As The Voice struggles to find its identity without Blake Shelton, it can't seem to stop talking about him or referencing him -- new Coach Reba McEntire joins reigning champ Niall Horan and the returning Gwen Stefani and John Legend for an extremely nice (read: dull) premiere.
The first episode of The Voice post-Blake Shelton sure had a lot of Blake Shelton all over it. His voice came out of Niall Horan's button, his giant foam finger dropped down over Niall's head, and he was name-dropped constantly by pretty much everyone.
Of course, the fact that his wife Gwen Stefani returned to the show this season, and he and Niall had bonded so much last season, and his mentor and close friend Reba McEntire also joined the show this season made it almost inevitable. The question for NBC and the show's producers is whether or not the show can survive without him.
Unlike American Idol, America's Got Talent, and a lot of these competition shows, The Voice was almost always more about its celebrity coaches than its contestants. Using this premiere as an example, there were some good singers on it, but nobody who's going to go viral (one has the potential, but we've not fully seen it yet).
If you can't get one stellar act into your premiere when we know you mix these artists up to make the best show, you might be in trouble.
Don't get us wrong, there were some really talented artists who could go on to really grow into strong competitors, but there was not a single moment that left us with our jaws hanging down or needing to immediately rewind and watch it again. If they're saving them for later, that may not have been a good idea.
How much was the success of this show riding on Blake's shoulders? We're about to find out. His snarkiness and playful mean-spiritedness adds a lot of fun to the Blind Auditions, and that was definitely lacking this season. Reba is a legend, but so far, she's just too nice. Gwen was always nice, John Legend is always nice … do you see where this is going?
If Niall is going to be the bad boy of the season, and it does look like that's the way they're trying to go with things, he needs to lean even more into it. They're doing great with him riding the ego of his victory last season, but he's too -- ahem -- nice, otherwise, to really step into Blake's oversized shoes.
We're not saying we want the Coaches at each other's throats, but the loss of both Kelly Clarkson and Blake -- who went at each other hilariously every single week -- is an even bigger blow after watching two hours of people fawning over each other. If the Coaches aren't going to be as much fun to watch, that leaves the contestants and we already covered how that's going.
Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues John Legend, Gwen Stefani, Niall Horan and Reba McEntire. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.
And just for fun, I'm going to rank the performances from worst to first to see who my favorites are in each round. That way I can see who's the best and then see if you get it right with your votes - i.e., agree with me.
("Walkin' After Midnight," Patsy Cline - 20, Lebanon, OH) In the pre-taped package and on the stage, it was all a bit too much affectation for us and not enough sincerity. We loved the idea of mashing crooner and country a bit and give him full credit for innovation, but the vocals were lacking, the stage presence too showy, and the whole thing came off a bit cabaret. We could see it being entertaining on a cruise ship or as part of a kitschy show, but not for a serious artist. If this is truly who he is inside, he needs to learn how to connect his heart and soul with what his body and voice are doing. On top of that, the voice itself was a bit thin, lacking the gravitas of either genre. We'll give him credit for holding that last note out as long as he possibly could in hopes of a turn, but it didn't work.
Results: No Chairs Turn
("If Heaven Wasn't So Far Away," Justin Moore - 21, Austin, IN) Jackson has a lot of heart when he sings and you could hear how connected he felt to the song, but he also sounded young on it, like he's still growing into his full potential. He's got a great, classic country tone that he started with, but his pitch slipped a bit as he wrestled with rapid intonation on a few of the lines. It was also shortly after Gwen turned (she was first), so we have to factor in nerves and excitement a bit. Jackson clearly loves this genre of music and he knows how to sound like a country star. He just needs to make sure he's not thinking about sounding like a country singer so it comes across fully authentic all the time.
Results: Gwen, Reba Turn [Team Reba]
("Fancy," Reba McEntire - 33, Atoka, OK) We absolutely dig the style and the whole stage presence, but we're not entirely sold on this being a 4-chair-worthy performance. It was more the novelty of it being Reba's song and the first artist of the season, we think. Don't get us wrong, Jordan definitely has some skill and a nice grit in that voice, but this is someone who's really going to have to push themselves in future rounds to show more as the performance felt a little hollow.
("Let's Stay Together," Al Green - 30, Fayette, AL) We didn't get this whole performance, but it was a little too performative for us. He was showing off what he can do more than he was showing us who he is. It's a fine line. Don't get us wrong, showing off is a big part of all artistry, but it should also come from a place of authentic truth. Jarred shared his story and we know he's lived hardship, but we could not hear that story in what he presented. It was just polished, with a few too many runs, and not an interpretation but rather an extremely talented cover. That said, the talent is definitely there, so it's disappointing no one else felt connected, either.
Results: No Chairs Turn
("Blown Away," Carrie Underwood - 24, Roseville, CA) This has to be one of Carrie's more difficult songs to sing with it's rapid delivery and lower register through parts of the verses. Kristen definitely struggled the most down there, but everything else really came together beautifully. It wasn't a pitch-perfect, flawless performance, but we felt some authenticity coming through and a sense of emotion. If she had chosen a song that breathed a little easier, we think she could have been even brighter. As it was, though, she showed a lot of range, some power and showmanship. She's got the tools to really connect with an audience in a lot of different ways.
Results: Gwen, Reba Turn [Team Gwen]
("Tell Me You Love Me," Demi Lovato - 18, Chula Vista, CA) Sophia had such a powerful voice, we'd actually be coaching her how to rein it in a bit and show a more vulnerable side when appropriate -- we got a glimpse of it at the end. Ultimately, though, that's the easy work because those pipes can go for days! Demi is a powerful singer as well, so to tackle this so effortlessly speaks volumes. There was great nuance in her presentation, even as it went from strength to strength. She's got all the potential in the world because you can hear an ache in there, she just needs to tap deeper into her own emotions when she sings.
("This Woman's Work," Kate Bush - 33, Tampa, FL) A principal standby for the touring Hamilton, Deejay already has some bona fides in this business. He's definitely got an incredible range, though we didn't find him completely on point in that falsetto, where he spent a great deal of this song. That said, it's an incredibly impressive instrument that he has and he definitely knows how to use it. He was effortlessly shifting from head to chest voice. We'd have just liked to hear a little more of his regular tones outside of falsetto to really understand how he would perform a wider variety of songs.
Results: John, Gwen, Reba Turn [Team Legend]
("Arcade," Duncan Laurence - 16, Lake Benton, MN) With a very mature voice that still has so much room to grow, Joslynn really took command of this song from the start. It has that haunting quality in the lyrics that's a little breathy with a lilt built in and Joslynn really settled right into it. This is a sound that's dominant in popular music right now with a lot of female singers, but that doesn't make it any easier to do well. Interestingly, she wasn't quite as strong when she pushed for a big note, not quite nailing the pitch, but there is so much to work with here emotionally, the rest is just details.
Results: Gwen, Niall, Reba Turn [Team Gwen]
("Lay Me Down," Sam Smith - 19, Rockport, IL) Olivia challenged herself by going so low, but she was able to navigate those lower verses to give her room to soar … and boy did she. Sam is no joke, so you've got to have confidence to take on one of their tracks. Olivia definitely has it with the power and range, but even more importantly, that empathic emotional connection to the lyrics. It wasn't pitch-perfect, but it was emotionally believable and showcased such a variety of sounds, she could be an artist who surprises with her versatility.
("Songbird," Fleetwood Mac - 34, Lyons, CO) Alexa slid right into Christine McVie's upper notes effortlessly right from the beginning and with such confidence, there was almost no doubt she was going to be able to handle the rest of it. When the fourth chair turned, she started missing a few notes here and there. But overall, this was a great showcase for a whole array of vocal gifts she has and qualities to her instrument, including that songwriter's authenticity. That's a voice you can really play with and pull different things from to make something special. She did get a little overwhelmed, but we would too if all four chairs turned, but the raw talent is definitely evident all over this performance.
Results: 4-Chair Turn [Team Niall]
("Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," Elton John - 21, Galloway, NJ) The first female to effortlessly deliver lines in a lower register, Mara has a beautiful breathiness in the gutter of her range. And then, she belted out this incredible note just for a moment. In fact, she only teased us with the full strength of her voice in what is most likely her more comfortable range. But what she gave us was so beautiful, so interesting, it's the kind of performance that feels a bit haunting and stays with you. Did she shift this into a minor key to slip into our dreams? It was so unexpected and proved how effective you can be without singing to the rafters. Then, John got her to sing "All of Me" with him and we got to hear more of that full voice and it's even more beautiful than we imagined. She's really that incredible.
Results: 4-Chair Turn [Team Cliffhanger -- but probably Legend]
"I am the queen, you cannot speak." --Reba (stopping Niall from playing Blake Shelton messages while she pitches to Jordan)
"Welcome to my show, guys. Blake told me that I'm the star now." --Gwen
"And I'm here. I'll be bashful like Blake never was." --Reba
"I'm thrilled to be sitting in Blake's chair. I hope I can do it justice." --Reba
"Maybe someone can finally class up that chair." --John
"I hope they got her a new cushion at least." --Gwen
"Yeah, put some Febreze on it." --Niall
"Deejay, that was, like, undeniably insane." --Niall
"And yet, you did not turn. I'm beginning to question your taste." --John
"I've had two number one hits on country radio." --Gwen (to Jackson, immediately looking at Reba)
"I've had more than two. Next!" --Reba
"The Voice" airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.