When Kelly Clarkson appeared on The Voice on Monday as Season 13’s Key Adviser (she’ll join the cast next season as a full-time coach), she struggled at first to get comfortable in one of the show’s big red chairs. And the struggle was also real for longtime reality TV viewers like myself. It just seemed a little bit, well, wrong to see the Original Recipe American Idol defecting to American Idol ’s rival program, and even shouting “I love this show!!!” at the top of her Grammy-winning lungs. I was still getting used to seeing American Idol veteran Jennifer Hudson on The Voice, after all. And I’d always expected to see Kelly sitting behind the judging table next to Katy Perry and Lionel Richie on next year’s American Idol reboot — but apparently that was not meant to be.
True, Kelly’s Voice allegiance has some history behind it — she was a guest mentor on the show way back in 2012, she has performed on The Voice multiple times, and her husband manages incumbent Voice coach Blake Shelton. And once Kelly entered the rehearsal room this Monday and starting singing – gloriously singing, of course — during every mentor session, I was fully on board, despite my initial misgivings. Because any time Kelly is singing on TV, I’m cool with it.
Fun side note: Since Blake likes to drink so much, I’ve got a new drinking game for him and anyone else watching The Voice this season. Take a sip every time someone references Kelly’s (or, for that matter, Jennifer’s) singing-competition past without actually uttering the words “American” or “Idol.” But play responsibly, folks, because I guarantee you’ll be plastered before the first commercial break. On Monday, when Blake referred to Kelly as “literally the posterchild of what can happen [if you compete on a TV talent show],” or when Jennifer told Kelly, “You’re what made me want to audition [for Idol],” I could not help but roll my eyes. Come on: American Idol launched many superstar careers — something The Voice has yet to do — so why pretend Idol never even existed, when it’s the reason Kelly’s and Jennifer’s careers exist? It’s also the show that made it possible for The Voice to exist, frankly. So if this is a drinking game, then I must raise a glass to American Idol.
Anyway, Kelly advised all four teams this week (seeing her pal around with J.Hud was a ton of fun), exuding so much enthusiasm, she almost made Miley Cyrus seem sedate. She’s going to be a blast on Season 14, and I’m already predicting that this Idol will win The Voice. But for now, let’s see what happened when Miss Independent made her move to The Voice and mentored the current crop of Knockout Rounds hopefuls — including one awesome lady who became my new favorite and could very well be the Kelly Clarkson of Season 13.
TEAM BLAKE: Adam Cunningham vs. Esera Tuaolo
In the Battle Rounds, most of the pairings made sense — meaning they were of singers of the same genre. But as options narrow down in these final weeks before the Live Playoffs, we are bound to end up with some real mismatches. So here we had a country crooner, Adam C., up against a sweet soulman, Esera. (Blake explained that he put these two together because they are both “emotional.”) Adam did Lee Ann Womack/Chris Stapleton’s “Either Way,” and for the first time this season, he didn’t seem like a generic Central Casting cowboy to me. This performance felt raw, modern, even a little hip. At first, I wondered if the tune, despite Kelly’s enthusiastic approval, was the best choice for a showdown like this, since its verses were so understated and hushed, but then Adam roared in the chorus and impressed me. Nice job.
Esera picked a more Knockout-ready, go-for-broke song, the Luther Vandross version of Leon Russell’s five-hanky ballad “Superstar.” And he also wowed me like never before. Dedicating the song to his ailing 83-year-old mother, he had a real moment, and it was hard not to root for him, despite Adam C.’s strong effort. Only a couple of rough patches toward the end of this passionate performance could tip the scales in his opponent’s favor, because clearly Esera was the sentimental favorite.
“What took me in is how your notes just soar,” Jennifer told Esera, though she said Adam C. had “captivated” her. Miley praised Adam C. for having the “courage” to do such a simple performance, but noted that Esera came out with “guns a-blazing.” Adam Levine said Adam C. was “solid,” but told Esera, “You almost have this quality about you that made everyone, even outside of whatever genre you want to exist in, tune into it.”
Blake, big softie that he is, unsurprisingly picked the big balladeer, saying, “Not only is there nothing like Esera on this show, there’s nothing like Esera on the earth.” But then, surprisingly, Adam L. saved Adam C. — using his one allotted Steal during the first performance of the Knockouts. Will this union of the Adams finally give Levine the Blake-infuriating country victory he’s been dreaming of since 2011? We shall see. I think Adam L. will steer Adam C. further down a more singer-songwriter-ish, Stapleton-ish lane, and that could lane could lead to the finale.
WINNER: Esera Tuaolo / STOLEN: Adam Cunningham moves to Team Adam
TEAM J.Hud: Lucas Holliday vs. Shi’Ann Jones
There’s no denying that singing cashier/viral video sensation Lucas possesses a powerful set of pipes, but he is cornier that the entire Del Monte section in that Lansing grocery store where he works — the store to which (spoiler alert!) he will soon return. Lucas’s showboating, scenery-chewing, and occasionally screechy cover of Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is” was like Jack Black doing karaoke — except not, because Jack Black doing Aaron Neville karaoke would no doubt be immensely entertaining. Lucas just didn’t seem in on the joke here. This was ridiculously over the top and very uncool. How is this guy only 26?
Fifteen-year-old Shi’Ann also seemed way older than her years, but in a good way. Doing the Smokey Robinson-penned Jackson 5 classic “Who’s Lovin’ You,” the shy child delivered a more nuanced and not-at-all-ridiculous performance. Actually, the only thing ridiculous about her was that voice! Shi’Ann has such a rich, deep, distinctive tone. She really is a baby J.Hud, and since she of course won this Knockout and will be sticking around, it’ll be interesting to see how she can grow and learn with Jennifer’s guidance. “She got some Beyoncé in her. She got some Mariah in her. She has some Jennifer in her. So everybody better watch out!” Jennifer promised.
WINNER: Shi’Ann Jones
TEAM ADAM: Addison Agen vs. Dennis Drummond
Adam diplomatically pitted his two Battle Round Steals against each other, so favoritism and familiarity wouldn’t play into his decision. But poor Dennis was still doomed. I loved the long-haired rocker’s performance of the guitar-heavy Jimi Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which gave the axeman an opportunity to showcase his shredding skills. Dennis seemed sexier and swaggier than he had in previous episodes; finally, the longtime background performer was coming into his own and becoming comfortable as a frontman.
But Dennis had to face off with Addison. And there was no contest here. Addison’s “Beneath Your Beautiful” was magical, effortlessly stunning, full of heartache and sweetness and sincerity. “Addison, there’s so much going on in the world now that’s so insane and perplexing, and for some reason, when Addison is singing, the way you do it kind of makes me feel like everything’s gonna be OK. It’s a comfort that I feel when I hear you sing, which is special, and I know that everyone in this room felt that,” said Adam before he made his obvious decision. (“It was hard to let go of Dennis, but Addison could save the world,” he gushed.)
I wondered if Miley would save Dennis, since she called him a “sick, sick, sick guitar player” and an “incredible total package” who’d she’d actually like to see in concert. But instead, she let him go. If this show was called The Guitar, or if Dennis had sung against anyone else besides Addison, he may have had a shot.
WINNER: Addison Agen
TEAM MILEY: Janice Freeman vs. Karli Webster
This was another mismatch: a fiery rock ’n’ soul powerhouse and a sweet folkstress. It didn’t help that Karli picked a quiet, sensitive tune, Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou,” while Janice really went for it with Rose Royce/Mary J. Blige’s wildly passionate and apparently not prophetic “I’m Goin’ Down.” If Karli had performed “Blue Bayou” with even a fraction of the intensity that Season 10’s Alisan Porter brought to the ballad, she could had stood a chance — but her performance was tepid and tentative, her vocals wobbly and weak. She sounded nervous. And she had good reason to be nervous: She was up against the freak/force of nature that is Janice Freeman.
Janice picked a good old-fashioned fight song, and she came to pick a fight, indeed. She was singing so loudly, I almost turned down the volume on my TV. But I didn’t, because I was thoroughly enjoying hearing her sing the crap out of this song, as Blake might say. Janice was selling it, emoting, giving good face. And singing her face off. This was, in the true sense of the term, a total knockout. “I can’t even believe that was a pairing,” Blake marveled. Neither could I.
WINNER: Janice Freeman
TEAM J.HUD: Eric Lyn vs. Davon Fleming
Both of these soul singers went with ambitious, emotional song choices, starting with Eric’s “What’s Going On.” Marvin Gaye’s mighty big shoes are not easy to fill, so I commend the classical music student for going for it, and also for picking a timely, topical song to address “tragic times right now in America and in the world.” But this song was all wrong for Eric’s light, tissue-thin voice. Nothing about his phrasing flowed, and his crisp, clipped, affected delivery actually made the song seem less impactful and important. This was a major miss. Eric instantly set himself for another one of Monday’s total knockouts.
Meanwhile, Davon, one of my Season 13 favorites, belted MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine,” and it was unimaginably great. What a gloriously soaring vocal! My only gripe is Davon should have saved this Christian song for the Live Playoffs, because religious songs do well on The Voice and on the iTunes charts, and I want Davon to make it to the finals. But I have a feeling Davon will be able to infuse all of his future performances with this sort of passion and spirit.
WINNER: Davon Fleming
TEAM MILEY: Ashland Craft vs. Chloe Kohanski
Carson Daly had teased all night long that this final showdown would end in a Steal, so it wasn’t a surprise that both of these ladies advanced. What was surprising was the fact that it was raspy indie-rock gal Chloe, not the Gretchen Wilson-esque Ashland, who ended up getting stolen by Blake. How exactly did that happen?
First up was badass Ashland, doing a gruff and gritty Southern-rock version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” that had me reminiscing about the raw Jon Bon Jovi/Richie Sambora version from the 1989 VMAs. Kelly, a singer well-versed in both rock and country, was completely floored, comparing Ashland to the almighty Natalie Maines and saying Ashland could “make women proud in country music.” Miley even called Ashland the “female Chris Stapleton.” I felt Ashland held back a little bit onstage — maybe because she was holding a guitar? — but overall, I enjoyed her performance. She made the song her own, as they say in the biz. I wouldn’t mind seeing Miley and Ashland do a Jon/Richie-style MTV Unplugged version of this on the Season 13 finale.
But then … there was Chloe. Um, where did this girl come from? Her rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” in the Blinds was nice, but it was nothing compared with Monday’s big Mac attack, when she sang the saddest song ever, “Landslide,” and delivered the performance of the night — actually, the performance of the season. She won by a landslide. (See what I did there?)
Magnificently taking the stage in Ziggy-orange eyeshadow and a cool AF lightning-bolt suit, Chloe looked like a star and sounded like a superstar. This performance was 100 percent connected and authentic, and riveting from start to finish. This was Chloe’s Jeffery Austin moment. “Chloe broke out and showed all of us something that I didn’t know was there,” raved Adam.
However, Miley has been vowing all season long that she wants to win with a country singer, so I think her mind was made up before this Knockout Round even commenced. Miley probably didn’t expect Chloe to be so amazing. How else to explain her baffling decision to let Chloe go? Thankfully, both Jennifer and Blake wanted Chloe, and Miley’s ill-advised loss was definitely Team Blake’s gain. “The fact that Chloe was available for a Steal is shocking to me,” said an elated Blake, speaking for all of America.
WINNER: Ashland Craft / STOLEN: Chloe Kohanski moves to Team Blake
Tune in Tuesday for more Knockouts … and more [Andy Stitzer/Steve Carrell voice] KELLY CLARKSON! See you then.