Taylor Swift, who served as a guest mentor — and a very astute one at that — on The Voice Season 7, returned to the series this Monday as the Season 17 Knockout Rounds’ “Mega-Mentor.” I’m not sure what exactly that means, and I don’t think Taylor knew either (“I didn't realize that I was now being called a Mega-Mentor; that's really gonna go straight to my head,” the 10-time Grammy-winning, 50 million album-selling superstar quipped), but I suppose for a pop icon of Taylor’s caliber, “Key Adviser” was just too lowly a title.
So of course, as the paired-up contestants filed in to the rehearsal room Monday and suddenly spotted Taylor in all her tousled-lobbed, iridescent-pantsuited glory, they all made instantly GIFable surprised-faces that didn’t look all that dissimilar to the gaping-mouthed, Keane-painting-eyed, clasped-hands-to-chest expressions that Taylor usually makes every time she wins another award. None of these aspiring pop stars felt any need to calm down, understandably. But Taylor, one of the best Key Advisers or Mega-Mentors or whatever-you-want-to-call-‘em that The Voice has ever had, did her best to make these aspiring singers feel at ease. And clearly she succeeded, when one of Kelly Clarkson’s hopefuls, Melinda Rodriguez, opened up to Taylor about the health struggles of her brother, Chris — who just so happens to be a mega-Swiftie.
Explaining her decision to sing Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” in the Knockouts, Melinda revealed to Taylor through tears, “I picked this song because of my brother. We love to jam out in the car and just listen to old-school jams, and he is your biggest fan. He has every single one of your album names tattooed on his body. … He was waiting for a heart transplant, and he just got called yesterday, so he's there [at the hospital] right now.” Melinda, who has a Fearless tattoo on her own body to match Chris’s, further explained the reason she’d stayed on the show: “Literally, he said, ‘You can't leave, because what if [the Knockout Rounds mentor] is Taylor Swift?’ I'm not even joking right now. .. He was like, ‘Don't be selfish. You're doing it for me, not for you!’”
Taylor stood there in shock, before asking for an address to send Chris some gifts (Taylor is really good at giving gifts) and demanding that she, Melinda, and Kelly engage in an impromptu group hug. “Melinda told me the most touching story, and it was this really unexpected, beautiful moment,” Taylor gushed.
Sadly, Melinda did not win her Knockout, even though Kelly gave her a standing ovation. Vocally, I thought Melinda was evenly matched with her opponent, old-school country belter Jake Hoot — but while Jake demonstrated a pure and lovely tone that Kelly declared one of the best country voices she’d heard in the history of the series and high taste level by covering Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” but he lacked stage presence. Taylor had even pointed out and try to correct his distracting tendency to agitatedly sway from side to side. Meanwhile, Melinda’s breezy, jazzy take on the Mariah ballad was, despite her heavy backstory, full of joy, and she seemed calm and confident onstage. I was certain that one of the rival coaches — probably jazzbo John Legend — would steal this talented song stylist, but instead, Melinda was shockingly eliminated. Now it was my turn to make a GIFable surprised-face.
Still, Melinda did Taylor — and, more importantly, her brother — proud. And now Melinda is reunited with Chris, who underwent successful surgery perhaps buoyed by the strength of having a new direct connection to his idol. “While I'm super-bummed that I couldn't continue on in the show, I just wanted to let you all know that Chris has since gotten his second heart transplant and is slowly recovering. Thank you to The Voice. This whole experience has been just unlike any other,” Melinda said in a follow-up video message to Taylor and the show.
Before Taylor showed up in the second hour of Monday’s show to share her wisdom and good vibes, however the Battle Rounds concluded. This was followed by a few other Knockouts. The disjointed formatting made Taylor’s mid-episode appearance all the more jolting and dramatic, but let’s go through it all chronologically. Then get ready to party like it’s 1989 all over again on Tuesday’s all-Taylor, all-Knockouts, one-hour eposide.
Team Gwen: Caroline Reilly vs. Jake Haldenvang, “Just Like a Pill”
Gwen Stefani paired these two up because they’re her resident “rockers,” though the P!nk pop song seemed to be chosen in favor of 16-year-old Caroline. (Gwen’s been saying for ages that she wants a “little pop girl” on her team.) Caroline had established herself as a formidable vocalist, so I was surprised-faced when I witnessed how much she struggled at the start of the performance. It seemed to be in too low a key for her, and she was clearly nervous. Caroline improved as the song charged into the chorus and she harmonized nicely with Jake’s rasp, which Kelly compared to Steven Tyler’s. But Jake, who’d admitted earlier that he’d been intimidated by a “bad mama jama” like Caroline, was the unexpected standout here, with a more unique and soulful tone.
Team Legend: Preston C. Howell vs. Mendeleyev, “Fire and Rain”
It was crooner versus the hippie, and while both were strong singers (and both were four-chair contestants in the Blinds), Mendeleyev was obviously much more in his element. He interpreted James Taylor’s weepy classic with gravitas and grit and grief, while Preston seeme3d, as John Legend put it, “wooden.” While all four coaches had marveled at how mature the 15-year-old had sounded during his Blind Audition, Preston just couldn’t connect to a deep, heavy song about suicide, depression, and addiction and in this performance, his youth and inexperience showed. The coachews went way too easy on Preston, however, saying he’d done a great job for his age (come on, this isn’t The Voice Kids), and John eventually picked Preston anyway. I suspect that this outcome had already been decided, no matter what, because Preston is supposed to be this season’s golden child. I thought Mendeleyev was more ready for prime time.
Team Blake: Jordan Chase vs, Ricky Braddy, “Rumor”
Team Gwen: Brennen Henson vs. Calvin Lockett, “Yellow”
These were montages, so I have to go more by what the coaches said than by what the contestants acrtually sang. Blake Shelton explained that he picked the singer more ready to compete and able to handle the pressure, and since Ricky was on American Idol 10 years ago, Blake’s decision made total sense. Gwen went with the contestant she was “most curious about.” I am curious to see more for Calvin myself, since I saw maybe three seconds of him tonight.
WINNERS: Ricky, Calvin
Team Kelly: Lauren Hill vs. Hello Sunday, “Wrecking Ball”
I am actually surprised this was not a montage. A contestant who had to try out seven times to even get past the open calls, up against some very green tweens? It seemed like it would be a disaster. This Battle wasn’t disastrous — Hello Sunday — had vastly improved since their unimpressive audition, and Lauren proved that all that practice had paid off — but it was just silly that Kelly chose to go with the cute kids. Thankfully, Blake gave Lauren yet another chance. Maybe the eighth time will be the charm for her.
WINNER: Hello Sunday / STOLEN: Lauren moves to Team Blake
Team Blake: Cali Wilson vs. Marina Chello
Marina has a massive set of lungs, but everything about her “I Who Have Nothing” performance, from the song choice itself to the styling, was fusty, old-fashioned, cabaret fare. I also didn’t feel much emotion in her delivery – it was all vocal acrobatics and fake, heightened drama. If you want to see this song done right on a singing competition, look up Haley Reinhart’s Lady Gaga-mentored American Idol Season 10 version. I thought this was actually very American Idol Season 1… and since Kelly seemed to really appreciate this, maybe I was right!
Cali’s “Wicked Game,” on the other hand, was an elegant, tasteful, and exquisitely restrained. Not a note wasted or overdone. I wasn’t into her kickboxing shtick before, when she seemed to be attacking the song just for attacking’s sake, but she showcased a new vulnerability here that John called “perfect” and Gwen called “magical.” The winner here was obvious. The kickboxer pulled off a TKO with this Knockout.
Team Legend: Katie Kadan vs. Max Boyle
I will say right now that Katie is my favorite to win this season – she has been since her Blind Audition, which kicked off off the Season 17 premiere – and if she gets the Swifities in her corner, she may be unstoppable. Taylor is apparently a massive Katie fan, describing Katie’s audition as “quirky and fun and funny and ballsy” and telling her, “You morph into a superhero onstage.” Taylor was not kidding. Katie brought the super-power and heroics to her Knockout Rounds performance of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” an absolutely ferocious and, no pun intended, fearless performance.
But the party was not over for underdog Max, whose rendition of Billie Eilish’s “When the Party’s Over” was as delicate and ethereal as Katie’s performance was wild and uninhibited. His falsetto was spectacular, his emotion was raw authentic, and his sense of dynamics was impeccable. John was a damn fool to pit these apples-and-oranges contestants against each other (Steals still exist during the Knockouts, but Saves do not, so he could not avo-d losing one of his best team members).
Thankfully, what was John’s loss was Kelly’s gain, and The Voice’s gain, because Kelly stole Max and kept him on the show. (Gwen also tried to steal Max, but since Kelly had wanted Max all along — she had been blocked by John during the Blinds — this was righteous retribution for Team Kelly.) I’d still love for Katie to win Season 17 in the end, but a Katie/Max finale would make for some must-see NBC TV.
WINNER: Katie / STOLEN: Max moves to Team Kelly
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