Last week’s Beatles night was oddly flat and it got me thinking about how this season has only achieved liftoff when these kids have sung songs that have resonated with their own lives: Kree’s Patty Griffin tune, Angie’s original at the piano. (I generally believe in the Rule of Threes, but I’ve been wracking my brain and it seems that this season has achieved liftoff exactly twice.) Whether because the producers are too afraid we’ll lose interest or the finalists are too studied and obedient, this season has been way too safe. Too familiar. These kids aren’t connecting with the material, maybe because so much of the material came out before their parents were born. Sure, they should be familiar with the classics, but we deserve to see what really turns these finalists on. We need a change, and fast.
So of course tonight is Motown Night. (Actually, it’s “Detroit Night,” but Smokey Robinson is the guest mentor, so if you think you’re going to hear Bob Seger or whatever, think again.)
Candice comes out and just murders the shit out of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and it’s great and she has star power and the whole bit. But did you tune in wondering whether a plus-size diva could pace the stage with a stank face and nail “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”? No. You did not. You have seen this a dozen times. You have seen this a dozen times on this show. Could she have given a White Stripes song a whirl? Could we see her take on “My Doorbell”? Please?
Kree and Janelle sing Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” the first of tonight’s three group numbers, which are all a huge waste of time and I’m not going to make them a waste of space in this recap, except to say that Mariah Carey gives her judgment on it for about 45 minutes and seems to be shit-house drunk. This is in no way a complaint.
Lazaro is in some kind of full Members Only suit, which — coupled with his thick layer of sweat — makes him look like Richard Gere’s character in American Gigolo got laminated. He sings Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life,” and as usual, he’s off-key and off-rhythm and he looks terrified. Randy apologizes for the judges having been so hard on him last week, and Lazaro replies: “No problem!” Excuse me, but we all basically saw you try to fashion a noose out of a skinny tie last week, Lazaro; the bad comments seemed to have been a big problem. The judges pan him again, but in a way that’s so nice he doesn’t seem to catch it. He also might call Randy “Boo” once, but it’s hard to tell with this kid.
And then Janelle Arthur comes out and takes a huge risk. Remember a few weeks ago, when everyone was doing slowed-down, acoustic takes on big pop songs, to the point where you turned off your TV and started pricing tickets to one of those summer EDM festivals they have in Europe okay maybe that was just me? Well, Janelle does a slowed-down, acoustic take on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and it’s the smartest thing she’s done on the show yet. It brings out the ache in the song, it plays to her country strengths, the judges love it, she is BACK. Was she gone?
By the way, I cannot put my finger on what Smokey Robinson looks like, but I will try: It is some combination of John Travolta on the cover of his and Olivia Newton-John’s Christmas album, a face a child would make out of leftover items on a deli tray, and S. Epatha Merkerson. Nicki leads a round of applause for old Smokey, which Mariah joins in, and for a moment, I think we have achieved detente. I will be proven incorrect.
Devin has chosen “The Tracks of My Tears,” and Smokey makes a point of explaining the meaning behind the song. See if you can follow this: “The Tracks of My Tears” is about a guy who’s so sad that his tears have made tracks on his face, and he can see them. Excuse me, but the perfectly understandable lyrics of this song already make that crystal clear, right? It’s not the first three REM albums, Smokey. Message received. Devin simply says “Wow,” and does so in a way that’s so convincing that I immediately start rooting for him. And then he does a competent but forgettable job and he’s slowly visually turning into Klaus Nomi and I think he’s the next to go.
Okay, these group numbers are the worst and I still don’t feel like talking about them, except to say that Angie, Amber, and Candice make an awkward Supremes on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” and Mariah is really REALLY trying to make “Hashtag POW” happen.
At this time, I will point out that Nicki and Mariah are both wearing bright-red dresses, no doubt to show their support for marriage equality as the Supreme Court begins deliberations on the Prop 8 and DOMA cases. Now, there is an argument to be made that wearing a color or changing a Facebook status picture is a weak form of activism, and here’s why I think it’s bullshit: To subtly draw attention to the fact that you’re on the side of fairness is a powerful thing for a young person to see. Even if it’s the only thing you ever do (which I am confident that in Nicki and Mariah’s cases it is not), a kid who is struggling with his sexuality — in a time when such a thing can still be excruciatingly difficult — can turn on his TV (or look at his Facebook wall, or whatever), see this glorious red artery of love and acceptance, and feel a tiny bit better. These small acts have significance. If Fox had any nerve whatsoever, they’d call it out and let the ladies explain what’s up. But they’re cowards, so Ryan makes it into a big dumb joke: “Hey, judges: There’s a little bit of a wardrobe coincidence here. Keith and Randy: Why do you clash so much tonight?” Get it? HA HA HA. (Keith is in burgundy, suggesting that perhaps he feels the need for marriage equality more deeply than the rest of us. Randy is in grey and neon yellow to raise awareness of the fact that he sucks.)
Burnell Taylor does “My Cherie Amour” in head-to-toe white, like Mr. Rourke in a kicky, youthful Logo reboot of Fantasy Island. If you like him, you like it, and I do and I do. He is veering into some bizarre vocal tics that I really enjoy; he makes the chorus sound like this:
My cherie amourm,
pretty little girl that I adorm,
you’re the only one my heart beats form,
How I wish that you were mind.
It’s super weird and kind of Judy Garland–esque. The judges all love it, I love it, Bradley Cooper comes out and slugs him for singing his trigger song and then suddenly stops being bipolar through the healing power of dance. Silver Linings Playbook. Own it now on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Angie Miller is desperate to show America her fun side. Is there anything more tedious than a diligent child who is desperate to show you their fun side? No, there is not. And so it is with her version of “Shop Around.” It isn’t fun. It also isn’t on key for most of its time. It also looks like something that should be happening on Nashville. The judges are underwhelmed, and Nicki finally gets it right: “Don’t give us another side — we ain’t asked you for another side.” And then she snaps her finger at her and turns her back. It’s pretty great. Mariah tells Angie to do whatever makes her happy, at which time Nicki picks up her phone and starts texting like a petulant teenager. It’s incredibly rude, but at least something is fucking happening.
Amber Holcomb was in the bottom three last week, which is a travesty, and I initially fear her choice of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” will consign her to the trash heap again. It is here that her youth becomes a liability; she cannot possibly know how played-out that song is. (She was negative 4 years of age when Jodeci’s version came out. Do you want me to stop pointing this kind of thing out? I want me to stop pointing this kind of thing out.) But I’ll be damned, she knocks it out of the park. Amber has the kind of voice that makes you listen, and it’s been twenty years since I’ve listened to that song. Turns out it’s quite good. Mariah says “TOUR DE FORCE! Does ANYONE know WHAT that MEANS?” Well, Mariah: We know it means good, but none of us know its literal meaning, and neither do you, because it is a French idiom, so cool it with the Lovey Howell business for five minutes.
And then Lazaro, Devin, and Burnell team up for “I Can’t Help Myself,” and it is a scorching hot mess. Lazaro straight up forgets all of his lines, the other two try to steer out of the skid, but it’s no use. And here’s where Nicki is indispensable as a judge: She reads them. “I’m gonna pretend I didn’t see that. You all get off the stage. Go. GO. Go away.” It is GLORIOUS. Ryan gives the boys a chance to defend themselves, and Burnell and Devin say, “Well, we did what we were supposed to do,” and Laz tries to defend himself by saying he just got the song, but we know he is lying. (I mean, he does stutter when he says it.)
Kree is dressed like a jazzy realtor for her version of Aretha Franklin’s “Don’t Play That Song,” which is a song I now mainly remember for Kelly Clarkson’s version in season one. And she kills it, and she’s in the pimp spot, but the pimp spot is not so pimp at the end of a two-hour show when it’s the eleventh song you hear and you just want to give your ears a rest. Still — I’m pretty sure she sings the right notes and I’m rooting for her and I am so very happy this night is over.
I look forward to tomorrow night’s tribute to Kwame Kilpatrick, I dread the inevitable ouster of Devin Velez, and I bet Lazaro makes it to the finale. You?