Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Voice: Season 2 Recap / Top 10 Contestants

Despite my intentions, I missed most of the first season of The Voice, finally tuning in to the final two episodes and, while liking what I saw, essentially missing the entire concept of the show in practice. This season I've made a point to follow from beginning to end, and I've had a ball so far. I know that because even the best reality competition show loses its novelty and unpredictability after two or three seasons (except America's Next Top Model, which I could watch until the apocalypse) it's imperative to enjoy it while I can. Fortunately, The Voice is the kind of show that comes into its own the second time around (as opposed to American Idol or The Apprentice, which worked their best magic in their first seasons), so the timing is perfect.

But first let us take a moment to appreciate the utter greatness of Christina's hat.

I enjoyed the blind auditions for the most part; it's excruciating for me to witness unsuccessful auditions (I often recorded the show so I could flip forward to see whether or not a chair turned before going back and watching the performance, just so I was able to enjoy the performance without the distraction of worrying about the judges), but almost without exception the producers presented those with great respect, dignity and class. It was fun to begin trying to predict which judges would like which contestants, and even more fun forming an opinion as to which of the judges a lucky contestant should select. Despite the 90-second clips we got for most of the contestants, which isn't much, there were a couple of performers that won my particular enthusiasm in this early stage, one in particular (I'll get to her in a bit) who had me so excited I was talking about her for days.

The Battle Rounds were a bit of a harsh mistress for a broad sympathizer like me; it was tough when the general uplift of the auditions gave way to the realization that half of the performers I'd just taken something of a shine to would be cut after a brutal but incredibly entertaining one-on-one fight against a teammate. As the Battle Rounds played out, they turned out to be more useful and less devastating than I'd initially feared, due in large part to the judges' remarkably agreeable decisions in most of the matches: while a couple artists I liked in particular were sent home, mostly it seemed that the herd was weeded of middling or redundant contestants, and the remaining 24 singers are a far stronger group even than the initial 48 selections. Also, the Battle Rounds allowed us a better look at each one of the contestants, some for the first time, so early favorites could be confirmed or questioned and some stars that didn't shine through initially got the chance to do so before the live rounds. Plus, we got to see Alanis Morissette, Jewel, and Babyface on TV again, which for those 80s-born pop fans like me was like revisiting childhood (oh, and Kelly Clarkson makes everything a little more awesome).

So now that the Battle Rounds (or, as ousted contestant Nicolle Galyon called them, "The Hunger Games") have come to an end, it's time to take stock of our remaining players who will now compete for our affection as well as that of Adam Levine (good but generic this season), Cee Lo Green (unfortunately not very useful), Christina Aguilera (surprisingly honest, helpful, and wise), and Blake Shelton (an entertaining and qualified if occasionally maddening judge). I have some favorites, and some contestants I'll be watching with interest if not, as of now, assured support, and I have my reasons as well, all of which I'll share. I'd also like to eulogize a few of the contestants who didn't make it past the Battle Rounds but who deserve a word or two anyway. I'd like to know who you like and why if you're a viewer, so please let us know in the comments!

Already Gone

Adley Stump

I'm not much of a country guy, but something about this "sorority girl from Oklahoma" just did it for me. She has great pipes and a great attitude, the kind of girl I'm 100% certain I'd have been great friends with in college. She was on the wrong end of one of maybe two or three decisions in the Battle Rounds I really disagreed with, and I miss her already.

Angie Johnson

What's not to like? A hot military vet of Asian descent (as I always say, pop music is in dire need of Asian representation) with a great voice and obviously admirable manner of conducting herself. I loved when she called Cheesa on her attempt at out-diva-ing her fellow Asian contestant by suggesting they take it up a half step. I simply enjoyed every moment Angie Johnson was on the screen. Along with Adley Stump, Johnson was on the wrong end of one of the only really bum decisions in the Battle Rounds, and without her Team Cee Lo is easily the weakest.

Nicolle Galyon

I really admired Nicolle Galyon more than anything. As I said, country isn't really my usual style, but when she came into the Blind Auditions with the goal of offering something new to the genre she inhabits (i.e. a country singer who plays piano instead of guitar) I recognized a kindred spirit. As she herself pointed out, she's still a newbie in this business and has a lot to learn, and she drew the single unluckiest Battle Round partner in the game, but I love what she stands for and look forward to following her career.

Gwen Sebastian

Again: me, country, not besties, blah blah blah. Normally I'm not much into the schlocky sob stories networks hype up about contestants (come on, who hasn't had something unfortunate happen or had to make a tough choice to pursue a dream?), but something about this humble, charming North Dakota country girl who knows what she wants to do and accepts the sacrifices struck a note with me (pun intended). The way she conducted herself in her battle against a contestant with whom she'd clearly become good friends (and who had a major sympathy advantage, not that Blake Shelton let it affect his decision in any discernible way) was inspiring, and I actually shed a couple of tears at her departure. What a lady.

Jamie Lono

His story was even adorable enough to permeate my usually impervious sentiments, and the sandwich-maker from Chicago gave a hell of a performance of "Folsom Prison Blues" during the Blind Auditions. His battle was one of the toughest and he lost to a worthy competitor, but he was a great character.

Vertigo Shtick's Top 10 of the Top 24

10. Jordis Unga

I'll be honest: my affinity for the rocker from Team Blake has a lot to do with how much she looked like Lily Allen during her Blind Audition (which wasn't half bad itself). I keep waiting to see her with that hairdo again, because I couldn't stop looking at her. Sure, she didn't exactly blow the roof off the place with Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" in the Battle Rounds, but I think there's something very interesting there and am looking forward to seeing what she does in the live shows. And holding out hope for the return of the Lily 'do.

9. Naia Kete

Naia Kete is one of the hefty consortium of Norah Jones/Macy Gray-ish voices among this season's contestants, with a Rastafarian tilt that, along with almost infectious likeability, distinguishes her from the rest. She managed to make a truly obnoxious Bruno Mars song into an entertaining affair in her Blind Audition, and she won a well-matched battle against another immensely likeable competitor by out-Jason Mrazing his Jason Mraz. Besides the talent, though, it's great to have such positive energy up on the screen.

8. Sera Hill

Sera Hill could have been just another pretty black girl with a great voice (not that there's anything wrong with such girls, there are simply so many of them). But Hill knocks her definite talent up several notches with one of the most magnetic personalities to grace the second season (she's maybe a notch behind the judges, even). Who couldn't absolutely love the moment Christina motherfucking Aguilera ROSE UP FROM HER SWIVEL CHAIR and got up on stage to sing with this unknown young contestant in the final moments of the Blind Auditions? I don't care if Sera Hill botches every note from here on out: in reality television persona terms, she's golden.

7. Tony Lucca

First of all, it takes a pretty massive egotistical kick in the balls to audition for a reality singing competition in which one of the judges is someone you used to be on the Mickey Mouse Club with - much less that judge being Christina Aguilera. The reunion made for good television, though: Christina handled it as well as possible, and Lucca is the picture of secure humility (also, the world has now learned that Britney Spears used to have a major crush on him, which when it comes to ego boosts is hard to top). He's not the hottie he was back in the day, but he's married (his wife looks sweet) and has a few kids and really puts in a great effort. So far it's paid off, and we'll see how he does in the live shows.

6. Katrina Parker

I know I said that stuff about not caring about the sob stories, but Katrina Parker's tale of an illness that prevented her from performing for a couple years resonates very deeply with me, so I can't help but root for someone who seems like a fellow soldier. While I liked her, I wasn't terribly moved by her Blind Audition (more to do with song choice than performance...I was glad she was picked) but quite impressed with her performance in the Battle Rounds. Even though she was performing a song of which I'm not at all fond and was battling a likeable, evenly matched competitor (Adam Levine understandably had a hard time making the call), the insurance worker with anything but the Hollywood look somehow really won me over.

5. Erin Willett

Erin Willett is like many of the girls/women with whom I've been close friends over the years (she's a dead ringer for several girls I sang with in high school, actually), so that probably helped my initial response to her. But it was her gut-wrenching Battle Round story and performance (competing, unfortunately, against Gwen Sebastian) that solidified my admiration and my fandom. I almost don't want her to win because then she'll be too cool to hang out with me someday.

4. Jermaine Paul

First of all, YUM. Aside from the obvious aesthetic appeal, though, Jermaine Paul is the epitome of deliciously sexy sensitive black man with a voice that can cause orgasms under certain conditions, and we haven't had one of those for a while who hasn't once beaten his girlfriend to a pulp. As a longtime backup singer for Alicia Keys (as we're constantly reminded, although I doubt Paul enjoys hearing it ad nauseum) he knows what he's doing, in all kinds of ways that are interesting to watch play out on screen. He also beat out one of the more obnoxious contestants in the Battle Rounds, for which we are also thankful. It's very possible Jermaine Paul could win the whole thing, given the "attractive male" advantage that helped Javier Colon beat Dia Frampton last season, and I'm not convinced he wouldn't deserve it. But I'm also not convinced he does, so I look forward to hearing more. 

3. Kim Yarbrough

Kim Yarbrough had me at "hey, I'm a big black woman with attitude and cleavage to spare!" I LOVE her, but in fairness I'm a sucker for big black women with attitude and cleavage to spare (like Frenchie Davis, from last season). She turned Adam's chair with an electric performance of a difficult audition song, and she had her battle against the formidable but outmatched Whitney Meyer won the moment Adam announced that they'd be singing "No More Drama." I mean, come on. I'm just thrilled she went on to sing another day, and I want to listen to and/or watch her until I die.

2. Charlotte Sometimes

First of all, obviously it's a stage name (it's the name of a 1969 book by Penelope Farmer). Something about Charlotte Sometimes stuck with me after the Blind Auditions, even though her audition song wasn't one of my favorites. When I heard her studio recording of Battle Round song "Pumped Up Kicks," I was thrown head over heels into Charlotteville. She simply oozes charisma on the recording (and she helped me out with a ton of lyrical questions), and she manages to bring something new to an excellent but outplayed hit. Sometimes has been around a while - she made waves in 2008 when her song "How I Could Just Kill a Man" made the Warped Tour soundtrack (check it out; it's worth buying). She's undergone a bit of a makeover since then, though not as severe as that of Lana Del Rey: The Voice's Charlotte is sassier, more put together, and a bit more jaded. So far it's working for her. She may be doomed by her placement on an unusually strong team (Unga, Kete, Willett and Paul are all teammates) but as of now I'm pushing for her almost all the way. She may yet tip the scales to become my favorite.

1. Mathai

At the moment, though, that position is filled. I can't remember the last time a new artist got me as deliriously excited as Mathai. Her gently amusing personal story had been built up for a bit on the third night of Blind Auditions (her Indian parents were supportive but really wished she'd stayed in nursing school). Then Mathai took the stage and took the competition in her fist with a thrilling performance of "Rumor Has It," in which she quite possibly out-performed Adele. With her sassy "come on" at the start of the chorus Mathai had me literally on my feet (I swear I'm not usually this affected by reality television), and seeing her parents squeal with pride and delight as three of the judges turned their chairs (Christina was having an ego moment) was priceless television. Her studio recordings, of "Rumor Has It" and Battle Round number "Love Song," show her formidable skill in that arena as well, and both singles are well worth buying (especially the former). I don't know if she can win it all, and Charlotte Sometimes has been putting up strong competition for my affections, but at this point in the season I'm solidly on Team Mathai. This girl is a STAR.

Live Performance Episodes of The Voice begin Monday, April 2 at 8:00 on NBC.
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