September 17, 2011 -- The crowd at the House of Blues in Los Angeles was bigger, the set was dressier, and even our judges and host Joey Fatone were in their finery, because this was the finale of "Karaoke Battle USA," the show that took the end of the summer television season by storm.
After five weeks, the crop of karaoke hopefuls from four regions across the country had been whittled down to four—Josh Scholl, the '80s cover band / glam rock hybrid, Sammy Vijarro, the 45-year-old music teacher with the big voice, Shantel Norman, the single mother-turned soul queen, and Cassandra Mae, the country sweetheart from Fargo. Tonight would decide which pair would be America's Karaoke King and Queen.
The girls took the stage first in the vocal comparison, with both Shantel and Cassandra singing the karaoke classic "I Will Survive." Shantel knew her voice might be bested by Cassandra's, but took the stage with the confidence that, "when it comes to performance and connecting with the audience, I think I have her way overweighed by that." After the two performed, judge Joe Levy encouraged Cassandra for finally departing from country, saying, "I have been waiting and I have been asking for you to sing something other than a country song, and that was why!" Judge Carnie Wilson liked Shantel's performance… but did she like it enough? "That was a great performance, right? Is it enough compared to what we just saw? Maybe? I don't know."
The guys battled it out on Elvis' classic "Suspicious Minds," which seemed to favor Sammy's big-voiced soul. Judge Joe agreed, telling Sammy, "that may actually be my favorite of your performances." But Josh and his natural stage presence would not be denied, with judge Brian "The Cowboy" Scott reassuring him, "not only does this crowd love you, I know we all love you, and America is going to love you!"
Next, it was the one-on-one battles, with the contestants choosing their own songs. Josh again relied on his stagecraft, promising before his performance, "I'm going to give them an experience they're going to remember. That's where I can get in the final punch." Carnie commented, "Josh is infectious. If Josh steps it up just 30% more with his vocals he could take it." Josh's choice, on his way to becoming "the Freddie Mercury of my generation" as he styled himself, was Queen's "Somebody to Love." The performance set the crowd and the judges on their feet, and Carnie couldn't say enough, calling it "so hot. You continue to dazzle, excite, generate electricity in the room wherever you stand or sing." Brian could only exclaim, "that's how you win 'Karaoke Battle USA!'" Joe took a more measured approach, and a sarcastic swipe at his fellow judges at the same time, by telling Josh, "your karaoke mom and dad are very proud of you."
Next it was Sammy's turn, and the 45-year-old music teacher took a big left turn from the style he usually sings by selecting Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Despite recognizing that there was "no margin for error," Sammy made one right out of the gate, eliciting a silent reaction from the judges by flubbing an early lyric. Despite that, judge Brian told Sammy his performance "gave me tingles in places that a man shouldn't tingle." Carnie congratulated Sammy by saying, "you pulled it out of yourself tonight, and you should be so, so proud of yourself." Again, it was judge Joe Levy who took a more measured approach, mildly criticizing Sammy's stage presence, saying, "Sammy, if I close my eyes and listen to you, you sound like a star. If I open them, I don't know. I'm not sure."
Then it was ladies night, with Shantel ready to put her all into her performance. "Over the years, I've been told no, because I didn't look good enough, my voice wasn't good enough. This feels so good now, so good now." Shantel took that joy to the stage with "Son of a Preacher Man," and did not disappoint. Carnie commented, "the truth is that you have never, ever, ever let me down, you're such a natural performer." Brian noted, "I think we are in the midst of greatness, right there. Tonight you settled into this groove like I have never seen before, and that impressed the hell out of me." After the performance, host Joey Fatone interviewed Shantel's proud family, including her son who said his mom deserved to win because "she's been singing for a long time." Shantel replied, "it was all for you."
Country queen Cassandra Mae closed it out with a much different groove, "Bring It on Home to Me." Before taking the stage she told us, "my moment is here and I'm just ready to go out and do it. I'm going to go down fighting." And fight she did, wowing the judges with her country-tinged performance of the soul classic. Joe deadpanned, "you know, Cassandra, you stepped outside of your comfort zone… and it sounded good." Carnie called Cassandra, "a hell of a singer girl! You did that just right." And Brian said, "no matter what happens, you are going to sell a lot of albums." After the performance, Cassandra was brought to tears when her grandmother called her "the most wonderful granddaughter, so lovable, talented, and I just love her to death."
Judge Carnie Wilson told us, "I've loved every second of this show—I don't want it to end." But end it had to with the final judgment. After a stirring recap of the previous five weeks, four regions, and countless amazing and quirky performances, it was time for Joey to read the names of the winners.
And the names he read were Josh Scholl and Cassandra Mae. Josh was practically speechless, answering Joey's question "what is going through your mind right now" with, "Well. That's cool!" Carnie told him, "I just adore you and you are right where you're supposed to be." Cassandra could barely speak herself, saying, "I can't believe it, I really can't." Brian sent her on her way predicting that she would be the one to bring the World Karaoke Championship title back to the U.S.: "they have no idea that Cassandra is going to bring it home!"
UPDATE: Brian Scott was right: Since the conclusion of "Karaoke Battle USA," Cassandra Mae went on to win the Karaoke World Championships! Josh Scholl placed in the top ten. To sign up for auditions now happening across the country for the upcoming world championships, visit www.kwcusa.net.