This Monday, "The Voice" moved into its tricky Battle Rounds phase--the purgatory segment of the series that has historically marked a steep ratings dropoff for the show--but this season, the third time may quite possibly be the charm. Because for Season 3's first battles episode, "The Voice" offered not one but two new Battle Rounds attractions: the game-changing new "Steal" rule, and perhaps even more excitingly, guest mentor Billie Joe Armstrong, of Green Day infamy, who's been fighting his own (inner-demon) battles as of late.
While Billie Joe filmed his "Voice" segments back in July--long before his September 21 "meltdown" at the iHeartRadio Festival and subsequent rehab stint--many rubberneckers no doubt still tuned in this Monday to see if the notoriously mouthy punk-rawker would be a basket case, so to speak. Or if he'd be sometimes giving Team Xtina the creeps, since Christina Aguilera, the coach he'd bizarrely signed up to assist this season, had built a team largely consisting of teenage pop girls who probably didn't cite Dookie as a chief musical influence. Exactly what sort of sage punk wisdom would Billie Joe--the rebel behind such classics as "Brain Stew," "Geek Stink Breath," "Jesus Of Suburbia," and "Before The Lobotomy"--have to impart upon impressionable young lasses like Nathalie Hernandez, Celica Westbrook, Joselyn Rivera, or former Disney starlet Jordan Pruitt?
It was a walking contraction, indeed. And while NBC surely couldn't have planned it this way when Billie Joe was booked for the show three months ago (along with Team Adam mentor Mary J. Blige, Team Blake mentor Michael Bublé, and Team Cee Lo's Rob Thomas), it did result, for better or worse, in an unforeseen Battle Rounds buzz this week.
So, how did Billie Joe do? Well, honestly, Christina barely let him get a word in sideways. There were times when I wanted him to pull an iHeart-style freakout and start yelling at her about how he's been in the industry since "nineteen-$%@#ing-eighty-eight," or maybe start screaming at her that she only had "one minute left!" But when Billie Joe did speak, I found him to be entertaining, and unexpectedly enthusiastic.
Get out of rehab soon, Billie Joe. I want you to be free to do lots more reality TV.
Anyway, as for the much-ballyhooed "Steal," that was a new rule, introduced this week, that allowed coaches to swoop in and scoop up the losing contestants from rival team's battles--contestants who otherwise would've just gone home, as was the case in past seasons when too many talented singers got cut way too soon. (Rebecca Loebe, Shields Brothers, Lee Koch, Jamie Lono...I'm looking at you.) Only two contestants were stolen on Monday, and while one of them was, frankly, someone I would have been okay with bidding farewell this early in the season, one of them was the type of valuable player for whom "The Steal" was practically invented.
Here's how Monday's battles went down:
TEAM BLAKE: Terry McDermott vs. Casey Muessigmann
This seemed an odd pairing: an ex-member of Britrock band Driveblind ("the Scottish rocker pursuing the American dream," according to Carson Daly) and a country artist unfortunately billed by Carson as "the formerly overweight wrestler." And they were doing Kansas's "Carry On Wayward Son," yet. Casey convincingly turned the song into a country-rock barnstormer (the man has a big set of lungs, I'll give him that), but in my opinion, Terry's vocal was so much more distinctive, and he brought so much more rock-star swagger to the battle ring. (Cee Lo Green said the song sounded more in Terry's "wheelhouse" and that Terry's performance was "uber-cool." I agreed.) I feared that Blake Shelton would side with a fellow country singer and pick Casey, but then Blake explained, "Terry knows what his voice is, so he's the winner of his battle." Good decision, Blake. I felt bad when, after no one opted to "Steal" Casey for their teams, Casey sighed to Carson, "None of those judges believed in me enough to hit the button, and that hurts." Poor guy. But I had a feeling that he was cannon fodder from the beginning. He was lucky to get even this far.
TEAM ADAM: Collin McLoughlin vs. Bryan Keith
Collin is the guy who quit New York University grad school, much to his parents' chagrin, to pursue a career as a musician. Bryan, on the other hand, is the guy who's been a frontrunner ever since he got four chairs to turn around on this season's premiere episode, and he's the son of Ray De La Paz from the Grammy-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra. (Oops. I bet Collin called up NYU's registrar office and put himself right back on the admission waiting list, as soon as he found out who his battle partner was.) Once these two got in the ring, Collin's voice was as snow-pure and butter-smooth as ever (Adam Levine even told him during rehearsal that he had the best pitch he'd ever heard), but Sublime's laid-back "Santeria" really wasn't a song that allowed Collin--or Bryan, for that matter--to shine. And Collin's onstage vibe was kind of weird--Adam called it "beastly intentions," but to me it just seemed nervy and awkward, from his flappy/flaily arm gestures, to his headlit-deer-eyes, to his intermittent silly reggae accent. I wasn't too surprised, therefore, that Adam picked Bryan, who definitely seemed more natural and in control...but then the "Steal" went into practice, as both Cee Lo and Blake hit their buttons and tried to recruit Collin. Cee Lo, of course, had trouble convincing anyone to join his team all season, so Collin maintained Cee Lo's strikeout pattern and predictably joined Team Blake. So for now, Collin's still in the game, and he doesn't need to go back to school just yet. But he needs to take some performance lessons, from the school of rock, if he hopes to last.
STEAL: Collin moves to Team Blake
TEAM CEE LO: Diego Val vs. J.R. Aquino
I was excited about this battle, not just because Peruvian pop-rocker Diego is one of my favorites this season, but because Cee Lo had Diego and his opponent, smooth-voiced Alaskan YouTube star J.R., sing one of the best songs of the entire 1980s: Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl." But then Diego really struggled in rehearsal--apparently "Jessie's Girl" wasn't a big hit in Peru, or maybe Diego, at age 25, is just too young to have any knowledge of the '80s, period. He simply didn't know the song at all. J.R., an R&B singer by trade, wasn't faring well in rehearsal either. But then Diego came out with his gel-slicked Interpol hair and Newsies pantaloons, and he rocked it. J.R. delivered a very solid vocal, maybe a technically better vocal than Diego's, and his playful rivalry with Diego was fun to behold...but Diego was so much more compelling. I kind of forgot that J.R. was even onstage, to be honest. Cee Lo felt the same, and he kept Diego for his team. ("I think that I could do something stranger with Diego, because I am the only one who turned around for him [in the Blind Auditions]," said resident "Voice" weirdo Cee Lo.) Sadly and surprisingly for J.R., no other coach stole him away. But he shouldn't be too worried: After this, J.R. is sure to get even more hits for his popular YouTube channel.
TEAM XTINA: De'Borah vs. Nelly's Echo
Androgynous pastors' daughter De'Borah, one of my favorite Christina recruits of this season, took on Nigerian refugee Nelly on a duet of the Police's "Message In A Bottle," and this battle seemed pretty well-suited to both singers. The song fit Nelly's breezy vibe better, and he was more familiar with the song to begin with...but De'Borah was a total Billie Joe fangirl, bear-hugging him the minute she met him in the rehearsal room and gushing about how American Idiot changed her life, so she seemed more m0tivated. Billie Joe was excited about both contestants--he declared, "I think this could be the best performance of the whole show!"--but it was clear that he and De'Borah had more of a connection, and I connected with her performance as well. She was just more interesting to me. Nelly was a little shrill for my tastes--Sting's vocals are not easy to imitate--and I didn't appreciate how he sang all over De'Borah, drowning her out. But De'Borah didn't even try to imitate Sting, and while she started off a little shaky, by the end of the song, she was really spitting fire. Now it was her turn to drown out Nelly. All of the judges declared De'Borah the clear winner (which explains why--spoiler alert!--none of them tried to steal Nelly later), and Xtina even compared De'Borah to Lauryn Hill, as she made her obvious decision. Now I really hope De'Borah and Billie Joe get to collaborate again, before this season is over.
TEAM BLAKE: Gracia Harrison vs. 2 Steel Girls
Yodeler Gracia faced a mighty challenge going up against the two voices of mother-daughter duo 2 Steel Girls, but the Dixie Chicks' kick-up-yer-heels partystarter "Sin Wagon," which Blake chose for this battle, seemed so much better suited to Gracia's sassy style. The 2 Steel Girls had a surprisingly tough time gelling despite being, you know, related and all, and the mother freely admitted that she was the weak link in this threesome. (Which was odd, since I'd totally thought the Steel mom was better than her daughter back when they first auditioned.) However, when all three feisty ladies got in the ring, I hopped on the 2 Steel Girls (sin) wagon too. This was great! It was a total "throwdown country battle," as Blake put it--except it didn't really feel like a battle, because all three women worked so well together. Man, couldn't Gracia just become an honorary 2 Steel Girl, and form a trio with her opponents? Well, that was not an option, so Blake ultimately chose Gracia, because she exhibited more spunky confidence onstage. And Adam, who was chomping at the bit to steal Gracia away, was furious. Meanwhile, no one opted to steal the Steels.
TEAM CEE LO: Amanda Brown vs. Trevin Hunte
Somewhat facepalmingly, Cee Lo revealed his gameplay strategy and admitted that he'd originally picked Amanda to be fodder for his team--making it obvious that he'd pitted her against early frontrunner Trevin just to easily clear Trevin's certain path to the live semifinals. Whoops. It turned out Cee Lo had severely underestimated Amanda's abilities, despite the fact that greats like Alicia Keys and Adele had hired her as a backup singer in the past. As soon as Amanda belted out the first line of Mariah Carey's "Vision Of Love" during rehearsal, Cee Lo did a complete turnaround and realized that this battle's outcome was not so clear-cut, and he grumbled, "I should not have paired y'all together. I'm mad...I don't want to lose either one of you!" Once Amanda and Trevin got in the ring, it was ON like Donkey Kong. This was a BATTLE, people. Two of the biggest powerhouse voices of the night, maybe of the entire season, two really strong competitors, both out for blood. This. Was. Great. Television. And the greatest television of all? Watching Cee Lo struggle to make his decision, and anticipating that at least one of the coaches--most likely Christina among them--would happily steal away whomever Cee Lo passed over. "Make your decision, Cee Lo, so we can take one of these off your hands!" shouted Christina. Even Adam boldly asserted that he was ready to make his first steal of the season, regardless of the outcome. Cee Lo picked Trevin, the contestant he'd clearly wanted all along, but Amanda didn't have to sweat for long, because the other three coaches all immediately went in for the Steal. Interestingly, Amanda didn't go for the obvious coach choice, Christina, but decided to join Adam's team instead. Adam fought hard for Amanda, so maybe now Amanda has finally found a coach that really believes in her--since clearly Cee Lo didn't have faith in her until it was way too late.
STEAL: Amanda moves to Team Adam
So looking back on these first battles, I have to say, the coaches pretty much made the right choices across the board. There wasn't a single verdict all night that had me angrily tweeting or blogging my outrage in all caps--and that's unusual for me when it comes to the Battle Rounds. Will the coaches continue to make sound decisions? Will more deserving singers receive second chances via the Steal? And will we see a whole lot more Armstrong awesomeness, please? Tune in Tuesday to find out.
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