Kelly Clarkson has been a regular coach on The Voice since 2018 — never sitting out a season, and becoming such a crucial cast member (and threat to Blake Shelton) that she eventually ended up sitting in original coach Adam Levine’s chair. But for the first time in her Voice tenure, Kelly was a no-show this Monday… when the Season 20 Battle Rounds commenced and that chair was instead shockingly occupied by country star Kelsea Ballerini.
At the top of the show, host Carson Daly explained that Kelly wasn’t feeling well, and while she hadn’t tested for COVID-19, she was staying home as a precaution, watching the Battle Rounds remotely. But Kelly surprisingly granted Kelsea, her temporary replacement, full authority in her absence. Even when Kelsea called Kelly — like some Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? contestant using a lifeline to phone a friend — to ask which singer should be proclaimed the winner of Monday's one Team Kelly Battle, Kelly passed the buck, asking Kelsea to make that executive decision.
Kelsea wasn’t a complete Voice newbie, mind you, so she was up for the task. In Season 16, she was Kelly’s team adviser, and on the season before that, she served as an official fifth coach, mentoring six rejected contestants for the short-lived and now-defunct “Comeback Stage” round (or what I used to call the series’ “Island of Misfit Toys”). Perhaps that’s why Blake initially told Kelsea, “I like this show better already with you here instead of Kelly” — but then quickly realized that she too was a fierce rival.
“Just know that Blake's going to try to play mind games with you,” coach Nick Jonas warned Kelsea as they settled into their chairs. “If I could give you any advice, it’s don't trust Blake,” Kelly additionally told Kelsea over the phone. But Kelsea didn’t seem intimidated, admitting that Kelly had also instructed her to “keep the rivalry going” with Blake. And Kelsea did just that, getting so acclimated to her powerful new position, in fact, that by the episode’s end she even used Kelly’s one Steal to poach a Team Blake contestant.
It seems like Kelly won’t be back on The Voice set until this season's Knockout Rounds. But we did get to see her this week in pretaped rehearsal footage, during which she was accompanied by her Season 20 team adviser, Luis Fonsi. (The night’s other advisers were Dan+Shay for Team Blake, Brandy for Team Legend, and Darren Criss for Team Jonas.) It didn’t seem quite fair to her contestants, Gean Garcia and Ryleigh Modig, that Kelly — after spending all that time observing their preparation for their very evenly matched, seamlessly vocally blended performance of Ariana Grande’s “POV” — would leave their fates in Kelsea’s hands. But as Blake joked, “If Kelly was here, I would tell her, ‘Why did you pair these two together?’ It's awful. What is she doing? Maybe that's why she's not here ultimately. Maybe she realized what a horrible mistake she made and didn't want to deal with this decision.” Even Kelsea mused, “I think Blake is on to something — that she just didn't want to have to pick.”
As it turned out, Kelsea went with the more eccentric and intriguing Ryleigh — a wise move that proved Kelly was right to trust her. But both Nick Jonas and John Legend attempted to steal Gean (with John succeeding), so it all worked out, and Kelsea didn’t have to feel guilty during her first day on the job. We’ll see if she continues to make good decisions as the Battle Rounds continue next Monday, but until then, here’s how this week’s other Battles panned out:
TEAM BLAKE: Aaron Konzelman vs. Connor Christian, “I Ain’t Livin' Long Like This”
This Waylon Jennings classic was way more in roots-music warbler Aaron’s comfort zone, and onstage, Aaron’s twangy voice cut through and definitely overpowered Connor’s. (John said Aaron’s vocals were “more electric.") Even though Connor looked and acted like a star, with Aaron seeming more like his sideman, and even though Connor’s performance gained momentum at the end, I still predicted that Connor would a goner — because I’d assumed that Blake had picked a country song to favor Aaron. But then Blake threw a curveball: “If I'm being honest with myself, it's a little bit more in Aaron's wheelhouse, but Connor, I know how much work you put into this. I gotta give it up to Connor,” Blake explained.
WINNER: Connor Christian
TEAM JONAS: Dana Monique vs. Devan Blake Jones, “Stuck With U”
This was another close competition. Diva Dana was an undeniable powerhouse, an unstoppable force, but Devan, despite a couple of pitch issues, was no slouch, displaying his artistry and a signature falsetto that Kelsea described as “magical.” After watching this Battle, Nick griped, “I feel like I mishandled this pairing, and I'm kicking myself for it.” But Nick had a way of fixing his foolish mistake — by picking Dana, but using his one Save on Devan. “I was not saying goodbye to you today,” he assured Devan. “I have a lot of belief in you. I gave you a really tough competitor in this Battle, and I think you showed up and you nailed it. And I want to keep working with you.”
WINNER: Dana Monique / SAVED: Devan Blake Jones moves on to Four-Way Knockout
TEAM LEGEND: Christine Cain vs. Pia Renee, “Baby”
Christine and Pia were tasked with rehearsing a Brandy song in front of Brandy, but these “charismatic, cool women” for the most part handled the pressure like pros. “I knew they would bring individuality to whatever song they did, so I picked a Brandy song,” shrugged John. Onstage, they were giving me LaBelle/En Vogue vibes, and I was thinking if they could just smooth out their harmonies a bit, they could be a formidable recording duo. This Battle ended with a less surprising verdict, however: John went for the more “explosive” and “electric” Pia, who really entered the ring primed for battle, over the more “laid-back” Christine.
WINNER: Pia Renee
TEAM JONAS: Awari vs. José Figueroa Jr., “You Say”
This was another Battle in which the song choice seemed to obviously favor one contestant over the other: Lauren Daigle is a contemporary Christian artist, and José is a church singer and pastor. But Awari had a deep connection to “You Say,” explaining, “It is literally the soundtrack of a season in my life. I was going through a divorce. I became a single father. And it speaks all the words my heart wanted to say but could not say.” I think this translated to the stage, with Awari’s husky tone and raw emotion transforming the oft-covered empowerment anthem into something totally his own. José was way too slick and predictable for me — but not, apparently, for pastor’s kid Nick. “José, you have the ability to hit your runs with precision,” Nick raved. “You're out here swinging for the fences, and I like that ambition, that passion.”
WINNER: José Figueroa Jr.
TEAM BLAKE: Avery Roberson vs. Ethan Lively, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
These two country contestants are only 20 and 17, respectively, but they sang like full-grown, red-blooded, hairy-chested men. High schooler Ethan claimed he couldn’t even relate to James Otto’s lyrics due to his lack of life/romantic experience, but he needs a Best Dramatic Performance Emmy now, because he certainly was believable onstage — so much so that he actually won this Battle over Avery, one of my Season 20 favorites and someone I’d had pegged as a frontrunner. Well, clearly Kelsea had Avery pegged as one to watch. She eagerly stole Avery (“That was my first Steal, and it felt good!” she proclaimed), and Blake seemed fine with this, pointing out, “That’s what Steals are made for.” I’m sure Kelly was pleased about this development as well, since Kelsea later revealed, “I'm over here texting with Kelly and she's like, ‘You have to get him for me!’ And I was like, ‘I’ll do my best.’” I can’t wait to see Avery and Kelly work together when she returns for the Knockouts, but in the meantime, Kelsea is clearly doing a bang-up job.
WINNER: Ethan Lively / STOLEN: Avery Roberson moves to Team Kelly
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: