Motown night on American Idol. Really, Idol? So much for trying to make changes from the passe format of the previous nine years. Teenagers will still be singing outdated songs from the 60s and criticized for not sounding current.
Hopefully, some of this year's talented crop will transcend the tired theme. Follow for live commentary on Twitter. I'll post a wrapup here at some point tonight.
Three contestants transcended the moldy Motown karaoke theme tonight: Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina and James Durbin.
Producers had promised that unlike previous seasons, contestants wouldn't be forced out of their style to fit a theme. They didn't keep their word but only Scotty, the 17-year-old country baritone, truly delivered on that promise even as he did stretch a bit. Scotty proved he'd have been a hit in any decade. He chose Stevie Wonder's cornball lounge tune For Once in My Life, an overexposed ditty that has never been done particularly well on Idol. At least, it's never been interesting once removed from its lounge roots. He put a bit of pop in his country, though, and sounded like a Glen Campbell No. 1 record circa 1969. Scotty is, by far, the best singer in the finals and one of the best ever in this show's history. That's because he just sings. No needless gimmick, shtick or overreaching for earsplitting glory notes. He won't win. The best seldom do on Idol. But he'll be the first to score a major label deal and will no doubt make the best, most honest and mature, albums in a lengthy career.
Lauren was an early highlight tonight by transcending the karaoke nature of the dreaded Motown Night by showcasing a rich voice, poise and performance ease that is remarkable given her age -- 16.
James, like Scotty, also honored his gift by delivering a rock-edged vocal on Stevie Wonder's Living for the City. The song's arrangement wasn't rock but James' high, controlled hard rock voice was not unlike Axl Rose's. If Slash wants to relive the glory years -- without the madness -- he could do worse than hiring this guy. Before Guns N' Roses fans overreact and suggest that the names James Durbin and Axl Rose should never be said together, I'm not saying that James has Axl's edge and who knows if he has the writing talent Axl displayed in the late 80s and early 90s. But the vocal tones aren't all that far removed and James is one of the most convincing rockers Idol has had on its stage. He's not the Adam Lambert wannabe I thought he was during the auditions. He's actually a more convincing rock vocalist. Adam was always more glam rock than hard rock.
Fourth best was Naima Adedapo. She -- like Jacob Lusk -- is inconsistent. (I thought Jacob was a mess tonight.) But tonight everything worked for her on Dancing in the Street. Her vocals were in the pocket, her African-inspired dancing was expressive and she had flair. Naima earns another week and her place on the tour of the Top 10.
The news isn't quite so good for my bottom three: Casey Abrams, who is falling faster than Christina Aguilera's career this last year, Haley Reinhart and Stefano Langone. I'd make it a bottom 5 by adding Paul McDonald and Pia Toscano to the dishonorable mentions.
Casey's shtick has worn thin. From my favorite to near least favorite in a mere few weeks. His facial expressions are creepy. He's hard to watch and he's getting too cocky. His overbaked, forced, growling style of singing has gone from jazz influenced to obnoxious novelty -- Taylor Hicks passing a kidney stone. His grating I Heard It Through the Grapevine was the hardest to take ...
Unless you consider Haley, a constant bottom 3 dweller, who similarly growls instead of sings and has a irritating, entitled persona. She's going home on Thursday's results show I'd bet.
Stefano seems like a nice son as he constantly gives props to his mom. Maybe he should let his mom sing instead. He has such a cheeseball overproduced vocal style he rendered Lionel Richie's pretty Hello unrecognizable, inert and plastic. Oversinging does not equal soul. Even the easily pleased judges noted that he failed to connect emotionally with the song and with the audience. If they were being honest they would have said what I did: plastic and cheeseball.
Speaking of shtick, Paul's sole attribute, a megawatt smile, is all he has to offer. Alas, this is not Dental Idol. His chipmunk raspy delivery of Tracks of My Tears could be like what flu-stricken Rod Stewart might have sounded like had he performed in the tour-opening concert with Stevie Nicks that he cancelled on Saturday at BankAtlantic Center. (That's if you buy that "flu" excuse.)
Pia also has worn her ballad style into the ground and I'm fed up with her predictable end-of-song screaming. She has a lovely, if pageanty, vocal style for 2/3 of a song but always ruins a nice moment by screaming a few words at songs' end. Between being a boring, one-note ballad machine with little performance ability (shades of Season 5's Katharine McPhee) and a screamer, this front-runner and likely Idol winner is starting to work my nerves.
Speaking of annoying: the judges tonight were hysterical with overpraise, J.Lo keeps trampling over Randy whenever they differ and Steven Abdul Tyler needs a dictionary so he can learn another word other than "beautiful." If Randy could learn a few new words beyond "pitchy" (it only took him 9 seasons) there's no reason Tyler can't pick up a few.
This leaves Thea Megia. She chose an uptempo tonight for a change (Heat Wave) and though it's yet another Motown song I never ever want to hear again, by anyone, she proved she has a sweet, controlled voice in uptempo mode, too. But she could also find herself in the bottom 3. Much as I like her, she's forgettable among the bigger personalities.