Remember when the leaks of all the show's changes dribbled out over a number of months starting last fall? One of the more intriguing leaks suggested that the era of the "Theme Night" was over and that contestants would no longer be forced to sing outside of their musical comfort zone. For American Idol Season 9, that would have meant Crystal Bowersox would not have had to sing any song where wearing shoes or brushing your hair was required and Lee DeWyze would only have had to sing songs that had no discernible key.
But lo and behold, theme nights are back with a vengeance and tonight's was Motown. Now, being of a certain age -- and, yes, I do love the daily AARP Spam I get -- means that I relate to these songs and probably hold them to a higher scrutiny than I would a theme such as Flo Rida collaborations or songs GLEE has yet to cover.
Ryan Seacrest reminds us of the stakes tonight. There are eleven contestants, but only ten can be part of next summer's disappointing, many shows canceled, half-empty theater tour. You won't want to miss that. Haley, I'm talking to you. Spoiler alert!
So first up is the living Wookiee, Casey Abrams. He lumbers on stage after a brief backstage look at his interactions with the producers where they beg him, for the love of everything holy, do not sing like you tonight. Please, no growling, screeching, screaming, yelling, or any of those things you feel obliged to do because you are not actually a gifted vocalist but a sideshow act waiting for the next circus to roll into town. Casey decides to try and sing a Marvin Gaye song because, other than being killed by his father, the thing we best remember about Marvin Gaye was that he had the most beautiful and evocative voices in all of music. It is such a natural choice for someone who can barely hold three notes in a row melodically to try and take on one of music's greatest vocalists!
I cannot pretend to be surprised by his painful, toneless, shouted-word take on the classic "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." I was surprised, however, by two things. One, how hard his buttons had to work to keep his shirt together. (My daughter, who actually came up with that joke, has threatened to hire a lawyer to send me a cease and desist order, preventing me from using her source material to try and make my lame AI post funny. I'm keeping the joke in, hoping we can reach a settlement at the mall.) Two, how the judges continue to trip all over themselves and each other in their attempts to heap undeserved praise on this guy. The only one Casey Abrams pleases when he sings is himself and after watching the 90 second masturbation sequence, one of the people I was watching with in the chat room suggested that he should smoke a cigarette and then roll over and go to sleep on the stage.
Thia Megia has been one of my favorites from the beginning. Cute with a big, clear, ready to sing the next Disney princess movie theme song, she's been consistently great. But the judges have been less than wowed by her playing it safe (translation: singing well week after week). So she tried to shake it up and take on the smoky, sultry, sexy song "Heatwave." Now, it was sold as "Martha and the Vandellas'" song, but for me, the definitive version is Linda Ronstadt's. This is what "Heatwave" should sound like:
Instead, sweet sixteen-year-old Thia performed it like she was at her high school talent show. She sang the notes but not the words. There was no passion, feeling or... heat. She might as well been singing "Pleasant weather, about 72."
Next up was Jacob Lusk, who every week oversings and overemotes on his way to being overpraised by the judges. Tonight was no exceptions what with Steven Tyler practically dry humping him after his performance and Randy Jackson tearing open his Thesaurus of Undeserved Compliments so he can find new unwarranged superlatives for Jacob's performance. I appreciate Jacob's attempts to listen to the producers suggestion that her dial it back from Broadway Show Stopper meets Gospel Revival on acid to merely self-indulgently over-the-top. It was a nice change of pace. One of the judges said Jacob was a baby Luther (Vandross), I'd say he's more Liza than Luther and that his grotesque, burlesque kitsch started out old and now is getting really scary.
Also scary is how the not-so-subtle pimping of past years has turned into a blatant coronation this year. First, they give Jacob his own choir. Then they give him a spotlight. Tonight, they dragged up on stage a dozen extras from Beatlemania to come worship him and wrap him in their fanatic embraces. Do we still need the next nine weeks? This has as much suspense as the second viewing of the Sixth Sense.
Just when I'm considering giving up on American Idol, help comes along in the form of Lauren Alaina. Now this next joke, I am not taking credit/blame for, but when she came out on stage someone in my house wondered when they changed the rules and allowed you to be on two reality shows at the same time. When I told them that Lauren was not in fact Kirstie Alley, I felt a little guilty figuring out the punch line so quickly. But Lauren, really, walk a little. It's good for you! Putting the superficial aside, Lauren has an amazing voice and she is back on top for me. She nailed "Keep Me Hanging On" and if it were a little later and I was desperate for material I would say that she had me hanging on to her every distinct, electrifying, powerful note. This was her best performance to date.
Stefano Langone chose one of the most annoying songs ever recorded, Lionel Richie's "Hello," which reminds me that the last Lionel Richie song I liked was when he sang "Brick House" with the Commodores. Stefano talked about his mother's cooking, in another blatant attempt to make us forget his DUI, but chef Gordon Ramsey later tasted the leftovers and deemed them a felony in their own right. Stefano has a really great tone to his voice, yet week after week I'm not sold at all about his potential. There's some weird disconnect between the sounds he can produce and the final product. But he's a relatively cute male which means he'll get enough votes to give him a couple more weeks to try and figure this out.
The combination of the arrangement of "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and Haley Reinhardt's slow, seductive strut brought to mind Natalie Wood's portrayal of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. This could not have been her intention as American Idol is good, wholesome viewing, suitable for the whole family. I expected Howard Stern to come out and emcee the rest of the show. Haley committed another sin -- straightening her signature hair which will just confused voters who won't know what happened to that cute, curly haired girl, and will have to give their votes to Kirstie Alley instead because she was so good on Cheers.
My boy Scotty McCreery was up next and all I can say is yee haw, I'm starting to love me some country music. Scotty sang "For Once in My Life" and one of the members of the peanut gallery here at my house offered that he sounded like Glen Campbell -- which was what Steven Tyler said. Score! I loved Glen Campbell, back before he ruined it all with "Rhinestone Cowboy," so that may explain why Scotty's voice does not cause me to react like the Manchurian Candidate after seeing the Queen of Diamonds. But the mannerisms have got to go. I'm assuming the best (yeah, there's a first time for everything) and thinking that his difficulty holding a microphone and singing into it without looking like a deranged Howdy Doody is because he's used to playing a guitar when he sings. That or he really is possessed by the ghost of some creepy lounge singer.
Pia Toscano continues to be perfect in every way. One does wonder how someone who is gorgeous and sings like an angel had to come on American Idol to be discovered. Has she no friends who could have videotaped her and put her up on YouTube singing "Friday, Friday, Gettin' Down on Friday?" Let's compare and contrast Pia with Rebecca Black and you will see all that is wrong with the music industry -- and the record-buying public and America.
So my daughter wondered why Daniel Negreanu was on the show and I told her that wasn't the Canadian poker pro but another of the judge's inexplicable favorites, the follicly-challenged Paul McDonald. No, I explained to her, he doesn't have a good voice. And, no, he doesn't really look good on stage. But he's different and that is a buzz word meaning he's not boring and might be discussed in the morning around some proverbial water cooler, which is all that reality TV shows really care about. So let's discuss. Paul, may I speak to you directly? When you are a singer and the judges compare you to Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, that is their way of telling you that you can't sing. It may seem a little subtle, a little over your head, but if you think back to the last time you heard Willie or Bob, remember that pained expression on your face? That's what the rest of us look like when we listen to you.
So Paul tried to sing "Tracks of My Tears," and it was less awful than in previous weeks if only because I wasn't also forced to watch his uncoordinated gyrations around the stage. He croaked and brayed and warbled so much that I expected Jack Hanna to come out on stage. But at least it was over quickly.
I said it last week, I will say it until she leaves. I love Naima Adedapo. She is a performer who is captivating to watch. I don't know that she'll sell a lot of albums, but if the choice is between going to see a concert with her or any of the arguably better female vocalists left on the show, I'll take her. She's got "it" -- that undefinable something that makes some people stars despite not being as gifted naturally as some others. Tonight she actually had the vocals to back up her cover of "Dancing in the Street," so I will be very surprised and disappointed if she is again in the bottom three.
Last up was James Durbin, rebounding from last week's less-than-stellar performance with a kick-ass version of "Livin' for the City" (probably my favorite Stevie Wonder song). When you think that James' can't go any farther with his voice, when you think it will give out or fall short, he surprises you by nailing it. He sings with reckless abandon and it is a little like watching a net-less high wire act. It's daring and scary but oh so exciting when you see he's made it to the other end. I really like this kid a lot and hope that the invariable Adam Lambert comparisons don't derail him early in the competition.
So my top three: Lauren, James and Scotty
My bottom three: Stefano, Haley and Paul
Alert the media, Jacob and Casey were spared bottom three this week!!
My predicted bottom three: Haley, Thia and Stefano, with Haley getting the boot
What say you?