On Monday, The Voice Season 16’s top 24 — popular coach Blake Shelton’s eight contestants, Kelly Clarkson and John Legend’s six each, and increasingly unpopular coach Adam Levine’s four — competed for spots in the top 13 Live Playoffs, and many of them played it frustratingly safe. And while it was understandable that they wouldn’t want to take a big risk at this crucial stage in the game, their conservatism made for a rather bland two hours.
So kudos to the brave contestants who actually tried to shake things up, like Presley Tennant, Domenic Haynes, Mari, Oliv Blu, Lisa Ramey… and especially Team Blake’s Kendra Checketts.
Until this week, I had no idea that the under-the-radar Kendra — a one-chair turn for Blake in the Blinds — could sell this sort of go-big-or-go-home drama. Hissing the spooky and very new Billie Eilish track “Bad Guy” in a health Goth (yes, that’s a thing)/ravergirl outfit that made her look like Sporty Spice after a Hot Topic shopping spree or an extra from the cult movie Tank Girl, she began the performance crouching on some sort of octagonal neon altar, then served some Bishop Briggs realness as she bounced around, working the audience like she was playing side-stage on the Warped Tour. And that fake ending? That was theater!
Sure, it was all a bit awkward… but in an intriguingly messy, ‘90s-rocker-chick way. It was fierce. It certainly wasn’t boring. And Kendra lent her power-vocals to the whispery Eilish tune, too, making the song her own.
I am sure that Kendra’s choices will alienate more old-fashioned voters, particularly the Team Blake voting block that’ll gravitate towards predictable country performances by Andrew Sevener and Dexter Roberts. But Blake did quite all right with Season 13 winner Chloe Kohanski — a woman who went onstage in Bowie lightning-bolt suits with Man Ray-inspired glass tears affixed to her face and dueted on “White Wedding” with Billy Idol — so, you never know.
Besides, team quotas no longer apply this season — on Tuesday’s results show, the top eight will advance based on the votes, so technically all eight of Blake’s contestants could make the top 13. As for who else could make it, each coach will get one wild-card pick — so it’s possible that there’d be only one Team Adam contestant (hopefully Domenic) represented in the finals. Additionally, Comeback Stage winner Kanard Thomas and one TBD contestant that was cut during the Cross-Battles (hopefully Kayslin Victoria) will vie for the lucky 13th spot.
Got all that? OK, then. Let’s assess Monday’s other 23 performances — the good, the bad, and the boring.
Rod Stokes, “Midnight Rider”
This was hardly a mind-blowing performance, but it was solid, and it established Rod as the sort of stay-the-course, slow-and-steady-wins-the-race contestant that’ll probably make it a lot farther than many so-called frontrunners.
Matthew Johnson, “Ordinary People”
This was another old-school performance from the jolly and inoffensive balladeer — very American Idol Season 2. But hey, that’s what America loves (or at least the aging demographic of America that still watches terrestrial TV). John certainly seemed pleased with Matthew’s smooth and silky tone on his song, and Kelly’s famous stankface was the ultimate sign of approval.
Rebecca Howell, “Wild One”
This wasn’t a wild one. This was another generic country-fair performance from the woman who robbed Beth Griffith-Manley of her rightful spot in the Playoffs last week. But again, America will love it.
Presley Tennant, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”
Finally a contestant that took an artistic chance! Not only did Presley, like Kendra, do a very new tune (by Mark Ronson and former Voice coach Miley Cyrus), but she deconstructed it, slowed it way down, and turned it into Billie Eilish-sings-the-blues torch song. My heart will break if Presley leaves the building before the top 13.
Abby Kasch, “I Got the Boy”
I preferred sassy Abby doing an uptempo barnstormer last week; that Gretchen/Dixie/Miranda feisty-filly shtick suits her. But ballads do tend to better connect with viewers, so this Jana Kramer song choice was probably a smart strategy. Thankfully, some of Abby’s fun personality still came through.
Jej Vinson, “Love Lies”
Jej had a rough night last week, but he’s still cool and current, so I never stopped rooting for him. This was an improvement over last Monday’s sluggish Bruno Mars cover, but it seemed in too low a key and didn’t capture the glory of his standout Blind Audition. Maybe Jej would be better off doing uptempo tracks.
Lisa Ramey, “The Weight”
Lisa has been inconsistent this season (and last season, when she tried out and turned no chairs), but I’m starting to take notice of her. Along with her fierce Nona Hendryx styling (that pony-hawk and those gold Pretty Woman boots were ev-e-ry-thing), her vocals sounded strong here, and her roots-rock song choice by the Band was a nice surprise. I may have underestimated this lady.
Jacob Maxwell, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
Jacob did not deserve to be saved last week, and I don’t think struggling through a mawkish, range-y Bonnie Tyler power ballad was the best way to redeem himself this week. His weak vocals were at least partially eclipsed. To quote another one of Bonnie’s hits, I’m holding out for a hero, and Jacob isn’t it. And to quote “Eclipse,” I don’t think forever’s gonna start tonight. This might be the end for Jacob.
Jimmy Mowery, “Youngblood”
Jimmy knows he’s a youngblooded Season 16 heartthrob, so I suppose it made sense for him to do a 5 Seconds of Summer song. Five seconds was really all I needed of this. He was flat in parts, and out-of-breath in others. But overall, Jimmy was giving me Chris Jamison pop-lothario flashbacks, so I wouldn’t rule him out just yet.
Celia Babini, “The Chain”
Celia was a disaster in the Cross-Battles, but with “The Chain,” she picked up some of the slack. Chloe Kohanski did a much better job with this Fleetwood Mac classic in Season 13, and of course Celia’s acquired-taste voice, which always oddly veers between a frog-croak and a hysterical shout, was nowhere near a Stevie Nicks level. But the dark, driving song tapped into Celia’s witchy-woman vibe, and she really sold it. At least she was never dull.
Maelyn Jarmon, “Fallingwater”
I’m not sure what Maelyn can do career-wise once this show is over, because past female winners with a mature and elegant sensibility, like Tessanne Chin and Alisan Porter, haven’t fared too well. But for better or worse in the long-term, Maelyn could win. She’s a natural, graceful performer with gorgeous dynamics and phrasing, and her taste level is very high (love the Maggie Rogers song pick!). She’s a pro. I just hope The Voice doesn’t do her dirty.
Shawn Sounds, “Higher Ground”
OK, so this was like American Idol Season ONE. I bet Kelly was getting déjà vu! But as old-fashioned as this was, Shawn proved he has the pipes to master a Stevie Wonder classic — for the most part. His performance did seem to lose steam towards the end.
Kalvin Jarvis, “Mine”
Adam’s team may be small, but he has some of this season’s most unique and risk-taking contestants. I approved Kalvin’s fresh-to-death styling and current Bazzi song choice here. Unfortunately, though, this performance was riddled with pitch problems. That was too bad, because this guy showed so much potential last week.
Betsy Ade, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
I always appreciate a bit of early-oughts garage rock on a singing show; I’d be happy to have that be an Idol theme night, with contestants doing all Strokes, Hives, Datsuns, and White Stripes covers. But Betsy’s Jet cover was so wannabe-rocker karaoke, so try-hard. And it so obvious that she wasn’t really playing her guitar, that it was some sort of oversized-necklace prop. Everything about this felt inauthentic and cornball. Betsy’s not gonna be my girl this season.
Mari, “Work It Out”
This was an unexpected song choice: Beyoncé’s first (and relatively obscure/unsuccessful) solo single, the blaxploitaiton-inspired theme from Austin Powers in Goldmember. But Mari, rocking a big ‘fro and bellbottoms, really brought the funk. She was working it! This performance was sexy and fun, retro without feeling costume-y or novelty-act.
Domenic Haynes, “Love Is a Losing Game”
I’m not sure if America will get Domenic, who’s more of a quirky stylist than a belter. But in my opinion, he played a winning game tonight. His sandpaper-throated, broken-hearted Amy Winehouse cover was exquisite. It was the opposite of karaoke. It was artistry. Adam has made some mistakes this season, but he was right to keep Domenic in the game.
Andrew Sevener, “Boots On”
Like Rod Stokes, Andrew is a sleeper contestant that might surpass cooler contestants. There’s nothing exciting or risky (read: threatening) about him. But I am sure Blake’s core fans will love his easy-going, competent Randy Houser cover.
I expected this to be dreadful, but the South African troubadour’s understated acoustic take on the Goo Goo Dolls’ maudlin City of Angels theme was actually lovely. Her voice was even Sinead O’Connor/Dolores O’Riordan-like in parts. This was a nice redemption after her terrible Cross-Battle last week.
Oliv Bu, “The Girl From Ipanema”
After Kendra, this chanteuse took the other big risk of the night with a bossa nova romp. I am sure her swanky, scatty cocktail-lounge performance will be polarizing, but I found it thoroughly charming. I felt like I was at Trader Vic’s circa ‘62. If Oliv goes home early, I will pour out an exotic umbrella drink in her honor, but hopefully she’ll make the top 13.
Gyth Rigdon, “I Want to Be Loved”
The Shenandoah weeper was a brilliant song choice for Gyth’s storytelling style. This was so much more compelling and connected than Rod or Andrew’s more laid-back country performances. If Gyth sticks to this sort of emotive balladry, he’ll probably win, as Blake recently predicted.
Carter Lloyd Horne, “Heartbreak Hotel”
This was a hokey song choice, but the Southern soul stylist brought a distinctive, sexy, smoky tone and previously unseen charisma to the stage. Where did this kid come from? He and Kendra were the two most pleasant surprises of the night.
Kim Cherry, “Waterfalls”
Kim’s audition of TLC’s “No Scrubs” was a novelty act, embarrassing drunk-sorority-girl karaoke. This TLC cover at first seemed liked a welcome 180, a sweet and slow piano ballad… until Kim started with the darn comedy-rapping again. I wish Kim wouldn’t stick to the rivers and the lakes that she’s used to. She doesn’t need to rely on gimmicks; the girl can actually sing.
Dexter Roberts, “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You”
It’s not surprising that this pro — a former top seven American Idol finalist — got the pimp spot, though I’m sure he would’ve racked up votes regardless of when he performed on Monday’s episode. Anyway, this was yet another run-of-the-mill country performance. If I’m going to root for a country contestant this season, it’ll be Gyth, based on this Monday’s performances.