Two weeks ago, at the start of The Voice Season 20’s Battle Rounds, host Carson Daly announced that regular coach Kelly Clarkson was ill (“She tested positively for dummy,” Blake Shelton cracked this week, in his typical snarky manner), so Kelly had enlisted one of her former team advisers to fill in until she could return for the Knockout Rounds. That substitute coach, country star Kelsea Ballerini, made her final Battles appearance this Monday, assuring Team Kelly’s hopefuls, “I want you to know that Kelly, she is like Oz! She’s in this room, she’s watching, she’s texting me. … I’m an expansion of her.”
And in a sweet on-set exchange with one of Kelly’s young charges, Kelsea revealed just what a full-circle moment it was for her to sit in Kelly’s iconic red chair. “I always wanted to be Kelly Clarkson when I grew up,” she chuckled.
Team Kelly’s 21-year-old pop singer Ainae, who has always struggled from a lack of confidence, had explained earlier that a certain extroverted superstar had changed her life. “When I went to see the Weeknd at a concert, looking at how the Weeknd was performing, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Ainae recalled. During her commentary following Ainae’s Battle with Anna Grace, Kelsea then told Ainae: “I was reading about you, and I was reading that you love music and you had this moment at a Weeknd show — like, your ‘aha moment.’ And I had that moment at a Kelly Clarkson show.
“I was in the Pacific Coliseum in Knoxville, she was singing ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes,’ and I was just like, ‘I have to do this with my life.’ So, I want to say to you guys that whether you’re singing in a coffeehouse or in an arena, you can give someone that moment, like I had with Kelly and like what you had with the Weeknd,” Kelsea continued. “And that’s just a really cool gift to give someone.”
On that note, I just want to put it out there that if NBC ever wanted to recruit Abel Tesfaye (aka the Weeknd) to be a Voice coach, guest coach, team adviser, or Mega-Mentor — in another pay-it-forward casting moment — I’d be all for that. In the meantime, below are the final Kelsea-critiqued Battles of Season 20.
TEAM LEGEND: Deion Warren vs. Victor Solomon, “U Got It Bad”
This was the first time that power-belter Victor, who was not allowed to listen to secular music while growing up, was singing a non-gospel song on a big stage. John Legend noted that Victor needed to tweak or tone down some of his church-trained habits, like emphasizing runs and overextending his notes, so I assumed Deion would have the advantage in this Battle. But Victor was a natural, exuding personality and even outright sex appeal onstage. These two made a good duo, and their synchronized boy-band choreography at the end was a cute touch, making Kelsea gush, “I feel like I just went to a show, and I haven’t done that in a year, so thank you for that!” But Deion had some pitch problems, while Victor, a “soulful, precise vocalist” who “sings with conviction,” exceeded John’s expectations. Victor exceeded my expectations as well. John’s decision here was clear.
WINNER: Victor Solomon
TEAM KELLY: Ainae vs. Anna Grace, “You Know I’m No Good”
Kelly was looking for a certain “level of artistry” to “pull off” this Amy Winehouse classic, but I don’t think either of these sweet young girls, both barely old enough to sniff out Tanqueray, were up for the task. Anna didn’t even know this torch song. (Feel old yet?) Ainae actually claimed it was her favorite song, but the fact that she related its “I cheated myself, like I knew I would” line to her regret over being too introverted to enjoy her college experience proved she had no idea what it is about. This Back to Black hit is a dark, demon-exorcising story-song about betrayal, infidelity, excess, and addiction, not about being too shy to pledge to a sorority or speak up in class. Anyway, Kelly understandably wanted “anger and ache” from both contestants, especially from the laid-back Anna. And while Anna, a four-chair contestant, did her best — and did better — than the timid Ainae, this Battle still felt like Amy Winehouse Glee to me. I hope when she returns to the show, Kelly — who rarely falters as a coach — will make smarter song selections for Anna.
WINNER: Anna Grace
TEAM JONAS: Raine Stern vs. Andrew Marshall, “Adore You”
Apparently there is some sort of Kik-it revival going on, because an ex-member of that boy band, Colin Jamieson, competed on American Idol this year, and Andrew revealed this week that he had been asked to join Kik-it before a leukemia diagnosis thwarted his career plans. To be honest, I remember Andrew’s sad backstory more than his actual Voice audition, and I’d expected Raine, who gave my favorite audition of this entire season, to easily upstage him. She was even rocking the floppy Harry Styles curls and unisex floral tuxedo suiting, and as Nick Jonas noted, “She has that star thing about her.” I doubt anyone expected one-chair underdog Andrew, despite some cheesy lounge-act affectations, to absolutely reign over Raine vocally. But he did. Raine’s performance was meek, with none of the electricity and feel of her Blind Audition cover of MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” which was disappointing as well as surprising. Maybe as a bandleader and songwriter, she just felt lost without her guitar. Suddenly Nick, who had clearly (and understandably) favored Raine from the beginning, found himself in the awkward position of having to make his “strangest and toughest choice” ever — with all of the coaches declaring Andrew the victor and even Nick admitting that Andrew had “nailed this.” But…. Nick picked Raine anyway, apparently seeing more long-term potential in her. “This was not Raine’s best, but I believe in her and know she can do better,” Nick explained. I hope he’s right. Meanwhile, in an interesting plot twist, Blake quickly righted this seeming injustice, stealing Andrew because, as he pointed out matter-of-factly, “Andrew won the Battle.”
WINNER: Raine Stern / STOLEN: Andrew Marshall moves to Team Blake
TEAM BLAKE: Savanna Chestnut vs. Pete Mroz, “Have a Little Faith in Me”
I was rooting for Savanna because I’d found her Blind Audition, a creative and unexpected countrified take on a rarely covered Thompson Twins hit, intriguing. But while this John Hiatt classic might have been a good match for both singers’ vocal styles, it was a much better fit lyrically for Pete, a 45-year-old husband and father (and former bandmate of Blake’s, in Nashville group the Young Ryders). Dedicating the ballad to his faithful wife, who’s back home holding down the fort while Pete chases his deferred dream, Pete really connected here, singing from a place of desperation and capturing the song’s pleading, urgent sentiment. Conversely, Blake griped that the much younger Savanna “didn’t totally let people in.” So Pete prevailed, and this season’s Young Ryders reunion continues. “He gives it all he’s got onstage, and he’s still the great, incredible singer that we were when we were kids,” said Blake.
WINNER: Pete Mroz
TEAM KELLY: JD Casper vs. Kenzie Wheeler, “Fishin’ in the Dark”
I was unimpressed by JD’s gimmicky, busker-style one-chair audition earlier this season, and I was never quite sure why Kelly turned for him in the first place. Even during a pre-show green room phone call, Kelly warned Kelsea that JD was “pitchy,” blatantly planting this Battle’s eventual verdict in Kelsea’s mind. Interestingly, no footage of JD and Kenzie’s previously taped rehearsals with Kelly and team adviser Luis Fonsi was shown, indicating that things hadn’t gone so smoothly (which was probably why Kelly gave Kelsea that heads up). NBC honestly could have montaged this whole segment. Kenzie was a pro and “absolutely jumped himself into that vocal” (as Blake put it), while JD did his usual suitcase-drums shtick (which Blake said might’ve been holding him back vocally) and was relegated to mere backup-musician status. Kelsea of course obeyed “Oz” and picked Kenzie, saying the country kid was “undeniable.” JD’s novelty act might go over well on, say, the Venice Boardwalk, but it was not suited for the Battle ring.
WINNER: Kenzie Wheeler
TEAM JONAS: Bradley Sinclair vs. Rachel Mac, “Your Song”
This outcome was a real shame. For all of the coaches to declare this the best Battle of the entire season and give it a standing ovation, but have it not end in a Steal or Save, was just ludicrous. I wish this performance had happened earlier in the competition, not second-to-last on the Battle Rounds’ final night, because this sort of performance is exactly why the show’s producers invented Steals and Saves to begin with. Theater kid/crooner Bradley, actually looking like a pre-Sir young Elton John, was very much in his element; John said he had “confidence for days.” And Rachel, who confessed that she’d been comforted by Elton’s sweet song as a bullied child, also made her quirk work. The singers’ vocal contrast — Bradley’s resonant and gruff baritone, Rachel’s crispness and clarity — also worked wonderfully. Nick was kicking himself once again, but he had no more Save, having squandered it already on the talented but less interesting Devan Blake Jones. So, he picked 16-year-old Rachel, explaining that as a former teen star himself, he felt he could better help her navigate the competition. But this “Your Song” was as much Bradley’s song as it was the worthy Rachel’s.
WINNER: Rachel Mac
TEAM LEGEND: Carolina Rial vs. Rio Doyle, “Somebody I Used to Know”
Well, at least this final Battle, between two other teenage girls, made decent use of the season’s final Save. While this was another case of kids completely misinterpreting a bitter breakup song (Rio turned Gotye and Kimbra’s nasty he said/she said duet into something having to do with… her grandmother’s dementia?), both contestants did bring some attitude and fire to the stage. Team adviser Brandy, an ex-teen star herself, even hyperbolically claimed that Carolina and Rio displayed more confidence than she had at their age! (Not true.) Rio’s sonorous tone was more instantly identifiable, but Carolina’s strong signature vibrato also stood out. Neither of them had perfect pitch or control, and Blake was irked by that trendy indie “vowel thing” they both did, but both girls showed potential. We’ll see how much they can learn and grow as the series continues.
WINNER: Rio Doyle / SAVED: Carolina Rial moves on to the Four-Way Knockout
The Knockout Rounds commence next Monday, and in addition to the regular face-offs within each team’s bracket, there will be a cross-team Four-Way Knockout up for the public vote. Joining Team Legend’s Rio and Team Kelly’s Savanna in that showdown will be Team Blake’s shy and mousy Emma Caroline and Team Jonas’s soul singer Devan Blake Jones; I am thinking Devan has the big voice to dominate among those four, so maybe Nick wasn’t so wrong to save him after all. Whatever happens, it’s sure to be a fun and action-packed show, as Kelly returns to the set full-time and hip-hop legend Snoop Dogg guest-stars as Season 20’s Mega-Mentor. It’s gonna be nuthin’ but a “V” thing. See you then.
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