Don't got live if you want it: 'The Voice' Season 23's frustratingly brief, previously taped Playoffs begin
On Monday, The Voice Season 23’s Playoffs finally commenced. Please note I did not say “Live Playoffs,” because, well, they were notlive. I am not sure if NBC is trying to work around Kelly Clarkson’s talk-show tapings, or new coaches Niall Horan and Chance the Rapper’s busy schedules, or retiring coach Blake Shelton’s senioritis… but as it turns out, only the last two weeks of Season 23 will actually be live. And more annoyingly, only those last two weeks — the top eight semifinals, and the finals — will be open to a public vote.
So, here’s how it’s all going to work. This week, the 10 contestants comprising Team Chance and Team Blake performed, with those coaches — not viewers at home — choosing which four singers (yes, that’s right, only two singers per team) to put through to the semifinals. Next Monday, this process will repeat with Team Kelly and Team Niall. And just like that, the top 20 will become the top eight. On May 15, those eight contestants will compete in the actually-live semifinals.
And then, just like that, it’ll all be over. The winner will be revealed on the May 23 finale, although I expect that night’s announcement will be completely overshadowed by all the ticker-tape festivities that NBC has planned for Blake’s much-hyped exit — just like poor American Idol Season 15 winner Trent Harmon’s big moment was a mere afterthought on Fox’s farewell finale back in 2016.
OK, so let’s get to it. Time is obviously a-wastin’, judging by how quickly this season is racing to the finish line.
NOIVAS, “Come Together”
This “ultimate entertainer” clearly was doing Aerosmith's version from the infamous 1978 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie — and I approved! Blake said NOIVAS just needed to “get the wildness under control,” but I’m pretty sure NOIVAS didn’t get that memo. And I am so glad he didn’t. This was what Chance called “fire” and Blake accurately described as an “overall eruption on the stage.”
Rachel Christine, “The Only Exception”
This was nice… but a little too nice. Following NOIVAS, this sweet, safe number felt like a comedown. Chance also noticed that there were “one or two moments when it got a little pitchy.” Blake, who’d stolen Rachel from Team Kelly, claimed Rachel “threw a monkey wrench into this whole thing” for him, but even Rachel, who admitted she was surprised to still be on the show, probably knew this was her last hurrah.
Grace West, “Love Is Alive”
As Blake’s historic last recruit and his last country artist, Grace had a strong advantage going into the not-live Playoffs. She was going to have to mess up badly to not make the semifinals. And thankfully, she did not mess up her Judds cover — even if Kelly said the song was not the best showcase for her vocal range — expertly bridging old-school and new-school country. “If I was Blake and I wanted to win the show, I’d go with Grace,” Chance proclaimed prophetically.
Kylee Dayne, “Flowers”
I had high hopes for this sassy Miley Cyrus song covered by one of my favorite Season 23 mavericks, but the result was disappointing. Kylee’s vocals were shockingly off here, and she knew it. She looked defeated (or as Kelly diplomatically put it, “a little bummed,” or as Blake not-so-diplomatically put it, like she “wanted to punch herself in the face”) by the song’s anticlimactic end. Kelly insisted that this was “still a solid performance,” and Blake said it was “a great job” and he’d take into account the fact that Kylee had been “solid all season.” But it seemed like this “Flowers” singers had sadly wilted.
Mary Kate Connor, “If I Die Young”
This “fearless young talent” — Blake’s Playoff Pass contestant, who’d bypassed the Knockout Rounds — tapped into her theater-kid training for a Broadway-style cover of the Band Perry’s pop-country hit. Niall called it “so sweet,” although I found it too sweet, bordering on saccharine. But the coaches loved Mary Kate’s emotional delivery, even when that caused her to occasionally wander off-pitch. “You were ready to risk it and trusting in your gift,” Chance told her, while Blake said, “What you did, ultimately, was deliver the message in a way that was believable.”
RESULT: My choices were NOIVAS and Grace. And Blake’s choices were… NOIVAS and Grace! I’m glad he got this one right. I was certain that he’d heed Chance’s advice and go with Grace. “My dream, since this is my last season, was I could go into the Lives with a country artist,” he admitted, “and she’s about the perfect country artist to have for this moment.” But I knew rock ‘’n’ soul showboater NOIVAS was an outlier, and I figured Blake would choose Mary Kate. So, this outcome was a pleasant surprise.
Kala Banham, “My Funny Valentine”
If you ever saw the 1984 cult classic No Small Affair starring a then-unknown Jon Cryer and Demi Moore, this performance very much remined me of Demi’s character, new wave torch singer Laura Victor, in that film. Seriously, go look it up! Anyway, I highly doubt that was 24-year-old Kala’s inspiration here, but she had that same sort of bohemian edge. This was truly fantastic, the work of a real artist. Chance was declaring, “I am broken right now; I literally just started crying!” — and that was just during rehearsals. Blake called this performance “actually perfect,” and Chance, who’d poached Kala from Niall's team (after Niall had poached Kala from Kelly), called Kala “the best steal to happen in the history of The Voice. … It’s crazy that you slipped through two other coaches’ fingers.” I just hoped Chance wouldn’t let Kala slip away this week, when it really mattered.
Jamar Langley, “The Thrill Is Gone”
Jamar, this season’s elder statesman by default, delivered a classic, cool performance, bringing all Prince-style guitar swag that Chance requested. The thrill was not gone! There was a playfulness, looseness, and conversational vibe that I’d never seen from Jamar before, because, as he worded it, it was “time to bring the beast out.” Chance told Jamar he “showed up” and praised his easy-breezy interaction with house band. Kelly told Jamar, “I wanna be you. … You’re just a cool dude.”
Manasseh Samone, “Speak the Name”
Manasseh was Chance’s Playoff Pass contestant — and by this point, I was beginning to think that winning the Playoff Pass wasn’t such an advantage after all. With a truncated season, plus the fact that so few Voice contestants go on to have big careers, all that the contestants really get out of the show is exposure. And this season’s Playoff Pass contestants sat out the Knockouts — which meant, well, less exposure. It's like getting montaged! (I suppose that is why Chance called Manasseh his team’s “secret weapon.”) That’s too bad, because it was nice to see Manasseh back, and I would have liked to see more of her this season. Her cover of a song by Voice alumnus Korin Hawthorne — one of the show’s actual rare success stories — had a lot of passion and grit. “You felt it; you meant it; you believed it. It looked like finale moment,” said Kelly.
Ray Uriel, “Essence”
This “subtle soul singer,” another secret weapon who’d stayed “under the radar” all season, gave the night’s most modern and relevant performance with this sexy, silky Wizkid cover, which Kelly amusingly but accurately described as “if Frank Ocean and Miguel had a musical baby.” Niall got “goosebumps” and called Ray the “real deal,” and Chance praised Ray’s “effortless cool.” It seemed like Ray was peaking at just the right time.
Sorelle, “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”
But the show saved the best for last with this sister-trio “mini-choir,” one of the most original and delightful acts to ever compete on The Voice. Doing Christina Aguilera’s Burlesque version of the Etta James standard, these boogie-woogie bugle girls were actually giving me Back to Basics-era Xtina vibes. But they were anything but basic, of course. “The energy off you guys is insane,” marveled Niall. “I mean, come on! This is cheating — it’s too perfect,” gasped Blake.
RESULT: This was when I got annoyed all over again, this time by this season’s team quotas. I know there was no way producers would let a finale happen without Team Blake representation, but honestly, Chance’s “stacked” team deserved to have more than two singers advance. Ideally, I would have loved to see Sorelle, Kala, Jamar, and Ray in the semifinals. Oh, well — two out of four ain’t bad. Chance of course picked the sisters, because “there’s no other Sorelle on this show,” and Ray also stayed. But Chance did in fact let the lovely Kala slip through his fingers.
I do wonder if these Playoffs had been open to a public vote, free of team quotas, if the result would have been different. But it’s possible that we would have just ended up with four Team Blake contestants, looking back on how past seasons have panned out, so perhaps I should not complain.
“I am so not looking forward to next week,” groaned Kelly, anticipating the tough Playoffs decisions that she and Niall will soon face. See you then!
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