The "Voice" Season 4 Battle Rounds began this Monday, and as is always the case with the Battles, there were a few surprises. A couple early favorites did lose their Battles, but they may still win the war this season, because thanks to the show's relatively new twist called the Steal--which allows coaches to poach unpicked contestants from rival teams--those contestants remained in the game. Shakira, in fact, was in an especially Steal-happy mood on Monday, using both of her available Steal slots in a single episode. So the biggest surprise of Monday's Battles really wasn't any one particular elimination, but the fact that Shakira went from helming this season's weakest team to being a true Season 4 power-player with two new very strong recruits.
Here's what went down during Monday's Battle Rounds:
TEAM ADAM: Amber Carrington vs. Sasha Allen
Adam Levine, a crafty strategist known for ruthlessly pitting fodder against frontrunners at this stage of the game, freely admitted that he'd expected Sasha, a professional backup singer for the likes of Alicia Keys, to be "the clear winner" who'd "wipe the floor" with little country girl Amber. But when the two went microphone-to-microphone on Pink's "Try," Amber, who'd seemed so sweet and shy in the Blind Auditions, came out and SLAYED. She not only looked professional and polished and poised, with her Grace Kelly up-do and newfound confidence, but she sounded like a star. Sasha was no slouch either, but her performance came across as needlessly melodramatic, not to mention more forced than Amber's. I was shocked that Sasha didn't completely dominate the ring. I think Adam was shocked, too. Suddenly, Adam had to change his strategy…and he decided to keep Amber. But Sasha didn't even have time to process the harsh reality that she'd just lost out to some cute kid, Goliath/Davey-style, because both Usher and Shakira swooped in for the Steal. Sasha decided to join Shakira's team, much to Usher's mock-sobbing dismay; Shakira, meanwhile, couldn't help but gloat, knowing that Adam's (and Usher's) loss was definitely her gain.
STEAL: Sasha moves to Team Shakira
TEAM SHAKIRA: Garrett Gardner vs. J'Sun
Shakira had just picked up a new recruit, but already it was time for her to cut one of her players. And maybe, just maybe, she's secretly as shrewd a schemer as Adam, because she definitely seemed to have a strategy in mind when she put these two very different singers in the ring. The song Shakira assigned this duo, the Heavy's "How You Like Me Now," was a bluesy and raw garage-rock song much better suited to Garrett's raspy alt-rock style (J'Sun said he'd never sung a song like this before), so it seemed like she was setting up the Battle to favor Garrett, a returning contestant and fan favorite. (J'Sun, meanwhile, was one of the faceless also-rans who received about 35 seconds of screentime in an auditions montage.) J'Sun, who seemed humbled and just a little annoyed to be battling a teenager 10 years his junior, put up a pretty good fight, amping up the showmanship and showcasing technically stronger vocals than his young rival--but still, this was Garrett's battle, all the way. The Heavy's song was so perfect for Garrett, and he rocked it--so much so that even Adam said, "I maybe didn't get it at first, but I definitely get it now, bro." Unsurprisingly, Shakira declared Garrett the victor. None of the other coaches--not even Usher, who said he thought J'Sun was the better battler here--decided to steal J'Sun. One of those awkward moments, when the contestant just idly stands there next to Carson Daly waiting for a coach to hit a button, before realizing it ain't gonna happen, ensued. "Coaches, let me remind you that J'Sun is available," Carson said. Crickets. Poor J'Sun. NBC editors really need to figure out how to edit these rejections in a way that feels less icky.
TEAM BLAKE: Holly Tucker vs. Michelle Raitzin
This seemed like another preordained Battle: a frontrunner who inspired all four chairs to turn at her audition (Holly), up against a montage auditioner and one-chair pony (Michelle). And then Blake assigned them a song, Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away," that clearly favored country singer Holly. This Battle's outcome seemed especially obvious during the girls' rehearsal, when Michelle sounded like a screaming YouTube goat and Blake's assistant mentor, Sheryl Crow, reacted with a stankface that I am certain is being turned into GIFs and uploaded onto Tumblrs all across the Interweb as I type this. Once the two got in the ring, there was no Amber-style underdog surprise here. Holly brought so much more fire and ownership to the stage, and her vocals were much more on point; Adam later noted that Michelle had sounded breathless in parts and that her falsetto had been weak. Blake was nicer than Adam, rambling on and on, unconvincingly, about how amazing Michelle was and how this decision was so agonizing, blah blah blah. But he wasn't fooling anyone. Holly won, of course. Carson asked if anyone wanted to steal Michelle. Crickets chirped. And so, it was on to the next round.
TEAM USHER: Jess Kellner vs. Taylor Beckham
This was another case of a song pick being much, much more suited to one contestant over the other. Amy Winehouse's "You Know That I'm No Good" is a woman's song, a badass song, a dark song, and it was almost downright squirmy and weird to see 17-year-old Taylor sing, "He's in the place, but I can't get joy" in her sweet little-girl voice. When Jess and Taylor got onstage, Taylor admittedly had more star power--there's a just a certain X-factor about her, to borrow a catchphrase from a certain rival show--but while my eyes may have been on Taylor, my ears were definitely on Jess, whose sultry, velvety voice sounded sublime on this song. Jess was just so much earthier, so much more believable, and I almost felt like Taylor had been sabotaged. But I didn't need to worry about Taylor for long: While she lost this Battle, she was quickly stolen away by Blake. Now I just hope Blake picks the right songs for Taylor, if Taylor moves on to the live playoffs. Taylor's audition song, "I'm Going Down," was also a bad fit for her high-pitched voice, so I don't think she has had a chance to showcase herself at her best. Maybe Blake can change all that.
STEAL: Taylor moves to Team Blake
TEAM BLAKE: Christian Porter vs. The Swon Brothers
This was definitely the most surprising Battle of the night for me. While both contestants seemed like borderline novelty acts--the Swon jokesters are always breaking out the shticky stage banter, and Christian is the bar singer who did that folksy cover of "Sexy and I Know It"--Christian seemed have a more serious chance of winning here. Historically, duos have not gone far on "The Voice"; historically, guys like Christian have done well on all singing competition shows; and Christian's LMFAO-cover audition was such a standout, it was, along with Judith Hill's "What a Girl Wants," uploaded online a week before the Season 4 premiere to generate buzz for the show. Then, during this week's rehearsals, Blake complained that the Swons were "all over the map" and needed to "tighten it up," so Christian really seemed to have the edge. However, once the Battle began, the Swons stepped it up. Having sung a Tom Petty song before (they auditioned with "American Girl"), they seemed relaxed and in their element doing "I Won't Back Down," plus they had the extra advantage of being able to showcase their twangy harmonies. Christian sounded nice--he'd overcome his own rehearsal struggles and finally figured out how to hit the song's high note--but his muggy faces and literal hand gestures were super-annoying. (Seriously, he looked like he was playing Charades or something.) I wasn't totally surprised that Blake decided to pick the Swon Brothers after this performance, but given Christian's likability and early hype, I was sure that someone would steal him. BUT NO ONE DID. Crickets. And in an instant, Christian went from frontrunner to also-ran, and he went back to the bar scene.
WINNER: The Swon Brothers
TEAM ADAM: Judith Hill vs. Karina Iglesias
Karina must've known she was ultra-screwed when she found out who her Battle partner was. Karina is an amazing singer, with a voice that Adam likened to a "freight train," but even she was sure to be outclassed by Judith, arguably the best vocalist of Season 4. However, Karina is also one tough chick, so she didn't let anyone see her sweat; she may have been the only member of Team Adam who could have gone up against Judith and seemed so utterly unintimidated. The result was possibly the most epic "Voice" Battle since Vicci Martinez vs. Niki Dawson in Season 1. (I wasn't even bothered that they were doing what I consider to be Juliet Simms's signature "Voice" song, "It's Man's, Man's, Man's World.") A standing ovation understandably ensued. Back in Season 1, there was no such thing as a Steal, so Niki Dawson had to go home, but this time around, luckily there was room for both of these dynamite ladies to advance. Of course, Judith was the winner here--as Adam pointed out, Judith possesses a very rare combination of technical perfection and pure soul, which makes her the one to beat--but Shakira pounced once again, and she used her other Steal to keep Karina in the competition. I'm glad she did. Karina deserved another chance.
STEAL: Karina moves to Team Shakira
So on Tuesday, the Battle Rounds continue--and according to NBC previews, there will be a Steal to end all Steals, a true shocker. Who will be the surprise stealer and surprise stealee? Tune in then to find out.