"The Voice" top 12 competed this Monday, for the first time this season without any team quotas or coach saves. It was every man, woman, and coach for him- or herself, and everyone was feeling the heat. Literally.
You see, the air-conditioning in the NBC studio was on the fritz, on a Los Angeles day when it was 100 degrees outside, so the contestants were sweating it out in more ways than one. Host Carson Daly warned that if the room got any hotter the stagelights might blow out, and while that statement was probably just for dramatic effect--as was Usher's stripping down to a skimpy black undershirt--the sweltering conditions surely only made things tougher for this week's competitors. But some of the singers delivered still fiery performances, in the best possible way.
Here's how everyone did this Monday:
Vedo - Doing Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" was a major risk for Team Usher's Vedo. As Usher put it, MJ was "one of the greatest performers of our time." Or of all time, really. So Vedo was setting himself up for failure. It was unlikely that he'd even come close to matching the King of Pop's greatness--and he didn't. After getting some pro tips from Usher's choreographer, Vedo made a grand backlit entrance and he looked like a real pop star, but then he got very distracted by the choreography, flubbing his first chorus when he tried to descend the stairs and sing at the same time. And he never quite recovered after that. Yes, the moonwalking dance moves he busted out towards the end of the song were fun…but they made his performance seem like some sort of tribute act, not like the work of an original artist. In Vedo's defense, it must not have been easy for him to do a song-and-dance act in an un-air-conditioned studio while clad completely in black leather. He looked exhausted after his performance, as he blotted his dripping face with a napkin. But he let 'em see him sweat figuratively, too--he just didn't seem 100 percent confident doing Michael. His coach Usher told him, "You paced yourself enough to make it through the entire song," but that didn't exactly sound like effusive praise to me. A contestant needs to do more than just "get through" a song, if he wants to get through to the next round.
Holly Tucker - Singing Martina McBride's song of triumph, "Broken Wing," this Team Blake hopeful was better than she was on last week's emotionally flat "How Do I Live." But I was only truly impressed when she got to the big power-notes at the end of the song. Despite having a little more attitude this week, there was still something a bit generic about Holly. Even Adam Levine noted how oddly calm and cool she appeared onstage. Adam also said this was the best he'd heard Holly sing so far, and her coach Blake agreed, but I still find it hard to imagine that she'll outlast Team Blake's other strong country contestants, or Team Adam's country girl Amber Carrington. This was a good performance, but a little injection of extra personality could have made it great.
Garrett Gardner - This season's resident rocker was assigned…"I Want It That Way," by the Backstreet Boys. The look on Garrett's lip-ringed face when he got the news from his coach, Shakira, was priceless and endlessly GIFable. But it was an opportunity for Garrett to do the David Cook/Kris Allen/Phillip Phillips thing--and the Garrett Gardner thing. And he succeeded. He made the song his own. He rocked it out. Maybe Shakira is a genius, after all. Adam and Blake didn't like the boy-band song, but Usher was a little more supportive of Shakira's leftfield choice. Personally, I think a boyish heartthrob doing a song made famous by a bunch of boyish heartthrobs was a pretty cool, and very meta, idea.
Sarah Simmons - Team Adam's Stevie Nicks-ish songbird struggled a bit in the lower registers of Brandi Carlile's "The Story"--it was seriously the first time I'd ever heard Sarah sound anything less than perfect on this show--but when she got to the parts of the song that allowed her to really belt it out, even growl, she quickly compensated for any earlier imperfections. This woman is a rock 'n' roll powerhouse! And the emotion she brings to every performance, including this one, is exactly what I was referring to when critiquing Holly Tucker a couple paragraphs ago. "Thank you for showing us the extremes of your voice," said Blake, adding that "The Story" is one of his all-time favorite songs. I want to thank Sarah, too. And I'll be especially thankful if America votes to keep her around.
The Swon Brothers - The Swons are the good-time guys of "The Voice"--every time they hit the stage, it's a big ole party. So when they got serious and toned their shtick way down for an acoustic cover of the recently departed George Jones's "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," it was almost disconcerting. But it was probably what they needed to do to stay in the game, after they failed to clinch the public vote last week and had to be saved by their coach, Blake. It was important for the Swons to show their softer side--complete with piano, stools, and candles--and prove that they're not just some county-fair novelty act. Usher called this an "incredible tribute." A proud Blake called it their "breakout moment." All of this was true. But that being said, though I appreciated the sentiment (RIP, Possum) and this display of versatility, I missed the brothers' knee-slapping fun. I am sure this well-timed performance will keep them safe this week, but when they perform next Monday, I hope to see an uptempo "Swoncert" again.
Sasha Allen - Heart's "Alone" is one of the most overdone songs on all singing shows, and I certainly would have preferred a different song for Team Shakira's Sasha. I guess Shakira isn't always a genius. Sasha, who once performed in a Broadway production of Hair, got way too theatrical here, almost to the point of parody, as she exaggeratedly mock-wept her way through the mawkish power ballad. It felt much too forced. But you know what did come naturally to Sasha? That voice. Singing Ann Wilson is a herculean task, but vocally, Sasha was able to reach all those big Wilson power-notes with ease. "One more reason I should never have let go of you," grumbled Sasha's former coach, Adam. "I felt like you kind of took us to church," raved Usher. Shakira called Sasha's performance "beautiful, heartfelt, and emotional." I think Sasha's ability to belt with Aguilera-esque force will keep her safe this week, but I don't think viewers will connect with this performance the way they did with her previous efforts.
Josiah Hawley - Finally, coach Usher gave Josiah a song that suited him. After poor Josiah was ordered to sing the Police's "Roxanne" and Muse's "Starlight," both advanced-level rock songs that showcased his vocal shortcomings, this week he got to go into full-on WGWG mode for an acoustic cover of the Script's "The Man Who Can't Be Moved." This made sense. Sitting in the audience surrounded by admiring female swaybots, kind of like Elvis's '68 comeback, he just strummed and sang, and he didn't try to showboat and overdo it. Basically, he didn't try to compete with this season's mighty powerhouse singers, and this was a wise move on his part (or on Usher's part). I preferred this version of Josiah, and it was my favorite performances of his to date, by far. "You found a place for your voice that was your sweet spot. You sounded the best you ever have tonight," said Adam. Blake agreed that this was Josiah at his finest. Usher compared Josiah to a "young Adam Levine." I have a feeling that this performance will earn Josiah a lot of votes from female viewers. This former model sure is pretty--and tonight, he had a pretty voice to match his face.
Danielle Bradbery - Team Blake's Danielle continued to establish herself as one of Season 4's frontrunners with her cover of Carrie Underwood's "Wasted," a song perfectly placed in her pop-country wheelhouse. Once again, she performed with professionalism and poise (how is this girl only 16 years old?), coming across a bit like Hayden Panettiere's "Nashville" character, country ingénue Juliette Barnes. "I never detect an ounce of nerves. You're like a 16-year-old Margaret Thatcher, a mini-Iron Lady," said Shakira, apparently intending this to be a compliment. Adam's praise was a little more direct. "You're the one to beat. I wholeheartedly believe that," Adam said. I actually believe it, too.
Judith Hill - Judith started off as this season's frontrunner, but since then several other impressive contestants have stolen some of her thunder. This week, the Team Adam diva performed Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," accompanying herself with piano for the first time, and she displayed a greater range of talent than ever before. Was it enough to keep her on top? Possibly. The old-fashioned ballad probably didn't do her many favors, but the backstory behind the song choice--growing up biracial, Judith often felt like an outsider, and music was her "friend" that got her through hard times--likely connected with many viewers. The story humanized this sometimes too-polished, too-perfect singer. And Judith's torchy vocal was exquisite; there's no denying that this lady can really sang. "You're one of the ones we can count on for greatness, week after week," said Blake. "You're totally in control of your destiny at this point," said Usher. And Judith's coach Adam called her "perhaps the most talented human being in this competition." Will America agree? We'll see.
Michelle Chamuel - Okay, just when I thought Michelle couldn't get any more awesome, this week she sang "Call Your Girlfriend" by Swedish indie-pop princess Robyn. What a great song choice by her coach, Usher, who clearly "gets" Michelle and understands her electro aspirations. This was a very different performance from last week's "True Colors" tearjerker, of a lesser-known song, and I am concerned that it won't connect with mainstream viewers quite as much. But it was just so friggin' cool. Yes, Michelle got off to a shaky start--her ethereal indie-girl voice kind of got swallowed up by the loud arrangement--but then her personality came through, with just the right balance of the tenderness she showed on "True Colors" and her unique nerdy-girl swag. And it all came together in the end. Even Michelle's self-admitted stagefright lent her performance a sort of awkward charm. "You've become one of my favorites, because there's one of you…I love you," gushed Adam. "I wanna go all the way to the end with you," said Usher in his usual sexy manner. I want to see Michelle go all the way, too. Forget about calling your girlfriend--everyone please call Michelle's "Voice" voting line, now!
Kris Thomas - Team Shakira's Kris has been singled out for his high voice, which got him mistaken for a girl during the Blind Auditions. So he was probably the only male contestant on "The Voice" even capable of taking on the Jackson 5's prepubescent hit "I'll Be There." He definitely struggled with this challenging song (he sounded very strained and shrill by the end), but overall, I think it worked for him, and I enjoyed this more that I had previous Kris performances. I have a feeling that America, who voted Kris through to the top 12 last week, enjoyed this as well. "When Michael was 10, that was high! That was a task that you rose to," said Adam. "You always choose songs that push you to the extreme; you're always proving yourself to people," said Blake. Usher wasn't crazy about the song choice, but praised Kris for taking a risk. And Shakira, who clearly adores Kris and often gushes about this nice guy's "sweetness and honesty," said: "You sang like you really want to win this competition." I don't really want Kris to win this competition, but I did like this.
Amber Carrington - Amber's mom died of cancer, so for her to do Martina McBride's "I'm Gonna Love You Through It," a song literally about a mom getting cancer--and to do it the day after Mother's Day, yet, and in the episode's pimp spot--was sure to be a powerful moment. But it all would have come across as pandering for sympathy votes if this Team Adam darling didn't have the talent to back it up. Luckily, she gave a performance full of both technical perfection and true grit, and she stood out as one of the best of the night. "You did Martina proud, and even more to me, you did country music proud," said Blake, once again admitting he wished Amber was on his team. "I see you having an incredible career, if you win 'The Voice' or if you don't," said Usher. "It was close to home, and I don't know if I'd have the strength to do that. I admire that," said Amber's proud coach, Adam. There is NO way Amber is going home this week, after she left her heart on the stage like this.
But who is going home this Tuesday? The bottom two vote-getters, regardless of team affiliation, will get the boot, and I predict those two will be Team Usher's Vedo and Team Blake's Holly Tucker. While both contestants got the public vote last week, when team quotas still applied, I don't think they did enough to stand out among the overall top 12 this week. And the fact that they sang first probably hurt their chances as well.
Tune in Tuesday to see if I'm right! See you then.