Well, I hope those of you who have been badmouthing The Voice’s battle rounds are all eating your words and/or hats right now, because tonight’s episode was so fun, so well paced, and so silly and exciting that I almost forgot I was missing The Bachelor’s Women Tell All special. (Hey, have you heard? I’m the A.V. Club writer that likes reality TV!) Never mind that I disagreed with half of the verdicts tonight—the joy of watching a series of formidable vocalists spar to a fine selection of karaoke classics in a wrestling-ring-inspired stage was its own reward. I remember enjoying this stage of the competition last year, but I don’t remember it making me as giddy as it did this year. Other than switching up the mentors and moving the training to “off-site” locales such as Blake’s creepy barn (it looked wet, and there was a space heater) and Christina Aguilera’s DivaCastle, I can’t put my finger on what they did to improve the formula. Whatever it is, it’s working.
The first battle is on Team Adam, between Tony “Christina Aguilera’s Childhood Soulmate, But It's Okay, No Biggie, Whatever” Lucca and Chris Cauley, who, as his bio on the official show site reminds us, is “a self-proclaimed massive Stevie Wonder fan” and “sports nut “ who “also takes time out to ice skate.” The performance itself was a mere trifle, an amuse-bouche, if you will, compared to the histrionics to come, but it was still a very juicy time for everyone, as mentor Alanis Morissette would say. She helped coach Tony, while other mentor Robin Thicke paired up with Chris. (“He has great energy for the room,” says Adam of Robin, which I’m just going to assume means he brought weed for everyone.) At one point Robin suggests that Chris improve his Bono posturing, demonstrating a Jesus-arms flourish which I just knew would be a kiss of death as soon as I saw it. Rule of thumb: never trust a guy wearing sunglasses indoors who refers to his audience as “the people” unironically. Anyhow, Tony’s working on a career-redemption arc that trumps Chris’ desire to honor his dead grandmother’s memory, so Chris gets the boot.
Next up, Blake pits Adley Stump (our dear friend Dazzler) against RaeLynn. Blake is a decently insightful judge in the audition phase, but, it turns out, pretty much awful when it comes to putting together these battles. Adley is all lungs with just a touch of twang (and thankfully, no headband this week); it made perfect sense for her to work with Kelly Clarkson. RaeLynn, however, is much more on the Dolly Parton end of the country singer spectrum, more old school and restrained in her delivery. To pit such different vocalists against each other with “Free Fallin’,” a song that gives neither an opportunity to show what their good at (phrasing, vocal punch) was never going to end well. RaeLynn, who I don’t believe was a bad singer, but who is just not right for those long airy notes, was trampled by Adley, but still somehow won the battle. Ladies and gentlemen, season two has its Xenia, and she is very, very blonde.
Team Xtina’s first pairing is the first truly genius one of the night—say what you will about Christina Aguilera, but she knows how to curate a sing-off for a reality-television competition (admittedly, a skill with limited applications). We’ve got operatic yet emotionally chilly Chris Mann vs. walking ball of emotions Monique Benabou on a totally over-the-top Celine Dion ballad that sits right at the crossroads of their musical styles. Personally, I was rooting for Monique, but the Broadway-esque synergy those two had on stage was better than anything I can imagine is going on on Smash, a show I typically have on mute while I write these things (the possibility exists that I may be missing the point of Smash). Chris wins, which is ridiculous because I can’t imagine him having an actual chance of winning the whole competition. I’m no engineer, but I’m guessing the solar panel Xtina was wearing on her head was acting as a signal scrambler that wound up having a negative impact on her judgement. (The 99 percent of the time she’s not wearing it? I got nothin’.) Still, good show, I say.
Cheesa and Angie are up next. When Cee Lo tells them they’re singing “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” I nearly chewed off my hand with excitement. While I wasn’t a Cheesa fan in the auditions, both her and Angie are tough singers, and “Total Eclipse” is a song that is nothing but build. Usually in the rehearsal bits, the two battlers tend to be amicable while still aware that the other artist is competition, but there was a wonderful bit of bitchiness during the arrangement process when Angie had the music transposed up a whole key, right on the edge of Cheesa’s range. Snap snap! During rehearsal, guest mentor Ne-Yo tells Angie that it seems like she’s holding back, and she responds with this gem: “Did you know I was in the military? Well, in the military they teach you to stay off the trigger ’til you’re ready to shoot.” Snap snap snap! As expected, the battle itself is brilliant, full of dramatic camera angles, and even a few lovely moments where the ladies were able to come together and harmonize. Shockingly, Cheesa takes the win, and Angie is ushered off the stage (but not before Carson Daly woodenly thanked her for her service).
So Christina and Cee Lo clearly know what they are doing with these battles, but Blake has a lot to learn. His second of his two flops tonight was Jordis Unga and Brian Fuente on Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic,” but this time, at least, Blake acknowledged that he had created a terrible three minutes of music, telling the two point-blank “it sucks.” I think Jordis did an honorable job of trying to rise above the material (and work with that wonky key-change halfway through to—I guess?—accommodate Brian’s range.) and was glad to see her win so we could all forget this ever happened, and move on to what is surely going to be one of the best battles of the next four weeks.
Christina pairs up her two gospel guys, Anthony Evans and Jesse Campbell to sing Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You.” Now, typically, I do not enjoy being “taken to church” on these sorts of shows, but by the end of this battle I was laughing with pure joy at what I had seen and heard on my television screen. Carson tends to lay it on way too thick with the boxing analogies in the intros for these battles, but this truly was like watching a heavyweight match, where the punches just kept coming down harder and harder from both sides. I loved Jesse’s “b-b-b-baby” moment (and Christina nearly jumping out of her seat when she heard it); it was the equivalent of a vocal grenade being thrown into the ring. It was clearly Jesse’s match from the start, but Anthony put up such a great fight, and both of their physical performances and wild facial expressions were off-the-charts, Kabuki-Baptist Realness.
Speaking of Realness, I realized about midway through this show that the battle rounds work for me in the same way that the Lip Sync For Your Life segments on RuPaul’s Drag Race do. (Are you not watching RuPaul’s Drag Race? I’m sorry.) It’s often a hot mess, but the sheer hunger it exposes in both parties is both poignant and a totally non-guilty pleasure to watch. There’s a definite element of competition, but once the music starts all the contestants have are their own resources to push them above their opponent, whether that be a series of ill-advised but miraculously pulled off vocal runs, or a few strategic tears. Needless to say, I am looking forward to the matchups over the next few weeks.
- While I don't think Miss Clarkson was necessarily being disingenuous, having the original American Idol champ wax poetic about how much of a Voice fan she was felt like at least one and half middle fingers at Fox.
- It must’ve been getting pretty chilly in the Voiceatorium for Ol’ Grandpa Levine to whip out the Hemingway sweater.
- Laughed out loud at Adley’s brother’s “WOO HOO!” in the middle of the silent auditorium. The pipes run in the family, I suppose.
- Carson let a 17-year-old farm kid drive his Kia through Downtown Los Angeles, which says a lot about how much that car is worth to him.
- Jewel was one of Christina’s guest mentors, and hearing her in coach mode made me (and I’m guessing five other people on Earth) just a wee bit nostalgic for Bravo’s extremely dumb, extremely watchable Platinum Hit.