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American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins on Motown Week

What’s going on here?! The show begins and the picture is in black and white! I think, “I‘d better adjust my set.” I get my tools out: screwdriver, hammer, awl — and I am then informed by Ryan Seacrest that that I should not adjust my set. Idol is having some low-production-value fun with us, because this week, the theme is Motown!

I cannot tell you how much I am not looking forward to this. Now, let me explain. Those Motown classics are undeniable works of art, the result of concentrated greatness, and they will live forever in the pantheon of songwriting. But many of these treasured songs I never, ever want to hear again, ever in my life, hear me God. Nefarious agents (who assemble movie soundtracks and trailers) have played these songs out, all the way out, and I don't derive any pleasure from most of them any more. So for each performance, I will be letting you know if I ever need to hear that particular Motown song again.

The judges are introduced and J. Lo is dressed like a profoundly sexy Easter egg. We see that Liv Tyler, inexplicably the daughter of Steven Tyler, is in the audience, being beautiful. I find her to be so incredibly lovely and I always have. I even saw The Strangers, a horribly unsettling movie that caused my wife and me to fight over nothing and made us terrified of our own home.

First up is Casey, who sings “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” There is a heavy component of embarrassing white soul to this performance. Casey makes a lap around the audience and people are thrilled. “It’s Casey from American Idol!”, the American Idol audience seems to say, as Casey strolls past them. As always, Casey performs it to the hilt, and scores big with the crowd. But, boy oh boy. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine?”
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J. Lo thinks Casey might be “the guy” right now. Randy loves that Casey is a true original!
ME: I like Casey, but this makes two weeks in a row that I found nothing enjoyable about his performance. I admire his skills as a showman, but said skills could not redeem this performance/song choice combo for me. It is odd to see a 20-year-old guy come off so middle-aged. I could maybe even see this used for a Viagra commercial, if it was recreated shot-for-shot, but have a gray-haired dude lip-synching to Casey’s vocal. If you see that happen, by the way, know that I am owed money.
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? No. I don’t care who sings it. If Marvin Gaye himself came back from the dead — not in a zombie way but in a pleasant way, like they found a cure for death and it was just a very specific combination of herbs — and the resurrected Marvin started singing that song, as soon as he hit that first “Oo,” I would yank the plug out the wall and silence the PA. Then I would hope that I could think of a cover story good enough that would not only make him stay but also skip ahead to “What’s Goin’ On.”

Back from the break, Ryan gives a “quick shout-out to Brad Whitford, guitarist for Aerosmith.” Brad is there in the audience, dressed like a chimney sweep from Thunderdome. Hey, maybe take off your top hat when people are sitting behind you (that’s etiquette left over from top hat days).

Thia sings “Heat Wave” by Martha & The Vandellas, and this marks Thia’s first time singing an up-tempo song. She’s perhaps a little more comfortable than expected, but not too comfortable. She can’t quite hit the highest note of the chorus and she flubs one of the lines. But to be fair, “Heat Wave” moves along at such a breakneck pace it killed over six Vandellas.
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J. Lo thinks she’s just scratched the surface and needs to dig deeper. Randy yells at her to PUSH! PUSH!
ME: My feelings are best summed up by this excerpt from Steven’s glowing review of Thia: “I’m good with it.” Thia is too young to interest me as an artist or as a television personality or as a human. No one mentions her flubbing that line, by the way. You’re slipping, judges. My taxes pay your salary!
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? No.

Back from break: Thia says she “flubbed the lyrics a little bit but hopefully no one will notice.” Oh, I noticed, Thia. I noticed. But I am like Uatu, the Watcher; I see all but am forbidden to interfere!

Next up is Jacob, singing Marvin Gaye’s “You’re All I Need To Get By.” What do you think it’s going to sound like? Yes, that’s what it sounds like. When Jacob is done beating a confession out of this song, Steven Tyler is moved to walk onto the stage and embrace Jacob, anointing him “Baby Luther.” How much are the judges supposed to sway votes on this show? All the way or just most of the way? I mean, I know they didn’t take an oath or anything, but please. Sit your ass down and remember how awful that Heart song was last week.
JUDGES: Steven still likes it! J. Lo says Jacob moves her, then amends her statement to include the world in this forced movement. Randy asks if Jacob knows what was wrong with that performance. TRICK QUESTION! There was nothing wrong with it! Jacob’s grandmother has to hug him too, perhaps as a comfort because he failed Randy’s rigged test.
ME: This song was a perfectly appropriate choice for Jacob, and he did a good job. But he’s oversung everything on the show to the point where even when it’s appropriate, it doesn’t do anything for me. Worthy of note: Ryan Seacrest inadvertently causes a moment of genuine spontaneity by joking that the whole first row is invited to come up and hug Jacob, and people actually get up and hug Jacob. Returning to form, Ryan then acts put out by the fact that it’s actually happening. Ah, that was fun for almost a full dozen seconds.
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? Yes. It goes straight onto my “Concert Requests for a Resurrected Marvin Gaye” list.

Lauren sings, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by The Supremes and marches all over the stage and sings directly to the judges. As always, she is playing to an audience of three. Lauren. That part of the contest is over. America votes now. Take a glance at the camera every once in a while. This isn’t a child beauty pageant.
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J. Lo likes all the attitude! Randy says Lauren’s “got her swagger on high!”
ME: Lauren’s just a kid so I don’t want to be too hard on her, but I will say that if we were the same age, I would think she was a creep. But since I’m so much older than her, I can’t really bring myself to call her names.
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? No.

I forgot Stefano was in this competition again. But here he is, still on the show, giving Ryan some leftovers of his mama’s homemade pasta. I also forgot that that the Motown umbrella casts its shade over the Eighties, for Stefano has chosen Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” He throws some Stefanosauce on it, and, okay, but for some reason he is singing as if English is his second language. He’s layered onto the song a curious Latin accent that he does not otherwise possess when he speaks. Or sings other songs.
JUDGES: Steven doesn’t like it. J. Lo says he needs to make the connection he needed to make last week but did not make this week. Randy agrees with J. Lo and missed the emotion.
ME: Maybe I need him to sing to me. What is the blind spot I have with this kid? If he wins the whole thing, will I even realize it? Will I end up writing recaps of the penultimate episode over and over again, wondering why they won’t tell us who won? I’m a size ten shoe, what’s that in Kleenex box?
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? Inconclusive.

Back from the break, Ryan presents a container of Stefano’s mom’s pasta to Gordon Ramsey, who has taken time off from misering heat to be here in the audience. Gordon slams Mama Stefano’s food and it’s uncomfortable. Which makes it kind of a delightful moment. This guy just insulted this kid’s mom’s home cooking, and the mom is right there. More unintentional spontaneity from Ryan Seacrest! Keep it coming, you odd mannequin!

Haley sings Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” and she is going for it! She is storming the stage and growling! She is not wearing any more lipstick than she needs to! Her hair has been ironed and you can shut up!
JUDGES: Steve likes it! Randy says the Haley they loved has returned to form! J. Lo thinks Haley has the most soulful voice in the competition (girls division).
ME: Jesus. I full-on like Haley now. What has happened to me? I can no longer hold her face against her! I thought she did a good job with this song, even with all the runs and other vocal gymnastics that I don’t really care for. I even sorta enjoyed her pseudo-yodel at the end.
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? Hm. Yes. A few more times. It’s a good one, but it’s on the line.

Scotty sings “For Once In My Life,” by Stevie Wonder. What’s that you ask? Does he do a country arrangement of it? Let me just check my records here… ah, yes, here it is. Yes. Of course he does. I could barely hear you over all that cowboy harmonica.
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J. Lo says it wasn’t his strongest performance, but those low notes get her every time. Randy calls Scotty “The Young Ladykiller.”
ME: As much as I didn’t like this, and I truly didn’t, there was a strange nostalgia stirred in me for the awful variety shows I watched as a child. Look, I didn’t know they were awful at the time. I was a child. What excuses did adults have for keeping them on the air? I know there were only three channels, but they still had books back then.
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? No.

Pia has chosen “All In Love Is Fair,” by Stevie Wonder, and she walks out and plants herself and sings. It gets a little shouty just once, which has become Pia’s signature style.
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J. Lo’s only constructive criticism is that Pia needs to move around more, like Celine Dion does. Randy likes that Pia employed falsetto at times, but wants something other than ballads. He will settle for a mid-tempo! He will apparently not accept the uptempo song she just did last week!
ME: Pia’s nice enough. Like the stylings of the aforementioned Celine Dion, what Pia does is not for me. She will probably make it to the final two, and may very well win.
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? Sure.

“Motown is good times,” Paul declares, and to support his premise, he elects to sing an acoustic version of “The Tracks of My Tears.” Good times indeed! The Kates Bosworth from last week back him up.
JUDGES: Steven likes it! Randy likes Paul’s tenderness and wants to see more of it. J. Lo says Paul is the complete package and all he needs is a good producer.
ME: Paul has just seemed phonier and phonier to me, more and more transparent; soon all that will be left of him will be his smile, like the Cheshire cat from the tale of old. If that Cheshire cat favored boring coffee-shop rock.
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? Yes.

Naima sings “Dancing In The Streets” by Martha and The Vandellas. She’s doing a sort of Afro-Caribbean, maybe, version of it? It quickly goes all Afro- with an Afro-dance break that is awkward. Afro-awkward.
JUDGES: Steven like it! J. Lo says Naima is the first to give her goosebumps this evening. Randy says everything Naima did was smart tonight!
ME: I feel like Naima’s trying very hard to be different, but the effort is showing more and more. That said, she put some imagination into the arrangement. Maybe if this show weren’t American Idol, and she could pick any songs in the world that she wanted to do, she’d put together an amazing string of eclectic arrangements and performances. But this is indeed American Idol, where at best, no one talked her out of covering “Dancing In The Streets.” Speaking of which, as Naima’s dancing is discussed, we get a quick glimpse of executive producer Nigel Lythgoe when Ryan mentions Lythgoe’s other show, the vastly superior and far less cynical So You Think You Can Dance.
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? Under no circumstances. No cover of it. Ever, anywhere. As far as I’m concerned, Mick Jagger and David Bowie owe Africa an apology.

Finally, James comes out to sing Stevie Wonder’s “In The City.” I don’t know what to tell you. It’s perfectly fine. He stays in tune and the song runs the appropriate length and then it’s over. He manages to squeeze in a high-pitched metal yell. James.
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J. Lo says James leaves her speechless, although clearly that’s not true, because this very sentence starts with “J. Lo says!” One of us is a liar, J. Lo! Randy chides that it started out rough, but James found his footing in yelling!
ME: Baby need diaper. Baby need food.
DO I EVER NEED TO HEAR THIS MOTOWN SONG AGAIN? Yes. And I feel like I need to hear it immediately. The original.

Tomorrow night, someone gets sent packing. My money’s on Thia or Lauren, although not literally, because Scripture proscribes gambling. And listen, I may not be able to recap the results show in a timely fashion, as I will be on a plane to Australia as the episode airs. But it’s possible I can do it from the plane. If I do, I think that makes me a hero. And “Sully” Sullenberger can go lie down in a ditch for all I care.

You can listen to Paul F. Tompkins's podcast here, or subscribe on iTunes. He is also on Twitter as @PFTompkins.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX