Set me free, why don't you, Idol, from this done-to-death Motown theme night?

American Idol Janelle Arthur
Credit: Fox

Another year, another Motown Week. Hey, at least the age-defying Smokey Robinson was on hand to guide the Top 8 through all their Stevie Wonder covers. It was fun watching Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj duke it out (while pretending the other does not exist) in complimenting the legend — Mariah gushing about his musical accomplishments, Nicki declaring the pristine green-eyed statue “a sexy piece of specimen.” Why, I do declare 2013’s Motown Week a tour de force, dahhhling. There’s no way you American Idol viewers could possibly know what tour de force means, right? COMMONERS!

Candice Glover, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”: She really funked this up to the point where I didn’t recognize the original melody. I thought it was great! No, really. Candice is so reliably good. I’m hoping singing first won’t hurt her this week, but an even more stellar performance in the “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” trio with Angie and Amber (she was totally the Diana) should remind voters of what a stahhhh she is. Especially if the wardrobe department keeps draping her in 100% Pure Sparkles.

After last week’s “Come Together,” we’ve now seen two rock-y, bluesy numbers from Candice in a row, and birthday lady Mariah Carey has simply had it with this train of thought, so she rambled for what seemed like years about what Candice needs to do next. “You know what I want to hear. That thing…that you do…that you know how to do…Something we’ve talked about a lot.” What was this, some mysterious sex thing? Does it have anything to do with that enormous pink magic wand? Quite the opposite, as it turns out. “I just wanna hear more of that churchy, jazz moment,” clarified Mimi.

Lazaro Arbos, Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life”: Somehow Lazaro got through his solo with no tears-inducing hiccups — perhaps he’d heard it before, or simply listened to it thousands of times over the weekend. Even though Lazaro miraculously knew the words, I still felt like the entire performance was merely an attempt to survive, an effort to prove that yes, he did know the words to this one new song. He loves gathering up all his “phew, I’m still standing” confidence during the last few seconds of a song and then dramatically finishing with his head swept to one side like Elvis. I’m not so into that. Too little, too late, my friend!

Mariah once again noted Lazaro’s “courage and guts” instead of his vocal abilities, and Randy and Nicki declared Lazaro’s performance a redemptive triumph. The Dawg called it “not perfect pitch-wise, not that that is a big huge thing.” (He forgot to add, “When you’re Lazaro.”) Annoyingly, Lazaro opted to talk back to Randy: “No problem, boo.” Wait, is this for real?

NEXT: ”’Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’…you know that I don’t know you…” –Lazaro Lazaro’s subsequent trio with Burnell Taylor and Devin Velez on “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” was a complete disaster — Devin, who was in the middle, had to basically step in for more than half of Lazaro’s parts after Lazaro couldn’t remember them. Lazaro looked like he was about to cry the whole time until the end, at which point he struck another killer pose. The guys received a thorough lashing from Nicki Minaj. “Don’t ever do that again. All three of you, go. Go! Go! Get off the stage!” RUDE.

Then when Seacrest gently nudged the guys to discuss what happened (ALSO RUDE), Burnell muttered “Not to throw anyone under the bus, but…” and then Devin explained, “I learned my parts. I tried saving a couple people, but…” Neither of them mentioned Lazaro directly, and I’m not sure what they could have said to make this entire thing seem less bitchy. It was just a bad situation and they were defending themselves. If Lazaro couldn’t learn the song in time, I don’t see what’s wrong with the other two implying that, especially when put on the spot.

“I didn’t know the words that well,” Lazaro strained to say. Such an uncomfortable moment all-around.

Janelle Arthur, The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On”: YES! I loved this so much. Janelle went with a complete rearrangement of the classic upbeat tune by singing it as a drawn-out country ballad — an idea she came up with while singing around the house at age 14. I totally agreed with Keith that the slowed-down spin on the song really brought out the angst in the lyric in a way he’d never heard before. It really is a desperate and pleading song, and Janelle captured the character of it beautifully with her pained eyes, measured melisma, and GIANT GUITAR (hand-crafted by her uncle).

I loved how she was so genuinely overcome with emotion following the first time she’d ever played guitar while backed by a full band. I’m just so pleased with this turnaround from a slew of decent but forgettable performances from her. I almost don’t want her to do anything else!

Janelle’s solo should certainly overshadow the judges’ negative reactions to her duet with Kree on Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” You remember, that famous Motown artist Madonna, from the ’60s? (Apparently the songs could come from any artist who hailed from Detroit; it just turned out, somewhat hilariously, that this random Material Girl hit was the only non-traditional-Motown choice on the night’s roster.) I thought the judges pushed this a bit too far as a way of nudging Kree above Janelle on principle. I didn’t think either girl really outshone the other, and I liked how both remained smiling even as the judges went on and on about how Kree was the clear victor in what didn’t need to be a competition. SCRIPTED. Weird.

To end this on a more amusing note, the stupid word processor I insist on using to type out my notes (Text Edit) still refuses to recognize Kree and Janelle as real words, so for the record on my computer at least, “Like a Prayer” had been performed by Knee and Jangle.

NEXT: Burnell Taylor distinguishes himself with finger flutters, random ‘mmm’s Devin Velez, The Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears”: You know, Devin’s voice really is gorgeous, but somehow not even a near-flawless delivery and attention-grabbing red tux jacket can make me perk up and get excited about his performances. I would like this to be different, I swear. The highlight of the song for me was the irony involved in the opening line, “People say I’m the life of the party.” What’s weird is that I think Devin could be the life of the party; it just seems like he’s holding back in every walk of life. Jimmy Iovine likes this restraint, but I’m with Mariah — I want him to “go forward a little bit more” and give us something more distinctive in terms of performance quality, because the voice is definitely there. So many of his falsetto choices were exceedingly on point.

Burnell Taylor, Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”: I continue to favor Burnell’s unique tone over that of any of the other guys, but I found the judges’ raves a bit too gushing. Of course, it doesn’t help that Nicki and Mariah always reiterate the same things — rich, soulful voice, artsy, playful nuances, “fabulous and from Louisiana like me.” For me, there was no getting beyond Burnell’s increasingly distracting hand gestures (tonight’s finger-flutter looked as if he was helping to air out or determine the quality of the finest of fabrics) and the way so many of his lyrics came with an extra “mmm” sound at the end. Was he sampling delicious treats throughout the song? It is Easter candy season. I’m on roughly my 89th Mini Egg of the night. But the contestants need to be more responsible than that-mmm.

Angie Miller, The Miracles’ “Shop Around”: This was a real dud for Angie, and I can’t help but wonder if the producers encouraged such a misguided song choice and style (despite the few seconds of footage that showed Jimmy and Smokey questioning it from their perch behind the recording studio glass) so that Angie would crash and burn this week only to delight us with a triumphant comeback next week. But I also don’t necessarily believe that a sex-infused, sassed-up uptempo performance style is something she really wants to pursue — like, beyond a one-week-wonder trial in the Top 8. Is it? I hope not. This was awkward. I agree with the judges in this case. I even agree with Mariah that a modernized version of “I’ll Be There” would have been great for Angie.

“I just wanted to have fun,” Angie kept saying. But did she still consider the performance fun after it was universally reviled? I wonder. What I’m saying is I don’t want her subsequent Pretty Piano Pony performances to feel like she’s been unfairly sentenced to the seat. Her plan next week? “To keep having fun.” Uh oh.

NEXT: Do you know what ‘tour de force’ means, COMMONER? Amber Holcomb, Stevie Wonder’s “Lately”: I have to admit I was surprised when the judges gave a unanimous standing O after this one. Amber sounded lovely as usual but the tune was kind of sleepy and hook-less, and her delivery was almost too earnest for me — like an undiscovered Whitney Houston trying to prove herself in a youth talent contest. It was just less human and gritty than I’d like. I much preferred last week’s “She’s Leaving Home” to this — that one had more drama, nuance, and attitude. This one was extremely well-sung but in a more technical way.

Tour de force, dahhhling. Do you know what that means?” Mariah slowly and painfully dragged out this random vocab lesson until she eventually gave up and offered to rephrase things for the “lowest common denominator”: [SOMETHING BLEEPED], and then, “I loved it. Nicki, meanwhile, will not give up on the idea of Amber wearing pink lipstick. It’ll get her so much more votes!

I loved how Amber (who landed in the bottom three last week) told Ryan yes, she did think she was “back,” then quickly clarified, “I really wasn’t gone.”

Kree Harrison, Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”: Kree seemed the most genuinely starstruck by Smokey (and the promise of his call to Aretha Franklin to watch her perform on TV), which was awesome. And Kree turns in consistently great vocals. But I’m sensing an overall flatness in her performances that I think might hurt her later on. On the one hand you could rave that she’s natural and organic and doesn’t feel the need to put on a big show, that she lets her vocals speak for themselves. True, true. Confidence is key. But I’m going to be on the lookout for something deeper within Kree.

I think what I’m trying to say, poorly, is that I don’t think she’s desperate enough to win American Idol. There’s not enough yearning in her face or fire in her eyes. Do I sound absurd? It’s not a glaring fault of hers as an artist, just as a reality TV contestant. Maybe I’m crazy. Like I said, Kree is great. I just think this one part is missing.

But what do you think? Did Motown Week keep you hanging on or leave you wanting more? Who goes home tonight?

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American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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