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'American Idol' recap: The Mo(town), the merrier

As the singers take on a series staple, Michael Slezak gives you 10 things to take from last night’s show

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Frank Micelotta/American Idol/Getty Images; Michael Becker/Fox(2)

American Idol

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
seasons:
15
performer:
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
broadcaster:
Fox
genre:
Reality TV

Earlier this week, I found myself feeling particularly disenchanted about the current incarnation of American Idol. For starters, I was still reeling from Alexis Grace’s too-early departure from the show — girlfriend never even got the chance to break out her guitar! — and what’s more, I couldn’t muster up any excitement about the impending Motown Night extravaganza. (Not even repeated YouTube viewings of Fantasia tearing it up on ”Superstition” could prime my pump for another round of Idol‘s most played-out theme.)

And then, of course, there was Simon Cowell visiting The Tonight Show on Monday (along with Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest) and predicting that the season 8 finale would come down to Adam Lambert and Danny Gokey, with Lil Rounds rounding out the top three — thereby confirming my suspicion that the new Judges’ Save rule should really have been dubbed the ”Judges Save…One of Three Preordained Favorites, and Only Pretend to Deliberate Whenever Any Other Contestants Sing for Their Lives” rule.

But the cloud of negativity above my head began to dissipate shortly after the start of tonight’s telecast. (I say ”shortly” because I have yet to embrace the time-wasting, self-serving introductory walk that Randy, Kara, Paula, and Simon have been doing for the last three weeks.) Five, maybe six, of the 10 remaining contestants performed well enough to keep themselves within striking distance of the season 8 crown. Paula continued her streak of offering pertinent, salient critiques — moustache-painting incident aside, that is. And I came away with 10 very important take-home messages concerning the nation’s most popular talent competition.

1. A certain Idol judge has trouble with remedial math. Yes sir-ree, the winner of tonight’s award for most unintentionally hilarious sound bite is…drumroll please…Kara DioGuardi, who delivered this zinger after Adam Lambert’s rendition of ”The Tracks of My Tears”: ”I got six words for you: One of the best performances of the night!” I could speculate that Kara had spent the afternoon practicing some pre-written critiques, then made the unfortunate decision to modify her opinion with the addition of the words ”one” and ”of,” but that would be overthinking the situation in the extreme. Better to concentrate on Adam’s superb interpretation of The Miracles’ 44-year-old classic, which received a standing ovation from co-writer and guest mentor Smokey Robinson.

NEXT: Listen all of y’all, it’s a sabotage

I’ve had problems in the past with Adam’s showboaty-ness, the way he seems to spend more time focusing on how to make eye-love to the camera than on actually infusing genuine emotion into his vocal performances, but tonight, I cannot make any such complaint. As usual, the degree of difficulty was high — Adam delivered almost every note in an impressively powerful falsetto — but for once, he didn’t sacrifice artistic interpretation in the process. When Adam delivered his haunting demand to ”take a good look at my face,” it was as if I was being allowed to see this season’s most polarizing contestant — and get a glimpse of the heart and soul of this budding rock star, rather than Adam’s staged idea of a ”rock star” — for the very first time. Bonus points for trading his Hot Topic accoutrements for a jaunty little pompadour and a shiny gray suit. I can’t wait to talk to my mother — who’s been overheatedly trying to convince me Adam is the new Elvis since ”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — and get her take on her favorite contestant’s new look.

To be fair, I heard maybe two or three bunk notes over the course of the performance, but it couldn’t have been easy to concentrate after Ken Warwick flipped a switch backstage and activated the ”mosh-pit” clap-bots. My only other regret about ”Tracks of My Tears” was that Smokey missed the point of Adam’s question (”What inspired you to write [the song]?”) and gave an extremely literal explanation of what the song’s chorus means : ”I thought about ‘What if a person had cried so much until if you got really close up to them and looked in their face you could see that their tears had left tracks in their face?”’ Um, alrighty then!

2. Idol really needs to invest in that cutting-edge technology that ESPN and other broadcasters use to revisit highlights of various sporting events. What’s it called again? Oh yes, ”instant replay!” And hasn’t it been available for, oh, a few decades now? So how come the producers insist on using footage from Idol‘s dress rehearsals when they’re giving out contestants’ phone numbers at the end of the show?

Such ridiculousness could really hurt a performer like Matt Giraud. The dueling pianist from Michigan had the dubious distinction of opening the show with ”Let’s Get It On,” but seemingly unfazed, he proceeded to offer a confident and sexy vocal that sounded as good or better than anything he’s done thus far in the competition (and on a song that I really didn’t think I wanted to hear on Idol again after Jared Cotter sullied it with his ”sexyface” hand-slide back in season 6). Unfortunately for Matt, anyone who tuned in to Idol at, say, 8:15 p.m. or later, was subjected during the ”here’s the contestant’s phone numbers” recap to a far inferior clip that I’m 99 percent sure was not a part of his performance at the top of the telecast. The only thing that made me angrier was hearing Kara encourage Matt to push for more riffs and licks, when, as Paula astutely pointed out, his performance worked because he (finally!) learned to be ”respectful of the melody.”

3. Sometimes sabotage can arrive in the wackiest of packages. So the strangely attired bundle of awesomeness known as Allison Iraheta came out on the Idol stage, waited for the wah-wah pedal to kick in, and then absolutely slay The Temptations’ ”Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” I mean, SLAYED it. Layed down the kind of deeply inhabited, heartfelt vocal that had me (no lie) waving one hand in the air (the other one was attempting to take notes), grinning like a loon, and hooting and hollering at the TV. (Adam may have beaten Allison on technical perfection, but my ears enjoyed the 16-year-old’s funkdafied performance more than any other tonight.) And so what happened next? Well, while Randy and Kara were appropriately over-the-top with their praise, Simon decided to draw a mustache over Paula’s upper lip, wacky hijinks ensued, and suddenly no one was really focusing on Allison’s sublime performance. And then for good measure, Simon slipped in a dig that Allison had a ”terrible week last week.” Which was perhaps a reference to her inexplicable placement in the bottom three last Wednesday, but sounded to me like a dig at her perfectly fine rendition of ”Blame It on Your Heart.”

Hmmm, Simon. I guess it was impossible for you to tell 25 million people that Allison’s got a legitimate chance to make it all the way to the Kodak in May when only 48 hours ago you were telling Jay Leno that an Adam-Danny-Lil final three was pretty much an inevitability.

NEXT: Danny tries to get down

4. Sometimes sabotage can arrive with the word ”sabotage” stamped right on the package. Even more obnoxious than Simon trying to push Allison a little closer to the bus lane was the way he also subtly sabotaged Kris Allen after his gorgeous cover of ”How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”

Honestly, even if you listened with your eyes closed — which would have robbed you of the visual delight of seeing Kris’s unspeakably clear skin, quirky side-mouth stylings, and most excellent military-style shirt (which may have had the mysterious numbers from Lost inscribed on the shoulders) — this was yet another stellar effort from the season 8 heartthrob. Kris doesn’t have the most powerful voice, nor does he attempt as many vocal acrobatics as some of his competitors, but he tackles every song with originality and emotional honesty.

Also, he looks supercute with that new sprinkling of stubble. Which made me feel all the more protective and rageful when Simon gave him the old ”good, but…” treatment, insisting Kris didn’t exhibit enough swagger or confidence, and that ”to be a star, you’ve got to be conceited.” Again, I think that’s just code for ”I can’t pimp you too hard this week…not while people can still recall what I said to Leno on Monday.” Yes, folks, tonight we’ve secretly replaced legitimate contestant critiques with techniques for keeping Simon’s ego and public image in tact. Well done!

5. If there are any plans for Phil Collins Night during Idol‘s eighth season, Danny Gokey has dibs on ”I Can’t Dance.” Look, I can’t pretend I don’t bring my own bias to this paragraph, so if you’re a huge Gokey fan, you might want to skip this. But while Danny’s ”Get Ready” was sung with a muscular growl, and was mostly in tune, it was kind of like drinking from an hours-old, half-finished can of soda: The whole thing was lukewarm, and (emotionally) a little flat. Maybe it was the way Danny pulled a ”Horatio Caine,” and whipped off his glasses heading into his pre-performance commercial break. Or maybe it was the way he blatantly ignored Smokey’s advice to sing the ends of the song’s verses. Maybe it was Danny’s comment that Smokey’s ”been in the industry a lot longer than I have” — four decades versus four weeks — ya think? Or the way he pronounced ”ready” as ”ret-ty.” Or the hammy dancing. I just can’t shake the belief that there’s nothing distinctive or different about the Danny’s voice or his delivery.

6. It’s time one of these contestants pulled a Bo Bice and performed his or her entire number in a capella fashion. I won’t lie: I was squealier than a fifth grader when I heard that falsetto snippet of Anoop rehearsing ”Ooo Baby Baby” in front of Smokey. But while the guy with the very cool red-and-white striped collar and cuffs certainly didn’t embarrass himself with his live performance tonight, he wasn’t nearly as impressive as I’d hoped. That opening verse — delivered from the ”you’re about to get something different” step — was as unsteady as the stock market. And up against the band and the backup singers, there were moments when Anoop’s falsetto faded to little more than a whisper. Don’t get me wrong, there were some lovely aspects to the performance, but if he wants to be more than a midpack player, ‘Noop Dawg needs to wipe the perspiration from above his upper lip and deliver a musical TKO in the next week or two; hitting the mute button on Rickey Minor and Co. might be one way to do it.

NEXT: Scott and Michael vie for the bottom spot

7. Contestants need to study their Idol history before they go picking their songs. Lil Rounds, please face forward and pay attention! Back in season 2 of Idol, during top 12 week, Kimberley Locke found herself in the bottom 3 after tanking with ”(Your Love Is Like a) Heatwave.” In season 3, Jennifer Hudson landed in the bottom 2 during top 10 week after performing the same Martha & the Vandellas cover. And Lil, as someone who’s obsessed with Idol, you are no(t yet) Jennifer or Kimberley. Granted, your gams were so scorchin’ tonight in that fringe-y flapper dress that you could’ve caused a heatwave of your own, but you performed the song as if you were standing at the crossroads of Frantic and Manic, and almost every note of the chorus fell just a little flat. But golly gee, how nice of Simon to finish his generally negative critique by declaring, ”let me remind everybody — you’re one of the best singers we’ve got in the competition.”

8. There’s at least one place in the world where you really don’t want to get complimented for your looks. Best exchange of the night:
Paula to Megan (Joy) (Corkrey): ”Your stunning beauty takes my breath away.”
Simon to Paula: ”It’s not Top Model.”

Listening to Megan’s rendition of ”For Once in My Life” tonight, though, , I realized something strange: In theory, I like Megan. The tone of her voice (on the occasions she hits a note, and isn’t taking a pick-axe to the tempo) is undeniably groovy. But in practice, she rarely gets it right, because she overestimates what she can do with her instrument, thinks she can belt her big notes like she’s Melinda Freakin’ Doolittle, and then veers into uncharted (and unpleasant) areas of pitch. And while I’m sure that somewhere, on some level, having Kara sing a few bars of ”My Guy” is exactly the kind of constructive advice that can help Megan improve in the competition…oh, come now, you know there are no words in the dictionary that can help me finish that sentence in a serious fashion. I did, though, enjoy the sight of Paula cradling Simon’s face in her hands toward the end of Megan’s performance.

9. No one’s going to be outraged by this week’s elimination — except for maybe the evictee’s next of kin. Apologies to Scott MacIntyre’s parents and Michael Sarver’s wife and kids, but I’m talkin’ about y’all. The question of who should/will go home (unless Megan is reeeeeally wrong about her ”fans” standing by her) comes down to this: Do you prefer the music that plays in your dentist’s waiting room or the sounds of a raucous, middling karaoke bar?

I’d say that Scott’s ”You Can’t Hurry Love” falls into the former category — except I wouldn’t want to insult Kenny G, Michael Bolton, and the Manhattan Transfer. Yeah, Scott made me chuckle when he pleaded with the audience to ”vote for the pink pants.” And I laughed even harder at his response to Ryan about how he knew the color of his jeans despite his visual impairment: ”They didn’t tell me till 10 minutes before. So my apologies.” But there’s no award for congeniality on Idol, and Scott’s losing battles with pitch and relevance — punctuated by the fact that I always have to check my notes to remember what I heard him sing just a few hours prior — make me wish he wasn’t holding the spot that should’ve gone to Ricky Braddy or Ju’Not Joyner or Kristen McNamara.

Michael, meanwhile, is the better vocalist of the two likeliest evictees, but he lacks Scott’s inherent charm and sense of humor. (Also, he wore flip-flops to meet Smokey! Scandale!) It’s not really worth delving into the technical aspects of Michael’s ”Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” except to say that from beginning to end, it seemed each passing note was less successfully supported and sung with less conviction than the one before it. But his half-defeated, half-defiant response to the judges critiques may end up costing him an added week in the competition. After all, when Paula starts cheering about the fact that the audience is booing her critique of your performance, you know you’re operating on borrowed time.

Yes, I know, I promised you 10 take-home messages, and only gave you nine, but I’m just channeling my inner Kara. But since you just got gypped, let’s throw in a moment of pure, unadulterated lunacy from Ms. Abdul: ”He could have the pirate or the daisy and the pickle.”

WHOA! Add that to our ”Poetry of Paula Abdul” gallery — stat!

And finally, my letter grades for tonight’s performances:
Adam Lambert: A
Allison Iraheta: A-
Kris Allen: A-
Matt Giraud: B+
Danny Gokey: B
Anoop Desai: B
Lil Rounds: C+
Michael Sarver: C-
Megan Corkrey: D
Scott MacIntyre: D

What did you think of Motown Night? Who will and should go home? And what did you think of Smokey’s noncommittal mentoring style? Before you comment, go forth and play EW.com’s Idol Prediction Challenge. Polls close at 8:59 p.m. EDT, but don’t get caught napping; go and vote now!