Producers promised to shake things up this year on “American Idol,” but they were back to their predictable old tricks on Wednesday night (March 23), when the top 11 singers once again dipped into the Motown bag for some golden oldies. It was a critical week for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that it would decide season 10’s top 10, i.e., the handful of singers who will go out on the road with the “Idol” tour this summer.
Some (Thia, Lauren, Paul) stormed back after tough weeks, while others cemented their frontrunner status (Pia, Jacob) and a few tripped up (Stefano, Haley).
After squealing his way through Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” last week (and possibly scaring off his little-girl vote) Casey Abrams went for the big brass ring with Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” He did some of his now-signature growling, mixing Gaye’s sweet soul with the swampy blues texture of the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival cover, pushing closer to the dreaded, white-soul belter territory blazed by “Idol” champ Taylor Hicks.
“I think you’re the perfect entertainer,” Steven Tyler enthused. “Perfect pitch and perfect mix of crazy-ass out-of-control ego and that’s what makes an artist today.” Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson agreed, saying that Abrams has already carved his own totally unique lane.
Trying to rebound from a rough week, the youngest singer in the contest, Thia Megia, 16, went with an uptempo number for once, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave.” Wearing a flirty, frilly pink skirt with a black bustier top, Megia showed an intriguing different side to her personality, a country/pop-ish tone with plenty of attitude, though she still sometimes comes off a bit cruise ship-y.
Lopez loved seeing Megia let loose for once and encouraged her to dig even deeper and try to connect with her lyrics more, by acting if necessary. Randy was psyched to see her take a chance after a string of same-y ballads.
With his gospel background, this should have been a slam-dunk week for Jacob Lusk. Choosing Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s legendary ballad “You’re All I Need to Get By,” Lusk leaned into the spare arrangement with a feathery contralto, hopping between his throaty and falsetto voices while putting on a divo-esque soul clinic of controlled runs.
Tyler couldn’t contain himself, running up to hug Jacob and scream “hallelujah!” into the mic. The standing ovation inspired Jackson to say it was Lusk’s best performance yet, praising his easy way of leaning into the chorus and totally controlling the song by knowing when to give it all and when to hold back. “You know what was wrong with that performance?” he said. “Nothing!”
The other 16-year-old, Lauren Alaina, dug into the Supremes’ classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Opening in a single spotlight and transforming the intro into a slow, soul kiss, Alaina once again tapped into her precocious charms and flirted with Jackson and sashayed all around the judges’ circle while singing a very good, sassy karaoke version of the disco-lite tune.
“I don’t think you listen to anybody about anything and I like that about you,” Tyler said to his favorite Aerosmith fan, while Lopez praised L.A.’s flowy zebra-striped, floor-length skirt and neck-rolling attitude.
Unlike Alaina, Stefano Langone grew up on Motown, though he chose not a classic, but the 1984 Lionel Richie schmaltz-fest “Hello.” Warned not to over-sing it, Langone gave it an odd operatic lilt, turning the tune into a Michael Buble-style, light FM show tune.
She still thinks he’s a cutie with a good voice, but Lopez said the one-time wild card missed the emotion in the song and failed to connect, instead looking like he was trying too hard to perform. Giving some of her most coherent, cogent advice of the season, the multi-hyphenate judge said it’s critical for Langone to look at each song as an acting gig. “You sounded good, but there was no real connection,” Randy concurred.
After hitting the bottom-three two weeks in a row, Haley Reinhart was hoping to avoid the walk of shame by singing Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” Her off-tempo, sissy strut version had the requisite soul mama growls and shouts, but the whole thing felt a bit awkward, shouty and Holiday Inn lounge.
After a rough start, Randy said Reinhart’s Janis Joplin-esque growl and attitude brought it back around, giving them a glimpse of the singer they fell in love with. “I think you may have the most soulful voice of anybody in the competition,” J.Lo said, then amending that to just include the girls’ side.
The singer facing the biggest challenge of the week was bullfrog-voiced country crooner Scotty McCreery. Though he didn’t grow up with Motown, he went with the Stevie Wonder version of “For Once in My Life.” Shockingly, he sang it with a twangy Glen Campbell vibe accompanied by a wheezing harmonica, acoustic guitar and giddyaup brushed snare beat.
Tyler said Scotty Mac took a big chance and ripped it and Lopez agreed, saying Scotty made it his own, even if it wasn’t his strongest vocal performance. Either way, it’s those low notes he always throws in that continue to seal the deal for the judges and the audience.
Motown week was no problem for Pia Toscano, who’s been singing the label’s songs her whole life alongside her dad. She chose the lesser-known Stevie Wonder hit “All in Love is Fair,” giving it the full diva treatment, complete with floor-length black gown, string section backing and a powerful series of crescendos delivered while standing nearly motionless behind the mic.
Once again, Lopez said the vocals, beauty and feeling were all there and said Pia could have a Celine Dion-like career, but she needs to add more dynamic stage moves into her repertoire. And, c’mon girl, Randy pleaded, we get that you can sing ballads, but mix it up a bit, will ya!
After a few seasons where singers frequently hid behind guitars and pianos, Paul McDonald busted out the first acoustic of the finals and did some picking and grinning on Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ titanic “Tracks of My Tears.” Transforming the party tune into a down-home folk rocker, McDonald put on his best Rod Stewart rasp and remade the weeper as if he’d just written it before hitting the stage.
Randy wasn’t sure where the song was going at first, but he loved the Stewart vibe and the soft, tender notes near the end. “Like Dylan, like Willie Nelson, your voice is that different,” Tyler said as Lopez referred to McD as the complete package in search of the right producer.
She’s already proved her sick dancing skills, so Naima Adedapo’s decision to grab Martha and the Vandellas’ good time ditty “Dancing in the Streets” made perfect sense. Looking like she was having a blast, Naima worked the stage to the African percussion-tinged remake, mixing her strong, crisp vocals with an energized African dance breakdown at song’s end.
For once Tyler was speechless, though he did inexplicably call the performance “E to the Z o twiddly dee,” blown away that she came up with the dance moves and the additional percussion. J.Lo said she got her first goose bumps of the night thanks to Naima’s stage savvy.
The night’s pimp spot belonged to lone rocker James Durbin, who sang Wonder’s gritty urban anthem “Living for the City.” Busting out of the gate with his clean falsetto voice, Durbin strutted all over the stage and made the song a bit happier than the original, but managed to give it enough of his rock grit (and high screeches) to make it his own.
Reduced to an “oh my Gawd”-ing valley girl, Jennifer was in awe of JD’s dance moves and vocals, admitting he left her speechless. Though it opened rough, Randy said James hit his stride during his dance-breakdown middle and brought it home with the Lambert-esque scream at the end.
Thursday night’s results show will feature performances from season-three “Idol” finalist and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and country duo Sugarland.
Who did you think nailed it on Motown night? Who blew it? Let us know in comments below!
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