Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 5, Episode 12 of NBC's "The Voice" titled "Knockout Rounds, Part 2"
I still remember representing my seventh-grade class in the middle school spelling bee. I was kind of a shoe-in to win. But up in front of everybody, feeling their eyes and expectations, I physically shook with nerves. Finally, I choked, spitting out a letter I knew didn't fit.
Remembering how hard my heart beat 15 years later, it's no surprise those nerves did their best to knock out some of our favorite singers on Tuesday night's two-hour episode of "The Voice."
For the second Knockout rounds, these contestants have just one song standing between them and the live shows. Everybody wants it. Bad.
"It all comes down to song choice," Adam says during the show. But the wrong song can derail everything. Even confidence, as we see tonight.
Lena Gaudenzi picks "I'd Rather Go Blind" by Etta James. Preston Pohl wants to sing an upbeat take on Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry." Which singer can breathe fresh life into their classic tune?
Adam stole Lena, and she wants to impress him. She acts out the song well, but her little asides and vocal flourishes sound weak and trembly. Also, the song ends abruptly. Preston has more control over his performance, but doesn't show a lot of emotion. It's kind of a meh way to start off "The Voice." Blake and Cee-Lo go wild for Preston (Green dances in his seat) Adam says it comes down to the things he hasn't seen tonight. That's a leap of faith for either of them.
Voice-over actor E.G. Daily says she wants to be an "adult-country-rock-soul artist." Bonnie Raitt is also a working role model. She picks the redhead's classic tune, "I Can't Make You Love Me." Ray Boudreaux, Blake's soul singer find of season 5, sings Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle."
Yikes. E.G. gets completely steamrolled by nerves, much like Holly Henry during Monday night's Knockout round. The beat hits too fast for her to keep up. It's honestly difficult to watch such a talented vocalist lose control. While Ray Boudreaux doesn't deliver a command performance, his buttoned-up, Sinatra-esque take on "Hard To Handle" contrasts sharply with E.G.'s messy voice breaks. This one isn't even close, which is a damn shame.
18-year-old Anthony Paul came to Team Christina after (narrowly) losing to Caroline Pennell in the Battle rounds. He wants to sing Jason Derulo's "The Other Side." Christina expresses her lack of faith in his song choice at rehearsals. I dunno, that'd be my cue to go with another song? 16-year-old Jacquie is singing "Stompa" by Serena Ryder.
I'm not saying I necessarily blame the band, but their accompaniment of "The Other Side" in a different key doesn't even sound like the same song. Singing this dance tune as an R&B track is immediately revealed as a major misfire for Anthony. Jacquie does not actually seem to stomp her feet onstage, but she does move around, which is a huge improvement from rehearsals. Plus, what a big voice from such a young 'un. I think she out-sings the original, especially during the breakdown. Bottom line: even Anthony knows Anthony's going home.
Stephanie Ann Johnson is the weirdest singer on "The Voice" right now. This cruise singer is flat-out impossible to peg down. She says she wants to sing Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why," and then she starts yodeling. "I want my music to sound like soul food tastes," she also says, which is about the best thing a singer can ever say after I skipped dinner. Tamara Chauniece says she wants to sing Alicia Keys' "No One," but make it a reggae song. Brave.
Neither of these women deserve to go home. Stephanie's performance doesn't overwhelm the judges, but I think they underestimate how unique her delivery is with each genre (Including a tUnEyArDs thing going on today.) Tamara Chauniece sells reggae so well, I'm kind of shocked she wasn't the cruise ship singer. Even her accent is natural! Cee-Lo picks her, and calls her a "young Anita Baker." Christina steals Stephanie back to her team! Stephanie's grandma still isn't going home.
Winner: Tamara Chauniece
"Love Interruption" singer James Wolpert returns. The Apple geek decides to sing Boston's "More Than A Feeling," which Adam describes as only "the most difficult song in the history of rock & roll." Foreshadowing? 16-year-old Juhi sings "Heard It Through The Grapevine," though she makes it clear she's channeling the '70s, as she imagines the 70s might've looked and sounded.
The first 30 seconds of James' performance are cringe-worthy on the level of E.G. Daily's disaster. We like all these singers! It's so tough to watch them struggle. Halfway through the song, he finally seems to settle -- but I don't know, I hate this arrangement, I hate how long it took him to hit that rocket note on "away," and I wasn't impressed until the last 10 seconds of his performance. Juhi sings like Juhi. Girl's got a great voice and so much confidence, but her burlesque delivery means she's often sliding back and forth on the notes. When Adam makes his choice, however, Cee-Lo and Blake kind of look at him like, 'You sure you don't want a do-over?' I guess we'll see.
To be honest, this is the most boring round, and I don't have a lot to say. Suffice that Brandon Chase loses to Austin, who sings that Edwin McCain song we've all been trying to forget for a decade.
I just want Austin to take an exit ramp out of this depressing soft-rock wasteland and show me some swagger, because he's got a great voice.
Caroline Pennell is pretty much made for Ingrid Michaelson's "The Way I Am." George Horga Jr. sings "Because Of You" by Neyo.
It's entirely possible George could win tonight if he isn't matched with Caroline, who is called "magical" about seven times in two minutes. What Caroline does is make this little world with her voice and the way she raises her eyebrows and gleams her eyes and gestures with her hands. It's like she makes a fort out of a cardboard box and fairy dust and wants you to crawl inside. Tonight, Caroline brings a level of self-possession that most of her fellow contestants can't even muster in rehearsals. George sings flat, but sings well -- it's just not magical, and anything less than voodoo will lose to this girl right now.
Powerhouse Vocal Boxer Matthew Schuler (I am in no way exaggerating by leading with that adjective) is dubbed "the Mike Tyson of 'The Voice.'" He sings "Cosmic Love" by Florence and the Machine. Will Champlin (son of one of the guys from Chicago, remember?) picks "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars. Christina's rehearsal with Matthew is basically a joke. She's like, 'OMG, can you sing that loud and not be exhausted?' And he's like, 'Yeah.' I'm paraphrasing, but that is all the advice Matthew needs. Christina took a lot of time with Will, trying to make Bruno's song more of a lovesick lament.
This was the battle of the night. Rounds like this are what make "The Voice" so heartening and positive and thrilling to watch. First off, Matthew Schuler is my answer to anybody who says there isn't talent on this season's cast. His voice is just short of godly. He reminds me a lot of Kele Olereke from Bloc Party, except Kele would admit Matthew can out-sing him. He holds the final note for something like 10 seconds, soaring up through his range like he's conjuring something through his vocal chords. If this guy doesn't make an album, I'm gonna officially stop believing in the record industry.
Doesn't that set up skinny Will Champlin up to lose, and lose awfully? This is the same Will who confided to the camera that his wife is recovering from a brain tumor (omg) and he wants to be able to win for his little family. Will gets on stage and commands the attention of every single person in that studio. He's soulful, he's touched, and he's so vulnerable without shaking with nerves that you wish he could have showed every single "Voice" contestant who lost their dream this week how to walk that line. The judges called Will Champlin a peer to Matthew this time around, and nobody was going to say that last week.
Everybody knows Matthew will win, because Mike Tyson doesn't get knocked out by Rocky. Christina picks Matthew, and Will starts going into his "thank you" speech. That's when Adam throws his hand down on the button and steals him back.
It wasn't easy watching so many singers I cared for leave this show because they couldn't fight their nerves. What a treat to end with one singer who somehow found a way to stare them down.
Watch "The Voice" at 8 p.m. EST Monday night on NBC.