On Monday, The Voice Season 23’s Playoffs continued — and please note that, just like last week, I did not say “Live Playoffs.” Because, once again, this round was pre-taped. I’m still unsure if NBC is trying to work around Kelly Clarkson’s talk-show tapings, new coaches Niall Horan and Chance the Rapper’s busy schedules, or just retiring coach Blake Shelton’s senioritis… but as it turns out, only the last two weeks of Blake’s last Voice season will actually be live. And only those two weeks — next week’s top eight semifinals, and the following Monday’s final showdown — will actually be open to a public vote.
On long-ago, classic Voice seasons of yore, back when Blake wasn’t jaded and he and Adam Levine were still BFFs, viewers had weeks of live performances and interactive voting to get invested in each team’s singers. But now it feels like those days ended shortly after Mark Burnett decided that the Alison Haislip/Christina Milian’s job of “Social Media Correspondent” no longer needed to be filled, or after original coach Cee Lo Green’s mascot Purrfect the Cat lost her endorsement deal with Meow Mix.
Anyway. Last week, the 10 contestants comprising Team Chance and Team Blake performed, with those two coaches — not the viewers at home — choosing which four singers to advance to the semifinals. This week, that process repeated with Team Kelly and Team Niall, and this was an even more frustrating episode, because it could be argued that those two teams were even more stacked, and therefore even more hindered by Season 23’s curtailed schedule and team quotas. Kelly was “sweating!” and Niall’s heart was “beating fast” as they faced some difficult decisions, knowing they could only save two contestants from each of their five-person teams. “I feel like I could get it so wrong — but I can’t go wrong with any of you,” Niall told his contestants with a guilty shrug.
But just how right — or wrong — did Niall and Kelly actually get it this week? Read on.
“Oh my gawd, I forgot how smooth your voice is!” Kelly exclaimed during Monday’s rehearsals with D.Smooth. Well, of course she forgot — he has not performed on the show in weeks! D.Smooth was Kelly’s “Playoff Pass” contestant, which meant he bypassed the entire Knockout Rounds. And while that seemed to give him an edge at the time, winning the Playoff Pass wasn’t such an advantage after all. With a truncated season, plus the fact that so few Voice contestants from any season go on to have big careers, all that the contestants really get out of this show is exposure. And this season’s Playoff Pass contestants sat out the Knockouts — which meant less exposure! In retrospect, it was kind of like getting montaged. But D.Smooth made up for lost screentime with his vibey, floor-sitting, thoroughly modern performance, in which he took a Khalid song that Kelly had worried might be “too linear” and, through his expert ad-libbing, took it to another level. Kelly raved, “That’s my favorite thing you’ve ever done on the show,” and Chance said, “I can picture you in front of thousands of screaming fans while you do your little improv runs. This was the first time I really felt smoke from any other team. I wasn’t worried until right now.”
Cait Martin, “Alone”
As Blake pointed out, this song is “a monster” — Ann Wilson is no joke! — so I will give Cait props for not playing it safe. In hindsight, however, maybe this was too big a risk. During the verses, she wobbled and wavered a lot, either due to her heavy vibrato or understandable nerves (or both). And while Chance liked her dramatic, deliberate “slow walk,” to me it just appeared that her long, tight column gown was restricting her movement. Then the chorus kicked in, and Cait became very shrill and shouty. Even Kelly admitted that Cait had sounded better during rehearsal (when Kelly had prematurely declared Cait “one of the best singers” she’d ever seen on The Voice). Blake shrugged, “It seems like you sing the song great and hit all the big stuff, but it was just in some of those runs that the pitch got off for a minute.” Kelly assured Cait that “the performance was solid” and told her, “You should feel so badass that you just conquered that song.” I think Cait came, Cait saw, but Cait didn’t quite conquer tonight.
Neil Salsich, “Have a Little Faith in Me”
Neil took this John Hiatt classic, which he said is “like a hymn,” straight to church, Hozier-style. The conversational, confident performance checked all his usual boxes — rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, soul — and as usual, he made it look easy. Maybe too easy. As Blake put it, “All you ever do is come out here and be great, every time. You’re probably the most consistent person this season.” Neil’s consistency has caused him to slip under the radar for much of his Season 23 run, and Kelly, who only recently became his coach, wasn’t even all that familiar with what he could do. But Chance, Neil’s fan from day one, was convinced that Neil “could win the whole thing,” and Niall thought Kelly’s newest recruit just “threw a spanner in the works” when it came to her last-minute deliberations. Hmmm.
Ali, “Never Alone”
While doing a big song didn’t work out so well for Cait, Kelly was still convinced that “this is the time to do a big song.” And Ali, one of the most unique singers in the competition, seemed up for the task, taking Kelly’s advice to start soft and acoustic and then go full-on “churchy” at the end. Chance called Ali’s performance “fire,” and Blake said, “You have this way of accomplishing whatever your vision is. … It’s hard for me to imagine you not going forward.” Kelly told Ali, who is deaf, “You hear music better than most people; I don’t know if you know how special that is. … Your runs are interesting and cool and refreshing, and different from anyone else.”
Holly Brand, “Bring on the Rain”
It seemed unlikely that Kelly, who likes to win, would give up her one country singer, especially on a season that’s surprisingly light on country and her longtime rival Blake’s last hurrah. If there’s anyone left on the show who could beat Team Blake’s country crooner Grace West, it’s Holly. That being said, while I thought Holly’s Jo Dee Messina cover was pretty and tasteful, I don’t think it was the big emotional breakthrough that Kelly claimed it was or had hoped it would be. It was solid, but subdued. Kelly, however, was sufficiently moved, telling Holly, “You bring us to that place where you’re struggling and it’s painful, but you’re gonna overcome it. That’s a really cool thing that very few artists can do.”
RESULT: My choices were Neil and Ali, but I was 0 for 2 this round. Instead, Kelly went with D.Smooth and, as I’d expected, Holly. Neither were bad choices — as Kelly mentioned, she was “super-screwed” no matter who she grudgingly eliminated — but I was sad to see two of this season’s most unique contestants go home before even getting a chance to sing for America’s votes.
Ross Clayton, “With or Without You”
This soft-rockin’ dad had leaned more into the country/folk side of the rock spectrum all season, but Niall was convinced that Ross could grab one of the biggest stadium songs by one of the biggest bands of all time “by the scruff of its neck” and in the process showcase his “underrated range.” Irishman Niall seemed thrilled had U2 granted permission for Ross to cover their song, something they don’t do often, so he must really have believed it was worth the ask. (“I don’t know why people don’t do that song more often,” Blake mused, to which Kelly quipped, “I think you have to be an Irish coach to get it cleared.” Meanwhile, Chance didn’t know the song at all. The number of songs that he and Blake don’t know, combined, could seriously fill the National Recording Registry.) Anyway, Ross mostly rose to the occasion, belting like he’d bever belted before (Niall said he took the song to its logical destination, Belterville), but with his tinted shades, long lank bob, and black western-wear, he almost looked like a Bono cosplayer fronting a cover band called UToo. So, this was a great showcase for Ross’s vocals, but not for his originality or personality. Still, it seemed like a crowd-pleasing, universal song choice that everyone could love — everyone but Chance, that is.
Gina Miles, “Wicked Game”
Gina called this “one of the most moving songs I’ve ever gotten to sing” and explained, “I’m just going to tell the story the way it was meant to be told.” And I think even Chris Isaak himself would say this was how the song was meant to be sung. Gina so perfectly captured the dark and dusky Wild at Heart ballad’s core ache and sense of longing that Blake cried out, “Hell yeah!” in the middle of her performance, while Niall sat next to him covered in “goosebumps” and literally trembling. What a moment. Afterwards, Kelly praised the “rad” Gina for not making the “easier choice” to stay in her higher register after the first chorus, instead demonstrating her flawless control of her lower register as she “came back down to that low, moody tone that is so cool and mysterious.” Blake told Niall, “If you don’t put her through, you are not only fired from the show, but you are not my son anymore!” But I was pretty sure Niall wasn’t going to let his TV dad down.
Tasha Jensen, “Here”
Tasha put her entire heart into this Alessia Cara, outsider anthem, which she related to as an immigrant from Pakistan who has struggled to fit in while living in her new home city of Colorado. Niall admitted that this very wordy and choppy song “was always going to be a bit of a task, just from breath control alone,” and Kelly did think the song “got away from Tasha a bit.” But I think this was a valiant effort, with Tasha being swaggy throughout and finishing strong. “Wow, you’re on 10 from the time the song starts until it ends. One of the things I love about you is the challenges you set for yourself,” Blake marveled. But with Niall having such a stacked team, it seemed like this imperfect, if impressive, performance ultimately wouldn’t be enough.
Michael B., “The Joke”
This “theatrical dark horse” admitted, “This song is a beast,” but Niall assured him, “This song is vocally made for you.” As an openly gay man, Michael connected to Brandi Carlile’s story of disenfranchisement and marginalization, and he delivered such a stunning version that Blake told him, “I haven’t seen anyone pour more of themselves into a performance than you have.” Kelly tried not to cry as she exclaimed, “Why is this dude not on Broadway? … He is a finale singer. He is the guy.”
Ryley Tate Wilson, “When the Party’s Over”
“You surprise me every week. I don’t know how I forget that there’s a 15-year-old that’s doing stuff like this,” Chance told Ryley Monday. Iknow how he forgot: Ryley was Niall’s Playoff Pass contestant, so, like D.Smooth he’d been missing in action since the Battle Rounds! Ryley wisely acknowledged that he needed bring his A-game this week, in order to make an impression after skipping the Knockouts. And he sure did. Covering his favorite artist of all time, Billie Eilish, the artsy kid, who often feels like the black sheep of his sporty family, tapped into his vulnerability and what Kelly called the “perfect amount of drama.” And he performed, as Niall put it, “like someone who’s been doing this for 20 years.” The hyper-competitive Kelly even admitted to Ryley, “I am very, very, very, very scared of you.”
RESULT: This was an especially tough call. My choices, based on overall track record, were Gina and Ross, but based on this week’s performances alone, I had to go with Gina and Ryley. Niall chose the latter. The fact that standout singer who’d consistently received so much praise like Ross and Michael were leaving this soon, along with Neil and Ali, was, once again, disheartening.
And just like that, the top 20 are already the top eight. Next Monday, during the actually-live semifinals, Ryley, Gina, D.Smooth, and Holly will finally compete against Team Blake’s NOIVAS and Grace West and Team Chance’s Ray Uriel and Sorelle, with real-time public voting and same-night results. (Yes, The Voice producers have pulled a page from rival show American Idol’s playbook, and have done away with the separate results show, too.) Then, on May 22, the surviving finalists will compete. And then, just like that, it’ll be all over. The new champion will be revealed on May 23’s finale, although I expect that announcement will be completely overshadowed by all the ticker-tape festivities that NBC has planned for Blake’s long-hyped exit. See you then!
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