Not to get into conspiracy-theorizing here, but oh, what the heck: The song selections were totally skewed in favor of Tony Lucca, who did Jay-Z's "99 Problems." Compared to the other contestants' boring song choices, this hip-hop cover made Tony look like some sort of creative genius, even if Kris Allen pulled a similar trick with his Kanye cover on "Idol" three years ago, and even if Tony's "99 Problems" arrangement was inspired by Hugo's 2010 version. At least Tony did a song outside of his genre, which gave him an edge that, frankly, he didn't even need.
Nope, Tony already had plenty of sympathetic fan support, after his arch nemesis and former "Mickey Mouse Club" castmate, Christina Aguilera, spent the entire episode dragging him down with cranky, passive-aggressive behavior that not even archetypal mouthy judge Simon Cowell would probably attempt. Yes, Christina may have had her reasons for sparring with Tony, and I will get to that--but still, she may have done her team more harm than good.
One other little gripe: I've always thought "The Voice" was a bit too focused on its superstar judges, and I didn't change my mind about that after watching this two-hour episode packed with tributes to the coaches (each team member sang a song by his/her coach, plus performed a coach duet). This should have been the top four's time to shine (where were their original songs, like last year's "Inventing Shadows" by Dia Frampton and "Stitch By Stitch" by Javier Colon?), but in the end, it was still all about Adam, Cee Lo, Blake, and Xtina. Especially Xtina, of course.
So the finalists were definitely handicapped by some of the song selections and their coaches' usual domination of the proceedings, but thankfully, some of them still emerged as stars in their own right. Here's how everyone did...
TEAM ADAM: TONY LUCCA
For his coach tribute, Tony was Team Adam all the way, taking on Maroon 5's first big hit, "Harder To Breathe." It was a fairly uninspired rendition, almost note-for-note faithful to the original, except for the part when he tripped over the wordy verses and started giggling during the song. I wasn't that into it, but hey, at least I bothered to set my coffee cup down when I typed this paragraph! And I didn't text, either--which is exactly what Christina did, right in the middle of Tony's heartfelt thank-you speech to all four judges. Yes, Tony was trying to be nice, but when the cameras cut to Christina, there she was, thumbing away on her smartphone, completely ignoring him. I don't know if Tony has 99 problems, but however many he does have, Xtina is clearly one of them.
For their duet, Tony and Adam did the Beatles' well-worn classic "Yesterday," and it was pretty nice. Just nice. I didn't get goosebumps or anything, and Tony came across more like Adam's background singer/guitarist than like the star of the show. But their harmonies blended well and their love of the Beatles came shining through. That's all I can really say about this--but I'm sure Christina would have said much worse, if the coaches had been permitted to critique the duets.
TEAM BLAKE: JERMAINE PAUL
For his solo song, Jermaine sang the aforementioned R. Kelly ballad, which has been done to death on singing shows--as recently as last year, by Melanie Amaro on "The X Factor" and by Jacob Lusk on "Idol." I wish he'd done "Trapped In The Closet" instead; at least that would have had some element of surprise! To be fair, Jermaine's version was a total class act: white 007 tux, robed choir, string quartet, and passionate vocals that were pretty much impossible to fault. "You just sing with so much heart and soul and emotion; that's what this show is about," said Christina. "That was the perfect song for tonight's event," said Cee Lo. "You're so powerful; you are an incredible singer, and I don't think any of us could take our eyes off of you. It was so elegant," said Adam. "My heart is in my throat right now. I don't think I ever really HEARD that song until tonight," gushed Jermaine's coach, Blake Shelton. But Blake was wrong: We'd all heard this before. That was the problem.
I did appreciate Jermaine's cover of Blake's "God Gave Me You" for his second song, since obviously Jermaine is not a country singer by trade. Jermaine handled it well, proving that as a seasoned professional background vocalist, he can sing just about everything and anything. But I wish he'd changed up the arrangement to more of an R&B style--and also, is it just me, or does Jermaine always look mad when he performs, for some reason?
And for their duet, Jermaine and Blake became honorary Blues Brothers and did "Soul Man." This worked a lot better when Jermaine got to sing solo; when it was Blake's turn, or when the two harmonized together, it got a little hokey for me. But there was no denying that Jermaine Paul is a soul man, through and through, and I enjoyed this lighter, smilier, slightly sillier side of Jermaine.
TEAM XTINA: CHRIS MANN
For his solo song, Chris stayed within the lines, doing Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up"--granted, the type of popera crossover material he'd likely record after "The Voice," but not quite as interesting or adventurous as, say, "Viva La Vida," my favorite performance from Chris this season. Chris belted this beautifully, but it was all what we'd expect from him. However, it seemed like the kind of performance mainstream America could get behind: children's chorus, onstage sign-language interpreter, Christina sobbing her fake eyelashes off her face throughout, etc. My grandma is probably learning how to text right now, so she can vote for this guy. "You are one of the most incomparable vocalists I've ever heard. You are so completely cool to me, just the way that you are," said Cee Lo. "You raise me up every time," sobbed Xtina. I think Chris really put himself in the game with this one, even if I would have personally preferred something a little riskier or more current.
For his coach tribute, Chris did Xtina's "The Voice Within," and he really did make it his own, as they like to say in this biz. I bet Christina was a little jealous. We all know that she doesn't like being upstaged, and I dare say, Chris sang her song possibly better than she did when she originally recorded it. Oh, snap!
For their duet, Chris fulfilled his bizarre lifelong dream of singing "The Prayer" with Christina. At first, of course, it was still all about Xtina: The duet started with Chris's back turned to the audience, with Christina front-and-center in a sequin-spangled Oscar gown. But then Chris started singing, and he was a more-than-even match for her. In fact, Chris sang the song as effortlessly as if he were breathing, while Christina was almost sweating her way through it. I was pleased to see her taken down a tiny peg, and also pleased to see Chris shine in his element like this.
TEAM CEE LO: JULIET SIMMS
Rocking a new brunette 'do with Red Zone-representing ombre tips (a much better look for her than plain buttery-blonde), Juliet was a Florence Welchian rock goddess in her witchy scarlet gown and matching queen-of-the-damned cape, and she turned "Free Bird"--a song I thought I'd be perfectly happy to never hear performed live by anyone ever again--into something fresh and new and cool. The fact that she was ill--she'd actually had a 103 fever three days ago, and had been on vocal rest ever since--didn't show one bit. This was a SICK performance, not a sick one, and it was definitely the performance of a fighter and a champion. "No one sings like you; you're a beautiful singer, and it was incredible," said Adam. Christina made it all about her, of course, by mentioning that she too was battling a cold. (So?) Then Cee Lo broke the night's tension with: "I have one thing to say. With Juliet Simms on my team, I have no problems!" And then he unveiled his own T-shirt, emblazoned with "NO PROBLEMS" in Frankie-Goes-To-Hollywood-esque block lettering. Cee Lo may enjoy drama in the form of wild, theatrical staging, but he was obviously steering clear of the real-life Aguilera/Lucca-style drama going on behind the scenes.
For her coach-tribute song, Juliet did Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," and I for one was crazy for it. She looked so frickin' rad in her molten-gold rocker frock, and she belted out the tune with the verve it deserved. Yes, this was one of the night's more obvious song choices--the angsty "Who's Gonna Save My Soul?" or fiery "Run" might have suited Juliet's growl a tad better--but once again, she performed like the true rock star that she is.
Speaking of theatrical staging, for her duet with fellow freak Cee Lo, Juliet revved it up on "Born To Be Wild," somehow managing to not be upstaged, even though Cee Lo made his grand entrance on a motorcycle a la Meat Loaf in Rocky Horror. These two brought the heavy metal thunder, and more importantly, they brought the THEATER and the FUN. Yes, Cee Lo is a scenery-chewing showboater, but for some reason, his hammy antics never bother me. I'd simply rather watch The Cee Lo Show than The Xtina Show, I guess--especially when someone as awesome as Juliet is a part of it.
So now, it is prediction time. Who's going to win this thing? I think the least likely contender is Jermaine, but he did win last week's semifinals by the biggest landslide, and he was vocally on top of his game this week, so he can't be counted out entirely. As for the other three, Juliet, my personal pick, trounced fan favorite Jamar Rogers last week, so she definitely has a good shot; however, female contestants have struggled on "The Voice" all season, so Juliet certainly doesn't have it in the bag, especially none of her performances this week were quite as wowing as "Man's World" or "Roxanne."
Honestly, as much as I'd like to see Juliet triumph, I think it's going to come down to a Team Xtina/Team Adam faceoff (talk about drama!), since Chris's duet with Christina was such a stunner, and Tony unfortunately has such a strong fanbase no matter what he does, even though he's arguably the weakest singer left. It's possible that Tony's potentially offensive song choice may have alienated some viewers--but the same could be said for Christina's attitude, of course, so it remains to be seen which was the bigger turn-off. I think in the end, Christina's treatment of Tony probably will backfire on her (and on poor, caught-in-the-crossfire Chris), prompting legions of outraged Lucca-lovers and Aguilera-haters alike to vote for Tony in protest--thus making Tony the victor in the end, for all the wrong reasons. Tony is not my first choice this season, but I have to admit, there's a tiny part of me that wouldn't mind that result, if only to see the priceless reaction on Christina's face when Carson Daly announces the news. Now, THAT would make for some awesome trainwreck television, and I'm already imagining all the animated GIFs I could create...
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