“The Voice” brought us its final knockouts of the season on Monday -- and in terms of outcome, on the whole, they may have been the least surprising of all. In many cases, the winner seemed clear from the get-go, leaving coaches Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and Pharrell Williams to work to manufacture the requisite element of suspense.
They worked to find equally complimentary things to say about each contestant and bemoaned the difficulty of making a decision. They called it a toss-up when we knew it was not, though presumably the reluctance to break hearts -- especially of teen contestants -- was sincere. And when it was finally time to drop the drama and declare a winner, they dutifully paused and struggled to keep their facial expressions somewhere on the spectrum between pained and neutral before uttering the name of the person who we knew all along would win.
Still, as it separated the polished from the petrified and culminated in each coach boasting about the superiority of his or her honed team of five, the evening brought us some terrific performances:
Tonya Boyd-Cannon vs. Barry Minniefield (Team Adam): In this battle of old souls (one notably older than the other), 53-year-old former chef Minniefield faced off against 35-year-old prison choir director and Hurricane Katrina survivor Boyd-Cannon, each hoping to display the greater range, technical prowess and personality. Minniefield also had something else to prove: “You’re not over the hill at 50,” he said, “so this is for the old people.” Alas for the old people, Boyd-Cannon ultimately prevailed. Her full-throated, spirit-lifting version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” brought both Williams and Levine to their feet. Though Minniefield’s able take on Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love” moved Williams to declare, “America needs to see a 53-year-old black man giving it that kind of soul,” Levine, after due deliberation, declared Boyd-Cannon the winner. Aguilera, the only coach left with a steal, declined to use it on Minniefield.
Brooke Adee vs. Kelsie May (Team Blake): Shelton said he was pitting these “young teenage girls,” both 16, against each other in hopes of discovering which of them could better “handle the pressure.” While May, simply by virtue of being a country singer on Team Blake, may have had the edge going into rehearsals, Adee, who, though from the South, veered toward indie pop, was clearly the stronger performer. Aguilera called it an even match, saying May had shown sweetness and emotion on Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw,” while Adee had been “very strong” on MGMT’s “Electric Feel.” Really, all the coaches seemed to be leaning toward Adee, who had shown none of the nerves, shakiness and slippery grip on pitch that befell May. Levine went so far as to declare Adee the winner. Eventually, Shelton made it official. Adee was the winner. May went home in tears, and Shelton gave her a hug. “Good luck, baby girl,” he told her. To us, he said, “As much as I lean country, I can’t ignore when someone [Adee] puts together a performance that solid. To me, she won that knockout.” Not only to you, Blake.
India Carney vs. Joe Tolo (Team Christina): The winner of this match was determined before either singer even stepped into the room for rehearsals. Carney, a beautiful, classically trained opera singer and UCLA student looking to transition into R&B and pop, brought an intriguing theatricality to “Big White Room” by Jessie J -- and continued to position herself well for the season long-haul. Tolo, a nursing student raised in the church, brought conviction to Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” but was no match for Carney’s skills and training and what Aguilera called her “natural instinct” for music. “How hard is this? They’re both just crazy good,” Aguilera said, crediting both with putting “their hearts and souls out there.” But of course the winner was Carney. “Beautiful work, as always,” Aguilera told her. Even if they had wanted to, none of the other coaches had a steal left to spare for Tolo.
Lowell Oakley vs. Jacob Rummell (Team Pharrell): As an original member of Williams’ team, crooner Oakley likely began with an edge over battle-round steal Rummell. “Pharrell is more than just my coach; he’s a life mentor,” Oakley declared, but he didn’t seem able to put into proper practice Williams’ advice about loosening up and expressing himself in the Temptations’ “My Girl.” His performance, including an odd laugh in the first few lines, lacked sincerity, which Rummell showed in Shawn Mendes’ “Life of the Party.” But sincerity wasn’t enough. Rummell’s nerves were also on display. And even though Aguilera -- and perhaps some of the other coaches -- felt that Rummell had won, Williams gave it to Oakley. Then, backstage, he gave Oakley a lecture about doing the work to save himself. Aguilera did not use her save on Rummell.
Treeva Gibson vs. Rob Taylor (Team Christina): In another match that seemed decided before it began, the supple-voiced Taylor sang Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” competing against far greener Gibson, who unwisely opted to sing Adele’s “Chasing Pavements.” Taylor came off like a total pro, completely in command of the soul classic. Gibson did her best. Williams said what everyone was thinking: “If I had to make a choice right now, I probably would go with Rob.” Aguilera did have to make a choice right then, and she went with Rob, bidding a tearful Gibson adieu.
Joshua Davis vs. Lexi Davila (Team Adam): The last knockout match of the night -- and the season -- was somewhat more evenly matched. Gritty-voiced guitar player and family man Davis beautifully crooned Amos Lee’s “The Arms of a Woman,” dedicating the performance to his wife and bringing it real emotion. Davila overcame an initial confidence deficit and turned in a remarkably complex, precise and potent performance of Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen.” Levine’s verdict would simply be a matter of strategy and taste, and anyway, we already knew that the singer he declined to retain would be snatched up by Aguilera. He picked Davis. She scooped up Davila.
Next week, the teams take it live.