The beginning of the battle rounds makes it clear that even though we’re now well into the third season, The Voice still isn’t sure which show it’s supposed to be. It has dreams of being American Idol, with all the pomp and corporate-sponsored circumstance that entails, but insists on the artistic integrity that Idol only barely tolerates anymore. It spends even more time on contestants’ backstories than America’s Next Top Model Interview For Tyra Banks’ Daytime Talk Show. And now, after weeks of telling the singers that only their voices matter, The Voice thrusts them into a literal boxing ring to sing for the cameras, neon lights and their lives (insert Hunger Games reference here). Last week, I said the battle round is the most problematic stage of The Voice; after seeing the aggressively promoted new “steal” rule in action, this is still true.
As we saw with both Monday and Tuesday’s episodes, the battle rounds can turn out one of three ways:
- The singers and/or song choice are incompatible, meaning the performance never rises above solid karaoke,
- The singers scream at each other until they’re blue in the face and/or break the decibel level record previously held by CeeLo’s cockatoo,
- The singers actually collaborate to perform an interesting, nuanced duet that makes everyone sorry to see one go.
The third scenario is obviously preferable, but none of these outcomes truly provides a good showcase for a singer’s voice. If the goal is to judge a voice, simultaneously pitting two or more against each other rarely works; more often than not, the battle is about vocal power rather than finesse. In fact, the judges said several times that their battles didn’t work out quite the way they anticipated, and that they had to fall back on their first opinion to make a cut, anyway.
In fact, a huge part of the battle rounds’ ineffectiveness revolves around the judges, who are still struggling with how to work the matchups. Blake basically hands Scottish ’80s-style rocker Terry the win by tasking him and poor country-and-Stetson-devotee Casey with “Carry On Wayward Son.” CeeLo undercuts the talent of J.R. Aquino with Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” a fun song that’s extremely hard to sing in anything but a strained chest voice, and sends the flashier Diego onward. Adam tries to sell Sublime’s “Santeria” as more than the perfect soundtrack for Sunday afternoon beer pong, doing no favors for either Bryan Keith or Collin McLoughlin. And while Christina nails her song choices, she immediately pits Nelly’s Echo against De’Borah because they both knew struggle, or something. It’s poetic and all, but a terrible reason to pair two of her strongest singers together, especially when no one decides to steal the equally talented Nelly’s Echo once De’Borah wins the round.
So about this “Steal”: while its histrionics made it clearer than ever that yes, Survivor-mastermind Mark Burnett also produces The Voice, it can be a handy check and balance. If a judge pits two amazing singers against each other and has to pick one, the other judges can swoop in and pick up the discarded contestant. Nelly’s Echo wasn’t lucky enough to get the special treatment, for no apparent reason other than Christina complaining that he over-embellished The Police’s “Message In A Bottle” (which, coming from Christina, is hilarious). The Steal does work for Collin, who trades Team Adam for Team Blake, and Caitlin Michelle, who also defects from Team Adam for Team CeeLo. As by far the strongest team, I’d be surprised if the majority of steals don’t come from team Adam. Meanwhile, CeeLo hasn’t figured out yet that pitting two stellar contestants against each other is a surefire way to lose a stellar contestant, and loses Amanda Brown to Team Adam after her bombastic show of vocal force against Trevin Hunte.
At the very least, the Steal makes for good television. Like in the blind auditions, it’s hilarious to watch the judges practically launch themselves from their seats to grab a contestant they regret losing and furiously pound their buttons (there’s really no way to make that sound less filthy, and I’m cool with it). But unlike the blind auditions, The Voice is still trying to sell us on the battle rounds. They occasionally give us glimmers of brilliance—Amanda and Trevin’s final Mariah Carey run; Caitlin’s off-putting but beautiful version of Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” with Melanie Martinez—but there are so many factors at play that any one of them failing could mean disaster. And the less said about Cody and Domo’s “Telephone,” the better.
- The celebrity mentors airlifted in by the celebrity judges were fun didn’t have much of use to say other than “this will be a good battle!”, though it seem unfair to judge Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong based on recent events that took place directly after this was taped. But hey, Rob Thomas—you can feel free to step it up.
- In telling Aquile and 15-year-old Nathalie Hernandez to connect to each other more, Christina accidentally created an older-dude-meets-impressionable-ingénue flirting vibe that made a perfectly lovely performance unspeakably creepy. Leave that kind of stuff for Glee, guys!