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Humanity Interludes - this post is not what you think it is

Humanity Interludes - this post is not what you think it is

Current events take a toll on us. Some weeks especially so, when the news is unrelenting, anxiety-inducing, tragic, or maddening. Each of us needs relief in our own ways. We all have our self-care tricks and they are important.  

One little part of my tool-kit is here to share. I have always loved music, both listening and performing. I can sing alright, but surely not for public consumption. Music lifts me and nourishes me emotionally. Music also is a shared experience, a means of connection. I have found a bit of shared connection, of all places, from an extremely deep dive into the global behemoth that is The Voice. [By the way, did you know The Netherlands, not America, created this beast?]

Set aside the monolithic corporate-ness of it. Let the preening of coaches slide. Push past the inevitable bombastic performances of songs none of us needs to hear again. Just enjoy instances of real human experience that unfold.

 The Voice in France never lacks something interesting.

The Voice in France never lacks something interesting.

I present to you a curated 'playlist' of my favourite performances, drawn from the blind audition portion of the competition. In addition to the near-perfect application of game theory, this ritual can make for great theatre. Surprising performances can leave you wordless. Feel the relief when a performance is rewarded. Sometimes watching family members or friends endure the stress is part of the fun. Remind yourself the vast majority of people singing are not professional, seasoned, or sometimes even comfortable performers.

First, a bit of background. I only paid attention when my daughter and I watched one season together in 2015. She was 11 and her growing appreciation of music had been a source of great satisfaction. She was into it along with some friends, so I was happy to be part of it with her. We were swept along by a 15-year-old kid. Together, we followed his every step and cheered him on all the way through to his unsurprising and deserved victory. Young Sawyer Fredericks is the only American serving of this whole smorgasbord, and he opens the playlist below.

The rest are from elsewhere, as I found myself traversing the globe. Not sure why, but algorithms gonna algorithm. Perhaps when I noticed that Sir Tom Jones was a coach on the UK version, my synapses fired and I clicked on some compilation of the best blind auditions from around the world. [These compilations are quite literally a cottage industry on YouTube.] I refuse to acknowledge (even to myself) the hours I spent letting discoveries emerge from numerous compilations. I will not argue these are the absolute ‘best’ performances, though they are universally excellent performances. Nor have I sought to be geographically representative. Somehow The Voice has reached everywhere from Mongolia and Southeast Asia, to the Arab World, Africa, and Latin America. We can stay out of the politics, both good and bad, of the whole enterprise and just enjoy some moments of distracting, harmless fun and often surprising intimacy.

The performances that comprise this playlist simply are my favourites, and I can enjoy them on repeat the way I do a regular favourite playlist. 

[Note: You may enjoy this the best by just watching each video first on your own. Then after each one, I offer some colour commentary and information as appropriate. I curated the order, and while I did not ‘save the best for last’, I encourage you to see it through to the end, even if it takes a few sittings. They really are great.]

Sawyer Fredericks - “A Man of Constant Sorrow” (USA, 2015)

Sawyer was just 15 years old when he stepped on that stage. Self-taught, a DIY dream from a little farm in upstate New York. The Voice found him via YouTube. He dominated that season, and at one point had half the top ten songs on iTunes in the U.S. (part of the 'voting' process). Ella and I loved to signs his songs together, especially a duet he performed along the way to his victory. A year later we even saw him perform live.

Jason Jones - “Pillowtalk” (UK, 2017)

I never get tired of his performance and the reactions of all four coaches. He subverted expectations and revealed a little bias while killing it. The reactions of each coach are just wonderful. Jennifer Hudson can be a bit much sometimes, but she is not afraid to show her delight and surprise. Given her chops, each instance of enthusiastic delight from her is a win for the little people. FYI - Jason made it to the semifinals in 2017. Before going on The Voice UK, the 32-year-old worked at a call centre, and his success on the show was the catalyst for him to quit in hopes of pursuing a living in music. Two life-changing experiences already!

Gulaan - “Nodeï Perofeta” (France, 2018)

A unique performance, captivating and unusual, this entry brings me joy for existing at all and being recognised by the coaches. Given the show format, he may not be the type of singer who can go far, but who the hell cares? The story is its own life-affirming pleasure. FYI - Gulaan is from the Kanak tribe indigenous to New Caledonia, and his dream to sing on The Voice led this 45-year-old on a 15,000-mile adventure. In fact, his involvement in the next round, in which two ‘team members’ perform a song together and their coach must choose one to continue and the other is eliminated, was a minor cultural moment this past Spring. More than a couple of lives were changed in the process. If you had a dinner party and could choose five of these performers, Gulaan is definitely on the list.

Naile Ibraimova - “Seven Nation Army” (Ukraine, 2017)

This performance delivers a swing version of the White Stripes’ rock march I never knew I needed. She swings the hell out of it and I would not argue her work merits more than appreciation. Who cares? She brings infectious energy and joy, and I have to smile each time. FYI - The Ukraine was the first country to adapt Holland’s little singing show, and by all accounts the country is a bit mad about it all (more on that later). Their most recent competition earlier in 2018 was stacked with talent.

Vincent Vinel - “Lose Yourself” (France, 2017)

As fun as it is improbable, 20-year-old Vincent did something novel with a song I love, even if it is not a great showcase of singing chops for The Voice. French people who seem to delight in creative twists on standard fare or embracing unlikely song choices. The French menu is my overall favourite for variety and surprise. Stick around on this video as the coaches go up on stage as Vincent is severely sight-impaired, and he does a very brief second song. [One takeaway of the French version is you will want Zazie as your friend, but Florent as coach.] FYI - Vincent made the final that season, finishing third. He is reported to be an auto-didact who can recreate a melody after hearing it.

Travis Cormier - “Dream On” (Canada, 2016)

Uploaded by Caio Playlist on 2017-07-11.

When someone chooses this Arrowsmith song for a blind audition, she or he better be able to bring it when it counts. Mr. Cormier nails it, to say the least. One assumes he has done this many times, as he should. How could you not be as dumbfounded as Êric Lapointe and the other coaches, while also wondering whether he can deliver on more diverse material and progress through the competition? Regardless, I say join his dad on a mini-emotional journey, somewhat awestruck at the whole thing. FYI - Travis finished second overall that year, and hopefully continues to delight people with this song.

Yerry Rellum - “Crazy” (Holland, 2016)

Ignore the antics of Ali B and let Mr Rellum’s baritone interpretation wash over you. I really like his choices for interpreting this song, adapting both style and meaning to make an entirely new version. He is a delight to watch sing this, and I want the whole song. I will warn you, though, this version is not even my favourite performance of this song on this playlist.

Rebecca - “Lucie” (France, 2018)

Performing a song by coach Pascal Obispo, young Rebecca delivers a straight-out seduction of the coach, and apparently unabashedly so. While Pascal’s emotional response is intriguing, my favourite moment is when Florent literally waves his hands in the air to entice Rebecca to sing to anyone besides Pascal. She turns and smiles in compliance, but immediately returns her attention back again after just a few seconds. I enjoy everything about the song, how the coaches respond, and Rebecca is radiant (those eyes).

Charly Luske - “It’s a Man’s World” (Holland, 2011)

Seemingly effortless and confident, his performance instantly wows all four coaches. Charly is emblematic of many Dutch singers who deliver excellent straight-up renditions of songs, as you will see. In this way the Dutch are the opposite of the French, preferring execution over interpretation. FYI - Mr Luske began performing publicly as a teen, and achieved some popularity with a boy band called Velvet, which is why one coach recognised him. He continues to perform, including on stage in musical theatre.

Tamara Weber-Fillion - “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (France, 2016)

A terrific song choice for this young Montreal woman (BTW, her mom strikes me as the perfect Boomer Canadian mom). Her smile of relief and shy pride at the end is precious. While a nice performance full of personality and heart, this song does not give us a sense of her full vocal capabilities. We do, however, appreciate her seemingly innocent seduction of one coach, Garou, a well-known Montreal performer (who may be just a little too easily seduced, as we will see again later). She gives him two looks, one slightly furtive and the other confident and assertive, and we are all on team Tamara. [Surely those looks are because she knows who he his due to their shared Quebec home, do not be so salacious.]

David Dam “Let’s Get It On” (Holland, 2014)

Beyond the fun and festivities on stage, young Mr Dam deserves credit for his impressive singing and sheer panache. Everyone is having a blast, but no one more than him. Nothing more needs to be said about it, and we can pretend he did not jump up and down like a football bro at the end.

Gabriella Laberge - “The Scientist” (France, 2016)

I am not sure I even like the singing here, but Ms Laberge delivers a Manic Pixie Dream Girl performance worthy of acknowledgement. She is stunning to look at and performs with conviction and emotion. This one is the cotton candy of this playlist. I could do without the theatrics of the dude in black (he looks like he could be her big brother) and coach Mika being a diva (to be fair, it is part of his thing). Notice the look Florent Pagny gives to Garou (adding to our worry Garou may need a #metoo moment).

Mitchell Brunings - “Redemption Song” (Holland, 2013)

Incredible natural stage presence and delivery, Mr Brunings wows (literally, you can hear a 'wow' at the end) the audience and coaches. So much goodness in the song and his performance, and it inspired YouTubers to do side-by-side comparison of his performance with the Bob Marley original. FYI - Mitchell finished second that season and was a fan favourite the moment he delivered the first line of this song.

Chike-Ezekpeazu Osebuka - “Roses” (Nigeria, 2016)

A pop ballad, delivered with cool charisma and confidence. This performance oozes charm. His voice has power and depth, and he sings with impressive control. FYI - Chike, as he is known, was runner-up in the inaugural season of the Voice in Nigeria. He continues to perform and has recently landed an acting role with the production house Africa Magic.

Tjindjara Metschendorp - “What About Us?” (Holland, 2017)

Note-perfect, sung just a tad behind the beat (but not in a bad way), Tjindjara takes it to the level of greatness when she warms things up and starts dancing. Resistance is futile, and we should be honest and just say it. She. Can. Get. It. She is startlingly beautiful. Bonus points for her friend back in the booth. He seems like a good person to have along for your journey. FYI - Tjinidjara came in with a fair bit of singing and theatre experience, and continues to pursue both professionally.

Marvin Dupré - “Let Me Love You” (France, 2017)

I cannot believe a Bieber song (even if a remix) made this playlist, but here we are. Mr. Dupré does not have the sheer vocal power of some here, but he delivers a great performance of craftsmanship imbued with emotion. Really well done, and a lovely arrangement choice at the end. Check out the reactions of his dad, who I imagine gives gratitude lessons. FYI - Mr Dupré was eliminated fairly early in the competition last year, but came out of the experience with a three-album contract with Capitol, and recently released his first single. The coach who eliminated him played a part in helping him move forward.

Kimberly Maasdamme - “Hello” (Holland, 2017)

First Bieber, now Lionel Ritchie? I know. Like Tjindjara (BTW, on the very same episode of blind auditions), note perfect power singing. I want everyone who loves music to be able to belt it out like this. What pipes! Also like her fellow contestant from that evening, she is beautiful, though I feel more like her parents marvelling at what they created. I just want to hug them as they watch in what seems to be stunned befuddled appreciation. FYI - To the surprise of no one, Kimberly also models. She had some experience singing in a few talent shows before earning a chance here.

Liam Tamne - “This Woman’s Work” (UK, 2013)

We often dismiss falsetto singing, and this case reminds us we do so unfairly. Delivered with a blend of controlled power and really nice finesse, I was convinced more by the sustained pianissimo at the end, like Sir Tom, than the theatricality that turned Jesse J. This performance is terrific and I have great fondness for the song going way back. FYI - Liam stepped away from a high-profile role on stage in London’s West End to give it a shot. I think he was undermined by picking will.i.am as his coach. A ill-suited song choice and hard-to-understand elimination in the next round seemed unfair for a singer with Liam’s chops.

Simon Morin - “Come With Me Now” (Canada, )

Charisma and bravado make this performance work. Morin is completely committed. His vocal range may be limited, but he has undeniable singing power and understands the essence of rock performance. When he gives that look during a pause in the phrasing (at 1:29 in the video), you see a performer who is commanding the room. Also, he should be required to register those blue eyes as a weapon. FYI - In 2018, Morin traveled across the Atlantic to take his chances with the Voice of France. He made it through the blind audition with a different song, but his adventure in Paris ended after two rounds.

Leanne Jarvis - “Stay With Me, Baby” (UK, 2013)

I cannot be alone in thinking Ms Jarvis had no business acting surprised or shocked at the end of this performance. While not my preferred song style, this straight-up display of power balladry is easy to embrace as a coach on The Voice. Her chops are immense. FYI - Ms Jarvis made it to the finals in 2013, and continues to sing today.

Hobbs - “Paradis Perdu” (France, 2018)

The 21-year-old gives a emotional and dramatic performance, punctuated by a mischievous “mercí beaucoup”, to the delight of Florent, who Hobbs chooses as his coach. I have never been able to sing with controlled vibrato, and here we have quite a demonstration complete with visual closeups. I love his performance. FYI - His elimination late into the most recent season has stirred some controversy, as he was considered a serious favourite to win. Count me among those who wanted to see him continue, and hope this experience takes him forward to keep performing.

Simon Davies - “Sign of the Times” (UK, 2018)

While unquestionably a great and distinctive performance, I love Simon Davies as a kind and generous human. He epitomises the humanity that makes this aspect of The Voice work. Here is a humble, genuine person who loves to sing and is here to ‘give it a go’ to celebrate turning 30. A teacher at a special needs school, he is so respectful and appreciative. And well spoken! Stay for the comments after the song. FYI - Mr Davies chose Sir Tom as his coach, and I think he was a bit hard done by the decision to eliminate him in the next round. I was cheering for him to do well. 

Andriy Rybarchuk - “Zakryly tvoyi ochi” (Ukraine, 2018)

[Audition starts at 1:30, then skip to 7:25.]

Perhaps my favourite moment among all of these performances happens after the blind audition and Rybarchuk’s selection of Tina Karol as his coach. First, the blind audition. He performs a song by Ms Karol, which is pretty apparent without understanding the language. Apparently the song was written after the death of Ms Karol's husband, and you can see her reaction is pretty intense. This 23-year-old is a great singer and the performance is terrific. Mr Rybarchuk sings with control and emotion. Also, we need to celebrate the guitar dude with the mirrored sunglasses! But wait! There is more! Go to about 7:25 into the video and his exchange with coach Sergey Babkin, I imagine he indicated he almost chose to perform one of Babkin’s songs, and through that disclosure we are rewarded with a bit of magic. The two men sitting down to sing together in this moment is all I need. A bit of true fraternity and we are all fans. I get a kick watching Potap and Jamala enjoy the song with everyone else. It makes watching Potap as Andriy walks off the stage a poignant moment, as he knows a potential winner just announced himself. FYI - Andriy finished second in the final just over a week ago. I hope this exposure gives him a chance to pursue his dream. He is a great singer. Also, if you know the language, a deep dive of this most recent season will reveal how The Voice of Ukraine has embraced reality television tropes, including cattiness worthy of trashier offerings. 

Jim van der Zee - “Amar Pelos Dois” (Holland, 2017)

A Dutch interpretation of fado, a man crooning with his acoustic guitar. And all that denim! This performance is proof that histrionics often are not the best way to convey emotion. Lovely. FYI - van der Zee won the most recent season in Holland, which included the two beautiful powerhouses you saw and heard above. I checked out a number of his performances as he progressed through the season and he is really great. More versatile than I initially would guess, based on the blind audition, and he even got all dapper with a suit and haircut.

Lilya Adad - “Les Feuilles Mortes” (France, 2018)

This 17-year-old Moroccan displays adept singing while accompanying herself on piano, singing an Yves Montand song in both French and English. I have no clue how Zazie and Pascal chose to not turn around. You can hear the youthfulness in her voice, but her singing is great and she shows more than enough talent to justify wanting her on your team. Props to the camera for catching her intensity at the piano, and I love the emotion from her younger sisters. FYI - This versatile and beautiful young woman has been studying music her whole life, including stints in Valencia and Boston. While she did not advance far here, her music career is just beginning.

Lou Mai - “Bohemian Rhapsody” (France, 2017)

Another stunning 17-year-old, her performance delivers the isolation and despair of the lyrics while being inventive in its delivery. Her voice is distinctive, as is her phrasing, and leaves me wanting to see her perform in different styles to see how well she would do. FYI - A novice compared to Lilya, in terms of training and experience, she apparently had to press her parents for the chance to sing, which makes the reactions of her family all the more fun to watch. Her little sister is all of us at that moment.

Slimane Nebchi - “A Fleur de Toi” (France, 2016)

Intense and dramatic, Slimane’s performance is an attention-grabber. He has a commanding stage presence and powerful voice. We feel the emotional weight he brings to the song. Also, those eyes! The smile he reveals in the face of the audience response is just the right response. FYI - The winner in 2016, Slimane has produced an album and continues to perform. 

Sol - “Crazy” (France, 2016)

This performance perfectly embodies the title and I love it. He sings powerfully, and makes really interesting choices in his phrasing. The pyrotechnics go right up to the edge, but he holds it all together with panache and emotional weight. Extra points for his ability to captivate not only the coaches, but the show host as well. I would love to see him and Yerry Rellum each perform the whole song back to back, and then discuss. FYI - Sol was a composer, singing teacher, and comedian coming into The Voice. He advanced to the semifinals (Slimane won that competition) and last year released his first album

Fernando Daniel - “When We Were Young” (Portugal, 2016)

If a male singer chooses to drop some Adele for his blind audition, that person better have serious chops. Fernando Daniel does not disappoint. In fact, I dare you to track his performance against Adele’s original. He is that good here. He starts well enough, but when he takes that chord progression into the chorus, you can see Mikael Carreira, who becomes his coach, mapping out a path to victory. Mariza Liz, who often is comically derisive in responding to blind audition performers, is reduced to silent staring (though her inner diva stayed strong so she could get a hug at the end). Bonus points to his mom, who is as amazed and befuddled as the rest of us by his performance. FYI - Fernando did indeed win that year, and this particular YouTube video has about 50 million views. He earned him an invite to compete to be Portugal’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest in 2017. He made it to Portugal’s grand finale, but the winner and Portuguese representative, Salvador Sobral, won Portugal’s first-ever Eurovision title with “Amar Pelos Dois”, which was performed by Jim van der Zee earlier in this list.

Mo Adeniran - “Iron Sky” (UK, 2017)

Another show-stopper, this intense performance stands among the finest in this list. Even in the quiet opening lines, he delivers tension and emotional weight, even a little contained fury. The lead in to the chorus brings the whole place to their feet. In their very different ways, the responses of Jennifer Hudson and Sir Tom are the surest indicators of quality on display here. FYI - Mo won in 2017 and, going by Mo Jamil, released his album as the 2018 edition drew to a close in late spring. 

Andreas Kümmert - “Rocketman” (Germany, 2013)

Mr Kümmert provides a palate refresher and delightful performance to bring this playlist to a close. His pyrotechnics are one thing, but the whole performance somehow holds up even when it appears he might fly off the rails. The responses of the coaches are half the fun, and it all ends with a apt “that was fucking amazing”. Yes, yes it was. FYI - Andreas won that year, and has been performing ever since.