American Idol Top 8 Recap: This Theme's a Mystery, Every Contestant Must Stand Alone

janelle-wheeler-idol-keep-me-hangin-onTonight’s installment of American Idol kicked off with chyrons promising “a story of innovators, a story of visionaries.” And then we jumped right into a theme that Idol has coughed up roughly 26 times over the course of 12 seasons: “Detroit: The Music of Motor City” (AKA Motown Night Plus a Random Madonna Track).

Randy Jackson shouted “in it to win it!” (the verbal equivalent of a pile of dusty horse bones getting worked over with a cat o’ nine tails). Mariah Carey did her impersonation of a butterfly (much flapping of the wings/gums; very little in the way of pointed critique). One singer used the “I wanted to have fun” card while trying to explain away a catastrophic mess of a performance. And while, thankfully, the majority of contestants chose uptempo tracks — thereby ending a run that gave us ballads for 17 of the last 19 performances — a sense of ennui prevailed for most of the episode, with a few jarring exceptions.

Nicki Minaj poured 100-proof honesty into the watered-down punch — at one point becoming so disgusted with the three remaining male contestants that she demanded they leave the stage immédiatement. (From what Devin and Burnell mumbled to Ryan Seacrest, though, it sounded like they thought the vitriol should’ve been heaped solely on Lazaro — and his failure to participate in choreography/learn his lyrics. Yikes!) Guest mentor Smokey Robinson used his keen ear to give the Top 8 some legitimately sound advice. And Janelle Arthur, who looked no better than a mid-pack player a couple weeks ago, played the David Cook card and changed up her Motown ditty in a way that was downright electrifying. (Three of Janelle’s fellow chicas weren’t too shabby, either.)

With that said, let’s cut to tonight’s set list — and celebrate another Nicki Minaj side eye — while assiging letter grades for every performance!

Nicki Minaj idol side eyeCandice Glover: Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” | I love that Candice took some chances with the tempo and melody of a song we’ve heard six times before on Idol — including renditions in Seasons 9, 10 and 11 (Andrew Garcia, Casey Abrams and Skylar Laine), but there was something a little underbaked about her funk-centric rendition. It didn’t help that the camera shot during Candice’s opening verse was almost entirely obscured by a glaring spotlight, nor that the show’s director spent half of the performance cutting to backup singers, the saxophonist, and pretty much anything other than a closeup of The Lady Glover herself. But I felt like Candice didn’t completely immerse herself in the groove, didn’t display 100 percent of the “I got this!” swagger that’s usually welded to her awesome vocals. That last growling run was fantastic — and yeah, the judges should’ve given Candice some points for creativity — but I couldn’t have disagreed more with Keith that this was her best work to date. Grade: B+

Kree Harrison and Janelle Arthur: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” | Speaking of creativity points, can I get a slow clap for Kree and Janelle for choosing the only track this week that took the “Detroit” theme past the Motownville and into less-traversed neighborhood of Madonnaland? Okay, with that praise on the record, let’s be honest: Kree and Janelle’s arrangement of “Like a Prayer” was about as authentically country as the Jersey Shore hottub (no matter what that lady from Duets has to say). I agreed with Nicki that — were this a battle — Kree got the edge over Janelle, but considering that both women got a tad steamrolled by that massive 10-person choir (unnecessary much?), it was a hollow win at best. Grade: B-

Lazaro Arbos: Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” | The judges seemed elated that Lazaro hit a much higher percentage of notes than he did on last week’s “In My Life.” But to put the performance in baking terms, dude went from starting a raging kitchen fire to merely dropping his pie face-down on the floor. “For Once in My Life” wasn’t irreparably damaged, but it still wasn’t very good. Part of the problem is that at this stage in his vocal development, Lazaro is nothing more than a solid karaoke singer: There’s no depth of emotion, there’s little creativity, and when he tries to riff on the melody it often goes awry. Add in details like that odd side-to-side dance step usually reserved for first graders who need to go pee-pee and what seemed to be an almost dismissive response to the judges’ feedback, and I think Lazaro is guaranteed for a Bottom 3 placing come Thursday. Grade: D+

Janelle Arthur: The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” | Janelle said she came up with her haunting arrangement of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” at the tender age of 14 — which makes me think girlfriend sat at the “dark and brooding kids” table when she was in high school. Seriously, the way she reimagined The Supremes’ upbeat hit as a minor-chord ballad breathed new and heartbreaking life into the lyrics — as Keith noted, she tapped into a well of angst — and yet also allowed her to work in some breathtaking ad libs on the final refrain that, to my ears, represented the most masterful vocal technique of the episode, too. Add that adorable little factoid about how Janelle’s uncle made her oversized guitar and, well, I’m calling 9-1-1 and reporting felony menacing if she’s sent anywhere near the Silver Stools of Doom (TM) on Thursday. Grade: A

Devin Velez: The Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears” | Once again, Devin (sporting a red tux jacket with black lapels and a black shirt with white collar that made him look like a waiter on a dining car of an old-timey train) hit all his notes correctly this week, and that would put him at the top of the class — if this were a course in mathematics. Alas, though, great singers need to be able to set moods and conjure up emotions when they sing, and Devin’s “TToMT” was devoid of the central heartbreak and longing of a man who’s wept one too many times over lost love. Yeah, Nicki flipped her lid for it — saying she loved every single choice Devin made — but all that tells me is she’s never heard Adam Lambert’s rendition from Season 8. (Oh yeah, I went there.) Grade: B-

Candice Glover, Angie Miller and Amber Holcomb: The Supremes’ “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” | I’m choosing to believe no stylists were consulted in the selection of this trio’s jarringly disparate outfits, and I’m choosing to ignore yet another instance of Mariah Carey trying to make “fetch” “Hashtag: Pow!” happen. That way, I can focus on the way Amber, Angie and especially Candice brought a raw 2013 energy to an arrangement that was comfortably chillaxing in the late ’60s. Make no mistake: These ladies can sang — even if Amber is the only one who really knows how to get her flirt on during a performance. Grade: A-

Burnell Taylor: Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” | What’s tone got to do, got to do with it?/ What’s tone, but one part of the equation?/ What’s tone got to do, got to do with it?/ I can’t get past this kid’s strange pronunciations… It may seem to you like I’m acting confused, but seriously, there were more “mmm” sounds at the end of Burnell’s phrases than in that Crash Test Dummies song from the early ’90s: “My cherie amourmm”? “Pretty little one that I adormm”? I’d have been less distracted if Burnell had been using Mariah’s idiotic wand as a mic. And while, yeah, Burnell did occasionally offer a little twist on the melody to keep things from sounding too totally karaoke, we also had to contend with his flitting hand gestures (half “shoo fly,” half “I’m like a bird”). And worst of all, while Burnell did complete a short walk from the back of the stage to the mic stand, it was essentially another case of the kid standing in one position at the center of the stage for almost the entire performance. I mean, there’s hitting your mark, and then there’s being glued to it.) Grade: B/B- (Burnell receives separate scores for technical merit and artistic impression; and the East German judge wasn’t having the “mm” effect.)

Angie Miller: The Miracles’ “Shop Around” | I knew Angie was in grave danger the second her rehearsal footage rolled and you could hear the inauthentic rock track that Jimmy and/or Smokey should never have allowed to escape the studio. I mean, the arrangement was so tinny and stilted it would’ve made Alice Cooper sound like Josh Grobin, so there really wasn’t much hope for a chipper teen who declared herself ready to show “my fun crazy side — with some attitude.” (Somehow — and maybe it makes me a bad person — but that clip made me think Angie’s idea of “crazy” is grabbing a second tong-full of croutons when she’s at the Ponderosa salad bar.) Deep down, though, I think Angie knew this wasn’t going to work — that it was a week she’d have to survive rather than thrive. She almost immediately seemed to misjudge the rhythm of the song — vocally stumbling about like a three-legged cat — and by the time she strolled over to engage the band’s guitar player, she wound up flubbing a line or two of her lyrics. Plus, as Keith pointed out, the usually technically solid vocalist hit a ton of sharp notes. Faced with a bad performance from an ordained front-runner, Mariah’s internal wiring went all CTRL+ALT+DEL; she tried to compliment Angie’s “risqué” dress, then pointed out how exciting it must’ve been for songwriter Angie to sit with a songwriter of Smokey’s caliber. Yes, folks, never before has a critique looked more like a trout flopping around on a dock. Grade: C-

Amber Holcomb: Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” | It’s a tricky job on a reality singing competition to find the right mix of power and restraint, but Amber handled it pretty perfectly on a rendition of “Lately” that went right up to the edge of the melisma cliff, peered down at the deathly drop into the canyon, and then backed away to the safety zone at just the right moment. Amber does need to be carefully not to let her tone get shrill when she’s in full on belting mode — on that note, my husband thinks I’ve graded her too generously — but I think her biggest challenge in the weeks ahead will be finding a way to advance beyond “fantastic Idol underdog” and into “viable chart-topper” territory. Amber needs to simultaneously be more daring, more current, and less reliant on ballads — not an easy task given Season 12’s theme nights thus far — but at least she’s crushing it in terms of fashion (that little black-and-white dress was amahhhz) and sound bites (“I really wasn’t gone! I felt like I was here last week, too!” she exclaimed with a giggle after another recitation of the “Amber is back!” theme). Grade: A-

Burnell Taylor, Devin Velez and Lazaro Arbos, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” | I’m gonna defer to Nicki on this one: “I’ma act like I ain’t even see it or hear it!” Yep, that was like Hollywood Week Group Rounds — and not the good kind, either. We’ll discuss more on the Idology episode filming Friday and posting Sunday night/Monday morning — because really, this requires some Melinda Doolittle knowledge. But until then, I have to ask: Why did Lazaro think it was okay to forget his lyrics and not even bother with the simple choreographed dance moves? Yeah, Burnell’s “not to throw anyone under the bus…” and Devin’s “I learned my parts. I tried saving a couple people,” may not have been tactful, but it’s not like they could ignore Seacrest’s question — or what had just gone down in their performance just seconds prior. Grade: C- (maybe a D- for Lazaro)

Kree Harrison: Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” | Is it sacrilege for me to say that I’m just not a huge fan of Kree’s song choice? “Don’t Play That Song” like one of those giant snakes you see at the Science Center: It’s cool for a second, but then it just sits there and sits there, and nothing about it really changes no matter how long you stare at it. Kree brought her mesmerizing and very distinctive tone to the table, but I felt like a quieter arrangement would’ve been a better showcase for her emotions, which might’ve given me something more to latch onto. As it was, the band got a little overzealous — and those absurd heels of Kree’s seemed to limit her ability to fully engage physically in the week’s goings-on. And same as Candice, I don’t think this was Kree’s personal high water mark, but she’s still in my Top 4 contestants for the week, no matter which way you slice it. Grade: B+

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 12 Top 8 performance night? What did you think of the judges’ comments? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come results night? And what about the Lazaro-Burnell-Devin catastrophe? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!