Christina Aguilera retook her seat in the big, red spinning chair on “The Voice” in its Season 8 premiere on Monday night. Sliding apparently quite happily back in her middle-line spot, flanked by original bromantic stalwarts Blake Shelton and Adam Levine, who have yet to miss a season, and relative newbie coach Pharrell Williams, who joined the lineup last season, the founding female coach declared her return to be “like coming back home.” She was, she said, “refreshed” and “ready” to get back to work.
Certainly, she showcased her enthusiasm while performing “Are You Gonna Go My Way” with her fellow coaches to kick off the season, strutting around the stage and playing off the guys and the crowd, her blond mane resplendently aglow under the stage lights. And during the blind auditions themselves, Aguilera appeared to have polished up a few of her go-to competitive tools – undercutting the sincerity of a fellow coach’s pitch by praising it as “so smooth,” the come-to-mama outstretching of arms, the undercurrent of threat to any coach foolish enough to tangle with her. At one point, she left Williams backing away and sputtering that his tail was between his legs.
Yes, “Voice” fans, Gwen Stefani’s chummy slumber-party vibe is gone. X-tina id back and she’s sharpening her knives and wondering what has become of her fellow coaches’ edge in her absence.
“Where’s the Adamtude?” she asked Levine.
Where, indeed? Levine’s season got off to a particularly rough start on Monday’s show as he failed to persuade a single contestant to choose him as a mentor, even as the other coaches greedily, gleefully stocked their teams with talent.
Here’s how the first night of blinds broke down:
Sarah Potenza: This 34-year-old sandy-voiced, statement-spectacled Italian American singer’s “Stay With Me” started the season with a four-chair turn. Upon learning that Potenza lived in Nashville, Shelton noted, too, her camouflage shirt, cowboy boots and jeans, and declared them to have “a connection.” Aguilera said she was “ready” and “refreshed.” Williams literally made his move, walking toward Potenza as he praised her. Levine matched him step for step and then swept Potenza in his arms, rocking her like a baby. But none of it mattered. Potenza had come in with a plan. She’d put a lot of “thought” and “strategy” into her decision, she said, and Shelton was the coach for her. Later, she credited the stories country music had to tell with her choice. “Nothing Pharrell or I said in a million years would have dissuaded her,” Levine noted, with resignation.
Lowell Oakley: A 19-year-old with dreams of making a career as a “jazzy crooner” (either that or a businessman), Oakley socklessly slid through “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” spinning Williams and Levine. Levine offered flattery, admiring Oakley’s charm, timing, charisma and look, and his own expertise, telling the young man that he knew what he wanted to accomplish and could help. “If it was 1961, I’d be like, ‘You got it, kid,’” he said. But Williams offered support and hard work and praised Oakley as his own thing. “You’re not regular. You’re not the same. You’re other,” he told him. Oakley picked Pharrell, leaving Levine impotently gasping, “I don’t understand.”
Rob Taylor: A 22-year-old Berklee College of Music student who grew up singing in the church and is dedicated to his partially paralyzed single mom, Taylor showed off his startlingly broad, powerful range on “I Want You,” prompting three out of four coaches to turn their chairs. “What is wrong with you?” Aguilera hollered at Shelton, the only coach who didn’t push his button for Taylor. There was nothing wrong with Aguilera’s strong play to get Taylor on her team, though. “He’s Team Christina all the way,” she declared, directing Taylor, whose voice she called “inspired,” to ignore the other coaches’ praise and pleas. “I want to meet your mom. I want to be part of the family,” she said. It worked. Taylor opted to join Team Christina.
Cody Wickline: This low-key 20-year-old from West Virginia – a scholarship nursing student at Bluefield State and the first in his family to attend college – prompted all four coaches to turn their chairs and give him standing ovation with his humble, heartfelt take on “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Levine made a hard sell, telling Wickline he had turned in “the best country music performance I have ever heard anyone perform on this show, 100%,” and expressing the desire to win “together” with Wickline, “without Blake Shelton.” But he and the other coaches were no match for Shelton, who told Wickline he’d done a George Jones song, but floated his vibrato like Merle Haggard and had “something kind of absent from country music these days.” “All you need is someone to introduce you to Nashville,” Shelton teased, sealing the deal for Team Blake. The kid in the cowboy hat was all his.
Treeva Gibson: Shelton also made a play for this 16-year-old singer, whose parents are both deaf and who also suffers from hearing loss “in the mid-tone range.” Judging from her rendition of “Young and Beautiful,” the hearing loss hasn’t affected the young vocalist’s ability to sing beautifully. Aguilera, who also spun for Gibson, declared herself to have been “captivated” by the way the teen had started with a sound that was “small and sincere” and then allowed the sound to grow. There were a few pitch issues, she noted, but those could be perfected. Shelton said he felt as if he’d heard something he’d never heard before and believed he was the right coach for Gibson. I actually think he was, too – he could have helped her tell her story and win hearts and votes – but she picked Aguilera.
Meghan Linsey: Weirdly, Shelton was the one coach who didn’t turn around for this 28-year-old singer from Nashville; Linsey had actually opened for the country coach when she was part of a now-defunct duo called Steel Magnolias, who had a hit with “Keep On Lovin’ You” in 2009. Her gritty, textured take on “Love Hurts” spun the other three coaches, though. Aguilera made a super-strong play, declaring herself to have been “enraptured” and promising to forge a strong, close bond. But Linsey unexpectedly swerved in Pharrell’s direction, explaining that she’d gotten excited when he looked in her eyes.
Joshua Davis: This 37-year-old dedicated husband and father, who first picked up a guitar at age 13 (“I think it was a bar mitzvah present,” he recalled), spurred both Shelton and Levine to spin with his soulful “I Shall Be Released.” Williams, despite not having turned, gave Davis an A+ for vocal tone, control and character. He may have seemed a natural fit for Levine, who said he shared his musical taste and band-member background, but Davis nevertheless opted for Shelton, who he later noted could help him tap into the emotion of a song. “I’ve lost my mojo,” Levine observed, sadly. “It’s weird.” Still, he said, “I’ll get it back.”
Sawyer Fredericks: You might have predicted that the next and final singer of the evening, a 15-year-old New York state farm boy with long, gleaming hair and a big, gleaming smile, would mark Levine’s entry into the game, if only because “The Voice” producers often set up these triumphant storylines. But, no. Fredericks’ classic take on “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,” spun all four chairs and spurred Levine’s hardest sell of the night: “I’m on a thin thread right now, Sawyer,” the Maroon 5 singer said. “I need someone like you. I need someone to crush Blake with, which is you … I promise you’re not going anywhere until you’re the last one in this competition.” “Oh, you can’t say that,” Shelton broke in. Aguilera also begged, telling Fredericks he had to pick her: “We have to be friends. We have to be buddies. We have to be roommates. We have to do this together,” she said. But it was Williams’ softer approach – even if Fredericks’ didn’t pick him, he said, he was excited to watch his talents unfold on the show – that won the singer’s heart. Or maybe it was just that they were both wearing the same sort of hat.
And so Shelton and Williams ended the first night of blinds with three singers apiece on their teams, and Aguilera with two. And Levine? Zip. And he wasn’t happy about it, storming dramatically off the set after losing Fredericks to Pharrell.
“You want me to call Usher?” Shelton gleefully hollered after him.
No thanks, Blake. I think this coach mix is just right for now.