Here we are at “The Voice” Season 8 Semifinals. Yes, so soon. It’s been a solidly chill season so far – perhaps because normally competitive and occasionally combative coach Adam Levine seemed fairly early on to have lost his fire for the fight. At this point, he seems pretty well resigned to the fact that his sole horse in the race, the lovely but perhaps limited Joshua Davis, seems unlikely to capture the win. (Then again, of course, anything could happen.)
Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton also have one strong, polished singer apiece in contention – India Carney and Meghan Linsey, respectively -- but Pharrell Williams may be the best positioned of all for potential victory. At least Shelton seems to think so. On Monday’s semifinals performance show, in which the Top 5 performed for a shot to compete for the crown in next week’s Finals, Shelton declared ultra-sincere, sleek-haired young Sawyer Fredericks to be the season’s “front-runner.”
Shelton may have been trying to spark his country-music-loving fans to rise up in unison to support Linsey – he can be canny that way – or maybe he really meant it. Or both. In any event, Williams’ other team member, 17-year-old Koryn Hawthorne, who tackles everything she sings with fierce conviction, seems destined for the Finals as well. We’ll find out tonight how the voters responded to Monday night’s strong semifinal performances, not to mention the Top 5’s heartrending hometown visits.
Here’s how they went down:
Joshua Davis (Team Adam): Davis led off the show with Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” a song perfectly suited to the gentle grit in his voice. Shelton and Aguilera said the performance reminded them of all they had always loved about Davis’ voice, the way it evoked images of campfires and lullabies. Williams said Davis had used his voice to “fill up the most space in the song” and make it his own. And Levine noted, with uncharacteristic mildness, that their shared challenge had been to highlight what Davis did best and be satisfied with that, and not to try to compete with “the very dramatic, giant vocalists that are in this competition,” and said he felt they had accomplished that.
After a trip home to Traverse City, Mich., when he had a chance to hang with his young daughter and hold his super-cute baby, Davis channeled his hopes into the Band’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” It was fine – pleasantly uplifting, even – but not rousing. Levine didn’t even bother to stand to applaud. Shelton said Davis had distinguished himself from the pack by displaying a songwriter’s connection to the lyrics. Aguilera declared herself to be Davis’ fan, and then abruptly pivoted to compliment the drummer. Levine said the performance was “even better than I thought it was going to be.” Faint praise.
Koryn Hawthorne (Team Pharrell): Hawthorne brought her usual passion to U2’s “One.” Levine said Hawthorne had done justice to the song’s “beautiful sentiments.” Aguilera said called Hawthorne’s consistency and continuous growth “phenomenal.” Williams said that Hawthorne had taught him as much as he had taught her. “Being 17 years old and fearlessly coming out here every week with a song that inspires people regardless of genre, that is the true definition of being an inspirational singer,” he told her, “and for me, you’ve already won this thing.” Still, he appealed to the audience to vote her through.
Following an inspiring trip home to Abbeville, La., which her father called his “proudest moment” ever, Hawthorne said she was even more motivated to “bring home” a win. She was in rare form with the spiritual “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep,” singing with a level of conviction that brought the coaches to their feet. Levine said he had “never before in the history of this show … seen such a drastic incredible unbelievable journey,” adding that he couldn’t “even believe the difference” in Hawthorne’s performances from the beginning of the show. Aguilera declared herself to be “so scared” of what Hawthorne was set to become. “I can’t even believe that you are the age that you are that you’re doing what you’re doing,” she told her. Williams said Hawthorne had proven that “the impossible is just a word because it can be done” and that “dreams can come true.” His declaration that “anything is possible when you put God first,” presumably sincere, may also inspire votes.
Meghan Linsey (Team Blake): Shelton said he had assigned Linsey Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One” so she could pour her emotions into it. Linsey was also poured into a dress she could barely walk in, but she managed to deliver the song flawlessly even as she shuffled from here to there. Williams said she’d reminded people that there were lots of different genres represented in Nashville. Levine said she’d shown consistent growth and sung every song as if it were her last. And Shelton said he always got excited before Linsey performed because it was guaranteed to be “great” and that she brought a certain “vintage” vibe to every song she tackled. “I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to work with you as your coach,” he told his old pal.
During her trip back to Nashville, Linsey received the endorsement of her mentor Naomi Judd, who called Linsey “the fourth Judd” and predicted that she’d win. Linsey also shared a stage with her old friends, the country music duo Big & Rich. Maybe that’s why Shelton felt compelled to tamp down expectations – or stacked-deck outrage – and cast Fredericks as the frontrunner? Linsey’s hometown dedication, George Jones’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” made a final play for the country vote. Aguilera said Linsey turned every performance into a “showstopper.” Williams said she’d proved the naysayers wrong. And Shelton practically rubbed his hands over the likely effect of her song choice. “You just engaged all the country music fans out there across the country,” he told Linsey. “That is by far your most important performance on this show so far.” He added that he couldn’t wait to see the response on iTunes.
India Carney (Team Christina): Carney performed Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity” even as Aguilera described her as defying it. “Put her at the bottom and she’ll rise to the top again and again,” Aguilera said of her last remaining artist. Levine loved the way Carney scaled the song back at the beginning and then “let it build,” telling a story and displaying “incredible taste.” Shelton called it “powerful” and said he’d “be shocked if you’re not in the finale of this thing.” Aguilera praised Carney’s “tenderness,” “passion,” “ability to be effortless” and “control,” calling her a “smart singer,” who knows “when to pull back and when to push.” She also dropped a hint to the audience, saying she she couldn’t wait to buy the song on iTunes.
Carney’s trip home to New York was the most entertaining journey – her response when she was surprised at LAX by a group of UCLA cheerleaders was especially amusing. Her final performance, of Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song,” was vocally powerful and nuanced, but the real star of the whole thing may have been her dramatic red dress, blowing in the wind. She got a standing ovation from the judges – and a lot of praise. “That looked beautiful. It sounded beautiful. It felt beautiful,” Williams said. Levine compared Carney’s performances to “mini pieces of performance art” or mini musicals, with their dramatic arcs – starting off “kind of chill “ and then getting “angry” and “sad” and “crazy.” He said loved watching Carney perform. Aguilera called her a “superstar.”
Sawyer Fredericks (Team Pharrell): Fredericks’ take on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” was an evening highlight. Williams said it was a song that, though it had been around a while, carried a message that was “definitely needed out there in the world” today – and Fredericks, a young, dewy and seemingly innocent farm boy, did seem like a good person to get it across. Levine called the song choice and performance “incredible.” Williams said Fredericks had made us “feel” something.
Fredericks returned to the family farm in upstate New York, helped feed the cows, and then came back to sing Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” – as a tutu-wearing ballerina spun and posed in a giant music box behind him. Levine said his voice could “fill any room any size anywhere in the world.” Shelton made the declaration that Fredericks was “clearly” and unquestionably “the front-runner.” And Williams noted Fredericks’ “power” and “generosity” and called on voters to reward him with “going forward next week.”
Which singers will move onto the finals? We’ll find out soon enough.