisles performance. There was just one problem: "She Keeps Me Warm" was originally a song about lesbian love (and "Same Love," of course, is about gay rights), so I was disappointed that Kat copped out and changed the chorus to the more gender-neutral "you keep me warm." It would have been braver, and cooler, if she'd just kept the song as-is. Yes, she sweetly serenaded some random woman in the audience (who didn't seem fazed at all), but still. Kat shouldn't have messed with such an important song. Adam and Christina didn't seem bothered by the pronoun-switcheroo, but did feel that Kat held back too much. CeeLo babbled, "I wanted people to know you are a whole thing, not just something to stare at." Huh? Some of CeeLo's comments this week were even more confusing than his song choices.
Caroline Pennell – Sweet Caroline was definitely Team CeeLo's star player this Tuesday. This was one song selection that CeeLo got totally right. The White Stripes' "We Are Going to Be Friends" was the perfect song for this adorkable schoolgirl — just the right little ditty for her to "give everyone in America cavities by being so sweet," as CeeLo put it. No, it wasn't a big, belty, chest-beating sort of song, but that's just not the kind of singer Caroline is. This song played to all of Caroline's quirky strengths. I loved it. "For the first time tonight, I heard purely you…It was a beautiful Caroline rendition of that song," said Adam. "I could literally be getting an amputation, and if you were singing, all I'd be thinking about was cotton candy. You could've been singing about killing people and I would've been skipping around the stage," said Blake. It was unclear if Blake was sincerely complimenting Caroline, or if he was trying to sabotage CeeLo's strongest contestant by sneakily associating her in voters' minds with amputations and mass killings. If it was the latter, it won't work. People are going to download Caroline's performance in droves.
Josh Logan – Josh has been one of Christina's frontrunners from the beginning, though I've never quite understood his appeal. I think he is a strong singer, for sure, but his charisma is lacking. There's a reason why he only made it to ninth place on "Rock Star: Supernova" years ago, methinks. Josh handled his song assignment this week, Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," with his usual ease (not getting the least bit flustered performing right in front of the song's originator, CeeLo), but maybe he did it with a little too much ease. His scatty, Mrazzy performance almost seemed like part of a skit from "Saturday Night Live's" The Mellow Show; when I closed my eyes and listened, I could envision Josh in cargo shorts and Teva sandals. CeeLo dug this, of course, flattered by the tribute and impressed by Josh's ability to handle the song's rappy wordiness. Adam had the opposite opinion, however, saying, "It seems you're capable of doing anything vocally, so the runs and how busy it was overwhelmed my experience. I wanted it to be a little more scaled-back." For me, this was good, but not great. I wasn't…wait for it…crazy about this number.
Olivia Henken – I've never really been a big fan of Olivia; she's a capable singer, and a poised performer, but I've never found anything original about her. Maybe that is why Christina assigned her a countrified cover of Katy Perry's "Roar," to give her a challenge and make her seem a little more unique. I must say, Olivia handled the challenge well; it could have been a disaster, but it wasn't. "That was very risky as a country artist, and it worked," said the panel's obvious country expert, Blake. Yes, Olivia gave the performance her all; she had, as Katy would say, the eye of the tiger. Was it enough? Probably not, since Christina's team was so strong this week. But at least America really got to hear Olivia roar.
Stephanie Anne Johnson – This cruise ship singer has been inconsistent in this competition and has bounced between teams, but when she's on, she's ON. And she was on tonight. Her explosive, emotive performance of "Georgia on My Mind" was a tour de force, filled with interesting phrasing and impressive power notes. CeeLo, the ex-coach who'd given her up in the Knockout Rounds, admitted to having "mixed emotions…I'm entertained, amazed, and jealous. I'm like, 'Damn, I kind of messed up with her.'" (Well, CeeLo messed up in other ways, but I've already discussed all that.) Adam appreciated how Stephanie made one of his all-time favorite songs her own. Christina appreciated the richness of Stephanie's voice. During rehearsal, Stephanie had said, "I'm going to treat this performance as if it's my last," but I don't know if this will be her last performance on "The Voice"; I think she may have earned a spot in the top 12 with this.
Matthew Schuler – Matthew has picked cool indie songs like Florence + the Machine's "Cosmic Love" and Young the Giant's "Cough Syrup" for himself in the past, but when he was equally mind-blowing doing Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball" this Tuesday, he proved he really can sing anything. His performance was the perfect precarious balance of vocal brute force and effortless grace, and he was more believable emoting into the camera than Miley ever was when she faux-sobbed in her "Wrecking Ball" video's close-up shots. Everything about this performance felt emotionally authentic, and his vocals were never once compromised by his unhinged passion. Wow. Just….wow. He came in like a wrecking ball, indeed, and he pretty much wrecked the other contestants' chances. "It looks like a wrecking ball hit the other coaches," joked host Carson Daly. CeeLo growled, "Matt, you know we're friends, but I hate you so much! You make me so sick! You didn't pick me! I hate how much I love you!" Said Adam: "I share CeeLo's pain. Three hearts just broke." Blake even turned around to address his own team members, who were sitting in the audience, and said, "This is the guy that you've got to look out for." He was right.
Jacquie Lee – Matthew was a tough, tough act to follow, but somehow this teenager didn't seem intimidated. Covering Screamin' Jay Hawkins' swampy voodoo classic "I Put a Spell on You" (not the easiest song for such a young girl to interpret), the sweet Selena Gomez lookalike brought unexpected fire to the stage and left everyone under her spell. Who knew she had it in her? This wasn't as good as Matthew's performance, but it was still pretty incredible. By the end, the audience was screaming so loudly, the coaches couldn't even deliver their critiques. They all squeezed in a few words of high praise, before CeeLo jokingly (or maybe not jokingly?) said, "Blake's jealous. Blake knows he's not gonna win this season." Well, I don't know about that…Blake could still pull off a fourpeat. But CeeLo's probably not going to win, sadly. And Christina might finally have a chance this season.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The finale isn't till Dec. 17. Let's try to predict who's going home this week, on Thursday's special results show. I think it's pretty obvious that the goners on Team CeeLo are Amber and Tamara. On Team Xtina, Olivia is likely to go home, and then either Josh or Stephanie. I'd like to see Stephanie get her shot, since she showed so much growth this week, but Josh has a devoted fanbase, so Stephanie may be sent back to her cruise ship.
Tune in Thursday to find out what happens! See you then.
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