A dark cloud loomed over the Voice soundstage Monday, on what was supposed to be a celebratory night: part one of the Season 12 finale. Just a couple hours before the broadcast, disaster had rocked the pop world, when a suspected terrorist explosion at a U.K. Ariana Grande concert killed at least 22 people and injured dozens more. Host Carson Daly addressed the tragedy at the top of the show, saying, “Before we get going on this huge night of performances, on behalf of everybody here at The Voice, our hearts go out to the people in the Manchester, England… Lives have been lost, and many hurt. You are in our thoughts. We are thinking about you.”
As Lauren Duski, Chris Blue, Jesse Larson, and Aliyah Moulden then competed by performing three times each — one original, one cover, and one coach duet — most of their songs were surprisingly uptempo, as opposed to the typical power ballads we hear in finale weeks. Ironically, this was the night when we all could have used a song like “I Can Only Imagine,” “Take Me to the King,” or “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” not upbeat numbers like “Dancing in the Street” and “Takin’ It to the Streets,” which felt silly and lightweight. But at least The Voice provided a temporary distraction from the day’s horrific news.
Aliyah Moulden (Team Blake)
“Never Be Lonely” — a Meghan Trainor-esque throwaway throwback co-penned by onetime Big Machine signing Jake “Fancy” Hagood, who has written for Lucy Hale, La’Porsha Renae, Cody Simpson, and others — was a typical Radio Disney summer-singalong single. Easy, breezy, and slightly cheesy, it “sounded like a hit,” as Blake Shelton said, and Aliyah performed it like she was on “freakin’ Glee,” as Blake later put it. Yes, it was age-appropriate and fun, but wasn’t exactly edgy or deep, and it was disappointing to hear Aliyah do something so fluffy after her more meaningful performances of past weeks. Hopefully her other songs would be more serious and diva-worthy. (Spoiler alert: They weren’t.)
Chris Blue (Team Alicia)
Chris’s original jam, “Money on You,” was written by JHart (Trey Songz, Rita Ora, Justin Bieber), Talay Riley (Prince Royce, Chris Brown, Jason Derulo), Mike Dupree (T.I., K. Michelle, Snoop Dogg), Scribz Riley (Tove Lov, Nathan Sykes), and Fifth Harmony producer Tinashe “T-Collar” Sibanda. With a lineup like that, I expected more from this tune. It had a pleasantly chickenscratchy disco-guitar vibe going on, a la the Weeknd and Pharrell’s collaborations with Daft Punk, and it did sound current, but it wasn’t exactly a monster of a song. I also yearned for more of Chris’s “24K Magic”-style dancing during this number, though I later realized that he was saving all his strength for his epic, dancetastic final performance.
Chris’s coach, Alicia Keys, was feeling his 24K magic, however, gushing, “There’s an electricity that happens when you come into the room, and it’s crazy… Chris, you are ready. You are ready.”
Jesse Larson (Team Adam)
Jesse’s finest moments this season have been when he’s covered songs recorded by Chris Stapleton (“I Was Wrong,” “Tennessee Whiskey”), so it must have been an honor for him to get an original single co-written by his idol, “Woman.” Of course, this sounded like a discarded Stapleton outtake, a sleepy midtempo tune that just chugged along, so Jesse’s performance lacked the fire and spunk of those aforementioned numbers. But the song fit right into his roots-rock wheelhouse, and Jesse gave a workmanlike performance that surely pleased his fanbase and did Stapleton (who will appear on Tuesday’s grand finale) proud.
“The show has evolved and it’s changed, and there’s been many, many different ways that someone could become successful on the show, but I want to say one thing to everybody at home,” declared Jesse’s coach, Adam Levine. “This show is called The Voice, all right? I want to get back to that thing, that spectacular, intangible quality that made somebody The Voice. Don’t vote for Jesse Larson unless you want that quality in a Voice winner back again, because I really do think this guy embodies what The Voice should be about.”
Um, I have no idea what Adam was trying to say — that Jesse isn’t a pretty face, but he has a pretty voice? That recent past winners haven’t been deserving or legit? It sounded like a dis to everyone involved. But hey, I’m sure Adam meant well.
Lauren Duski (Team Blake)
Lauren co-wrote “Déjà Vu” (with Cody Tarpley and Daniel Doron Henig), and I have a feeling I’ll be getting “déjà vu” when Lauren follows in the cowgirl-booted footsteps of Team Blake’s Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery and wins The Voice this Tuesday. Her vulnerable, bittersweet breakup ballad, by far the best of the night’s original singles, sounded like an actual country smash — something Carrie Underwood might perform on the CMA Awards. And maybe one day, Lauren will perform it on the CMA Awards. Yes, it was that special.
“Lauren, let me be the first to congratulate you on writing your first No. 1 hit song. We’ve had some incredible moments on this show in 12 seasons, great singers, but I don’t know that we’ve ever heard an artist come out here and do a song that they wrote that is that beautiful, that perfect. Congratulations, Lauren. That’s all I have to say,” said Blake.
Jesse Larson (Team Adam)
Long ago, on a very special two-part episode of the ‘70s sitcom What’s Happening!!, the Doobie Brothers played a fictional Watts high school, and the bumbling, beret-wearing Rerun attempted to bootleg their booty-shaking performance of “Takin’ It to the Streets” by smuggling a tape recorder the size of a car battery under his trenchcoat. Three decades later, Taylor Hicks spastically performed the tune on American Idol and had his own moment. Now we can add Jesse’s rather bootleg-worthy rendition to that illustrious TV tradition. This was Jesse’s best effort of the night; while it may not have been original (he performed it simply and straightforwardly), it was a vivacious, roof-raising, thoroughly enjoyable jam sesh.
“I’m so happy that we managed to get through this whole thing without ever deviating from who you are… I think the coolest thing about this guy is that he does it all with such a humble attitude, that he just goes up there and kills it every night. I think he’s the most consistent. I think he’s the most interesting. I think he is the winner, ladies and gentlemen,” said Adam.
Lauren Duski (Team Blake)
Speaking of being consistent, once again Lauren kept it classy, with an elegant, effortless, intimate cover of Garth Brooks’s classic “The Dance,” drawing the listener in with her storytelling quality and hushed, honeyed vocal tones — tones that Adam described as “familiar and comforting.”
“I can’t stop smiling right now. That’s one of the most important country songs in the history of country music, and I’ve heard it a million times. One of my favorite songs ever, and literally you made me feel like I was hearing it for the first time tonight. Listen, America, country music fans, music fans: Lauren Duski is the one we’ve been waiting for all this time. And she’s here,” said Blake.
Aliyah Moulden (Team Blake)
Aliyah started off this season doing cutesy Motown karaoke, the sort of stuff we used to see on American Idol Season 2, but she’d greatly matured in recent weeks. This week, she unfortunately regressed — not just with her original single, which was cute and catchy but inconsequential, but with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and, later, in her duet number. Was Blake trying to knock her out of the running with these hokey song choices, because he favored his golden-girl contestant Lauren? I’m not sure, but he did poor Aliyah no favors here. Yes, Aliyah’s performance skills had improved, so she commanded the stage like a pro, but that didn’t help her chances much. Even a ceremonial balloon drop couldn’t help, despite Blake’s insistence to the contrary.
“I think those balloons coming down are a sign for you. It felt like tomorrow night [on the finale] all of a sudden. Every time you get on that stage, you make people smile and you make them forget, for a minute, their life. You just bring them into that moment. America, you’ve got to vote for Aliyah,” Blake said, unconvincingly.
Chris Blue (Alicia Keys)
While it may hurt Chris that he didn’t get an emotional, over-the-top ballad this week, he did put on the most spectacular solo performance of the night, leading his Blue Army of backup dancers as he belted a stupendous version of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” Just like when he did “24K Magic” a couple weeks ago, Chris executed some impressively rubber-legged dance moves without sacrificing his vocal power (every lip-synching pop star out there, please take notes), and he absolutely owned the stage. This felt very relevant, very VMAs or BBMAs or AMAs, and it made me realize once and for all that there is a place in the pop marketplace for Chris. The man is a star.
“Chris, you came out tonight and you showed people that you are everything… You can be alone on a stage and deliver a brand-new song, and everyone will sing with you; you can come out and do one of the most iconic songs in the world, and you can handle it. America needs to know that together, we can say we started Chris Blue’s career tonight,” proclaimed Alicia.
Chris Blue & Alicia Keys
This performance of “Diamond and Pearls” was Alicia’s first time singing a Prince song in public since Prince’s death last year, and it was worth the wait. A lesser-covered single from 1991, “Diamonds and Pearls” was a wonderful choice, a majestic and ambitious psychedelic-soul ballad that allowed both singers to shine diamond-bright as equals. (Actually, if anything, Chris upstaged Alicia a bit; Alicia was a gracious and generous partner.) This went so gloriously, Alicia and Chris couldn’t stop smiling throughout, and their joy was contagious.
Aliyah Moulden & Blake Shelton
Ugh. More Motown novelty fluff from Aliyah. Sure, this cover of Martha & The Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” wasn’t as embarrassing as Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s presumably cocaine-fueled version from 1985 — but it wasn’t as rock ‘n’ roll, either. And this was Aliyah’s second Martha & The Vandellas cover of the season; was that really necessary? I understand that it may have been difficult to pick an appropriate, non-icky duet song for a 15-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man, but still, this was forgettable.
Jesse Larson & Adam Levine
Jesse has major Prince connections — he’s from Minneapolis, his band #MPLS once performed at Paisley Park, and he was hired by Prince to play guitar for Prince protégé/former Voice contestant Judith Hill — so he too honored His Purple Majesty for his coach duet. Jesse and Adam went with a more obvious choice, “Let’s Go Crazy,” and while it was impossible for them to capture the charisma of the iconic original, it was a real lovefest up there as they traded tasty guitar licks and partied like it was 1999. This was a ton of fun.
Lauren Duski & Blake Shelton
This was Blake’s better duet performance of the night, since Hank Williams’s “There’s a Tear in My Beer” was obviously a much more natural fit for his twangy style than “Dancing in the Street.” But the laid-back, strummy tune wasn’t the best fit for Lauren, who excels when she does gentle, folksy, introspective ballads. In fact, during much of this duet, she just seemed like Blake’s sidekick. Luckily, she had two other standout moments Monday to help maintain her frontrunner status.
So now, it is prediction time! Is Lauren still the frontrunner of Season 12? I’d say yes, especially since, as of this writing, she holds the top two spots on the iTunes — even hitting No. 1 with “Déjà Vu.” There’s a slight chance that Chris, the heartthrob of the top four, could edge her out via other voting methods, but he will likely have to settle for a respectable second place. I further predict that Jesse, who had a strong night, will place third, and Aliyah will come in fourth.
Tune in to Tuesday’s finale to see Lauren win find out if I’m right, and to watch performances from current coach Gwen Stefani, future coach Jennifer Hudson, past/future coach Miley Cyrus, and many more.