American Idol Recap: Merry Motown Melodies

After last week’s relative clunker of an American Idol episode, it was ominous to look forward to Wednesday and see that the Season 10 gang would be tackling one of the show’s most tired theme weeks: Motown, meaning for the most part the label’s golden age in the 1960s. It’s a sign of how old these songs are at this point that Scotty McCreery told viewers about how his father had always been a big fan of Michael Jackson, who didn’t show up until the tail end of the Motown glory years.

But despite some predictably lazy song choices, and the obvious issues Scotty had in finding something to do, the finalists acquitted themselves very well – you will notice a lot of tightly-packed above-average grades below. So who shone and thus will make the Idol summer tour, and who will be humming “I Wish it Would Rain” to themselves come the results show?

1. Jacob Lusk (“You’re All I Need to Get By”): It was worrisome when Jacob announced he would be doing a song that was originally a duet (for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell), and even more so when he suggested that his “volume set to 11” style is the only one he knows. But this performance was where we really felt the value of Jimmy Iovine and the slate of producers all the singers have been working with, because they’ve seen where Jacob has gone astray of late, and got him to rein things in. The result was something that still had power and a nice build, without going completely insane. If he can do this all the time, watch out field. (What was with everyone acting like Jacob had tanked on “Alone” last week, when the judges went crazy for him?) B+

2. Lauren Alaina (“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”): For someone who has been deemed “The One” since she first auditioned, Lauren has strangely gotten lost in the shuffle in recent weeks, except when she’s been whining about various haters and being sick. But this was a strong effort on the Supremes hit, a song so familiar that it’s easy to sound karaoke performing it. That half-country, half-pop thing she has going on worked well here, and she far outdoes anyone her age in Idol history when it comes to stage presence. Lauren isn’t the sort of contestant who ever becomes popular with the online Idolverse, but you’d have to be nuts to deny her potential. B

3. Naima Adedapo (“Dancing in the Street”): Naima is playing the game very well. Having barely made it into the finals to begin with, and not really able to compete purely with her vocal quality, she’s set about trying to make herself memorable in ways beyond just singing – not easy to do in a singing competition. While this was her best vocal since the finals began, it was really just competent. But the primary impression people will take away is the African dance breakdown she threw in just before the end. This is the Idol season that supposedly aimed to reintroduce showmanship, and you can’t say Naima doesn’t put on a show. It’s clear why she was given another prime spot in the singing order (next-to-last): the powers that be really want her to make the tour. B

4. James Durbin (“Living For the City”): Anyone who does this song on Idol does me a favor, since it helps to erase the memory of Taylor Hicks’s party-anthem version of Stevie Wonder’s angry classic. As Randy Jackson correctly pointed out, James didn’t begin the song well, but he got into full screech soon enough, and seemed to really connect with the band and the audience. I still think James’s biggest problem is the “baby I’m a star” vibe he gives off as he’s taking in the applause and praise from the judges. You haven’t won anything yet! Be more humble! B

5. Pia Toscano (“All is Fair in Love”): I can see why Pia gravitated to Stevie Wonder’s ballad – it’s …um … a ballad. And damn, she sure does them well. She may in fact be the most consistently strong singer of this material Idol has ever had, even including Kelly Clarkson. But she’s clearly reached the point of diminishing returns with the diva stuff – as Jennifer Lopez put it, in language that sounded more fed up than she might have intended, “Again you kill us with one of your killer ballads.” The judges have signaled that she needs to either switch it up vocally, or at least work the stage a little. Will she listen? B

6. Casey Abrams (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”): Well, you sure can’t accuse him of avoiding iconic material. I suspect one’s reaction to Casey, this week as well as last week, will depend on whether you see him as authentic, or as kidding around. I bought it for the most part – his angry faces and his howl are apt for a song about two-timing. But what you tend to remember about Casey when he’s finished is the overall impression he left you with, not so much the vocal quality. This might be an issue considering he sang first and was decent but not spectacular. I think he needs a week where the theme will allow him to do something truly unusual again – something that’s not Nirvana. B-

7. Haley Reinhart (“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”): This will sound strange given how much I’ve criticized her, but I hope Haley doesn’t go home this week, even though I suspect she will. She’s still not entirely my cup of tea, but only the most unfair haters could doubt that she’s getting better. There are still things not to like – she comes off as an actress rather than someone who feels the music, and she usually commits at least one fashion crime per week – but her signature growling worked well with the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song. Randy is right: this is the sort of thing she should have been doing all along, rather than wasting her time with Alicia Keys. B-

8. Paul McDonald (“Tracks of My Tears”): The best thing Paul did Wednesday was use his guitar – not that it added much, but it kept him reasonably anchored to the stage for a change. But people are going to compare his level of emotional connection on Smokey’s number to the stripped-down version Adam Lambert gave us two years ago, and he fell short on that level (smiling a lot isn’t a good idea on a song with “tears” in its title). But at least Paul wasn’t so distractingly weird this week (not counting his “just roused from bed” hair) that viewers couldn’t get a sense of his overall vibe, and the bum notes were few. He needed to not be terrible, and was (or wasn’t). B-

9. Thia Megia (“Heat Wave”): She had essentially been told “no ballad next week” and complied, but this was a barely warmed-over version of the Martha and the Vandellas song, the kind of thing you’d expect to hear on a Friday night in one of our nation’s finer chain hotels. The unfortunate thing about Thia is that she doesn’t make real mistakes, so on a night when few others were bad, her mediocrity and lack of charisma ironically stood out. It doesn’t help that for whatever reason, no one has ever been able to put this song across well on Idol, not even Jennifer Hudson. C

10. Stefano Langone (“Hello”): Jimmy Iovine had said that Jacob was the contender best equipped to handle Motown, but for me that should have obviously been Stefano, who I’ve been likening to Stevie Wonder since his first appearance. But instead, he went for Lionel Richie’s ballad, which he claimed to have never heard before (another “you’re getting old” alert). This would imply he also had never heard David Cook’s season-changing reinvention of the song three seasons ago, because Stefano sounded less tender than like someone trying to revive Adam Sandler’s Opera Man character. He just didn’t get the song and tried to put it across through raised volume, which Jennifer Lopez pointed out in a smart critique. He’s not in last place because Gordon Ramsay bashed his mom’s cooking, and I don’t want to add to the meanness. C

11. Scotty McCreery (“For Once in My Life”): Does Scotty really need the judges to do him special favors? What was with both Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler praising him for “taking a risk” when he sang a Motown song on Motown night? While I understand that he had to leave that tiny box of his given that Josh Turner has never had a contract with Motown, and I appreciate his ability to make two-story jump shots even more, I can’t pretend this was really “good.” I like that he’s getting more animated up there, and more willing to stretch vocally. But his drawl seemed almost comical this week, which suggests to me that he’s at sea when he doesn’t have an existing country version to work off of. His people will give him a pass, though. C-

Not quite as easy this week to guess who might be going home. I think Thia has given about everything to Idol that she has, and she’s probably ticketed for the bottom three for the first time. Neither Naima nor Stefano should feel too comfortable either (no male has been in danger yet this season). But Haley has been on the bottom the first two weeks, and keeps getting lousy spots in the singing order (sixth out of 11 this time). Unless her sex kitten act has built more of a following than recent weeks would suggest, she has probably purred her last.