American Idol: "11 Finalists Compete"
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American Idol: "11 Finalists Compete"

Like most people on the planet, I love Motown music. Yet I often hate Motown when it’s covered on American Idol. First, it’s been done to death—what are the odds that the same show could make the same songs sound fresh and new again? Plus, Idol tends to lack the soul that makes Motown songs so great. But stranger things have happened than Idol actually, surprisingly, providing some entertainment. So would tonight’s episode show us the best of Motown or its conventional worst?

Things didn’t look great when Casey Abrams kicked things off with “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” I’m slowly getting back to the way I originally felt about Casey, which is that he is not truly the magnificent original the judges find him to be. Lately, I see him as a new, angrier-looking version of Taylor Hicks, only less dorky and Southern and with more growls and musical chops. He’s got a touch of Michael McDonald. Maybe it’s that I think Casey has stalled the last few weeks, paired with my opinion that the judges have overpraised him, but I didn’t think he delivered anything special tonight (the arrangement was predictable, too). My theory that Casey is undergoing a slow transformation was bolstered, though, by his new flatironed ‘do. The judges loved him, of course. I wonder what Steven Tyler meant when he complimented Casey on his crazy-ass, out of control ego, because to me, that doesn’t sound like a good thing. Unless we’re talking about a crazy-ass out of control Eggo, in which case I am intrigued.

With the next performance, I had the sinking feeling that the judges were just going to be handing out praise for anyone who came onstage tonight. Thia “took things up a notch” by singing “Heat Wave.” When she came out, it was clear she was trying to convince the audience that she’s capable of having fun, but the performance fell flat after a short while, like she wanted the song and her attempts to look like she was enjoying it to be over. I think she revealed why she doesn’t like the fast or poppy songs that much: They’re harder for her to control her notes (and lyrics) on. The judges were weak and just congratulated her on trying something different (as different as singing a Motown song on American Idol can be). I have the sense she’s not going to stick around for much longer. 

I typically think Jimmy Iovine blows hot air in his pre-performance insights, but I agreed with him tonight when he said that Jacob needs to learn to control his voice better and not just come out screeching the high notes. Jacob actually took Jimmy’s advice with “You’re All I Need,” starting much softer than last week, doing his little eye-flirt thing with the audience that I so enjoy. Compared to the last two weeks I liked the performance much better, as he didn’t sound so much like a hysterical woman. He took his time and seemed like he was having fun as opposed to singing directly to baby Jesus. But my enjoyment of the performance was tempered by the judges dampening their seats so much over it. They jumped up and gave him a standing ovation, and Steven actually walked up onstage and hugged Jacob. Randy called it the “other best performance in the history of the show” and said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. All right, now, it wasn’t that good. I really like Jacob, but even at his best, I think his voice is just the tiniest bit ridiculous, like we could all do a Jacob impression by singing in the back of our throats. If the judges hadn’t heaped so much praise on him, I probably would be saying “It was great!” After Steven’s sweet embrace, Ryan invited a bunch of people from the audience to come up and hug Jacob, which was cute, although I wondered if the other contestants (especially ones who are working things out in the likability department, like Thia) felt a little jealous that Jacob got his human interest moment.

The other week, I was reading Entertainment Weekly, which placed good odds on Lauren Alaina to win the whole season. At the time, I thought that was ridiculous, but tonight, she reminded me a little bit of Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood with her rendition of “You Keep Me Hanging On” (one of my favorite Motown songs.) The song began with Lauren, dramatically lit by a spotlight, singing a slow intro to the song, and then it broke down into the version of the song we all know and love. I was a little bit worried that she would trip on her pretty maxi dress as she walked around, but every note of the performance sounded confident and strong, and I always like when even the verses sound like they count. The song had the right amount of attitude for her, too. Good choice, good performance. EW maybe was right after all—we’ll see if she can keep it up and improve from this point week to week.

You would think it wouldn’t have been too hard for Stefano to take the judges’ advice from last week: Open your damn eyes. But he couldn’t pull it off, tonight, on Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” At first it seemed like he was trying, hard, to keep them open, so he looked like a singing Gilbert Gottfried. But then he just went back to his usual eyebrow-slanting, head-tilting, molar-showing ways. I personally find “Hello” on the schlocky side, and Stefano, who technically sang it fine, brought nothing good or new to it, aside from singing one line in a way that sounded like “Yis it me you’re looking fon?” The judges seemed disappointed in his inability to grow and connect (the audience actually applauded Jennifer when she critiqued him), and he seemed salty about their feedback. I think Stefano would be great in a touring company of “Jersey Boys.” I felt bad for his mom, who had her cooking insulted on live TV by Gordon Ramsay. Yeah, well, Gordon, you have hair plugs, so you ain't all that either. 

I don’t care for Haley that much, but it’s just a matter of taste. She sang “You Really Got a Hold On Me” proficiently tonight, but it was like she wanted to stuff as many different notes in the song as humanly possible, or as I put it in my notes, “melisma up the asshole.” The judges love her Christina Aguilera bluesy-growly thing—I can’t say she sucks, but it’s just really not my style. I think I was especially not partial to her tonight because “You Really Got a Hold On Me” is one of my other favorite Motown songs, and I like it a little slower and sultrier, not skippity-yippity. My favorite part of the song was when Steven sang during his critique of her. He also told her she doesn’t look “a day over fabulous” which would be an awesome thing to say to an 85-year-old lady who is preferably deaf.

Tonight was the fish-out-of-water night I was waiting for for ol’ Scotty McCreery, who admitted that Motown isn’t exactly his wheelhouse. He took on “For Once In My Life.” I really didn’t know what to think about the performance for the first half of it. Something about it was incredibly dorky, almost sad, but then I realized that I was kind of rooting for Scotty. Something about the “I can do it!” lyrics and his awkward stage movements was endearing, and I remembered that for the last few weeks, I haven’t been able to hate him. The performance was weird and funny and, as Randy put it, maybe not the strongest, but I was smiling. And you know what, I’d rather hear an awkward, somewhat bizarre performance that mostly works as opposed to something that’s been covered the same way a million times before. I feel like I will probably be alone in this opinion, but this opinion is mine, you can’t take it. 

Jennifer and Randy pretty much summed up Pia’s performance of “All In Love is Fair”: She’s beautiful, and she can sing great, but enough with the ballads already. I actually thought vocal-wise her performance wasn’t as great as her earlier ones, as some non-big notes seemed to slip away from her. I’m not worried about Pia’s spot in the competition, but I wouldn’t mind feeling a little bit more entertained by her. 

I wonder how long Paul McDonald will last this season. His voice is distinctive, and he’s likeable and cool and cute (although tonight the stylists’ attempts to make him look like he’s not balding made Paul’s hair look like a haystack), but I am a little shocked every week hearing, technically, how far he falls behind most of the other singers. His range isn’t great, and he speak-sings a lot of his notes. He sounds like a guy version of Kim Carnes. But I still like him! Tonight he took on “Tracks of My Tears,” which was a good song choice for him, in Paul terms, despite him screwing up the lyrics a bit on the “my smile is my makeup” part of the song. The judges feel the same way I do: They just like him but can’t claim he’s the best. After the performance, Ryan asked Paul about a pin on his vest. “It’s a jaguar or something,” Paul said, and Ryan said “It’s a cougar! Get the cougar vote!” Paul laughed and pointed at Ryan for being so incorrigible. 

I think, like with Paul, the judges were a little easy on Naima tonight because they like her so much. I like her too! She seems like a cool chick. But her singing on her slowed-down version of “Dancing in the Street” was far from perfect: A lot of the low notes were out of her range, and she hit a few notes that were just sour. But then she threw some African dance into the performance, which was fun to watch: I wish the cameras could have just settled on her while she danced and not swooped around. I think the dancing was the best part of the whole performance. It even made me forget about this shitshow for a moment. The judges were happy that her song and performance lined up with the onstage personality that she delivers, but singing-wise, I think she’s far from the best. 

I know this is shallow, but I took points away from James even before his performance due to the fact that he made a very pointed Dr. Evil face to the camera before he sang. Also, he was wearing the tail tonight—granted, a different kind of tail than before, a cat o’ nine tails, if you will, but still, I don’t care for it. He took on “Living in the City,” which Jimmy Iovine said could be his moment in the sun if he pulled it off. I actually thought James was pulling the damn thing off for a while there, which isn’t easy to do, singing Stevie Wonder and dancing. He lost me a bit, though, when he got to the “la, la, la, da ba da,” part of the song where he mostly went full screech. I also was annoyed by the way he milked the audience for applause after his performance. Had he played it another way (i.e., no Austin Powers reference) I might have been happy that he was living life to the fullest and enjoying his time onstage, but, no, no extra applause for you, you damn ham. Randy’s favorite part of the song was my favorite too, when James was on the side of the stage, but the judges liked the ending a lot more than I did, too. Steven once again worked the topic of mental illness into his praise of James.  

Who’s going home tomorrow night? (A: Thia.)

Stray observations:

  • Even if you don’t like Scotty, you have to admit his sinking a basketball from the balcony was cool.
  • My mom told me she thought Naima’s dancing tonight looked “crazy,” which meant I got to inform her that she is officially racist.
  • Speaking of moms, I think America’s moms are going to create the core audience of the new FOX show Mobbed, since moms are the main perpetrators of forwarding flashmob videos around. 
Filed Under: TV, American Idol

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