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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 03/24/2011

‘American Idol’ 2011: Top 11 perform Motown tunes


The top 11 performed Motown tunes on “American Idol.” (Michael Becker - Fox)


“American Idol” opening Wednesday night: Not that host Ryan Seacrest would ever invite comparisons between him and the great Dick Clark, oh no – but it’s Seabiscuit in black-and-white, doing a Dick Clark while the Idolettes play the parts of Clark’s pimply cast from “American Bandstand.” But hey, that was the 60’s, and Motown was the 60’s, and tonight we’re doing Motown tunes so we get it. Looking forward New Year’s Eve tunes so we can see Seabiscuit bring down the ball!

Roll the tribute tape to Motown and the 60’s. For those of you watching for your class report, we’ll sum it up: bad times, good music.

Judge Jennifer Lopez is wearing a very short skirt, very white, very reflective. She’s Glinda the Good Witch for our times. Judge Steven Tyler is strangely subdued in dress this week -- possibly the outfit he wears to funerals for rockers. Judge Randy Jackson’s sweater looks like tire treads in fresh snow.

Idolette Casey Abrams is up first. He says he grew up on Motown. We have a premonition that everybody tonight is going to say they grew up on Motown, though by “Motown” they may mean “Michael Jackson.”

Casey has his hair slicked back and we think his beard slicked down, and his shirt is buttoned up to his neck. With that red hair and bright red shirt, he looks like one of the seven brothers from the old MGM flick “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” all duded up for a night of fightin’ and singin’.

Casey’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a fresh take on the song; he’s slowed the pacing down in an interesting way. More importantly, he’s restrained his growl reflex.

Thia Megia has a Motown voice when you listen carefully -- that whole teenage clarity thing going on. The problem is she has the voice for one of those Motown girl trios but she doesn’t have the other two girls. Three Thia’s, now that would be interesting. One Thia doesn’t hold our interest on this kinda repetitive song. She’s moving across the stage as she sings “Heat Wave,” but it’s not a lot more interesting than watching someone swimming laps.

Big hopes for Jacob Lusk with Motown -- should be an easy reach for his gospel-y style. Head Genius Jimmy Iovine, of the “American Idol” Squad of Infallible Genius Hit-Maker Producers, has some sound advice for Jacob to lay off the over abundance of show-off “licks and runs.” This is starting to shape up as the Life Lesson of the Night, kids: Be yourself, but not too much. Jacob must have listened very carefully because his performance of “You’re All I Need to Get By” is a study in self-restraint, building up to a tastefully done crescendo of licks and runs. “You made us beg!” raves JenniPe. “Idol” is back to loving Jacob, who was the early favored child: This time Ryan lets him go into the audience for a Grandma hug, a coveted idol favor, and then doubles down by opening it up to the audience to line up for a Jacob hug. Next week they’ll bring in the sick for Jacob to lay hands on.

And speaking of Thia, how come Lauren Alaina is so appealingly wise-beyond-her-years at about the same age? On second thought, we don’t want to know the answer. She’s doing “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and brings some husky sincerity to it like she’s known that kind of boy. Still, by the middle of the song, we’ve seen all her moves – she deserved better producing.

Hasn’t Stefano Langone played the mama’s-in-the-audience card before? Anyway, he’s pulling it out again. Seems his mother cooked pasta for all the Idolettes at the Palazzo Foreclozzo where they all bunk together. And Seabiscuit has brought a box of the leftovers in to the show which Stefano is shocked — shocked I tell you — to discover, while we get to see mama in the audience. Stefano is doing “Hello,” the Lionel Ritchie song from the 80’s which, based on last week’s performance, was Stefano’s heyday, musically speaking. The white dinner jacket Stefano is wearing tonight says a lot about his tone-deafness when it comes to being an actual pop star. He’s a competition singer. JenPez pegs him with a comment that the intensity in the song is supposed to come from feeling the lyrics, not a desire to win.

Haley Reinhart’s got nothing to lose with this performance of “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” after surviving the Bottom Three this week, and she really gives it all she’s got. And after seeing all she’s got repeated, and repeated, it’s not real exciting. She uses that bluesy throat growl thing again and again, till it sounds like an old wind-up alarm clock going off.

Next, Scotty McCreery leaves his comfort zone! Seabiscuit says so in a teaser before the commercial break, but this is shaping up as an already tired “Idol” trick. Scotty does not leave his comfort zone and in this case, dressing up a Motown song in a buckskin jacket just sounds wrong, not crossover. He sings “For Once in My Life” at a boring trot speed. If he’d pulled out a whip and cracked it at the high points, now that would have been a crossover that would get our attention. As usual, the judges love him for staying in his comfort zone, so go figure. JenniLo: “You really made it your own.”

Coming next week: Scotty leaves his comfort zone!

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the woman who put the comfort in comfort zone, Pia Toscano, here to sing another comfortable ballad, “All In Love is Fair,” from Stevie Wonder. She is polished – but so is furniture.

Pia has succeeded in riling the judges, as much as they can be riled this year, with this final ballad drop after weeks of balladeering. JeLo tells Pia that “you could have a career like Celine Dion” based on Pia’s voice but “Celine gets on that stage and she owns the stage.” It’s a good point – the most motion we get out of Pia is the calculated arm flapping for emphasis but, on the other hand, doing a Celine would mean a lot of chest-thumping and other attitudes out of the silent movie era. Randy begs Pia, “Give me a mid tempo! Give me an up-tempo!” But Tyler, who’s really let us down from the promise of his wacky shtick during the auditions, babbles some horoscope copy about “you are the closest star in this ‘American Idol’ universe” and expresses complete confidence that she will try “steppin’ out and putting on your sneakers and kickin’ some [heinie]” next week.

Paul McDonald is keeping with tonight’s theme of Be Yourself But Not Really; he’s anchored himself to one spot with a guitar, so we’re not going to have to see more of his Pied Piper dancing. He’s doing “Tracks of My Tears” and the arrangement is too loud for his voice, making him seem like an emphysema sufferer instead of Rod Stewart-ish. Paul keeps flashing his teeth, giving this sad song a kind of jaunty lift. But he ends on a tender touch, which really shows off his voice to advantage and is probably how he should have handled the whole tune. The judges continue to love his voice, or the idea of his voice anyway, no matter what he sings. Tyler compares him to Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.

We see Naima Adedapo dancing the Funky Chicken in her taped bit before her performance, so big tension around her number: Will she dance the Funky Chicken again? And try to sing at the same time again with the same disastrously breathy result? With that hanging over the performance, turns out she’s a natural for the Motown anthem “Dancing in the Street,” her voice has one of those clear tones that would’ve cut through AM radio static heard at highway speed back in the day. And she wisely saves the dancing till the end, with no singing and its more Funky West African. So Naima hangs in there as one of the most interesting contestants to watch. JLo says Naima gave her her first case of the “goosies” of the night – that’s showbiz talk for goose pimples.

James Durbin has a version of his trademark Eeyore tail on, though it looks tonight like a leather belt that came lose. James’ voice at this range and this volume is kinda thin, like a pencil line drawn on top of the arrangement. He’s putting on a legendary rock show in his mind, and we get to help him achieve his fantasy, and that about sums up the appeal of James for persons of a certain empathetic frame of mind, which is not us. James finishes with a victory lap, pointing to the crowd, drawing more and more cheers which is really a tribute to the infectious power of empathy. It sure works on the judges. JenPez: “you leave me speechless.” Tyler: “Sometimes it takes a little of crazy to make a difference in this world and that’s what you were all about.” In his mind, we say.

By  |  06:00 AM ET, 03/24/2011

 
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