Back in Season 4, when Usher and Shakira first appeared on "The Voice," filling in for Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera, the two newbie coaches often looked awfully green in their red leather chairs.
Though both brought energy and commitment, heart and a highly competitive spirit to their mentoring duties, Usher and Shakira sometimes seemed strategically unseasoned, clinging loyally to a so-so contender, for example, while shortsightedly sending a more solid singer home. It was hard to see how these rookies would give veteran coaches Blake Shelton and Adam Levine a real run for their money.
But this season, the show's sixth, for which Green and Aguilera have again stepped away (in his case, for good; in hers, well … who knows?) and Usher and Shakira have returned, Shelton and Levine might want to watch their backs.
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"I learned to beg, I learned to ask where you're from, and to be extremely aggressive," Usher said at a New York media event Monday, after I'd asked him what he'd learned strategically from his first go-around in the singing show's spinning chairs.
Carson Daly, also on hand to take questions, said it was clear that Shakira too had returned with a new sense of confidence. "She's hungry for a victory and she handles the boys really well," he said, adding that he'd seen the same thing with the original four coaches between the show's initial two seasons. The "first year is all pleasantries, we all know each other; second year was just, I want to win, and I'll fight you for it. There's good fiery energy."
The "fiery energy" among the coaches was on display during the sixth season premiere as the coaches vied for impressive talent in the first night the blind auditions.
Christina Grimmie, 19, a New Jersey pop singer with more than 2 million YouTube subscribers, dedicated her performance to her mother, who has repeatedly battled breast cancer and turned all four coaches with her powerful, passionate, polished take on Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball." Usher and Shakira were the first to turn, when Grimmie had sung only a few lines, and Levine followed not long after. Shelton finally brought up the rear.
Levine told Grimmie she was "more comfortable" onstage even than he and had the markings of a "huge star." And even though the other coaches fought hard -- "In Season 4, I might have been hormonal and sleepless, but now I'm rested and I'm focused as a laser, and I'm going to give you all this focus," Shakira vowed -- Levine won the battle.
"I believe I'm going to learn so much from Adam," Grimmie said.
The next contestant, T.J. Wilkins, whose musical talent has been his ticket out of South Central L.A., turned three chairs with his soulful version of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets." Shelton hit his button first; Usher and Levine were hot on his heels. Only Shakira didn't turn, not because she didn't think he had a great voice, she assured Wilkins, but because she was trying to be "strategic" and "not waste my bullets."
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Levine expressed admiration for Wilkins' "sweet jacket" and "sick voice," and Shelton tried to suck up by complimenting the singer's falsetto and calling him "Teej," but Usher prevailed by telling Wilkins he had "an incredible R&B record" in him.
"I picked Usher because he's someone I've looked up to for a long time," Wilkins said.
Next to sing was Kristen Merlin, a 29-year-old from Hanson, Mass., who said she came out to her mom when she was 17 and brought both her girlfriend and mom along. Her clear, lively rendition of Sugarland's "Something More" turned Levine and Shakira, and Levine laid it on thick, calling her style and instincts "so pro" and saying of her drive, "I need it so bad."
But Shakira hadn't saved her bullets for nothing, and now she pulled out the big guns. "Social media is going to be critical in getting votes. I have over 20 million people [following me] on Twitter," she told Merlin. "These three guys combined, no offense, they don't get to 17 million. I have 20 myself."
That aggressive strategy, combined with the support of not only Shelton but also, prospectively, of his wife, Miranda Lambert, whose country-music expert help Shakira promised to enlist, apparently paid off. Merlin said she herself was surprised by her choice, "but I'm going to go with Shakira."
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"That one hurt," Levine said of his unexpected loss to the lady on his left.
After disappointing diminutive 16-year-old Tanner Linford, who left room for improvement with his take on "Stay," the coaches all turned for Biff Gore, a 45-year-old church leader, military veteran and father of five (with a sixth on the way) from Denver.
Levine, Shelton and Shakira turned in rapid succession for Gore's take on the Sam Cooke classic "A Change Is Gonna Come," with Usher turning only after a prolonged period of toying with his button. Shakira tried to play her hotness card, inviting Gore to be her Grammy date "when we win this thing" but got turned down cold by the family man.
Shakira then insisted the other coaches would be too distracted by things like wedding plans (Levine), movies (Usher) and general drunkenness (Shelton) to provide good coaching, whereas, she said, "motherhood has made me even sharper." Gore's wife, Shakira told the singer, would want him to pick her.
But neither Shakira's cajoling nor Shelton's pleading (his soul needed saving, he said) swayed Gore. He chose Usher.
"Winning a four-chair turn feels excellent," Usher said. "You've got everybody tearing at each other's throats and you walk away with a victory -- that's incredible."
Shakira was outmaneuvered again, this time by Levine, when she went head to head with him over duo Dawn & Hawkes, a cute couple from Austin, Texas, who sang the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," liltingly. In truth, the "Hips Don't Lie" singer and her 70 million Facebook friends never had a chance.
"On my god! … Not only is that one of my favorite tunes ever, but my roots, what I was raised on and what I love and what I know better than anything, which are very different than things I have done in my career," Levine sputtered. "Just personal taste, that was my favorite performance I've ever seen ever on 'The Voice.'" He said the duo offered "something that I want to be a part of no matter what, really."
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Of course, Dawn & Hawkes picked Levine, prompting their new coach to fall flat on the floor. It was mutual. The Maroon 5 singer's heartfelt appeal, Dawn said, had "floored" her.
Sadly, none of the coaches turned for singer-dancer Leo Gallo, who had briefly been a member of a boy band just after boy bands were big, even though his take on Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" was actually pretty fab. But 26-year-old classic rocker Jeremy Briggs, who gigs with his band in Sacramento, had better luck, turning Shelton and Shakira with his potent performance of "Bad Company."
Shelton tried to establish a sartorial bond -- "Hello, my fellow plaid-wearing friend," he said -- but Shakira said she was a former "rock chick" who was "hungry for success" and willing to give "all of my dedication" to ensuring Briggs' success. Hunger trumped plaid.
"What she said really hit me," Briggs said of his new coach. "I just went with it."
Shelton had better luck with country boy Jake Worthington, who himself had better luck than he had last season, when his clunky take on "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" had turned no chairs. This time around, Worthington took a lower-key approach, strumming his way through Keith Whitley's "Don't Close Your Eyes," and left only Usher unspun.
"It was perfect," Shakira said of his singing.
"You're perfect, Shakira," Worthington said, with a slight quiver in his voice.
Levine, meanwhile, expressed a desire to "crush" the show's country-music "giant," but Worthington wanted to join the giant instead. "Do you want to be a novelty, Jake? Or do you want to be a real, rootsy country singer," Shelton asked. Worthington's answer was clear. No other coach had really ever had a chance.
The final singer of the night, 17-year-old dynamo Bria Kelly, spun all four chairs (two of them, Shelton's and Levine's, before she'd even made it through the first word of her song) and brought them to her feet with her gritty, bluesy take on James Taylor's "Steamroller Blues." Though Usher was the very last to turn, he quickly made up for lost time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have just heard THE voice," he said, arms outstretched, head respectfully bowed.
"OMG," Levine said of Kelly's youth. "You haven't even been alive long enough to feel the pain that you were expressing up there."
"I believe I was born in the wrong generation," she said.
"You were definitely born in the right generation and destiny has brought us together," Usher said. He waved a glinty Grammy award in front of her.
Usher it was.
So Season 6 is on. What did you think of the premiere? And are you glad to see Usher and Shakira back?