Recap: ‘American Idol’ Top 11 – Motown Performances

It’s Motown Week on “American Idol,” as the Top 11 compete for places on this summer’s poorly attended “American Idol” Tour!

How did our Finalists perform? 

Click through for Wednesday’s (March 23) recap…

Singer: Casey Abrams
Song: “I Heard It Through the Grape Vine”
My Take: Last week, Casey Abrams tackled Nirvana, but he has a harder task this week: Topping The California Raisins. The Casey howl is becoming as much a mandatory part of his repretoire as James Durbin’s wail. He takes his show into the audience, leaving behind his three background singers and joining a small string ensemble perched behind the judges. And he doesn’t lose his lungs with any of the walking. It’s growly, fun and entertaining. It’s a Casey performance. Is that a good thing? I’m not sure. In the auditions and Hollywood performances, it seemed like we kept being surprised by the things Casey can do. Now he seems to have settled into what he is and how he wants us to see him. I like this performance, but it’s a lot like I might have predicted from Casey under the circumstances.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “You are the perfect entertainer,” Tyler says, raving about his ego and his beauty. “People already know who Casey is,” J-Lo says, wondering if Casey is unique. “You know what’s so perfect about you? You can only do you and that you is great,” Randy raves. Casey, for his part, gives a little shout-out to a cutie in the audience. Uh-oh!

Singer: Thia Megia
Song: “Heatwave”
My Take: Jimmy Iovine thinks this is a great song choice. Sepinwall on IM strongly disagrees. I can’t bring myself to care enough about what Thia’s doing on the show. If she’s content to sneak into the Top 10 and then vanish, I can be content that there are a few people remaining who are worse than she is. Coast on, tiny teen. Coast on. Thia’s got so many other things on her mind here that she can’t really keep track of the lyrics or notes. And who can blame her? She’s got to remember to smile and walk and periodically raise her arms. There’s absolutely nothing distinctive or anything resembling an individual personality attached to the performance, almost the opposite of what Casey delivers without even trying. She makes it through. That’s all I’ll say for it. It’s neither good nor bad, but she almost couldn’t have connected less with the song.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “It was great to see you let loose,” J-Lo says, but she wants Thia to dig even deeper. J-Lo wants Thia to connect with the lyrics. I certainly didn’t believe that there was a heatwave burning inside her, but I kinda didn’t want to believe it. Randy thinks Thia took a chance, but she could have done more. Thia’s giggling happily as if she’s getting real compliments. “Just great. I’m good with it,” Steven says. And none of the judges chose to point out the bumbled lyrics. How sweet of them.

Singer: Jacob Lusk
Song: “You’re All I Need to Get By”
My Take: Jimmy Iovine thinks that Jacob is the contestant best suited for Motown night. I don’t *think* he’s just saying that Jacob is African-American, but he may. Jacob is performing with Funk Brother Bob Babbitt. Jacob is almost disturbingly restrained tonight. He’s even being over-sung by the background singers. I mean, there are three of them, but I expect Jacob to be able to out-sing a half-dozen ordinary men. But then the performance builds. And builds. And builds. Unlike the past two weeks, where Jacob was going crazy, Jacob-style, from the opening notes, this is actually a well-developed crescendo of a performance. Yes, he’s bonkers by the end, runs and affectations everywhere — I like the part where Jacob plays a tiny air piano with his hands. It’s funny — but in this performance, he actually earns all of the business. As he ends. Steven Tyler walks on stage, hugs Jacob, declares “Baby Luther” and returns to his seat.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “The great Barry Gordy is somewhere saying ‘Oh My God,'” Randy raves. “You know what was wrong with that performance? Absolutely nothing,” Randy continues. “You made us beg for those notes,” J-Lo squeals. Jacob goes into the audience and gives his grandma a big hug.

Singer: Lauren Alaina
Song: “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”
My Take: Oh. Right. There actually was a reason why Lauren Alaina received all of that pre-Top 24 hype. She’s been coasting for three straight weeks and I was practically ready to give up on her after last week’s flu-hampered performance. This is vastly better in every single way. Well, not *every* way. I’d note that 16-year-old girls shouldn’t give Randy Jackson in-song lap dances. Better Randy than Steven Tyler, I suppose? Randy’s like the “American Idol” court eunuch. Even if he told a female singer she a nice tush, we wouldn’t read anything sexual into it. But otherwise, pretty great. She sounds super and unlike Thia, she’s totally committed to the song and her rendition of it, right down to the coy “And there ain’t nothing I can do about it.” That’s easily my favorite Lauren Alaina joint of the season.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “You ripped that song another beauty mark,” Steven says confusingly. J-Lo liked how much attitude there was in the performance. Randy says that Lauren has her swagga on, that she’s feeling it.

Singer: Stefano Langone
Song: “Hello”
My Take: It’s HURTING Stefano to keep his eyes open. And now that I know it’s a problem, I can’t stop looking. He enunciated very well last week, but tonight’s back in marble-mouthed mumbler mode. But the performance is about the singing and Stefano sings it well enough, nailing the heck out of the big climactic note and closing with a fine, sweet tone. He still can’t sing with his eyes open and he can’t tell the difference between “closing his eyes and stretching out his arms” and emoting in a genuine way. Stefano’s connection is ever-so-superficial and the physicality of the performance mirrors that.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo still wants Stefano to connect more. She’s not quite feeling it, but she says that once he connects a bit more he’ll “fly right out of the building.” Randy agrees, but tells Stefano that there was “no real emotion.” “You ramped up too soon,” Steven says. J-Lo mentions Stefano’s awful phrasing, but in a kind way.

Singer: Haley Reinhart
Song: “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”
My Take: I don’t love this song choice from Haley. I have no objections to the outfit, which is resurrecting the Haley Scarnato short-shorts. Haley’s another singer getting out-sung by the background singers. When she starts growling at the half-way point, it’s almost a desperate need to be heard over those three talented people hogging stage right. It becomes a competition to determine which of them will be left standing at the end to sing the last verse. Haley appears to win, but honestly, who’s the winner here? So far, I’m putting Haley in the “Better than Thia” category and little more. I also need to stop and think about how Haley Scarnato Jr. compares to Haley Scarnato Sr. I think she’s better with the vocals, but far worse with the strutting. I’m just relieved that Ms. Reinhart didn’t trip down the staircase.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: It started a little rough for Randy, but by the middle of the song, the Haley he loves “came roaring back.” Steven thought it was beautiful. “You don’t look a day over fabulous,” Steven says. J-Lo says that Haley may have the most soulful voice of any of the “Idol” women. Who loves short-shorts? Haley loves short-shorts!

Singer: Scotty McCreery
Song: “For Once In My Life”
My Take: It’s Danger Night No. 1 for Little Scotty McCreery, who’s tackling Little Stevie Wonder. You think you can change how things get done… IN MOTOWN, Scotty? There’s hardly any Motown remaining in the arrangement, which has been countrified 110 percent. The song has been so heavily reformatted that it could almost be “Everybody’s Talkin'” for all of its similarities to the original. Then again when we do Harry Nilsson Night, Scotty’s taking everybody else to school. We need to let Scotty play his guitar, because I’m not going to be able to tolerate his cock-eyed microphone posture much longer. This week’s new affectation is a wandering left hand, thats keeps trying to make emphatic gestures, which come off more masturbatory than anything else. For Scotty, theme nights like this are going to be all about staying afloat. He did that much.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Steven Tyler compares him to Glenn Campbell and Harry Nilsson. Neither Randy nor J-Lo thought it was Scotty’s best performance, but they agree that he made it his own. “You’re the young ladykiller,” Randy says of Scotty’s patented low notes.

Singer: Pia Toscano
Song: “All In Love Is Fair”
My Take: Why do I feel like Pia’s just waiting around for James Bond Movie Theme Night to end this competition entirely? It’s not a great Stevie Wonder song, certainly not dynamic in this arrangement, but we’re reminded again that Pia Toscano is this season’s unrivaled ballad-meister. She may be the most Dion-y singer “American Idol” has ever had. And I don’t know what or who else to compare her to, because so far she hasn’t shown that much diversity. Lots of range. No diversity.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “Hello Beautiful Pia,” says J-Lo. But there’s a catch. J-Lo says Pia could have a career like Celine Dion, but what she doesn’t do is own the stage. I need to pause and say that J-Lo has been absolutely terrific tonight, with constructive criticism for every performer. Maybe she just needed to warm up for a few weeks? To establish a rapport? J-Lo’s actually judging. This is the J-Lo we fell in love with back in the auditions. She could judge the phone book. SHE’S IN IT TO WIN IT, YO! Sorry. Got carried away. Randy loves that Pia hits ever note dead on, but he wants her to do something mid-tempo or up-tempo in the future. “You can’t live by ballads alone,” Randy says. Steven calls her “the closest star in this ‘Idol’ universe.”

Singer: Paul McDonald
Song: “Tracks of My Tears”
My Take: Finally we have the answer to the eternal question “What would Wilco’s ‘Tracks of My Tears’ sound like?” Paul desperately needs a bounce-back. I don’t understand why “Idol” would put restrictions on how often the contestants get to use their instruments. Paul is vastly more focused this week with his guitar strapped to his shoulder. And it’s not just that he’s not stumbling around like a drunken hobo, though that’s part of it. He just seems more connected to the music, albeit maybe not to the specifics of this exact song. Paul’s having too much goofy fun to have tears, much less tracks of them.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Randy was worried when Paul started, but he worked it out. Randy especially liked when Paul sang “tender” at the end. Randy’s nearly incoherent. Steven compares Paul to Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. J-Lo says Paul’s the most rounded, seasoned performer. She says he just needs a seasoned producer.

Singer: Naima Adedapo
Song: “Dancin’ in the Street”
My Take: Naima’s trying to be the anti-Pia. She refuses to do anything that *isn’t* up-tempo. Some people want to sing on “Idol.” Naima wants to get down. She’s backed by an assertive brass section and rocking some assertive bell-bottoms. She definitely finds a way to include more singing than she did last week, but she’s also in a fight with the background singer. Then, having sung for 60 seconds, she decides she’s had enough and that what she really wants to do is a little African dancing with her two drumming pals. It’s such a funny and totally unique approach that she has to “Idol.” Every other contestant in the show’s history has been all about milking every last vocal for all it’s worth. Naima’s given each tiny performance a lot of thought and she seems to have a pie chart of elements she wants to keep delivering. She wants to bring a little singing, a little fashion, a little music and a little dancing to the table. I’d be happy to see this approach work for a couple more episodes, even though I’m pretty sure Naima is short-changing her actual vocal talent on a weekly basis.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Steven says that Naima is the whole package. “You’re an exciting performer,” J-Lo says, telling Naima that she produced her first goosebumps of the night. For J-Lo, Naima has that little something extra. Randy says that tonight, all of Naima showed up. “It was ‘American Idol’ morphing into ‘So You Think You Can Dance,'” Ryan says, probably correctly.

Singer: James Durbin
Song: “Livin’ For The City”
My Take: Oooh. Interesting choice for James Durbin, doing what I’ve frequently said is my favorite Stevie Wonder track. But will it work? He’s backed by a hard-funk beat. James seemed to have at least some understanding of the song when he discussed it previously, but he’s way, way too smiley for the lyrics and message of the song. The song is initially a bit too much in his slightly thin pre-wail head voice, but when he actually opens up, it’s very good. The wailing, sometimes so superfluous, is his way of saying he feels the pain of the song and feels it deeply. This may be a version that I’d like more in a studio version. James should also be praised for not over-tinkering with the theme. Yes, this is a funk-rock version of “Livin’ for the City,” but it’s still very recognizably Motown in a way that McCreery’s arrangement was not.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: “James, you are serious business,” says J-Lo, initially reduced to a giggling schoolgirl. It started a little rough for Randy, but when he hit his pocket, it was “unbelievable.” “Sometimes it takes a little bit of being crazy to make a difference in this world and that’s what you’re all about,” Steven gushes.

TONIGHT’S BEST: This was a good night of “American Idol.” A very good night. I think I’ll put Jacob Lusk at the top of the pack this week. James Durbin and Casey Abrams can be close behind. I don’t want to forget to recognize Lauren Alaina for her best performance of the season, or Naima for including our first-ever African-inflected dance break.

TONIGHT’S WORST: Thia Megia got weirdly over-praised by the judges for an entirely forgettable performance. Haley Reinhart got wildly over-praised by the judges for a memorably shout-y performance. And Stefano Langone needs to be reminded that just because you can hit every not, if you slur every word, you’re not doing justice to a great song.

IN DANGER: Thia, Haley and Stefano seem like a pretty reasonable Bottom Three. From there, I’m almost flipping a coin between Thia and Haley, as I’m guessing that “Idol” will continue its annual trend of booting females early in the Finales. This just feels more like Haley’s time to go than Thia’s, so I guess that’s my elimination pick.

Who did you like? Who did you dislike?