There was a time when a Motown-themed evening was an "American Idol" institution. Kelly Clarkson delivered such a dizzying take on Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "You're All I Need to Get By" in season one that a bewildered Simon Cowell tried on a Southern accent and told her, "As they say in Texas, y'all did a great job!" Ruben Studdard soared with the Four Tops the next year, and then Fantasia, also trying on a Gaye tune, wowed the judges on her way to the title.
Future seasons would ditch Motown as a whole for specific artists like Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, but there remains a vast trove of "Idol" history for singers to mine as both cautionary tales and I-hope-I-can-sound-so-damn-good aspirations. And as the Motown theme returns Wednesday night (March 23) for the first time since season eight, contestants would be wise to consult those reality-show history books before taking the stage.
Folks who aren't exactly R&B- and soul-inclined, like James Durbin, should note that there are ample risks when it comes to reinventing these classic songs. Just ask Scott MacIntyre, whose honky-tonk rendition of the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" had Cowell referencing the song's lyrics: "How much more can I take?" Other, more thematically conversant season 10 crooners — Jacob Lusk, we're looking in your direction — might find salvation in Motown.
Or not. Anything can happen when the show goes live. Here's what we'll be looking for from each singer.
We're not sure if we should blame a hospital visit or simply a misguided arrangement, but Abrams' middle-school-garage-band take on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a rare misfire for the guy. We hope he's healthy, ditches heavy instrumentation and concentrates on busting out those soulful growls of his. Though we've criticized him in the past for predictable performances — low-key intros, wild-eyed conclusions — this week we want Abrams to stay within his comfort zone. Bring on those wacky body contortions and that groovy groaning, bro!
With two straight appearances in the bottom three, Haley's lucky to have survived this far; she'll have to pull off a stunner this week to avoid a trip back to that ignominious territory. But she might be in luck because Motown week will give Haley a chance to embrace her bluesy DNA. It remains to be seen, however, if she'll embrace that strength or continue her weekly trend of trying on — and then quickly discarding — different artistic identities.
Restraint should be Jacob's mantra this week, one he repeats over and over before taking the stage. The last few weeks, it's seemed like he's been trying to disgorge an epic, cancel-the-show-because-this-kid's-a-winner performance, and the result has been frightening to watch and difficult to hear. Whatever he goes with — perhaps taking a page from Studdard with some Stevie Wonder or Four Tops — Jacob has got to rein himself and sing with the passion (not the agony) that first made him a contestant to watch.
Durbin need not worry that Motown tunes won't be kind to his vocal abilities. Adam Lambert switched up the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears" in 2009 and even had Smokey Robinson applauding. The 22-year-old just needs to realize he's not at his best when rockin' hard and that ramping down his manic energy — not to mention his squealing — is his best recipe for "Idol" success.
Props to Lauren for bouncing back from her first down week with a savvy cover of Melissa Etheridge's "I'm the Only One." One of her biggest assets — above and beyond a killer instrument and the worshipful attention of "Idol" producers — is an ability to pick the right tune. So we're not concerned about Lauren's song choice. What we'll be keeping an ear out for is how successfully she melds her pop-country-rock stylings with Motown music.
Before she began to second-guess herself — Rihanna one week, Tina Turner the next — we would have imagined Motown week to be an opportunity for Naima to shine. Now we fear she's too artistically confused to go with her creative gut. So instead of giving us something slow and jazzy and unique, we fear Naima might try to reach for something — the Supremes, perhaps — that she doesn't have the chops to pull off.
Paul zoomed to the upper echelon of the competition in the show's top 24 phase, but after two lackluster performances, we're wondering if he actually belongs even in the top half of the remaining 11 singers. We hope Paul shows us our second-guessing is unfounded this week. Anything by Marvin Gaye could be the perfect vehicle to do just that.
Pia finally inched, however reluctantly, away from ballad territory last week with a little vigorous Whitney Houston action. Now we'd like to see her bust out fully. And that doesn't mean she has to sacrifice showing off her powerful vocals. The Supremes would be an excellent choice for her, unlike Naima — something familiar and upbeat, like "You Can't Hurry Love."
Motown night presents Scotty with his most interesting challenge to date. Will he impose a mainstream country vibe on a Marvin Gaye tune? Will he take this opportunity to show us another side — or at least the hint of one? How amazing would it be to hear him present a deeply soulful yet still country-strong take on the Miracles or the Temptations?
With Paul stumbling and Casey coming off a subpar performance, Stefano has a chance to capitalize on his best-in-class showing last week and show he's a true contender. This smooth-voiced 22-year-old stumbled earlier in the season with Stevie Wonder, but we're inclined to blame the cheesy arrangement more than anything else. He actually managed to channel Stevie's voice quite well. But he's been there, done that — so Stevie is off limits. No matter the cover he chooses, Stefano's goal should be to avoid a hammy, distracting arrangement and let those vocals ring.
The 16-year-old Disney princess has got nowhere to go but up after last week. We'd tell her to avoid a ballad. We'd ask her kindly to start acting her age, rather than like a crusty lounge act, but even when she picked a Disney tune, it sounded like something from an era before the existence of music television. So, in the end, we'll just say this: Go out there and have fun, because this might be the last week you get the chance.
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