Wednesday night was Motown Night on "American Idol," the first competitive theme episode of the season...and honestly, the prospect struck cold-as-a-Detroit-winter fear into my heart. Not because I don't love me some Motown--it's classic American music, of course. But these songs have been done to death, for five decades, by every cruise ship/wedding/bar mitzvah/lounge/karaoke/insert-Simon-Cowell-insult-here singer in America. So things could've gone very awry. Sure, in-house mentor/Universal Records honcho Jimmy Iovine and his posse of merry musicmakers would do their best to create some current-sounding recordings and sell a few iTunes downloads, but the episode's intro, with all 11 contestants frugging '60s-style in a way that made the show's usual group-number dance moves look positively Twyla Tharp-esque, hardly eased my qualms that this would be Season 10's hokiest episode yet.
But as it turned out, I needn't have worried. Most of the contestants did the Motor City proud, including one, Jacob Lusk, who was so supreme (no pun intended), his performance inspired a procession of fans to queue up to give him congratulatory hugs--with Steven Tyler leading the line. Jacob just kept them hanging on, literally. And Naima Adedapo brought Motown all the way back to it roots with an incredible African dance routine that made me hope she makes it into the top 10 this week. The Idols Live Tour would be so much more boring without her.
Here's how everyone got down to Motown this week...
Casey Abrams - When Casey "unleashes the beast," as Ryan Seacrest words it, he channels all the teeth-clenched rage of the titular character in Bart Simpson's "Angry Dad" comic strip into his performances--growling at the audience, squeezing his mic with a white-knuckled deathgrip, bulging his eyes out like he's doing a Marty Feldman impression. It's a 180-degree departure from his sweet, Fraggle Rockish real-life persona. And yet, somehow he remains so darn LIKABLE, onstage and off. Lovable, even. It's really just his pure passion that makes Casey such a compelling performer--I mean, when he did "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," he transformed the song from a peppy California Raisins jingle back into the raw rant of a wronged lover. When he sang, "I'm just about to lose my mind," I believed him. "I think you're the perfect entertainer," said Steven, a man who ought to know. Said Jennifer Lopez: "You're so specific to who you are. Is there anybody out there like you? I don't think there is! You could really carve a niche out there for yourself." And Randy summed it all up: "You're a true original. You can only do you--and that 'you' is great!" So just keeping doing you, Casey--onstage temper tantrums and all.
Thia Megia - Thia is the youngest contestant this year, but she has an old soul. Sadly, I don't mean this as a compliment. She's just fusty and fuddy-duddy, about as hip and cool as my grandma. (No offense, Grandma.) So I was interested to see if she could bring the heat to Martha & The Vandellas' "Heatwave," a departure from her usual Little Miss pageant balladry. I have to say, it was nice to see Thia acting like a teenager for once: smiling, moving, dancing, and wearing a cute little party frock. Finally, some signs of life! Thia didn't blow me away, but I think she stepped it up enough to stay in the game before viewers got too bored with her. "Now I feel like we're scratching the surface with you. It was great to see you let loose like that--who knew you had that in you?" raved Jennifer. Added Randy: "The reason you're here is we knew you had it in you. It's about taking chances...You just have to believe." And Steven concurred: "You've taken a step out, and I love it." I didn't love it myself, and I think Thia needs to step out even further, but this was my favorite Thia performance of the season thus far.
Jacob Lusk - As Iovine pointed out, there's no one in the top 11 more qualified to bust out some Motown than this church-trained gospel prodigy. Who else could take on both parts of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "You're All I Need to Get By" duet--with original Motown studio bassist Bob "Funk Brother" Babbitt accompanying--and get away with it? Yes, in the past, Jacob has admittedly overdone it, hitting so many Mariah high notes that Fox had to seal the studio doors so the stage didn't get bumrushed by stray dogs running from all directions. But this evening, despite the fact that he was singing two vocal parts, Jacob practiced uncharacteristic restraint. Sure, his sassy personality still radiated through--I don't think he could ever restrain that--but his voice never got too shrill or shouty. "You know what was wrong with that performance? Absolutely nothing!" howled Randy. "You made us beg for those notes! Give it to us, Jacob! You move me. You move us!" Jennifer cried out. And Steven even ran up onstage, bear-hugged Jacob, and dubbed him "Baby Luther." All this fawning was a little over-the-top, especially when Ryan invited audience members to line up for free Lusk hugs, making me suspect the judges/producers really want to ensure that another contestant of color doesn't go home before the top 10, leaving us with yet another white-washed season and "Idol" tour. (Note that the first two to go were African-American Ashthon Jones and Latina Karen Rodriguez.) However, in this case, the praise was deserved. If, for some bizarre reason, Jacob ended up in the bottom three this week, this performance would surely warrant the use of the Judges' Save.
Lauren Alaina - After establishing herself as this season's country queen, it seemed logical that Lauren would put a country spin on the Supremes' "You Just Keep Me Hangin' On." But, no. Instead, she didn't bring much to the song, other than her strong vocals--but at this point in the competition, that may not be enough anymore. I just wish she'd taken a little more artistic license with the song. There was nothing unique or new about her cover, other than the fact that she flirted with Randy instead of her usual target, Steven. Steven, however, obviously didn't feel snubbed, because he told her in his colorful way, "You ripped that song another beauty mark!" (On that note, Lauren did look prettier than she ever has before.) The other two judges were also disproportionately impressed: J.Lo told her, "You threw your head and neck into it. There was so much attitude," and Randy told her she'd regained her swagger from her memorable Nashville audition. I'm not so sure. I don't think this was bad my any means, but in an episode filled with standout performances, I don't think this was one of them. Lauren will probably be safe--but safe is boring.
Stefano Langone - When I learned that Stefano would be covering Lionel Richie's "Hello," a song forever associated in "Idol" viewers' minds as being one of David Cook's watershed Season 7 moments, I figured the only way he could top Cook's version would be if he recreated Lionel's original "Hello" music video, complete with an actress playing his blind love interest and a clay bust of his head. No such luck. Instead Stefano just oversang the song until his head looked like it was about to explode into clay powder. The whole performance just smacked of desperation--which was odd, since he received glowing praise last week, so he didn't need to be so nervous this week. Jennifer told him, in what was her best critique of the season: "I don't want the intensity to come from you wanting to do well, I want the intensity to come from your heart breaking." (J.Lo was actually really on her game this evening. Who knew she could be such a great judge, once she stopped worrying about being too mean?). Randy agreed that Stefano had no real connection to the song, and Steven said Stefano "ramped up" (read: freaked out) too soon. Stefano, tonight you did not have anyone at "Hello."
Haley Reinhart - Haley's been in the bottom three two weeks a row now, so she knew she had to bring it this week or lose her prospective spot on the Idols Live Tour. I have to say, I dug her sultry cover of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got A Hold On Me," even if her trademark forced sexiness was offputting in parts. She added a little countryish flair and rasp to it, and in the performance department, she totally delivered. "By the middle of the song, the Haley that we fell in love with came roaring back! This is exactly the kind of singer we always thought you were!" howled Randy. Steven used his favorite adjective, "beautiful," and whipped out another one of his zinger one-liners: "You don't look a day over fabulous." Jennifer told her, "I think you may have the most soulful voice of anyone in the competition." So will this be enough to keep Haley out of the bottom three? Well, probably not...but it was her best performance of the season, so at least she'll go out on a (literal) high note.
Scotty McCreery - After weeks of stubbornly refusing to veer out of his "lane," a country lane that's so limited it's more like a proverbial dead-end dirt road, Scotty was forced to switch it up this week, since no country acts were ever signed to Motown as far as I know. I will give him props for doing what contestants on this show are SUPPOSED to do--adapting a song to his genre--but I'm not so sure Scotty's countrified version of Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life" really worked. Maybe his plan to "make it more Scotty" wasn't such a fab idea after all, and his attempt to "not sound like a lounge singer" was most definitely thwarted. Steven blasphemously compared Scotty to Glenn Campbell (whaaaa?), J.Lo said it was "a great version of this song," and Randy praised Scotty's signature "young ladykiller note." But me? Well, I'm a lady, and I wasn't feeling it.
Pia Toscano - Doing "All In Love Is Fair" by Stevie Wonder, Pia sounded and looked great. But what else is new? That's like saying ice is cold, or pizza is yummy. There were no real surprises here. "Again you kill us with one of your killer ballads," sighed an unusually on-the-money Jennifer. "But if I'm going to give you any constructive criticism...We've seen you sit there three times and do a ballad." Randy moaned: "Ballad, ballad, ballad. Come on, give me a midtempo at least! We can't live on ballads alone." Steven, who now is the official Nice Judge, was kinder, saying, "Right now you are the closest star in this 'American Idol' universe." But I sided with Jennifer and Randy. Pia does need to switch it up next week.
Paul McDonald - Paul took a risk by taking on "Tracks Of My Tears," a song very connected in Glamberts' minds with Adam Lambert, who gave one of the best performances in "Idol" history with this song only two seasons ago. But thankfully, Paul was allowed to play guitar again this week. I suspect his previous "McDonald two-step" dance was a nervous twitch that stemmed from his guitarless-ness, because with his six-string strapped around him this week, he seemed much more at ease, and he delivered his finest performance since "Maggie Mae." His own ragged alt-country version of "Tracks" was very David Gray, very Tom Petty circa "Free Fallin'," and it felt credible and authentic. And when he sang, "People say I'm the life of the party," it was believable, because with a smile like that, how could he not be? "You definitely have a distinctive, different kind of voice. You took it to a cool, Rod Stewart-y place," said Randy. Steven compared Paul to unorthodox singers like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, and Jennifer called him the "most seasoned performer that we have," adding: "You're the complete package; all you need is the right producer, and there you go!" I was worried about Paul before, but this week I feel pretty good about his chances. So see you on the tour, Mr. McDonald! Just make sure to bring your guitar.
Naima Adedapo - This funky spitfire took Martha & The Vandellas' "Dancin' In The Streets" to a whole new level of awesome dance-tastic-ness, not only giving the show the uptempo edge it sorely needed, and but adding AFRICAN DANCE to her performance. We barely even see African dancing on "So You Think You Can Dance," but on "Idol," any kind of dancing has been really unheard of--until now. Dance, Naima, dance! Her performance was so exciting, so fresh. (Thia Megia, Pia Toscano: I hope you were taking notes.) "Finally all of Naima showed up!" raved Randy. J.Lo even said Naima gave her "my first little goosebumps of the night," and told her: "You've got that little extra something on that stage, it's just that thing." Wow, I can't wait to see Naima bust a move on tour. This was the type of performance that becomes an "Idol" legend most.
James Durbin - Ending the show with a big bang was resident rocker James, going all-out on Stevie Wonder's "Livin' For The City," a song that last year's rocker girl Siobhan Magnus had a wow moment with last year. It's a big song meant for someone with a big voice and big personality, and James was up for the task, getting all up in the camera like Bono on "SNL" and riling up the crowd. J.Lo was too riled up to even properly comment: "You leave me speechless, and that's not easy to do!" Randy said beginning was "rough" (cue audience boos), but the end was "unbelievable." And Steven offered the best critique of the night when he said: "I think sometimes it takes a little bit of being crazy to make a difference in this world, and that's what you do." Can we put that slogan on an "Idol" T-shirt, please?
So now it is prediction time. I think Haley's a no-brainer, despite her solid performance, and other at-risk contestants are probably the coasting-on-cuteness Lauren and backsliding Stefano. But in the end, it'll probably be Haley, a girl who practically has a bottom-three stool with her name engraved on it at this point, who will go home.
Tune in Thursday to see if I'm right. Until then, Parker out!