The battle lines have all been drawn and the fandoms have been essentially locked in for several weeks now on Season 4 of The Voice. So the question entering tonight’s Live Finals was this: Would (or could) any voters be swayed to switch allegiance?
The question exiting it, though, was quite different: Why did one of the three competing acts get a hefty advantage by scoring two out of the last three solo performance slots on the telecast? (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t The Swon Brothers or a member of Team Usher.)
Look, I know Danielle Bradbery is as easy a sell to country radio as
sauvignon blanc to a reality TV recapper warm milk to a hungry 1-year-old, but the Live Finals were so imbalanced, I swear my TV tilted four inches to the right by the time the telecast came to an end. You think I’m exaggerating? Chew on this: The Swon Brothers’ final competitive performance tonight ended with a full 42 minutes left of airtime. Mark Burnett & Co. might as well have introduced ’em with a dismissive, “Hey, America, it’s the opening act for tonight’s main event…put your hands together for Zach and Colton…whatever their names are!”
OK, OK, I’ll quit with the conspiracy theorizing now. Because, ultimately, the final night of Season 4 voting comes down to a choice among apples, oranges and kiwis. Or, rather, a fast-food burger joint, a backyard barbeque and an avant garde urban trattoria.
Danielle allows Blake and his country fans to have it their way — midtempo, twangy love songs made with a quarter pound of lean beef and cooked the same exact way every time. She’s a monument to consistency, to assembly-line efficiency and to the American dream. (Hey, if Blake can call her “without a doubt, one of the strongest vocalists on Earth, surely I’m allowed such a flight of fancy.)
The Swons’ performances may sometimes come out a little undercooked or occasionally overcharred, but the food’s not really the point. They’re about beers and bonfires and laughter with friends and family — and their understanding of their own limitations and broad appeal has allowed them to ingratiate themselves into the hearts and minds of the voting public. They’re the ultimate answer to the question, “Which act would I want to join me on the couch to watch The Voice?”
And then there’s Michelle: All Chilean sea bass with avocado foam, wasabi mashed potatoes and haricot vert with a soy demi-glaze. She’s a rarity, an aquired taste, a special (and expensive) night out — but with Usher lending his name to the joint, it’s become the place to be for
lights, psychos, Furbies, screaming babies in Mozart wigs, sunburnt drifters with soapsuds beards voters who want something out of the ordinary.
Me? I’m #TeamMichelle, but I understand the appeal of her rivals — even if, deep down, I know it’s Danielle Bradbery’s Powerball ticket, and the rest of us just have to hope she stimulates the economy and it trickles down to us.
Can we pause for my favorite exchange of the night?
Usher: We’re humans being, not just humans doing.
Carson Daly: That should be on a cocktail napkin.
With that, let’s cut to my letter grades for tonight’s performances (I’ll update this recap with more detailed reviews overnight):
The Swon Brothers (New Song): The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why” | Yeah, maybe it’s a little odd that The Swon Brothers tackled their second Eagles track this season, but if you’re gonna ping ’em on those grounds, then you’d have to do the same to Michelle (two Cyndi Lauper and two Pink covers apiece) and Danielle (two each by Carrie Underwood, Pam Tillis and Sara Evans). And the truth of the matter is, “I Can’t Tell You Why” is a terrific piece of ear candy that stretched Zach’s muscular instrument into falsetto territory and allowed the guys to show off their seriously improved harmonies. My only complaint is that considering Zach declared his intent to infuse the tune with “an extra little spark of special” — not to mention that both Colton and Zach play instruments — I’d hoped they’d try to do something (anything, really) to color outside the lines, move the song away from the karaoke bar and toward a future as risk-taking artists with a real point of view. Yeah, I know, I’m tragicomically optimistic. “I Can’t Tell You Why” was pretty solid in spite of all that, though. Grade: B+
Michelle Chamuel (Encore ‘Defining Moment’): Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” | I’m typically not a fan of repeat performances on reality singing competitions — it’s nearly impossible to recreate magic once it’s out of the hat — but I’d be lying if I didn’t point out that Michelle actually upped her game on “IKYWT 2.0,” nailing the lower notes on the verse in a way that eluded her the first time around, while still keeping alive a raucous, uptempo energy that was missing for most of the night/season. Michelle’s air-punch, “throw down the mic” move at the end had me hooting and hollering right along with a studio full of folks who channeled 11-year-old girls surrounding a One Direction tour bus. Grade: A-
Danielle Bradbery and Blake Shelton (Mentor Duet): Patty Loveless’ “Timber, I’m Falling in Love” | Handy rule of thumb: If you’re a full-grown, married male coach on The Voice, you probably shouldn’t choose to duet with your 16-year-old female protégé on a song that has her looking into your eyes and delivering lyrics like, “The right body, the right face/Timber, I’m falling in love.” No wonder Danielle mumbled her way through the opening verse, a faint look of dread in her eyes, then went surprisingly flat on parts of the chorus. The coaches didn’t provide any feedback on the night’s duets, and thank heavens: If Adam had made some kind of unfortunate joke about Miranda Lambert needing to watch her back, I would’ve crawled under my couch, turned into a dustball and prayed for the roar of the vacuum cleaner to drown it all out. If anything, though,”Timber, I’m Falling…” taught us it often takes more than a bell-clear tone and an unrelenting eagerness to be worthy of the “mission accomplished” message Blake conveyed; old-fashioned life experience, deep understanding of a lyric and an ability to convey its message count just as much — if not more. Grade: C
The Swon Brothers (Encore ‘Defining Moment’): Loggins and Messina’s “Danny’s Song” | On paper, this choice seemed like a head-scratcher: Why choose to reprise the same exact song you just had a fairly big moment with only seven days prior? In practice, “Danny’s Song” was even more inscrutable. For starters, I’m 99 percent certain Zach either missed his cue or botched his lyrics (or both) coming out of the first chorus, when he mumbled something along the lines of “It was a summer night/ And I know I love my wife.” Say what now? And while Usher’s comment that he’d “disappeared for a moment” mid-performance was spun as a positive, I have to admit I could relate a little, as the familiarity of the cover — and the lack of a fresh new twist or arrangement — left me with a lingering sense of ennui. Wouldn’t it have been cool if the Swons had given the band a break, and chosen to strip the song all the way down — just to Zach’s piano and Colton’s guitar? See what we end up missing out on when a coach gets rewarded for playing it safe all season? Grade: B-
Michelle Chamuel (New Song): Annie Lennox’s “Why” | I loved how Usher’s sole remaining vocalist kicked off Annie Lennox’s monster solo hit by singing into what looked like a mirror, until her reflection stopped moving its lips on the phrase “keep your big mouth shut.” Whoa! Please tell me I’m not the only one who didn’t realize that was a video screen — or that I’m the only one who dug it. But enough about the special effects: Michelle’s voice was in gloriously good form as she hit all those tricky notes and conversational phrases — while managing to put a more hopeful, less manic spin on the lyrics. By the time she hit the lines “This is the book I never read/ These are the words I never said,” I could feel a chill spread across my shoulders and down every hair on my arms. (I’d yell “Goosies!!!” but J.Lo made the phrase illegal back in Season 10 of American Idol.) In all seriousness, though, Michelle was so deeply under the song’s skin and so consistently on pitch that she may have found a small crack in the window that allows her to win the whole thing. Yeah, I know, probably not, but these are the dreams I’ll dream instead anyhow. Grade: A+
The Swon Brothers and Blake Shelton (Mentor Duet): Brad Paisley’s “Celebrity” | If I’m being honest, Zach and Colton and Blake sounded perfectly fine (albeit rather ordinary), but the song choice was the equivalent of going for a field goal when you’re down by 21 points with three minutes left on the clock. Maybe the boys knew they were destined for third place and thought it’d be clever to tackle a country hit about the perils of life in the reality TV era? (Oh, Blake, I never can tell if you’re the most self-aware dude on network television today or if you have no self-awareness whatsoever.) I’d have given this a B+ or A- if the Swons had said when they wrapped, “Don’t waste any votes on us. We’re never gonna win the whole enchilada, but we’ll be opening for Blake or Rascal Flatts or whoever in the latter part of 2013, right?” Oh how I miss crazy, bracing honesty — I can’t tell a lie. Grade: B
Danielle Bradbery (Encore ‘Defining Moment’): Pam Tillis’ “Maybe It Was Memphis” | Is it wrong that I found myself aggravated by the way the camera person shot part of this performance from behind Blake’s bopping head — the better to drive home the notion, “If you heart Blake, then aw shucks you should heart/vote for his favorite contestant ever!” And if that wasn’t enough, even Carson Daly had to jump on the critique wagon and tell her she was “really something special” before turning it over to the judges. I know, I know, I sound like a total harpie, especially because Danielle’s lilting, wholesome, “butterflies fluttering over a meadow” tone is a perfect 12-point fingerprint match for Pam Tillis’ sentimental midtempo love song. The only things that detracted from the number were Danielle’s slightly mechanical use of the stage — the way she climbed atop that staircase looked more like a matter of programming than anything natural or spontaneous — and the way certain specific lines and phrases (i.e. “Read about you in a Faulkner novel/ Met you once in a Williams’ play”) were rendered almost meaningless in her hands. I mean, do you think Danielle even knows who Tennesee Williams is, or what his Southern Gothic aesthetic was all about? From the way she sang those lines, I’m guessing not. Then again, maybe the purity of her vocals makes such a question invalid in the first place? I don’t know. You tell me. Grade: B
Michelle Chamuel and Usher (Mentor Duet): U2’s “One” | Call me a softie, but I got a little lump in my throat witnessing the energy exchange between coach and pupil during this performance — the way Usher extended his hand toward Michelle, and she reached back and clutched his fingers; the way Usher got down in a Chamuel Squat to pay homage to her signature stage move; the way both of their faces lit up when one of ’em sang the wrong phrase before coming together in unison on “we’ve got to carry each other.” Yeah, initially the sound mix on Michelle’s mic appeared to be wildly out of whack, but once that got ironed out, this really did turn into a case of the sum being even greater than its parts. I can say without exaggeration that Usher and Michelle are responsible for my favorite coach-contestant relationship in four seasons of Voice history; now here’s hoping the Mutual Admiration Society continues to meet — and make music — once the season is done. Grade: A
Danielle Bradbery (New Song): Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly” | There was something so old-school and quaint about the set for Danielle’s performance — the stone walkway, the white wooden arch covered in ivy, the picturesque trees in the background — that it was giving me serious Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters variety-show vibes. And that’s rather fitting, since Danielle has a set of pipes on her that — utilized properly — can turn back time and find a way to transport listeners to a simpler, more relaxed time and place. When Danielle’s voice opened up on the chorus, and the energetic fiddler broke it all the way down, I could understand Blake’s fascination with this wholesome kid who’s like a perfect block of marble that’s slowly being transformed into something that could be timeless and inspirational. Stylistically, I might prefer Michelle’s brand of jagged modernism, but I can’t say I don’t understand what movtivates folks to download Danielle’s music in droves, either. Grade: A-
Should win: Michelle
Will win: Danielle
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 4 Live Finals? What did you think of the coaches’ comments? Who will win it all? And who should win it all? Take our polls below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Voice-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!