The Voice’s top 10 competitive show offered many moments of levity this Monday: VMA-worthy performances by Chris Blue and Vanessa Ferguson, some unexpected uptown funk from Jesse Larson, a sublimely modernized version of an ’80s adult-contemporary classic from the boundlessly creative Hunter Plake. But the night’s standout moment was actually a profoundly sad one, courtesy of an uncharacteristically emotional Aliyah Moulden.
On a pre-Mother’s Day episode dedicated to the contestants’ moms, grandmas, and other much-loved maternal figures, it was the normally peppy 15-year-old Aliyah, singing Labrinth’s “Jealous” in honor of her late father, who delivered a breakthrough performance. Aliyah’s dad died of lung cancer when she was just a month old, and as she sang the heartbreaking words, “I told you when you left me/There’s nothing to forgive/But I always thought you’d come back,” tears streamed down her rosy cheeks. Also sobbing: her mother and her grandmother, sitting in the studio audience. The poor girl could barely make it through the final chorus, but it was a raw and real moment, reminiscent of Kelly Clarkson’s gut-wrenching “Piece by Piece” on American Idol’s final season, and it was a beautiful and brave performance.
Aliyah’s well-meaning coach, Blake Shelton, has given her lighthearted, uptempo fluff all season (“Walking on Sunshine,” “Heatwave,” “Mercy”), causing me to underestimate her and write her off as too young, too green, too two-dimensional. But this week, Aliyah revealed more layers, and she proved that when she’s assigned a song that means something to her, magic is possible. (It actually should be noted that “Jealous” was Aliyah’s choice, not Blake’s.)
“You doing a song like that at this point was really smart. … You pull this song out that we weren’t expecting, and I think you did a beautiful job. And I think crying has happened to all of us. Songs take you right to your heart, and you are living it in that moment,” said a sympathetic Gwen Stefani.
“I literally could not be more proud of you right now. You did what you knew you needed to do. You did what I asked you to do. You sang that song to and about your dad. You got lost in the moment, and that’s all anybody can ever expect an artist to do … get up there and pour their heart out on the stage. You cried during your song, and I think we all cry with you,” said Blake.
Below, I recap the other, very wide-ranging performances of the night.
Jesse Larson (Team Adam)
The Time’s funky-fresh “Jungle Love” seemed like an odd direction for the rootsy/bluesy Jesse, despite his Minneapolis heritage and ties to Prince (he used to play guitar for Prince’s final protégé, Season 4 Voice contestant Judith Hill). At times, his Time-ly performance smacked too much of novelty, with its copycat Morris Day moves (minus the Morris swag, unfortunately), backlit purple stage, and Blues Brothers haberdashery. And at other times, I felt this production didn’t push the campiness envelope enough — after all, I would have loved it if Jesse the guitarist had become Jesse the keytarist and strapped on the neon synthesizer that one of Paul Mirkovich’s sidemen was playing. And where was Jerome, with his gilt-framed mirror, when we needed him?
But I digress. For me, this performance only really got going when Jesse picked up his guitar (not a keytar, sadly) and started shredding. Even host Carson Daly later remarked that Jesse’s fiery solo elevated the performance to an entirely new level. I’ve missed Jesse’s signature guitar work over the past two weeks, and if he survives this Tuesday’s double elimination, I hope Adam Levine doesn’t confiscate his six-string yet again.
“It’s sometimes harder to sing songs like this because it is all about your energy and your attitude and the character you become, and becoming unafraid in that moment. And I think that was really incredible to see you just come out here,” said an amused Alicia Keys. Said Adam: “Did you feel that? Did you feel what just happened in this room? I might have made a mistake when I said this dude ‘wasn’t a pop star.’ Dude, you are a superstar, and tonight it culminated because you are the most talented dude in this competition. You shred on that guitar, you sing better than anyone. You blow me away. You pulled off a song that is 100 percent reliant on attitude and sex appeal and funk.” I’m not so sure that Jesse pulled this off 100 percent … but this was indeed a fun start to the show.
Vanessa Ferguson (Team Alicia)
It says a lot about Vanessa’s talent that the reclusive Lauryn Hill was willing to clear the rarely covered “Doo Wop (That Thing)” for her. Vanessa had that thing, for sure: true star quality. Rocking a newly peroxided ’do and an acid yellow suit, Vanessa had a new — dare I even say sexy attitude — with none of the aloofness that may have alienated some viewers in the past. (Maybe blondes really do have more fun?) I’d been worried that a song with so much rapping would put Vanessa at a disadvantage in, well, a singing competition, but she handled the segues between the spoken-word verses and the brash, belted choruses with ease. She was exciting. She was original. And she was just friggin’ cool.
“You’ve got to start thinking about maybe starting to rap a little bit, because you really did do an amazing job. We know Lauryn Hill is proud of you for that,” said Adam. “What’s been the most incredible thing to learn about you is just how much you have to you. Behind the scenes, we are waiting for our moment to show you are a poet, an emcee, a pianist, a musician — you are everything. Tonight you just showed exactly who you are, just in case America hadn’t seen all of you. I feel like now they know that there is no limit to you,” said Alicia.
Mark Isaiah (Team Adam)
Carson pointed out that Mark “has been on the brink of elimination for three straight weeks.” I have feeling it’s about to be four weeks. The aspiring teen heartthrob may have chosen to sing Harry Styles’s “Sign of the Times” because it’s by a boy-band veteran, but “Sign of the Times” is actually an epic, sound-scapey ’70s rock power ballad that has more in common with Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” GNR’s “November Rain,” or David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” than “What Makes You Beautiful.” It’s a grand, unapologetically ambitious anthem, and while I commend Mark for getting away from his lightweight hip-pop covers of the past couple of weeks and even playing some piano, the song was ultimately way too big for this kid. He struggled throughout, particularly with his wimpy falsetto. The entire performance was underwhelming, with none of the pomp and circumstance of Sir Styles’s majestic original.
Adam, seeing the writing on the NBC wall, begged America to vote, “because I want to see him continue to get better, because he gets better every week. No one works harder than this guy.” Gwen called “Sign of the Times” an “interesting choice” and told Mark, “It was funny to watch you do this rock song,” which didn’t exactly sound like compliments. But eventually she said Mark “sounded so good,” and she planned to download his studio recording. However, I think Gwen will be in the minority among this week’s downloaders; I expect another weak iTunes showing for Mark.
Chris Blue (Team Alicia)
Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic” is actually Time-like in many ways, but somehow, despite Chris’s dance moves giving me occasional flashbacks to Bruno’s performance of the song on last season’s finale, this didn’t feel like a copycat tribute act to me. This felt like the tour de force of an A-list pop star in his own right. Even the gimmicks — like when Chris made it rain $100 Monopoly-money bills — were cool, not corny. Even the vocoders and army backup dancers couldn’t detract from his talent! I was thrilled that Chris did something current after weeks of mostly sticking with classics by Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and Percy Sledge, and he was a total blast to watch. His performance was, well, magic.
“I think you are going to be in the finale. If somebody couldn’t recognize how talented you are, they must be deaf, but now I think they must be deaf and blind to not see how incredibly talented you are, dude. Great job,” raved Blake. “I’m flying through the sky right now. I’m super excited for you, because this is Chris’s vision. He wanted to make sure that everybody got to see him in his element. He is only 27 years old — a young guy, just out here doing his thing, celebrating life. I didn’t even know you had this in you. I had no idea. You just showed me and all of America that you are unstoppable,” declared Alicia.
Lilli Passero (Team Adam)
Lilli started off this season as a real contender, but I think this week’s “Unforgettable” was just … forgettable. On a night when contestants gave vivacious and/or emotional performances or made gutsy creative choices, Lilli just placidly sang a Nat King Cole standard in a floor-length pageant gown. Yes, she sang it very well; Lilli is a consummate professional. But it wasn’t enough. This was by no means bad, but it was boring, and it was a comedown after Chris’s irresistible, high-energy romp.
Alicia loved Lilli, however, saying, “It is really beautiful to see you sing such a classic, timeless song. Also, to have some liberties in there that really showcased the vocal capacity that you have, and also the restraint that it takes to really sing a song like this. You don’t have to try too hard. I love what you did.” Adam also defended and commended Lilli’s restrained approach, saying, “So much of the time we have so many bells and whistles that go along with the show. … I appreciate you carrying what is a lost art — doing it in a retrospective way but in a way that makes you appreciate a true, classic vocal. … I’m just proud of you. Thank you for doing that.”
Lauren Duski (Team Adam)
All season long, Lauren has actually done the restraint thing well, delivering one vulnerable, tasteful performance after another. This week, Blake felt it was time for her to finally sing something uptempo, so he gave her Wynonna Judd’s “Tell Me Why.” I am sure Lauren will be safe this week, because she’s as close to a finale shoo-in as Season 12 has, but I do think this was her dullest and most generic performance of the season. Actually, it was her only dull or generic performance of the season. It didn’t have her usual sweetness or softness, that storytelling quality, that sense of genuine, effortless connection. It was just a typical country blonde — described by Gwen as “a living country Barbie doll with a guitar,” which actually didn’t sound like high praise to me — strumming along pleasantly and uneventfully.
“You just graduated to an uptempo song, and you belted it out tonight. It was perfect for you. You did such a good job. I loved it, loved it, loved it,” said the easy-to-please Gwen. Blake called Lauren “the missing piece in country music right now.” I agree — there’s definitely a place for Lauren in Nashville — but when she lands her record deal, I want to hear more tender tunes à la “Someone Else’s Star” and “Lord, Tell Me Something Good,” not strummy sing-alongs like this one.
Hunter Plake (Team Gwen)
Hunter is the most recognizable voice on The Voice. He puts his exquisite, indelible stamp on everything he does because he approaches every song with a genius producer’s sophisticated ear. I didn’t think Hunter could get much higher, but his totally deconstructed, minimalist electropop remake of Steve Winwood’s 1986 hit “Higher Love” did the trick. The ethereal vocals, the spooky, Weeknd-esque arrangement, the Daft Punky audiovisuals … everything worked about this. I felt like I was watching Hunter on the Coachella livestream (aka “Couchella”), not on a mainstream terrestrial TV show.
“It is one thing to try to fit a song like that into a new context. It is really hard to do it; sometimes it feels really forced. That is a testament to your ability to … turn it into something that makes sense now. You really succeeded in that. I applaud you. That shows a lot of artistry. You are very connected to music,” said Adam. “America, this is the real deal right here!” added Gwen.
TSoul (Team Blake)
Obviously I’ve watched a lot of television in my lifetime, because I associate so many songs with specific iconic TV moments. Sometimes a strong pop-cultural association can be a good thing. Come on — who doesn’t get all mushy inside remembering Family Ties’ Alex P. Keaton and Ellen Reed slow-dancing to Billy Vera & The Beaters’ “At This Moment”? Everyone was rooting for that NBC sitcom’s odd couple back then — and when TSoul sweetly, if not exactly note-perfectly, sang Vera’s yearning ballad three decades after Alex and Ellen’s fateful first onscreen kiss, I was rooting for him on NBC this Monday. This song is a sentimental favorite, for sure, and that might give the polarizing TSoul an edge. But will people too young to remember Family Ties, or who just didn’t consider that show to be “must-see TV” back in the day, be moved by TSoul’s passionate but, frankly, kind of messy performance? I hope so, but with a double elimination this week, the scenery-chewing showboater could be at risk.
“TSoul, you are so genuine … you have such a unique voice. Your voice has its own stamp on it, its own style with it. You come out here on this stage, and you give it 300,000 percent. I feel you every time,” said Alicia. Blake said this was TSoul’s “best performance so far” and told him, “You just bought yourself a ticket to the top eight” — but Blake stopped short of saying TSoul was a lock for the top six or top four.
Brennley Brown (Team Gwen)
I’ve been loving the ’70s Laurel Canyon country vibe of Brennley’s performances, with her crooning covers by Patty Griffin, Linda Ronstadt, and even Joni Mitchell. So I missed that sweetness and tenderness this week as Brennley belted out Martina McBride’s evangelical and unsubtle “Anyway,” a try-hard tune that did nothing to showcase the prettiest, warmest, and most delicate parts of her voice. Yes, Brennley did a very popular, aspirational song in the “pimp spot,” and her momentum hasn’t slowed all season, so I am sure she will be safe this week — just like her closest competitor, the aforementioned Lauren. But this wasn’t Brennley at her best.
“You are inspirational for a lot of young people out there. I am glad that you did that song with that message at this moment, because I think it’s important. I think your voice has never shined brighter than it does today,” said Blake. “You are so gifted, so beautiful, so talented. … You did such an incredible job. … It was so beautiful. Vocally, it was better than I ever imagined,” gushed Gwen.
So now, it is prediction time. Who’s going home on this week’s double-elimination show? I think the bottom three will be Mark, Lilli, and TSoul — with TSoul singing his damn face off, dropping to his damn knees, and winning the damn Instant Save. (I almost want TSoul in the bottom three, just to see his spectacular performance.) Tune in Tuesday and find out whether I’m right.