It wasn't just contestants who were doing battle Monday on "The Voice." The night also saw two distinct approaches by the coaches to their teams' battle round pairings, with drastically different results.
Monday's battles between very similar singers ended invariably with one or the other leaving the "Voice" stage disappointed. But the more unexpected match-ups, pitting singers with varied styles against each other, all yielded a steal, giving each losing performer a new lease on life on "The Voice."
The lesson, for the coaches and the singing hopefuls? It pays, apparently, to venture outside one's comfort zone. And for the audience? Well, the season could be anybody's game, given the surprise powerhouse performances that some of the season's erstwhile underdogs delivered.
First, though, were two pairings of singers more alike than not, with Team Adam's soul singers Austin Ellis and Josh Kaufman kicking off the night on Pharrell Williams' hit "Happy" -- though mentor Aloe Blacc thought their pairing would help "show how diverse soul music really is." Onstage, Blake said they looked like they were "having a ball," and Usher compared Austin to a "caged beast." But the energy Austin brought was, for their coach, not quite a match for Josh's vocal abilities, and Austin was sent home.
The next battle yielded the same fate for another half of a closely-matched battle pairing, after Blake Shelton paired one country powerhouse, Audra McLaughlin, against the duo Alaska and Madi. The three belters struggled not to step on each other's toes vocally, both in rehearsals and in their performance of the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved." Shakira cautioned them that "less is more" and called the duo's harmonies "over-the-top," and Blake reluctantly chose Audra as the winner.
That meant Alaska and Madi were heading home, much to Blake's chagrin and Adam's frustration, given that he had already used up both his steals and couldn't nab them for his own team. "You are crazy!" Adam told Blake, insisting the duo could have won the entire competition, before heading backstage to tell the tearful teens, "You guys are awesome."
The next pairing, however, saw two very different vocalists face off, in a performance that pushed both of them into territory they'd seldom explored. Committed and competitive high school athlete Deja Hall was tasked with taking on waitress, single mom and classically trained singer Music Box on the Bangles' 80s ballad "Eternal Flame." Deja's task was to find the power in her voice and break out of her subdued mien, all while connecting with a love song she didn't quite grasp given her age; Music Box's task was to dial back her ferocity and show vulnerability.
In their performance, between them, the coaches agreed the singers had succeeded. Adam and Blake sided with Deja as the winner of the bout, citing her vocal maturity at such a young age and even, in Blake's case, comparing her with Superman discovering the extent of his powers. Usher, playing strategically, refused to say whom he'd pick as the winner, suggesting he had plans of his own.
Shakira, too, sided with Deja -- but Usher, who had yet to use a single steal during the battle rounds, swooped in to grab Music Box for his team. "Your voice is incredible," he told her.
It was a pairing that had managed both to push each artist toward new goals and also to show off her unique talents. The same didn't quite hold true for the next pairing, which had two sweet-voiced Team Usher teens from the same town (and same high school) in Utah -- Madilyn Paige and Tanner James -- singing the Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran duet "Everything Has Changed."
"Be starry-eyed, be in love. Be an actor as well as a singer," mentor Jill Scott urged Madilyn, whose voice she said was "like china," and Tanner, whose voice she called "very loving." That was a bit of a tall task for the young Madilyn, who as the competition's youngest singer had never been in a relationship. But Usher had high hopes for them, calling their battle "the Romeo and Juliet battle."
The tenderness and sweetness that Usher and Jill Scott came through in their performance, thanks in part to some canny stage blocking. The approach won over Adam, certainly.
"That was like watching golden retriever puppies frolic through fields of wheat during the sunset or something. That was, like, cute overload. So romantic and sweet. I want you guys to do songs rom 'The Little Mermaid' or something," Adam quipped. Shakira agreed, calling the performance "so sweet, yet so believable." And while Usher acknowledged Tanner was "a heartthrob right now" (to a sheepish non-response from Tanner), he picked Madilyn as the winner. Nobody else stole Tanner.
Fortunately for the rest of the night's contestants, though, Tanner would be the last singer of the night to head home. The Team Adam pairing of single dad Josh Murley against impossibly cutesy hipster couple Dawn and Hawkes on the shambling '70s surprise hit "Stuck in the Middle With You." Both acts struggled in rehearsals to connect with the audience and to convey the "campfire vibe" Adam was going for, though on-stage, it came across with a little more success.
Still, despite Hawkes' best efforts at a Band-era Bob Dylan impression, no one moment of the performance really stood out, as Blake Shelton noted afterward. Shakira, though, seemed to have gotten into the spirit. "I don't drink, but you guys make me feel like having a beer," she enthused. Adam picked Dawn and Hawkes as the bout's winner -- but just as Josh was about to leave the stage, Shakira pushed her button to steal him. "He's way too talented to walk away from this competition," she said.
With Team Shakira and Team Usher both one new team member richer Monday and Team Adam short of steals, that left Blake needing to pick up a new team member of his own. He did with Team Usher's battle match-up, grabbing a singer he thought could be a break-out star despite her underdog status.
Usher paired his raw-voiced teen rock sensation Bria Kelly against former NFL cheerleader Tess Boyer, on a song that both of them seemed justifiably nervous about tackling: the inimitable Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," a song admittedly much more up Bria's alley. Tess' major challenge was to break through her facade of what she good-naturedly called out as "cheerleader poise," while Bria was tasked with taking a break from so assiduously sounding tough to convey the song's necessary desperation.
The two tackled those challenges head-on in their performance together, with results that were as exciting as they were messy -- messy, ironically, because of the polish each showed in her approach, Bria in her precise inflections and Tess in her cheerleader-y gestures.
That Bria, who had turned all the coaches' chairs in the blind auditions, would deliver vocal theatrics and rock panache in spades had been a foregone conclusion, the coaches concluded. But Blake tipped his hat to Tess' "finesse and dimension," too. "I think Tess came out of nowhere on this thing," he said, handing her the round.
Usher picked Bria as the winner, keeping her on his team -- but as soon as Blake pushed his button to steal Tess, Bria screamed "yes!" in excitement from off-stage for her one-time teammate's chance to stay on "The Voice." Shakira, at that point, was the only one unhappy -- but only because she wished she had had a steal left so she could have picked Tess herself. "Tess was a revelation," she said.
The battle rounds will finish up Tuesday on "The Voice," as the potential for coach steals dwindles.
"The Voice" airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8/7c.