The Voice is now entering its ninth season, but you’d be forgiven if you thought you were still watching season 8, and NBC had just chosen to take a slightly extended commercial break. It’s been a mere four months since we last checked in with these crazy kids, and Sawyer Fredericks is still a fond memory whose voice has not yet faded into the recesses of time — though, considering what’s become of his fellow winners, I predict the he’s got precisely 37 days left before Mark Burnett presents his pristine vocal cords as a ritual offering to the Neilsen Ratings Company. (That’s what happens to unsuccessful Voice stars, right? I swear Carson mentioned it.)
Season 9 kicks off with the now-traditional group performance from coaches Pharrell Williams, Gwen Stefani, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton, each singing part of another coach’s song. (Blake takes on No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” which actually sounds pretty good, country-fied.) The number is completed by gloriously cheesy graphics introducing our old friends, and each coach remarks on what makes The Voice so special. “If I get another win, it means an artist on my team has won,” Pharrell shares, explaining the concept of winning to the millions of (now more knowledgeable) viewers watching at home.
In the next package, the boys reunite with Gwen, who took last season off. They each offer her a special present to celebrate her return. Adam gives her flowers. Pharrell gives her a personalized shirt. Blake literally gives her a bag of dog s— tied to balloons. I do not understand how NBC possibly let that happen, but I am so thankful for the tiny nuggets of bizarreness that are nestled throughout this show.
Then, we’re on to the Blind Auditions. Here we go:
First up is Mark Hood, a 24-year-old soul-pop artist from Chicago. Mark’s biggest claim to fame thus far is that he once played a dead person on TV. More precisely, he played Guy at Nightclub on an episode of Chicago Fire. Watch the spoilers, Mark, some of us might want to watch that some day, and now we know Guy at Nightclub dies. As Mark proudly explains, the bigwigs at Chicago Fire don’t let just anyone play a deceased person. He had to audition for the role, and darn it if he didn’t beat out every other pretending-to-be-dead actor in the room. Luckily, his Voice audition goes just as well. Mark earns a four-chair turn with his rendition of Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” getting the premiere off to a solid start. He adds a touch of rock grit to the soulful oldie, making it his own, and his dancing showed off his high-energy personality to good effect. In the end, Pharrell tells Mark he “sold it,” and Mark becomes the first member of Team Pharrell.
Next is Kota Wade, a 23-year-old from Hollywood. Kota is currently in an Evanescence-style rock band, Bad Wolf, but she sings Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” with a decidedly country twist, which she insists is soul. Girl, if you’re gonna go for it, go all the way. Rock that twang! Kota does add a nice growl here and there, but her voice isn’t particularly distinctive and, considering the talent we’re sure to experience over the next two hours, I don’t see her having a huge impact this season. Apparently Blake, Gwen, and Pharrell all disagree with me, because they all turn around for her. Gwen tells Kota their partnership is “meant to be” and claims her as the first member of Team Gwen.
Keith Semple, a Chicago singer by way of Northern Ireland who aspires to be a “husband by day, rock star by night” (as opposed to a well-adjusted “rock star by day, person who gets eight solid hours of sleep by night”) is the next Voice hopeful. Like Kota, he’s also in a band, Chicago’s own 7th Heaven, which, he proudly proclaims, once opened for Bon Jovi and Kid Rock. Keith sings “I’ll Be There for You” (the Bon Jovi hit, not the Friends opening theme, though that would have been a zany turn of events, wouldn’t it?). As soon as the first notes leave Keith’s lips, the camera zooms to Adam, and you can see it in his eyes: the first faint stirrings of bro love. Keith’s voice has a really clear, pure tone (though not an ounce of rock grit), and both Adam and Gwen are feeling it. While Keith’s trying to choose between the two, Blake helpfully weighs in: If it were his call, “I could spend the season in rehearsal room with Gwen,” he raises his eyebrows suggestively, “or with Adam,” he frowns, to demonstrate that, with Adam, Keith would probably have to see his coach as a human equal. The temptation is strong, but Keith chooses bros over musically gifted, trail-blazing females, and joins Team Adam.
Rounding out the first hour of the Blind Auditions is Siahna Im, who claims she is a 15-year-old high school student from Auburn, WA, but whom I have a sneaking suspicion is actually a very precocious infant. This girl looks like she should still be playing dress up, not belting it out on stage like the fourth member of The Supremes. When Carson asks Siahna what got her into soul, she tells him, “When I was in the third grade [like six months ago], I heard Ray Charles, and that’s when I decided to sing soul music.” Now, hold that quotation in your mind, and imagine Marcel the Shell saying it, and you will have an exact representation of Siahna Im. This girl is magical, and I love her. Gwen, Pharrell, and Blake love her, too, and they all turn for her after hearing her go to town on Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” (Girl, you should not be singing about sex things, you are like still in the womb.) After much pleading and cajoling, Siahna joins Team Pharrell. Back stage, she cries, “I’ve been dreaming of this my whole life,” confirming that she’s wanted to be on The Voice for at least four years.
NEXT: Adam turns on the smarm for a Very Special Blind Audition™[pagebreak]
At the top of the second hour comes a new segment, which the show has been teasing all night. Instead of the normal package each contestant gets, we don’t see the singer (or hear their requisite sob story) before they go on stage. It’s like we’re the coaches. It only takes a few lines of Sia’s “Chandelier” to ring out through the theater before all four coaches are scrambling to buzz in. They turn to find Jordan Smith, a young guy from Harlan, KY, who has one of the strongest, highest, most expressive — and frankly, beautiful — voices we’ve heard on this show in a while. The Very Special Blind Audition™ was a pretty cheap ploy that the show didn’t need to highlight Jordan. He could do that all by himself. In fact, Jordan endeared himself to all the judges, and to me, precisely because he didn’t have a sob story. He acknowledged that he’s had problems fitting in, but, as he put it, “being different is what made me special, that’s my gift.” For once, that platitude felt genuine. “I think you’re the most important person that’s ever been on this show,” wheedled Adam, sounding entirely not genuine. Still, it worked (or Jordan just smartly picked the coach whose voice most matches his own). Jordan becomes the second member of Team Adam, and Blake remains team-less for now.
After Jordan, Nadjah Nicole takes the stage to perform “Tightrope” by Janelle Monáe, an artist Nadjah says she hopes to emulate. I am 100 percent behind that — more Voice singers should aspire to be funky and weird and progressive and trend setting — but “Tightrope” is not the best audition song. It’s super fast, and has a big band sound, which can overshadow the vocal. Nadjah was obviously nervous, and barely moved an inch, but she helped herself by rearranging certain phrases to show off more range, including a high note that made Adam whip his head around. At the last moment, both Adam and Blake pushed their buttons. They bickered like a married couple for a few minutes, and then Nadjah surprised everyone by becoming the first member of Team Blake.
The penultimate singer to make it through is another 15-year-old, Braiden Sunshine (though he looks like he actually could be a real, live teenager, specifically Modern Family’s Nolan Gould). Braiden tells us that, like Sawyer Fredericks, he’s also from a small town (Lyme, CT), and last season’s winner inspired him to try out for the show. I fear comparisons to Sawyer won’t work in Braiden’s favor, however. Braiden also dusted off a folk-rock tune, complete with guitar accompaniment, for his audition: Blues Traveler’s “The Mountains Win Again.” He sounds … fine. His voice is strong, but not strong enough to beat other contestants who have made it through tonight. Pharrell and Gwen both turned for him at the last possible second. Gwen’s argument to join her team is that she’s a mother of three boys, so she knows how to fight. Pharrell, in his first untruthful-sounding moment of the night, tells Braiden, “There will never be a voice like yours.” It seems as though Sawyer’s former coach has Braiden’s full attention, but the kid pulls a fast one and joins Team Gwen.
The very last slot of the night usually goes to an especially promising singer, and this episode was no exception. Barrett Baber is the first hard-core, bone-deep country singer we’ve heard yet. His rendition of The Jeff Healey Band’s “Angel Eyes” sounds radio-ready, and Barrett himself has enough stage presence to fill an arena. He looks more than comfortable on stage — in fact, he may need some reining in from his coach so he doesn’t get sloppy. But for now, his performance was good enough for another four-chair turn. Adam grovels, “I will destroy for you. I am on fire for you.” But Barrett picks the obvious choice, and becomes the current MVP of Team Blake.
Team Pharrell: Mark Hood and Siahna Im
Team Gwen: Kota Wade and Braiden Sunshine
Team Adam: Keith Semple and Jordan Smith
Team Blake: Nadjah Nicole and Barrett Baber
What did you think of the season premiere of The Voice? Are the singers up to snuff? Can Keith come between what Adam and Blake share? And what’s up with Gwen’s weird side bangs?