This was it — the night American Idol fans have been waiting for. That is, if you could get past the fact that majority of the 11 songs performed had been covered by previous contestants. And overlook the weird, revisionist-history editing of several finalists’ introductory packages. And, of course, avoid smashing your television in rage over the appalling Gordon Ramsay committing the worst act of douchery in 10 seasons of Idol.
But, hey, just like we readily accept that Steven Tyler wears sheer, sparkly, leopard-print blouses from Forever 21, and that Jennifer Lopez looks beautiful even in blue eyeshadow, we also have to accept that it is Idol‘s right — and perhaps even its responsibility — to drive us a little bonkers. So let’s start by focusing on the positive aspects of Wednesday night’s Motown-themed performance telecast: Not a single disastrous debacle; specific, terrific, constructive criticism from J.Lo; the complete and total absence of “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”; an amped-up presence for live instruments; and at least six performances Randy could accurately label as showing “in it to win it!” tendencies. Who are the half-dozen vocalists who took another step toward a confetti shower at the Kodak come May? Let’s find out by breaking down Wednesday night’s performances in chronological order:
Casey Abrams: Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
It’s somehow fitting that Ryan Seacrest introduced Casey’s performance with a rallying cry of “unleash the beast,” seeing how Casey’s fury-filled eyes, clenched teeth, partially greased coif, and disheveled beard gave him the appearance of a maniacal Buggs Bunny villain — somehwere betwen Yosemite Sam and the anagonist of “Hair Raising Hare.” But while Jimmy Iovine and producer Kuk Harrell warned Casey against overdoing his trademark growl and losing control of his vocal, no one bothered to point out that his tendency to pull faces is nearly as jarring a habit as Paul McDonald’s “dancing.” Thus, while Casey was fairly in tune, it was hard to shake the suspicion that there was an element of self-parody to the performance as he did a chicken strut out into the audience, sang a few bars directly into the faces of his buddies, and ended with a series of screams that were anything but musical. And yet we had Randy offering up generic praise — “You can only do you, and that you is great!” — instead of asking why we haven’t seen Casey give a truly melodic performance, start to finish, since Hollywood Week. How much longer the voting public will wait for that full return to form is questionable, but a bottom-three placement for Casey this week is possibly a possibility.
Thia Megia: Martha and the Vandellas’ “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave”
When I wrote a piece over the weekend suggesting potential Motown tracks for the 11 finalists, I only warned against three specific ditties; not only did Thia choose one of them, but her trusty mentor didn’t have enough grasp of/interest in Idol history to warn her that the relentless, repetitive “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” has been a total artistic flop for prior contestants such as Jennifer Hudson, Kimberley Locke, Vonzell Solomon, and Lil Rounds. And so while Thia hit the bulk of her notes tonight, there was still an emotional vacancy to her vocal, the feeling that if there was indeed a burning in her heart, it was only a compulsory desire to please the judges and get a gold star. I can’t shake the feeling that if you asked Thia “What’s your favorite flavor of cake?” she’d give you a big smile and say, “Water.” Plus, are we really going to give the girl credit for “letting loose” when all she did was bend her knees and swing her arm while covering a total of three square feet of stage? I will, however, say this for Thia: While zero out of three judges called her on flubbing the lyrics to the second verse, the kid admitted to the error herself during the “spontaneous backstage footage” leading out of commercial break. Perhaps we can reward her with a nice trip back to her hometown?
Jacob Lusk: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By”
“I’m back! Back, back, back, back!” shouted Jacob, after receiving high praise from the judges for his (relatively) restrained vocal this week. Which raises the question: Back from what, exactly? If memory serves, Randy described Jacob’s Top 12 performance of “Alone” last week as “genius,” while J.Lo called it “amazing.” And yet, in Jacob’s pre-performance package, Jimmy Iovine and the contestant himself seemed to acknowledge the widespread belief among the Idoloonie Nation that “Alone” was a caterwauling catastrophe. So that’s how we’re gonna play it, Uncle Nigel? There won’t be actual criticism of certain contestants, merely the shadow of negative critique suggested after the fact? Innnnnnnnteresting. (But thanks for watching Idoloonies and reading the TVLine.com comments section, guys!)
But, hey, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new night…and you’ve got to give Jacob credit for a huge artistic leap forward on “You’re All I Need to Get By,” choosing to slowly bring the song to a boil rather than his usual method of dropping a lit stick of dynamite into the pot and letting it explode. It was entertaining watching Jacob physically grapple with this idea of restraint; at several points during the song, you could practically see a glory note trying to rip out of his chest and onto the Idol stage, but Jacob held it in, his eyes dancing with the excitement of a kid who knows what’s in the box, but takes his time to unwrap the present and savor the prospect of antici…pation. I loved the “gettin’ ugly” slope of Jacob’s mouth on “deeee-uh-termination,” the jaunty jabs of his index fingers that he added to the little riff on “as long as I gotcha then baby you know that you got me.” This is all still a work in progress, to be sure, but for now, I’ll let Jacob put it in his own words: “I’m back! Back, back, back, back!”
Lauren Alaina: The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”
Lauren got off to a gorgeous start on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” standing under a single spotlight, slowing down the opening verse, and ending it with a lovely, borderline yodel of a note that, sadly, led into a traditional, Supremes-y arrangement that did nothing to service the country twang in her vocals. It’s funny that at 16, Lauren seems to have a better knack for making interesting melodic choices than a lot of her seasoned competitors, but she’s got some catching up to do when it comes to stage presence. Nobody — and I do mean nobody — needs to see a teenage girl shimmying up on Randy Jackson, and Lauren’s march behind the judges’ table and reaching out into the audience seemed to sap some of her emotional connection to the music. As for the pre-performance interview package, I’m never sure if Nigel Lythgoe & Co. are trying to catapult Lauren to the finale, or craftily undermine her all the way to a seventh place finish and complete emotional collapse. I just know I heard the words “stubborn” and “insecure” from Jimmy Iovine along with Lauren’s weird contention that “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was somehow a response track to everyone who’s had something unkind to say about her performances to date. Sorry, kid, but the public’s right to critique you goes hand–in-hand with the hefty Idol Summer Tour paycheck.
Stefano Langone: Lionel Richie’s “Hello”
I knew we were in for trouble the minute Stefano started talking about his song choice and admitted he’d never before heard “Hello,” which meant he’d never seen the blind woman sculpting Mr. Richie’s head out of clay, and he’d never heard David Cook’s out-of-this-world Season 7 cover (which, thankfully, Ryan Seacrest did not fail to point out). But still, I wasn’t expecting last week’s front-runner to take such a steep fall from grace. It didn’t get noticed by the judges, but it sounded to me like Stefano botched his lyrics, accidentally inverting the order of several lines and at one point having to weirdly ad-lib the lyric “But let me start by saying/ I love you, love you, love you, love you-ooh” in a spot where it simply didn’t belong. Said flubs led to some head-scratching phrasing and intonation from a guy who usually excels in both those departments, and also seemed to take a toll on Stefano’s upper register, which took on the tone of a quavery, Sesame Street bird.
The only real positive to come out of Stefano’s performance was some excellent advice from J.Lo that could really apply to every singer in season 10. “I don’t want [your] intensity to come from you wanting to do well. I want the intensity to come from because your heart is breaking. You know what I mean?” she asked. “And that’s what I need from you. And once you do that, you’re gonna fly right out of this building — I’m telling you, amazing. But you gotta make that connection… Even in the phrasing. When you start feeling it from your heart, you watch how your phrasing’s gonna change as well…. It’s like acting. You have to sit there and look at every lyric, and think to yourself ‘Who am I singing this to? What am I singing about? Do I feel this?’ If not, throw it away. Next song! You have to connect to it emotionally.” Have we heard any advice this specific and spot-on and nurturing in 10 seasons of Idol? If so, it must’ve been lost in the translation of Paula’s seal-clapping or Randy’s “yo yo yo’s” or Ellen’s litany of platitudes.
Haley Reinhart: The Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”
It’s Haley’s stated goal not to be in the bottom three this week, and if American Idol took place only on the radio, the girl might see all her wishes come true. Haley’s loose, growly interpretation of the song didn’t have a note out of tune, and was oozing with sexual longing — a vibe that made sense for a song about the inability to break free from a not-so-healthy relationship. The problem with Haley’s performance was more of a visual one: Clad in a white blazer, black hotpants, and a tight black vest that showed a hint of midriff, Haley came teetering down the Idol staircase on extremely high heels, then proceeded to bend her knees and stomp around like a combination of early Mariah Carey and a second-grader who needs to go pee-pee. I kind of agree with J.Lo, though, that Haley possesses the “most soulful voice in the competition.” And while I’m not always convinced she knows what to do with it, I’m hoping she gets a few more weeks to try to prove her case.
Scotty McCreery: Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life”
This is Scotty. Scotty can make a basket from 40 yards out from the balcony of the Idol mansion. Scotty can take my favorite Melinda Doolittle audition number and turn it into a lilting country ditty. Scotty can make your knees feel a little wobbly when he hits his looowww notes. But Scotty really needs to practice singing into a mirror for the next seven days, so he can deal with his wonky, side-slanting mic technique and learn to cut back on the “seductive eyebrow” ridiculata (which, I promise you, is really going to feel old by the time May rolls around). That is all.
Pia Toscano: Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love Is Fair”
Omigod, Pia sang a ballad again this week! Burn her! BURN HER!
Um, you know what? I may be setting myself up for a lambasting in the comments section, but Pia can always give us something uptempo next week, because as far as I’m concerned, her Motown Night rendition of “All in Love Is Fair” was so flawless, I’d put it in contention for a spot on my list of the top 40 Idol performances of all time. Granted, J.Lo made an excellent point that Pia needs to show a willingness to work the stage even when she’s delivering a ballad, but vocally speaking, how can you fault this oversized slice of gorgeousness? I was living for the way Pia delivered the stripped-down opening verse as almost a whisper, the way she caressed every heartbreak into every word. And I was dying (in the best possible way) when she went for the big notes, the incredible rise and fall of her voice driving home producer Harvet Mason Jr.’s point that there simply aren’t singers like Pia on the scene nowadays. “It’s not always about perfect notes,” noted Pia, but dammit, it sure doesn’t hurt.
Paul McDonald: The Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears”
Ten points to Randy for observing that the best moment of Paul’s acoustic-driven cover of “The Tracks of My Tears” came in those final, scratchy seconds. Problem is, when you’re up against Bandzilla, it’s hard to communicate anything in an understated way. Not that Paul didn’t give it his all. I loved the way he delivered the “’cause I tell a joke or two” line in a quiet, conversational tone, and I appreciated that season 10’s “quirky” contestant paid more attention to pitch this week. Had it just been Paul and his guitar — with nothing and nobody else in his way — he might’ve had a true Idol moment. As it was, though, Paul at the very least regained some of the momentum he’d lost over the past two weeks — and certainly secured himself a spot on the Idol Summer Tour.
Naima Adedapo: Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street”
Look, I can’t sit here and pretend Naima did anything magnificently inventive or original with her vocal this week. That said, her “Dancing in the Street” was strong, and clear, and completely in tune, and it did the job of proving that she’s got substance to accompany her giant wheelbarrow of style. What’s more, if I’m being really honest, I’d also have to admit that Naima is one of those rare Idol contestants — like, say, Kelly Pickler or, well, I can’t really think of anyone else — where it’s not simply about the vocal. Naima’s got an indelible sense of global coolness that just feels good to bask in. Name another Idol contestant past or present who could infuse her performance with a burst of African dancing (complete with fabulous, colorfully attired drummers) without it feeling the least bit gimmicky?
James Durbin: Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”
Hold up a second, folks. Naima’s not the only Season 10 competitor who knows how to bust a move! James’ back-step shuffle in the middle of “Living for the City” was an unexpected treat from a guy who seems completely at home on the big Idol stage. James’ total confidence in his performances gives him the freedom to fully immerse himself in his lyrics, and that made his Motown cover one of the night’s most effecting, even if the final third contained a few too many flat notes and a tad too much screeching. But hey, when I’m even starting to dig the Na’vi (cat of nine) tail(s), the guy can’t be all bad, right?
Pia Toscano: A
Jacob Lusk: A-
Paul McDonald: B+
James Durbin: B+
Scotty McCreery: B+
Lauren Alaina: B
Haley Reinhart: B-
Stefano Langone: C+
Casey Abrams: C+
Thia Megia: C+
What did you think of Wednesday night’s show? Were you as appalled at me by Gordon Ramsay’s nasty dig at Stefano’s mother’s pasta? Who was your favorite? And who do you predict for the bottom three on Thursday night? I’m going to guess Thia, Casey, and either Haley or Lauren, with Thia heading home. Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol recaps and features, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!