Welcome to the first battle round edition of The Voice, b-rollers! We have 48 contestants who made it through the blind auditions – FORTY EIGHT, honest to God – and tonight some of them will take to the Voice boxing/singing ring thing to fight TO THE DEATH! Okay, maybe not “to the death” so much as “until Carson Daly declares one a better singer,” but still, it’s all very dramatic. This seems like an excellent time to mention that I’m re-reading the Hunger Games book trilogy in preparation for the release of the movie, so apocalyptic death matches are kind of my thing at the moment. Let’s do this.
First, a quick overview of the process: The judges will pair off their 12 team members into 6 duos, each duo will be mentored and “battle” on an assigned song, they’ll perform together in the singing arena of death, and the coach will determine which contestant moves on to the “live shows” (which are presumably eight to ten weeks away), and which goes home. I’ve condensed the several minute montage down for you, but there’s the gist. Also, the Voice winner gets a recording contract, which is exciting, and hopefully the runner-up receives Christina Aguilera’s Hell’s Angel-meets-Pippa Middleton fascinator as a parting gift.
Adam Levine’s team is up first, and he has welcomed his group of potential stars to a recording studio, where they all sit looking petrified. This is auspicious. His first battle will be Former Mouseketeer Tony Lucca versus Misses His Bluegrass Singin’ Grandma Chris Cauley. (I think their names have been legally changed by the Voice producers, FYI.) It will be a battle of the newboy caps set to U2’s “Beautiful Day.” Adam brings in Alanis Morisette to mentor Tony, and she asks him, “You’ve been singing since you were a wee lad; why is now such a juicy time for you?” Why isn’t SHE a judge, again? I’m already enjoying her way with words. Meanwhile, Robin Thicke counsels Chris on his body language, and I realize that this in-depth coaching is exactly what’s been missing from American Idol; it’s really quite fascinating.
But we must move on to the overly dramatic arena. The contestants are forced to march side by side into the auditorium on a long red carpet – like, from across the street, it’s a smidge over the top – and then loiter nervously backstage. Tony tells us that “losing is not an option,” and I hate when reality show contestants say that; of course it’s an option, as is fainting, wetting yourself, and accidentally tripping over Cee Lo’s cat. They’re not ideal, but they’re possible outcomes. Anyway,
Caesar Flickerman Carson Daly introduces the singers as if they were mixed martial artists and commences the song with “LET THE BATTLE BEGIN!” and this analogy officially gets out of hand. Let’s hear some singing.
The song begins, and Chris is overcompensating a lot for his nerves by smiling crazily; meanwhile, Tony is straining hard for his big notes (as Adam predicted), and I find myself liking Chris more vocally, but Tony personally. Hell, I hate when that happens. Chris’ wife sings along in the audience like she’s living out a Bono fantasy, and both finish strong; I think they’ve acquitted themselves perfectly well, without any major clunker notes. The judges go through who each would choose – and I would share their thoughts if they had any particular relevance, but the only thing worth mentioning is that Tony’s tiny daughter jabbers over Christina’s critique, and Christina barely refrains from screaming “I’M TALKING HERE!” – but ultimately the decision is Adam’s, and he chooses…Tony, who will undoubtedly perform during the live shows in personalized Mickey Mouse ears. (Meanwhile, I’ve been wondering throughout the critiques why Carson appears to be holding hands with both Tony and Chris – which is, you know, a little odd – but when Tony is chosen, Carson thrusts Tony’s hand into the air in victory. Carson, they’re not really boxing. Settle down.)
Now, a moment about the judges’ outfits. Cee Lo is wearing a letterman’s jacket with a poodle on one side (the cat must be jealous) and a war medal on the other. Adam has chosen a sweater from the Hipster Mister Rogers Collection. Christina is wearing aforementioned hat and a jumpsuit so low-cut that the editors almost certainly had to remove one or more wardrobe malfunctions from their battle round footage. And Blake has gone full-on Johnny Cash, in case we forgot he was a country guy. (My point: The judges’ styling for the evening was not Cinna’s finest hour.)
Moving on, we see Blake’s team gather on a ranch, with trees and rocks and fences. (The singers will later rehearse in a deserted honky tonk bar, and Blake may need to cool it with the stereotypical backdrops.) He selects Adley Stump and RaeLynn for a hee haw showdown set to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” whilst telling us that this should be an interesting performance because the girls are “completely different,” except for the fact that they’re both country singers with pitch issues. RaeLynn is struggling with hitting the big notes (ie, “freeeeeeee”); Adley is not, but she’s struggling with staying on key on her big notes. Same coin, different sides. Miranda Lambert and Kelly Clarkson show up to coach the girls, and Miranda gives RaeLynn the helpful tip that “It’s not about competing with her, it’s about competing with yourself,” which would be awesome advice if they weren’t singing at each other in a freaking boxing ring.
As we prepare for the battle itself, we get a product placement that was so bald, even the producers of American Idol grimaced and said, “Really?!” In it, RaeLynn checked her voicemail for a last-minute message from Miranda Lambert while driving her Kia to the battle performance. Okay, a couple things: First of all, I don’t think darling RaeLynn is old enough to drive anyway. Secondly, there’s no way she isn’t in a studio right now; her makeup and lighting are perfect. I thought you were better than this, Voice. I really did.
Anyway, RaeLynn parallel parks and joins Adley on the red carpet for the death march into the arena. (Sidenote: Adley’s hair is down! I honestly wasn’t sure she had another hairstyle in her. Her hair is still huge, though. You can take the girl out of Oklahoma…)
Time to sing. RaeLynn isn’t totally hitting the notes, but she’s showing some attitude; Adley’s got a much more muscular tone, but her pitch falls apart as the song goes on. When they try for harmony on the “free’s” in the chorus, my spine nearly shatters. It’s not the world’s best performance, basically; when it’s time for the judges’ comments, Christina tells RaeLynn, “You’re 17, and that’s an amazing thing,” a constructive critique that is the equivalent of the old Paula Abdul throwback “You look beautiful tonight.” Blake ultimately says that he’s looking for a “storyteller” and chooses RaeLynn, who indeed has more stage presence, but honestly, neither girl is terribly ready for this.
After the break: Team Xtina’s first battle. During the break: A Mirror Mirror ad, the first of TWO Snow White movies we’ll get this year (not to mention the show Once Upon a Time). I think this fairy tale thing has officially gone too far.
Next, Christina has paired opera singer Chris Mann with Monique Benabou, and assigns them a Celine Dion song. (Who’s shocked? Keep those hands in the air so I can get an accurate count!) They walk in for their mentoring sessions carrying those Sprint tablet things and all but announce that they’re available at your local Best Buy, so 2 for 2 on the product placement, folks! Keep it up, this isn’t at all obnoxious. They (the editing team) frame this as a battle between the classically trained Chris and the can’t-read-music Monique, as well as mercilessly pounding into our skulls that they both want to win for their moms; Christina (again showing 68% too much mammary) actually tells Monique, “All you want to do is give back to your parents, right?” and I roll my eyes straight to the ceiling. “Subtlety” is not the word of the day.
Finally, it’s time for battle. For the first time, we get rehearsal footage in the boxing ring as Chris and Monique soulfully sing “The Power of Love” to each other while Christina gazes at them as if she were watching Twilight. Monique says “I want this more,” which is another senseless cliche I’d like retired; you cannot quantify “wanting it.”
The song begins and Monique sounds breathy and pop-y, Chris like he stepped out of Il Divo. In trying to hit the big notes and outlast each other, they overdo their pitch (and actually kind of everything). Performance MVP is, in my opinion, Monique’s mom, who is swaying to the beat in a way that makes me rewind my DVR a couple of times. Christina hems and haws FOREVER and finally sends Chris through. Best wishes, Monique, you’re really talented. Go learn to read music, you may find it helpful.
Next we see Cee Lo assign “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to two unnamed contestants, and say no more, folks. I’m all in on this next battle.
After the break, we find out that the two who will be singing it are Cheesa and Angie Johnson, the Army staff sergeant (TM). In rehearsal, they actively duel and show off, and I love it almost as much as Cee Lo’s magenta pajamas. The unnamed rehearsal pianist is speaking up a lot; I’ve seen him in the rest of the rehearsal footage and just presumed they got him from the same silent bearded pianist boutique where they got the guy on Glee, but apparently this one’s allowed to have opinions, which is nice. (Also, Ne-Yo and Babyface give helpful tips like “don’t hold back” and “hit the big notes,” and then decide to race their Kias through a Starbucks drive-thru.)
As we get into the arena, the ladies dig into the awesome schmaltz with reckless abandon. Cheesa’s doing fairly well, much better than I expected, really, but Angie seems to have more shading to her voice. Cheesa hits her big note, though not perfectly – and there’s really just the one in the song, which stacks the deck ever-so-slightly – but Angie’s been great throughout the whole song, and if Cee Lo is smart he’ll pick her. Call it patriotism, but I just think she’s better. Unfortunately, one long commercial break later, Cee Lo picks Cheesa, and DAMMIT. But on a show with relatively few head-scratching decisions (other than fashion-wise), I suppose I can’t expect every choice to go the way I want it to.
Now we move on to Blake’s next battle, which will feature Swedish/Tongan Jordis Unga versus No Footage To This Point Brian Fuente in a battle of the rock “stars.” They will sing Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic,” and I hope Brian changes his lyric to discuss the irony of making a televised singing competition without gaining any exposure whatsoever. Immediately we see that Brian’s going to have trouble hitting the big notes on this song, which should be a problem since Jordis has such a crazy-good range, but…oh, wait, Jordis is psychologically and vocally falling to pieces so badly that she needs a special, non-rehearsal, one-on-one therapy session with Blake and Miranda Lambert in their hunting lodge. (Miranda is sipping a beverage from a strategically placed Starbucks mug. Dear God, WE KNOW.)
By the time we get to the Hunger Games arena, Jordis has completely freaked herself out by dwelling, for the fourteenth time, on the idea that this is probably her last shot at a singing career. (Well, if you spend every performance crumbling under the pressure, then that’s probably a safe bet.) She then proceeds to the boxing pit and underwhelms, but thankfully, Brian isn’t that great either; neither has any stage presence or energy, and Brian doesn’t quite have the voice for the song, and they end on a note that drops like a wounded duck. Blake, in a refreshing display of honesty, announces that he didn’t particularly like either of them. He eventually picks Jordis though it’s clearly based more on potential than reality. Go with God, Brian who we barely knew.
Next up: The epic battle between Team Christina members Anthony Evans and Jesse Campbell, which has been teased all damn night. This better be freaking GREAT.
Anthony and Jesse will be singing Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” which should be in their wheelhouse: They’ve got a similar R&B style, and they love vocal runs. We’re barely into the rehearsal footage, and already their harmonies are excellent, and Jesse is pulling out all the stops (and causing Anthony to tell the camera that he won’t be intimidated). Lionel Ritchie coaches Jesse on not trying to do too much with the song, sharing the advice, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” (Is that a real phrase? Do people eat elephants in real life, or just rhetorically to prove a point? I have questions.) Meanwhile, Jewel wisely counsels Anthony not to throw in runs for vanity, just emotion. It’s sage advice that we already know from the teasers will be thrown out the window once they get to their death match.
After the commercial break, we FINALLY get to hear this entire performance, and it is, in fact, quite awesome. The harmonies are gorgeous, and Anthony is much better than I thought he’d be – a good duet partner/competitor has significantly raised his game – but Jesse is singing with an effortless grace. Then Anthony hits a note that only dogs can hear, and this is, in fact, a DAMN BATTLE. Both guys made each other better, and it will be impossible to pick a winner; in fact, most of the judges’ commentary can be summed up as “GOSH DAMN.” Christina spends several minutes saying how upset she is about having to make this decision, but she does what she must, and chooses Jesse, who is a better overall singer and has a sadder backstory (single dad, used to be homeless). But hopefully Anthony has snagged a record deal out of this. He earned it.
Well, now! That was entertaining! Next week: More battles, more outfits, more psychological meltdowns. Who else is excited?