The Voice finalists: (l to r) Jermaine Paul, Chris Mann, Juliet Simms and Tony Lucca
What more is there to say, fellow Voice voyeurs? We’ve cartwheeled through what seems like 16,930 weeks of brackets, faceoffs, and duets, and now we’re down to the final four combatants in the big, red-chaired conclusion of The Voice. I suggest we celebrate by donning our most ironic t-shirts (Hell, I’ll wear a glittery “Team Xtina” baby tee too, Adam! Particularly if we’re wearing it at the same time!) and correctly the ranking last night’s performances. As usual, we’ll start low and work our way to #1. Will the winner of The Voice be justified? Not if the sepia-toned catalog of Josh Groban has anything to do with it!
4. Chris Mann: “The Voice Within,” “You Raise Me Up,” “The Prayer” (with Christina Aguilera)
Would you hate me if I revealed a soupcon of conscience? Because hear this: I sort of feel bad for placing Chris Mann fourth. I know he’s a crocodile-teared, ice-faced Il Divo understudy, and he even selected songs I hate (namely that hackneyed-ass Christina Aguilera ballad “The Voice Within,” the one with the Evanescence-scamming video), but I have to admire him for sticking to his guns, delivering America 400 scoops of maudlin balladry, and believing in his personal snoglobe of schmaltz. Schmaltz has a place! We can’t all be Iggy Pop and Chrissie Hynde. Some of us have to be that wide-eyed torch singer who duets with Vonda Shepard or the Christmas crooner with the holiday album, the Santa hat, and the reindeer-trampled grandma. Chris is just that guy.
But that’s the problem: He’s just that guy. For me, the critical point of failure was his selection of “You Raise Me Up,” the angelic Josh Groban panty moistener whose self-seriousness begs for Weird Al’s interception. When Mann bleated the Oprah favorite, he sounded waaaay more like Groban than I wanted. In fact, he was mistakable for Groban’s own echo. The point of The Voice can’t be to regurgitate 10-year-old phenomena in a newer blazer and wolfier eyes. And we shouldn’t continue to allow Mann, who believes his instrument is an unrestrained, mythological panther of originality and boldness, to mistake his voice for anything other than a very impressive, very pleasing, tuneful display of very expected style. His rendition of “The Prayer” with the flu-challenged Aguilera was his best moment of the night, but I can’t see him overcoming the ignited fan bases of his competitors. Actually, I can’t even see him, period. Because his electric ultraviolet eyes blinded me back in March.
3. Jermaine Paul, “I Believe I Can Fly,” “God Gave Me You,” and “Soul Man” (with Blake Shelton)
I dare you to read Jermaine’s song selections again without giving way to a fit of enraged cackles. Am I projecting here? Because if I’m not mistaken, “I Believe I Can Fly” is an R. Kelly ballad from Space Jam. You may have already accepted that, but I only tolerate the Jock Jams-y bits of that soundtrack, not the ballads. If Jermaine had whipped out “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” and made locomotion gestures with his arms the whole time, I’d have cried with joy and, consequently, believed I could fly. That’d have been nervy. But if I’m not mistaken, “I Believe I can Fly” is about touching the sky, flying past the stars on your Acme rocketship, and shooting a three-pointer as Marvin the Martian poignantly blinks. It is most certainly unworthy of a climactic vocal showcase — let alone one as eye-poppingly overwrought as Jermaine’s — and for that I have to dock him major points. The funny thing about vocal gymnastics is it produces the exact opposite effect of the singer’s intention: It’s not impressive or riveting. It’s boring. I was so bored with Jermaine’s performance of “I Believe I Can Fly” (and “God Gave Me You”) that I almost relegated him to fourth place on the spot. Don’t devolve into tears to telegraph vulnerability. Vulnerability usually happens when you aren’t weeping, really.
Thankfully, Jermaine reeled me back to the light with his version of Blake Shelton’s “God Gave Me You,” a surprisingly out-of-step turn for a guy who doesn’t spew country credibility. Sure, the tribute to Blake was a requirement of the episode, but I personally found the marriage of Jermaine’s insistent belting and Blake’s tender message a striking juxtaposition. It was interesting enough to best Chris Mann, whose song selections merely reiterated everything we knew and feared about him.
2. Tony Lucca: “99 Problems,” “Harder to Breathe,” and “Yesterday” (with Adam Levine)
Ranking Tony second feels like a betrayal of — get ready! — my undying Kris Allen love. Come on, didn’t you think Tony’s selection of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” mimicked Kris Allen’s ingenious pick of “Heartless” during the season-eight Top 3? You did. Personally, I was fine with the homage; sometimes Tony even conjures the sidemouth-sangin’ vibe that Kris Allen once so blithely perfected. Truth is, the Aguilera-maligned Lucca threw us the three most inspired selections of the night, and all three jams teemed with a new urgency, commitment, and restraint. Restraint! I’m sure that’s a word I haven’t used yet today.
Based on Adam Levine and Christina’s mean-spirited badinage during the judgments, the two really did engage in an ugly fight before the show. It likely stemmed from Tony’s “99 Problems” performance, because — and you know I don’t love defending Christina — it was a tooootally offensive song choice. Bottom line, you can’t choose a Britney Spears song one week, thrive on the cheeky attention you get for burning Christina with it, follow that performance with a cocky survival anthem (“How Ya Like Me Now”) aimed yet again at Christina, and conclude this week with “99 Problems,” a song that declares “a b*tch” won’t get you down. I roll my eyes at Christina’s unfunny Voice vaudeville as much as the next guy, but the point of the song was clear: He and Adam were calling Christina a bizzetch, and they wouldn’t even own the snipe. That was lame. Adam’s huffy defense of “It’s called a metaphor!” was pathetic. And yet, it was also pathetic when Christina said Tony shouldn’t have chosen the song because his wife and daughter were in the audience, and the song was “derogatory towards women.” Telling an innocent kid on national TV that her father just insulted her is pretty insane. I abhorred the immaturity on everyone’s part, but I disliked Tony’s participation in it the most. It seemed like he was following Adam’s lead, which makes his mean streak seem all the more craven.
Fortunately, I’m not deaf. That “Yesterday” duet with Adam? Tasteful. “Harder to Breathe”? Harder to love, but a cool take on a verbose, lite-FM jam. And of course, “99 Problems” was pretty wicked outside the context of the kindergarten grudge-match going on. Best of all: Far less awful dancing and “douche hat” wardrobe choices than in previous weeks! Tony has evolved from a tuneful troubadour to a risk-seizing dynamo, and I only wish I could say I didn’t cringe at his (or svengali Adam’s) artistic “impulses.”
1. Juliet Simms, “Crazy,” “Free Bird,” “Born to Be Wild” (with Cee Lo Green)
Juliet already won The Voice’s meritocratic contest: Her performances of “Roxanne” and “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” are undoubtedly the season’s highpoints as they pulsed with extraordinary rigor and rasp. Of the breakout “personas” this season, she’s the only one who made it to the final 4. (And I don’t care what anyone says, I’ll mourn Tony Vincent and his Tears for Fears dystopia for months!) She’s a Sandra Bernhard-shaped wailer with New Girl fringe and hipster Nefertiti stylings. Call her costume jewelry contrived — and it is — but she storms the stage with true rock fury, and therefore the Party City flair is rendered fun.
I confess that the divine Ms. Simms started to grate on me a couple of times last night: When she announced that “Born to be Wild” was a fitting anthem for her duet with Cee Lo, I winced. I doubt Steppenwolf’s band members ever held a press conference and noted, “We wrote this song because WE ARE REBELS, SEE.” That’s not quite rock ’n roll, I’d say. And she didn’t seem like much of an outlaw when trilling “Free Bird,” her most obvious choice for a rock anthem yet this season. I’m sensitive to the bird imagery thanks to her oversize Angels in America wings from that week she performed “Cryin’,” too. Ugh. Yet as usual, Juliet’s work was enough of throat-scorching bloodletting to warrant total praise, and all three of her performances — the woozy “Crazy,” the hard-driving “Born to be Wild,” and the kabuki-performance-art take on “Free Bird” — made a true impression. She’s a carefully blended concoction, but she’s also her own concoction, and I can’t say the same about impish Tony, unfocused Jermaine, or the giggle-worthy grandeur of wolfy Tony. For me, Juliet is the obvious winner of The Voice, and although I expect Tony to power through with a victory, it’ll be Juliet’s determination, Grace Jones-y stride, and unforgettable voice that’ll best represent this season in years to come.