By Whitney Pastorek
Was it all a dream, PopWatchers? These past months, in which I did no blogging, covered no singing competitions, never ended a question with “[comma] PopWatchers” — did I hallucinate them somehow? Or is it possible that your Aunt Whittlz set out on a path in her life that led her from EW, circled through the Thousand Acre Wood, and deposited her right back here, to a PopWatch blog about a singing competition? Am I some sort of demented Tigger with a penchant for self-abuse? You be the judge!
Actually, please don’t. I haven’t missed that part.
Hi! I’m back, for a two-night-only limited engagement as your On The Scene Reporter Person for NBC’s hit singing/chair-rotating competition, The Voice. [Read Melissa Maerz’s recap here.] Are you excited? I am! In fact, after burning my brains to a crisp covering Idol for I-can’t-even-count-how-many seasons (what? it was only three years?), I couldn’t wait to get into the Voice soundstage, henceforth to be known as the VoiceBox, and start scribbling down the snark I’ve been storing in my wooden leg under all the bourbon.
Let’s set the scene! The VoiceBox is huge, easily twice the size of the Idoldome in every direction. It is very red, as opposed to blue, which I don’t think has any political significance. Instead of confiscating my BlackBerry at the door, they let me keep it, and the ushers even gave us helpful instructions about how to hide our phones should we need to text during the show. I was also allowed to have gum, which I chewed with gusto. There only seemed to be two rules: 1) no photos, and 2) no yelling out the coaches’ names. According to the reporter next to me, the second rule was new, and if you watched the show this evening, you’ll know exactly how effective.
From the last row of the bleachers behind the coaches’ thrones — which, in person, look even more like the video slot-machine chairs they’re destined to become — I was able to drink in the shiny, shiny stage and all the many, many people. I was not able to spot any celebrities, partly due to distance, and possibly because I’ve been out of the game just long enough that my Celebudar™ has been reduced to ash. If I craned my neck around the corner of the sound booth, I could spot some Voice Voted-Offs: Pip, James Massone, Erin Willett, Anthony Evans, Gwen Sebastian, and someone I’m pretty sure was Lindsey Pavao. Purrfect the cat was nowhere in sight, but after recently spending some time with her in an unrelated situation I’m pretty sure it’s because she would have a stroke on the spot.
The warmup guy for The Voice is named Bill. (I think.) Bill’s shtick seems somewhat less polished than Corey the Idol Warmup Comedian’s well-polished aww-yeah-Hollywood-make-some-noise patter, but the basics are the same: hoist the crowd to its feet, toss out some t-shirts, crack dorky jokes. At one point, I think he threatened to throw his microphone at the head of an elderly audience member named Ike, but thank god, it was time to welcome the judges. Blake, CeeLo, Adam, and Christina entered the VoiceBox, the screaming went up a solid octave, everyone more or less ignored Carson Daly’s arrival, and Bill got down to business. “When one person stands, everybody stands,” Bill explained to us, as makeup teams swarmed to blot the judges in their chairs. “Be LOUD. You won’t be able to hear Carson or the coaches — you can listen when you get home.”
Voice musical director/Dave Grohl impersonator Paul Mirkovich appeared to say hello to the coaches, CeeLo wandered backstage for a bit. “This show is all about positivity,” Bill continued. “No booing.” Some dudes with dust mops gave the shiny stage a swiff, the finalists appeared, CeeLo came back, and Bill killed the last minute before we went live by having some kid solo on “Rapper’s Delight.” And…
As the contestants were introduced, Team Adam received the biggest in-house reaction, although we must of course deduct decibels for the Pavlovian response in teenage girls every time someone in the VoiceBox says the word “Adam.” Taking that into consideration, Jermaine Paul seemed to get the most applause. I began to sweat. It is really, really hot in the VoiceBox, and, when Carson Daly or the coaches are talking, it is really, really quiet. Like, naptime quiet. It’s actually almost impossible to hear anything anyone says over the roar of the airplane hangar-sized HVAC system, which, despite the noise, doesn’t actually appear to be doing anything.
Jermaine Paul was our first contestant, and as his clip reel rolled, a small army of crew members and orchestral musicians swarmed the stage. Upon learning that Jermaine will be singing “I Believe I Can Fly,” some in the crowd yelped with excitement, but it’s a predictable choice. Still, he seemed to do a nice job, although every single one of his high growls was eaten by the sound mix and/or HVAC system, disappearing the minute they come out of his mouth. His glory note, however, did not disappear, and it was a doozy. I was also impressed at the way the entire crowd transformed into swaybots without any pre-show coaching. I imagine whoever first introduced that move to our young people must feel such pride. Jermaine was the only contestant all night who receives a standing ovation from all four judges.
No clue what Carson said after the performance — although I’d put $20 on “We’ll get to your coach, Blake, in a second, but first…” — and I couldn’t hear most of the judges’ comments until we got to Blake. “I’ve listened to that song a million times,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it.” Erin Willett and Gwen Sebastian jumped to their feet and applauded almost as hard as I rolled my eyes.
Upon our first commercial break, Bill came down hard on all the miscreants who broke the rules by screaming out the coaches’ names. Again, good luck with that. The makeup squads descended on the judges to blot. Carson stood in his corner, rehearsing his next teleprompter block, occasionally dancing and clapping in a manner that makes the infamously rhythm-challenged Seacrest look like Usher. As we came back from break to the dulcet tones of Christina Milian in the Sprint Lounge, I marveled at how Jermaine Paul was able to exhibit so much honest emotion while so close to so much product placement. And before I knew it, my girl Juliet Simms was on the stage.
I wasn’t prepared to refer to Juliet Simms as “my girl” until last week, when Adam’s bromantical tendencies sent my real girl Katrina Parker packing. I initially considered Katrina’s ouster to be the most odious miscarriage of justice since America disappeared Carly Smithson way back when, but after some soul-searching I’ve decided it’s a wonderful teaching moment for the young women of the world: The sooner you realize it’s a giant boy’s club out there, ladies, the sooner you’ll learn to fend for yourselves. But this is neither here nor there. Juliet did a very nice job with “Crazy” as her tribute to CeeLo, and I kept an eye on the light-up staircase behind her, which looked poised for an attack. Juliet did indeed seem quite sick, coughing her way over to CeeLo as we went to break and then immediately reaching for some tea. How her pipes do what they do on a good day is a mystery to me; how she sang through a cold last night was a miracle.
We reached our second commercial break, and Bill resorted to another which-team-do-you-like-best cheer-off, this time with Team CeeLo the clear winner. The stage got set for Christina and Chris Mann’s American Girl Doll Opera Theatre Storybook Come To Life duet, and the fog machines choked out the pit as their clip reel rolled. During the nice-but-snoozy performance, I got a little worried that Christina — who is also sick, in case you missed her saying it twice — was going to tip over, but she held it together just fine, as did the double-sided tape her stylists clearly used in bulk. During the subsequent commercial, Bill pulled a Mexican exchange student out of the pit and made fun of him.
It is revealed during the next clip reel that Tony Lucca, recipient of the 2012 Adam “Brocephus” Levine Memorial Scholarship Charity Grant, would be performing Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” because he is in need of another “moment,” per Adam. I do wish it was possible for Tony Lucca to have a “moment” without a novelty cover involved, but then again, he’s a hard-working career musician who’s probably played more half-empty pizza parlors than he’d care to count, and novelty covers have likely been his bread and butter. His completely-rewritten electric junkyard version of the hip-hop megahit got the room on its feet, and I deeply enjoyed the irony of someone trying to win a singing competition with a song that requires them not to sing the key word of the chorus. We were all in a really good mood, and then Christina swooped in for the kill.
The Facts: Although I of course could not hear her entire comment, I believe Christina complimented Tony on his lovely wife and children, then accused him of singing a song which was derogatory towards women. Adam responded by calling the offending word — which, mind you, remained unspoken — a “metaphor.” The crowd went wild, taking a screeching hard left into Tony Lucca defense worship.
The Analysis: First of all, I don’t believe that the use of the word “bitch” in the original version of “99 Problems” is any more or less offensive than the use of the N-word, which appears copiously throughout. Second, Tony Lucca’s version of “99 Problems” bore such little resemblance to the song’s original lyrics that I haven’t the foggiest idea what his version was actually about, so it may have been a metaphor, or it may have been total nonsense, and who cares? The cover was all just a big stunt to get our attention and win the game, right? Good for him!
Which brings me to third, and most importantly, What the hell is up Christina’s sparkly butt when it comes to Tony? What on earth transpired during those long-ago Mouseketeer days that might make her so hostile towards him? Or… are we looking at this completely the wrong way? Given that a consistently pro-Christina audience (“ILOVEYOUCHRISTINAeeeeeeee!”) suddenly turned so violently anti-Christina in the wake of her comments tonight, might it be possible that the two have been colluding the entire time and Christina’s ongoing dismissal of Tony is designed to trick us all into giving him our sympathy vote????
Okay, you’re right, that’s ridiculous. Moving on.
At least one person still adored Christina, and that’s Chris Mann, who serenaded her with “The Voice Within,” while the world’s sweetest mash note scrolled behind him. It’s possible I thought this was Mann’s best performance, but then I kinda liked the Coldplay, too, just for not being boring or expected. When he finished, Christina took the stage and doubled down with, “This is a real man, ladies and gentlemen.” I briefly feared that Chris was going to get on one knee and propose, but instead we just went to commercial. Bill found a fan in the stands who thanked Christina for “teaching me that I am beautiful, no matter what they say.” Christina was once again being blotted, and gave no sign of acknowledgement. “That’s okay,” said Bill to the fan. “I felt the same way about MC Hammer once.”
Juliet performed “Born To Be Wild” with her soulmate, CeeLo, who promised in their clip reel to give the song “more of a rock edge.” I wrote a series of question marks as to exactly how this might be done, and I guess the answer turns out to be “cage dancers.” I waited for Christina “Feminism Watchdog” Aguilera to leap from her chair and put a stop to the harmful symbolism of the female cage dancers remaining trapped behind chain link while the male cage dancers are allowed to run free, but no such luck. Over in the Voice Voted-Offs section, Anthony Evans just stared at the stage, jaw clenched, occasionally massaging the bridge of his nose. The performance ended with a fireball, and the temperature at the top of the bleachers easily reached 90 degrees. It stayed there.
I missed some stuff during the next commercial break because Bill was in my section and the girls in front of me were trying to convince him that being from Riverside counts as “being in from out of town,” but when we headed back to air, I looked down and CeeLo was sitting in Christina’s chair, talking to Blake. As Tony Lucca and Adam took the stage to perform “Yesterday,” a producer made CeeLo move back to his spot… but Christina never materialized. I squinted my eyes to make sure she wasn’t hiding down there, but no: Christina Aguilera was apparently boycotting the Tony/Adam performance. Was it out of spite or blotting emergency? We may never know. She missed a lovely rendition, bonus points for Tony’s nice guitar work. Somewhere in here, I spent a while pondering why, exactly, Adam felt like Tony is such a “kindred spirit” to him, and can only conclude that, in Tony, Adam sees the man he might have become had “This Love” not taken its toll: hard-working career musician, father, etc. Maybe when Adam is saying “kindred spirit,” what he’s really meaning is “cautionary tale.” And/or “spirit animal.” I don’t know. Anyway. Katrina Parker 4-Evah.
As we drifted through the doldrums of the Sprint Lounge, Christina returned. Her makeup team went to do even more blotting, but they were chased away squawking by a producer. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure Adam was texting. Poor Sprint Lounge. Then it was Jermaine’s turn to salute Blake. He chose “God Gave Me You,” a real letdown for all of us hoping he’d cover “Kiss My Country Ass,” but he did his standard great job with it, again nailing the glory notes and sending the crowd to its feet. Jermaine Paul was not messing around.
Next, Chris Mann sang “You Raise Me Up,” of course, with a sign language interpreter, of course, and a high school choir, of course, several members of which have clearly overdosed on Glee, of course. The only thing this performance lacked is a flock of white doves. With the exception of the strange dice-throwing motion Chris Mann makes with his left hand while he sings, the whole thing was a snoozer for me, and “You Raise Me Up” should be shelved for all non-Grobans from here to eternity. Even CeeLo seemed underwhelmed, eschewing applause in favor of a few moments of relief from his battery-powered fan. Christina, meanwhile, gave Chris a standing O and raved about how he “got here by talent alone.” As opposed to, you know, everybody else. Oy.
Over in Voice Voted-Offs Row, only Gwen Sebastian remained truly engaged as we moved into Blake and Jermaine’s “Soul Man.” Blake, who hilariously moonwalked (term used lightly) into the arena during the clip reel, seemed to be having the time of his life playing Awkward White Guy to Jermaine’s polished performer. It was either charming or horrifically embarrassing, probably depending on your preexisting opinion of Blake Shelton. When Jermaine and Drunk Uncle finished singing, they broke into a fit of the giggles, man-hugging their way off the stage to be replaced by Tony Lucca, here to show gratitude to his BroLord and Savior Adam by singing “Harder To Breathe,” the metaphor of which I’ll leave up to the room. And then finally, finally, as the last ounces of water dripped from our bodies and we began to question the meaning of life itself, we reached Juliet Simms’ performance.
During her clip reel, there was but a single microphone stand on the stage. No army of crew or choirs or cellists or cages or washboards. No discernible fire-emitting devices. No gimmicks. Just a mic stand. And I thought, My goodness, is this the moment we’ve been waiting for? The moment when Juliet stands there and raises us all to the heavens with nothing more than the power of her incredible God-given talent? Shall we now ascend? And then she announced she’ll be performing “Freebird,” and I think, There better be f—ing doves in this one.
Turns out she had a cape. And there was a wind-column effect thing during the fast part at the end from which the Voice band’s lead guitarist, Not Casey James, seemed to reap considerably more benefits. Indeed, when her uber-sincere performance of the most satirically-requested song in the history of music came to an end, all Juliet had really given us was her voice, that amazing instrument that can sound like a spoon caught in a dish disposal one moment, and ring clear as a bell the next. It wasn’t my favorite performance of hers by far, but I still think she should win this thing.
Unless Jermaine should. Or Chris Mann. Or, what the hell, Tony Lucca, who definitely scored points for at least not singing some predictable John Mayer crap or whatever would be the most “iconic” choice for a guitar-slinging white guy. (No, Lee DeWyze, not “Beautiful Day.” Thank you, though.) As I watched the group assemble on stage for the credits — Blake doing his silly finger-pointing thing at Jermaine’s head, Christina clutching Chris Mann’s Bachelor rose, Juliet grabbing CeeLo’s boobs, Adam and Tony being far too manly to touch one another — I couldn’t help but think that it was anyone’s game.