The Voice Recap: The X(tina) Factor

The Voice is different from the other 47 reality singing competitions on TV right now “because it puts vocal ability first,” host Carson Daly boasted during Sunday night’s post-Super Bowl season premiere.

Of course, The Voice also stands out for a few other reasons: it puts Carson in a Kia (instead of an ominous 18-wheeler, like X Factor‘s Steve Jones, or turning him into Ford’s plaything, a la Ryan Seacrest); it doesn’t believe in giving airtime to ham sandwiches with no discernable singing talent; and it isn’t afraid to expose seven-eighths of Christina Aguilera’s heaving bazooms without so much as a parental warning or a foghorn.

If you’re new to The Voice, its central conceit is that its four judges — Xtina, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton, and Adam Levine — must turn their backs to the stage as auditions begin, and decide based solely on singing ability whether or not to press a button, turn their chairs around, and offer to be a mentor to the vocalist in question. If more than one judge “turns around” during an audition, it’s up to the singer to decide who’ll be his or her mentor — after listening to Christina conjure up her Norma-Desmond-as-modern-pop-star persona, Adam give his best “used-car salesman” pitch (Xtina’s zinger, not mine), Cee Lo offer some sexually suggestive new-age hoo-ha, and Blake plainspokenly wonder if the contestant might be inclined to make a country record and meet his lovely wife, Miranda Lambert.

Much like Season 1, the judges’ bickering struck a note of playful camaraderie and resulted in a far less toxic atmosphere than The X Factor‘s carefully scripted awfulness. The sole exceptions to the rule were those awkward moments where Xtina overplayed her rivalry with Adam (“you’re trying to be Justin Timberlake!” she blathered) and you wished a producer would fire a tranquilizer dart into her neck, for her own good and the good of the home viewing audience.

The talent pool for Night One, meanwhile, showcased big pipes across a range of genres.

Here’s my quick take on the five singers who advanced to the upcoming “Battle Rounds.”

* RaeLynn, 17, lives on a Texas farm that, quite honestly, looks like a Hollywood set of a Texas farm. (Is someone in the producers’ room a fan of Capricorn One?) RaeLynn’s “Hell on Heels” starts out pleasantly Dolly-esque, but her tone gets more rounded and meatier a few lines in, even if she hits a couple of flat notes along the way. The kid gives off a slight whiff of preciousness, and her overzealous stage mom makes me a little nervous, but those negatives are balanced out by RaeLynn’s ability to play her own guitar. Adam, Blake, and Xtina turn around for her, but was there ever a question that she’d choose Mr. Shelton?

* Jesse Campbell leads with his tale of woe: He moved to California to become a singing sensation, but ended up losing his wife and his house and (apparently) his ability to keep intimate details of his life to himself). Adam, Xtina, and Cee Lo all turn around after about 10 seconds of “A Song for You,” and while Jesse undoubtedly hits his notes, I find his tone ever so slightly shrill. Also, it’s possible the guy is a highly functioning automaton. When Blake jokes that before he eventually hit his own buzzer, he was “the only dumbass” not vying for Jesse’s attention, the contestant in question never breaks his “I’m so humbled” facade. And not laughing at Blake’s jokes is weird, right? Jesse makes a comment about wanting to fight for his right to sing, then chooses Team Xtina, which provides the perfect segue into her anthemic hit/my go-to treadmill jam “Fighter.”

* Juliet Simms only gets three of the four judges to turn their chairs around, but in my book, she’s the best in show for Season 2, Episode 1 (even though she chews gum while getting judges’ critiques — blech!). Yeah, her rocker-girl styling — nose ring, denim vest, arm tattoos — is a bit too obvious, but her guttural rendition of the Beatles’ “Oh Darling” is truly ugly-beautiful — especially when Juliet drops to her knees and pleads like a wounded animal on the bridge. Adam can’t help but sing along like a goofy fanboy, and Cee Lo pays Juliet a zesty/ridiculous compliment: “I heard the story of my life in that song.” That’s enough to make Juliet join forces with the man who wrote “Forget You”; he’d better not abandon her in the Battle Rounds. (Side note: The show should’ve played Vicci Martinez’s “The Dog Days Are Over,” not the original, heading out of Juliet’s audition and into commercial break, no?)

* Chris Mann enters the arena in a jaunty gray suit with a plaid tie and a seafoam pocket square. I’m going to admit that I’ve never before heard his audition ditty, “Because We Believe,” and that I think I’d be okay if I never heard it again. But that’s not to say that in spite of a trace of nervousness that percolates through his vocal, Chris doesn’t have a big monster truck of a voice that he should be able to drive right through the battle rounds. Chris is so overcome with emotion that he needs a beat before he can say his own name, but when he shares that he’s spent much of his career trying to shrink his voice to fit the restrictions of the modern music biz, you know that “bigger! louder! melisma-ier!” Xtina is the only coach for him.

* Mr. Daly (who I’m definitely going to misidentify as Carson Kressley before the season is over, because my typing fingers really wish that Mr. Kressley was hosting) excitedly tells us our final contestant, Tony Lucca, used to be on the Mickey Mouse Club. But who cares, really, when he used to be on the gone-too-soon-but-never-forgotten Malibu Shores? Tony’s rendition of “Trouble” is pitch-perfect, and I like the way his vocal occasionally disappears to a whisper, even though he should probably relegate his drab brown vest and patchwork cap to the same storage unit where he keeps his Mickey Mouse ears. Adam, Xtina, and Blake turn their chairs around, and then Adam hits Cee Lo’s button, too. The double whammy makes Tony pick the Maroon 5 frontman, though it doesn’t hurt that his old Disney castmate, Xtina, fails to recognize him, even after he’s give his name. (Waah waah waaaaahhh.)

This opportunity for a touching live reunion thrwarted — and a producer most likely having slipped a note to Xtina (“Grrrl, you know that guy!) — our crazy-lady judge heads backstage declaring she’s realized Tony is her “old Mouseketeer buddy.” After meeting his wife and child, she reveals that Britney Spears had “the biggest crush” on Tony. Awkward! Now quick, somebody get Keri Russell in the audience for the Battle Rounds!

What did you think of The Voice‘s Season 2 premiere? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!