The Voice recap: It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Kaufman!
The last round of playoffs before the live shows holds an unexpected elimination and a powerful performance from Team Usher. Plus, we investigate the increasingly peculiar case of Bria Kelly.
Well, kids, we made it. The live rounds.
The journey was long and difficult, and I’m sure we both said and did things we regret. You said mean things, I said mean things, judgments were made, feelings were hurt, obscure entertainment entities from popular culture between 1982-2014 and select portions of the ‘60s were referenced. We had fun. We also learned a lot about each other. You, for instance, learned that I have a cripplingly small country music vocabulary, and I, likewise, learned that this is perhaps the most egregious flaw a person could have just short of being a racist homophobic anti-Semite who still defends Heroes in casual conversation. I’d also like to thank Baby Gap and Special K for providing my wardrobe and catering for these nightly recaps. I believe I have eaten so much Special K during my recapping of The Voice that they should just call it Special M, but hey, no more cereal! We’re moving on up! It’s only filet mignon and shirts with sleeves from here on out now that we’re entering the LIVE ROUNDS.
That’s right, the live rounds are finally on the horizon. They’re the magical assortment of episodes that play directly into our thirst for democracy and our unending quest for reality contestant blood. Deny it if you will, but you love seeing your least favorite artists struck with a look of total devastation as they’re unceremoniously booted back to their loving families in Wisconsin or nursing school in Montpelier or whatever other HORRID fates await them in their painfully normal lives. There’s also the glorious ability to vote for your favorite, which is a freedom we all take for granted on purpose so that we can later blame other people when our favorite singers don’t move forward.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Tonight saw one last entry into the playoffs, so let’s take a look at who sang on Team Usher.
Team Usher’s night begins with TJ Wilkins, “the music student who’s willing to take on any challenge” (except the Cinnamon Challenge, Saltine Challenge, Milk Gallon Challenge and Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Battle of the Sexes). The song is “Tell Me Somethin’ Good,” a funky, groovy tune which doesn’t really pose much of a challenge at all. It’s pretty much right square in TJ’s wheelhouse. (Unrelatedly, I’d like to think that if I ever had to enter *my* wheelhouse, I’d find my old Micro Machines collection and the giant waterwheel from Dead Man’s Chest.)
Performance-wise, TJ is expectedly solid. But was there anything here that really stood out and demanded TJ sail into the live rounds? When dearly departed contestants like Patrick Thomson and Morgan Wallen are giving their best performances and still getting eliminated, surely TJ should have brought at least a little more pizazz to the performance.
Adam astutely points out that TJ’s M.O. is to entertain people, and he sure does, but you know what else entertains people? Vegas lounge singers. Cat videos. The 3D Windows screensaver where you’re in a maze. Frankly, TJ has been a lot better, and I was disappointed in this week’s entry.
Usher busts out the “Unfortunately, this is gonna be hard” card, which doesn’t exactly signify that he’s leaning one way or another. I wouldn’t call TJ a shoo-in for the live shows, but he’s probably got a chance, especially if Team Usher’s next four singers physically bind and torture someone live on stage while singing “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Then he’s definitely a lock.
Blake also doesn’t know what a tenor sax is, which I’m inclined to say is unacceptable, but then I remember that I didn’t know what a Blake Shelton was until about three years ago, so I guess we’re even.
NEXT: MJ takes the stage and, oops, yeah, I wish she wouldn’t
Say hello to your number two singer tonight, Melissa “MJ” Jimenez. We last saw Melissa rocking a Kenan & Kel-meets-Kendall Jenner jersey and manically tossing her hair like Gloria Estefan if you told her there’s a spider on her neck.
I’d like to believe MJ has chilled out a little bit since her battle with Music Boxxxx, and it seems that she has, casually bringing up this one time at
band camp Usher’s concert when they shared “a cool moment,” and Usher’s saying, “Yep, yep” which is his way of pretending to acknowledge that he remembers without having to admit that he actually remembers literally zero things about this encounter.
Anyway, onto MJ’s song. She opts for Beyonce’s “Halo,” an emotional ballad that MJ is—everybody take a shot!—stripping down. Jeez, one more stripped down song this year and the Parents Television Council is gonna launch a campaign against acoustic guitars. “Because I’m stripping it down, there’s nowhere to hide,” MJ confides, and I giggle because, come on. That comment is just terrible. I suppose I’m being harsh on poor MJ when she just wants to party and make music like a glitterless Kesha, while instead I’m treating her like she just used my good kitchen shears to open a FedEx box. Sorry, MJ. Proceed.
The song begins and the actual performance is relatively prosaic—the song is way too difficult for her—but then she launches into an admittedly elegant whistletone section that makes everyone perk up, including Blake. Will her fierce flageolet impress Usher? Not likely. Shakira tells MJ her song choice was brave. Adam says she took a risk but it didn’t ultimately pay off. Blake, who says he doesn’t know the song and thus you guys can’t yell at me for not having heard Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs,” says MJ did pretty dang good. All milquetoast comments that don’t exactly promise big things for MJ’s future.
Usher ends with basically the biggest tease in the history of elimination decisions: “I hope that you’re ready to continue…to love music.” Uh oh? Bye bye, MJ.
Third up this evening is “soulful ex-rocker” Stevie Jo! My boy Stevie! His hair may say Steven Tyler, but his heart is saying Stevie Wonder. And personally my heart is saying Stevie Jo because he is all kinds of weirdly adorable.
I’ll boil my love for Stevie Jo down to this: he’s humble. He’s talented. He’s kind of dorky but also edgy. He knows his style and doesn’t try to change it up, both in terms of music AND wardrobe, which admittedly could use a little fixer upper, especially when he lets his hair down and looks like Vanessa Hudgens. Stevie’s performances have grown in both power and surprise, and that’s why I have faith in him to light up the stage again.
B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” is the name of the game here, and Stevie delivers. The song doesn’t offer much variation, but Stevie makes the most of it and interprets it in his own bygosh interesting way. Blake says Stevie sings like he’s sneaking up on a rabbit, a bizarre compliment that, really, isn’t actually that bad compared to some of the other things that have been said this season. Shakira and Adam both enjoyed most of it. Usher doesn’t lay on the love like I hoped he would, but it at least sounds like he’s singing a happier tune than he did with TJ and MJ.
We also get to see Blake’s impression of sneaking up on a rabbit. I give it a B—.
NEXT: The polarizing case of Bria Kelly
Fourth on the line is Bria Kelly, who has been a polarizing figure this year. Some say she’s a frontrunner; others don’t see what the big deal is. I suppose I’m a member of both camps. I’m willing to believe that there’s a serious contender in Bria, but I also wouldn’t be upset if Usher manifested himself as a Teen Angel descending from the heavens and urged her to go back to high school. (This reference brought to you by the year 1978.)
I don’t really know how to feel about Bria. Her overall demeanor is that of a milk crate—functional and unassuming and dependable and hard to malign, but when it comes down to it, it’s still just a milk crate. Personality is not the plentiful resource on Planet Bria. She chooses to sing The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and it’s all over the damn place. It’s pitchy and there’s some unexpected rasp in her voice that I don’t remember ever being there before, and frankly, I don’t want to hear it again.
The judges all give her some exceptional praise, and I’m just sitting here on my couch wondering why Bria makes me feel more like an Elphaba than a Glinda, and then Blake lauds her past battles (he’s stolen everyone she’s beaten, which he says is a testament to how good Bria is) and I still don’t see it. But hey, it sounds like Bria’s going through to the live rounds regardless of my uncertainty, so I guess I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. But there is LOTS OF DOUBT. What oh what to make of this girl?! Never part of any crowd! Cause her head’s up on some cloud! No denying she’s a funny girl, that milk crate.
One more artist stands between us and the live shows, and his name is Josh Kaufman. Usher stole Josh during the second round of battles, and he picked up one hell of a great singer. Josh hasn’t been heavily featured in promos but he’s been one of my favorite talents throughout the whole season, and every time it’s his turn to sing, I get just as excited as when I’m at a bar and “When You Believe” (feat. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston) starts to play.
Josh picks “It Will Rain” by Bruno Mars and he’s not ten seconds into the song when it’s already clear that he’s in the top three in this competition. He’s got an everyman appeal that will likely win over voters, and there’s an undeniable passion in his performance that makes him a genuine joy to watch and listen to. Hell, I’d pick up Josh’s album, and I haven’t picked up an album since I briefly took up scrapbooking for 18 hours last August. I have great faith in Josh and I’m willing to pin about 20% of my loyalty on him going into the live shows.
The coaches all agree that Josh is one of the best singers of the season. It’s kind of annoying that there’s nothing more interesting to say about him at this point. He’s just that good (but not too good, a la Sisaundra). I genuinely can’t wait to see what he does in the first week of the lives.
ELIMINATION TIME arrives, and it’s our last time deferring to the coaches before the decision is ours. Ah, the sweet smell of democracy is lingering! It’s tangible, wafting softly through the air like a neighbor baking brownies (the regular kind, not the Seth Rogen kind).
Usher starts things off by bringing Bria Kelly through for some inexplicable reason. Yes, I suppose she was maybe the third best performer of the night, but still. Milk crate. Second, he “gives this opportunity” to Josh Kaufman, which sounds a little more condescending than it maybe ought to have been considering that Josh is the best singer on his team. And finally, after last chance pleas that find MJ doing her best Disney princess “I’m ever so grateful” impression, Usher ignores everything wise and takes TJ along for the ride. Bye bye, Stevie Jo. I loved you so. I can’t believe Usher would do this to you, but sometimes bad things happen to good people. Usher made a horrible move letting you go.
MJ, please delete my number and don’t call me.
With that, we’re on to the live shows! Join me next Monday on Twitter as we enter the wild world of crowd-based decision-making, and stick around EW.com for my Top 12 Power List!