Tonight’s theme was toughness. Everything was tough: the judges’ choices between singers; the singers’ choices about their songs, often making the wrong ones — it was a two-hour deep dish of difficulty. These are the knockout rounds, and each contestant is fighting the other to make it to the live playoff rounds next week. Past successes “left it all on the stage.” (Ahem, Ms. Allen.) Future failures cried. (Sorry, Savannah Berry.)
Some quick applause for Samantha for filling in for me last Tuesday when I was detained on the red carpet. She’ll be joining me for the season from here on, trading thoughts about the vocal prowess of America’s amateur class and swooning over Adam’s scruff. (Adam’s scruff.)
TEAM BLAKE: SAVANNAH BERRY VS. JUSTIN RIVERS
The songs: Savannah chooses “As Long As You Love Me” and Justin chooses “The Climb”
The knockout: Savannah whips out a guitar and a new red streak in her hair to put a country spin on Justin Bieber’s slow-burn jam-ballad, which has Blake telling her that she has much artistry as anyone in the competition. It’s bad, then, that her performance is a stretched-out, slowed-down mess, with a combination of sound levels, wonky tempo, and bad mojo swallowing up most of her energy. At multiple points, the guitar is as loud as her voice.
Justin opts for safer territory with Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb,” itself originally a pro-forma country ballad that was meant to push Miley toward safer territory. Blake warns him to show off his range and not his runs while performing — which Justin does with a sweet, sincere performance that is as methodical, quiet where it should be and loud everywhere else, as it is a little dumb. (But sweet!)
The verdict: Usher commends Savannah for showing that she can “transcend.” Adam says that she should be proud of what she did. Everyone loves Justin’s mile-long notes. Blake says he even did a good job on a Miley song! (Shade.) Savannah starts to cry before she is even not-picked and then she really starts to cry. It’s sad.
TEAM USHER: JOSIAH HAWLEY VS. JESS KELLNER
The songs: Josiah chooses “Back to Black” and Jess chooses “You Give Me Something”
The knockout: Josiah wants to show that he’s versatile with his electrified version of Amy Winehouse’s song. (Burning question: Why can’t he say the word “artist” without fumbling the last consonant?) And his performance is, indeed, a spin away from the most standard covers of the song…it’s just too bad Josiah wasn’t able to sub in any substantial pose for the grit that his voice can’t supply. Smoldering and snarling are not the same thing, and faking both doesn’t mean you have either.
Jess’ take on “You Give Me Something” is meant as an ode to her mother, who has struggled with alcoholism. It’s a powerful but nervous performance, with phrases that tend to flatten at the ends. The power notes are nice! Not much else is memorable.
The verdict: Shakira reminds us that Josiah looks like her boyfriend (he does) while Blake basically laughs nervously about Josiah’s looks and says “no homo” before saying that he liked Jess a bit anyway. Usher says that the song was meant to bring out Josiah’s bad boy side and — after a cruel fake-out — picks him over Jess, which is totally understandable but still totally stings a little.
NEXT: A “Teenage Dream” gone wrong