“The Voice” could make history on Tuesday night. For the first time in the show’s six seasons, the winning coach may not be Adam Levine or Blake Shelton — it could be Usher.
The R&B star — who came agonizingly close to victory in season four when Michelle Chamuel finished second to Team Blake's Danielle Bradbery — has the singer to beat this time around in Josh Kaufman. Kaufman, the likable father of three from Indianapolis, sailed through the live shows as other early favorites fell by the wayside.
Kaufman's covers of tunes by Sam Smith, Bonnie Raitt and John Legend went to the iTunes top 10, displaying both his popularity and his range. His competition is solid, but neither Team Adam's Christina Grimmie nor Team Blake's Jake Worthington is an obvious superstar. (Shakira's team has already been reduced to zero.)
The only thing Usher has to worry about is whether the bromantic duo of Shelton and Levine can work their magic on the viewers on behalf of their contestants once again. And the two men, as Usher knows, are a considerable worry indeed.
The bromance brings it
Through the show’s first five seasons, Shelton has won three titles, and Levine two. The contestants who took the victory? Their names can be harder to remember.
Despite the "The Voice's" title suggesting that vocals are the feature, the competition among the contestants is secondary. Unlike most other reality TV shows, “The Voice” coaches directly compete with each other — and judging by the show's popularity, that’s what the viewers want to see.
The prize may go to the winning contestant, but the pride goes to the victorious coach. None of the four lack for ego, whether it’s Shelton putting his three trophies on his red chair during auditions, Levine reminding everyone that he coached last season's champion, Usher displaying a Grammy award or Shakira pointing out her many millions of Twitter followers. The coaches excel at bragging at least as much as they do at coaching.
And nobody has been able to break the bromance's winning streak yet. CeeLo Green and Christina Aguilera, two of the original coaches, are 0-for-3. Shakira hasn’t even had a singer make the finale in her two tries.
It didn’t look good for Usher early this season either. Of his three singers to make the final 12, he lost T.J. Wilkins in the first week and Bria Kelly in the second. That left him with just one singer in the final eight.
But Kaufman has proven to be a pretty good ace in the hole, and Usher has kept a laserlike eye on the prize. Having stolen Kaufman from Levine in the battle rounds, he's done a great job of pushing the SAT prep tutor beyond his comfort zone while keeping him well within his vocal range.
Back from the brink
This competition didn’t start off smoothly for Kaufman. After turning all four chairs at his blind audition, he started off on Team Adam, but lost to Delvin Choice in the second battle round. Usher used his steal to save him from oblivion, and since then there’s been no looking back.
Still, Usher and Kaufman have reason to worry. A big part of “The Voice” is how well the coaches can sell their singers to the audience, and Levine and Shelton work that angle better than anyone.
The Maroon 5 frontman has been as influential as ever this season. His singers have received the Twitter instant save every week in the last three weeks. He even shepherded Kat Perkins to two instant saves, at least one more than her talent and song selection might dictate.
How did a woman who was among the bottom three vote-getters twice in a row get saved each time? The rocker made people want to vote for him, asking them to believe in his ability to pick better songs for her in the future. It worked ... up until last week, when he instead threw his support to the endangered Christina Grimmie. Sure enough, Grimmie got the save instead.
The problem for Levine is that there’s no instant save in the finale.
Jake Worthington is Shelton's surprise singer in the final round. Of the coach’s three selections in the top 12, Sisaundra Lewis had the power, and Audra McLaughlin the polish. But they both went down the same week, and it’s Worthington who stands alone as the country rep.
Though Worthington’s never been in danger, he’s also never caught fire. He has just one iTunes bonus, while Grimmie has two and Kaufman three. He's also got less range than the other finalists, so it's hard to see him pulling off something unexpected in the finale.
Kaufman enters the finale with an edge. But as Usher well knows, you count out the other judges at your own risk.
"The Voice" airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.