“[Tuesday] night, our biggest elimination of the season — eight become your four finalists!” Carson Daly exclaimed frantically at the end of The Voice Season 11 semifinal performance telecast.
But in all honesty, two or maybe even three of the finale berths are already spoken for — thanks to a combination of season-long hype, artistic consistency and the undeniable importance of who got the week’s final two performance slots.
Let’s be real: Sundance Head is as likely to be bumped off during Tuesday’s brutal bloodbath as president-elect Donald Trump is to take a deep breath and consider the socio-geopolitical implications of his Twitter account between now and inauguration day.
Billy “I was a child star!” Gilman and Wé “I’m about to become a child star!” McDonald headed into Top 8 week looking solid as The Rock’s biceps, too, and despite subpar efforts, it would still be a jolt to see both, or even one of ’em, not continuing a forward march into the Top 4.
Without the benefit of a shock boot, then, we’re left with Christian, Ali, Brendan, Aaron and Josh duking it out for the chance to get an extra week of national television exposure and a few totally hollow bits of feedback from the Season 11 panel.
Depressing as that last paragraph seems, let’s nevertheless jump right into letter grades and reviews for the week’s 10 performances:
Christian Cuevas (Team Alicia), “To Worship You I Live (Away)” — Grade: C+ | Showing emotions? Great. Losing control of ’em to the point that your tears waterlog your sense of pitch and leave you struggling in a swaybot pit of white-clad chorus members? Calamitous. And very poorly timed given the stakes of the semifinals, I might add.
Wé McDonald and Aaron Gibson, “FourFive Seconds” — Grade: B | This didn’t look especially well-rehearsed, but it didn’t sound half-bad, either.
Ali Caldwell (Team Miley), “I Will Always Love You” — Grade: A- | Aside from a wobbly intro, Ali — looking like a post-Voice star in her red floral dress — gave a gorgeous performance of an impossibly range-y Whitney Houston jam, using her own sense of nuance, restraint and melodic reinvention to make her more than worthy of the sparks-from-the-rafters staging. Which brings me to this conclusion: A Season 11 finale without Ali would be like a summer with no ice cream: Unspeakable. And not nearly sweet enough.
Brendan Fletcher (Team Adam), “Angel” — Grade: D | A rich, smoky tone is worth only so much when the guy responsible for it is making direct contact with one out of every three or four notes. Look, as lovely as Brendan sounded on “True Colors” last week, his second swing at the sensitive troubadour genre proved so dire that Blake began his critique with what I believe was a subtly damning “It’s been fun” (aka “Your time is up”). Could he still make the finale? Sure, if voters give him credit for his past works — or just focus in on his lustrous hair and puppydog eyes. But with Adam openly declaring Josh as his No. 1 artist this week, I suspect Brendan’s underdog run has come to an unexpected end.
Sundance Head and Josh Gallagher, “Feelin’ Alright” — Grade: B | I was feelin’ alright by the time Sundance and Josh finished up. I mean, not elated or anything. But totally alright, y’know?
Wé McDonald (Team Alicia), “Scars to Your Beautiful” — Grade: B- | I loved seeing Wé bring a youthful energy to the stage and make an effort to showcase herself as an artist who could find some success on the pop charts after the reality-competition chapter of her book has closed. Yet while the verses brought out the trademark richness of her Wé’s lower register, the teenage diva suffered some breath-control issues while grappling with the quick cadence of the second verse and attempting to soar over a particularly noisy arrangement. If the Chosen Ones troika of Billy-Sundance-Wé gets shattered on Tuesday night, it could be Alicia’s protége who comes up short.
Aaron Gibson (Team Miley), “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” — Grade: F | The good news? Aaron got an assist from Carson in telling millions of ladies that he’s single — and ready to mingle. Here’s hoping he finds a nice young woman to stroke his hair and dry his tears over the next few days, though, as his Bryan Adams cover was so hopelessly, torturously out of tune that the three-time Instant Save recipient would need the four coaches to join hands and enact some sort of Wonder Quadruplets shenangians to rescue him from walking the plank.
Billy Gilman and Christian Cuevas, “Unsteady” — Grade: C+ | It’s a pity Christian didn’t choose “Unsteady” as his solo number, as his voice sounded far more steady and strong than it did on “To Worship You I Live.” Vocal beast Billy, meanwhile, whiffed a few of the harmonies, but his mid-performance struggle with his earpiece hinted at technical difficulties beyond his control.
Josh Gallagher (Team Adam), “Danny’s Song” — Grade: B- | If this were American Idol, and Keith Urban was judging, Pennsylvania native Josh probably would’ve been called out for infusing Loggins and Messina’s sentimental strummer with too much southern twang. But that might’ve been quibbling just for the sake of quibbling. Josh hardly reinvented the wheel, but — in figure skating terms — he had a clean run and nailed the landings, making for an aesthetically pleasing if not particularly scintillating performance.
Ali Caldwell and Brendan Fletcher, “It’s Only Love” — Grade: B+ | The duet that, on paper, looked least likely to succeed proved to be the most electrifying on stage. Granted, “It’s Only Love” is a bit of a throwaway jam, but Brendan’s swag and Ali’s shimmy — along with their unabashed enthusiasm — upgraded the entire party. For argument’s sake, if the duet was enough to catapult Ali and Brendan into the finale, who’d you put with them? (I’d go with Sundance and Wé.)
Sundance Head (Team Blake), “Love Can Build a Bridge” — Grade: A- | Keeping it really real (TM Randy Jackson), Sundance probably could’ve burped “Marshmallow World” and still advanced to next week’s finale. Instead, he grabbed ahold of an unabashedly sentimental country hit and delivered it with sincerity, simplicity and beauty — and missed fewer notes in the process than most of his key competitors.
Billy Gilman (Team Adam), “I Surrender” — Grade: C+ | Look, I get that Billy’s got major-league talent. But I can’t shake the notion that he approaches his songs like they’re levels of a video game: He clears one, and then needs to push harder, fire faster, leap wider to “survive” what comes next. And now, several weeks into the competition, Billy is not only coming off as more emotionally distant than ever, but he’s stretching his instrument in ways that seem unnecessary at best, ill-advised at worst. For a show-closing pimp-slot performance, Billy’s technical stumbles — a rocky lower register, a series of wince-inducing high notes on the chorus — came as a shock. But I’d also be shocked if viewers (and Billy himself) could hear those flaws under the sweeping arrangement, the steady drumbeat of top-notch stage design and the coaches’ elated standing ovation.