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It was Motor City Night on "American Idol" this Wednesday, which meant the top eight performed the songs of Iggy & The Stooges, the MC5, the White Stripes, and Insane Clown Posse. Psych! C'mon, now. Of course they did the same tired ole Motown standards (other than one Madonna duet by Kree Harrison and Janelle Arthur) that've been performed on "Idol" since Brian Dunkleman was still the show's cohost--even though current host Ryan Seacrest had stressed that "any artist from Detroit was fair game."
But nothing's fair in the "Idol" game, of course--certainly not when it comes to Her Minajesty, the Queen of Shade. And so, towards the end of Wednesday's episode, when the three underdog guys remaining on the show (Burnell Taylor, Devin Velez, and this season's token Sanjaya-style punching bag, Lazaro Arbos) performed the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself," judge Nicki Minaj could not help herself from viciously blasting the boys. There was nothing sugar-pie-ish or honey-bunch-esque about her scathing remarks, that's for sure.
Yes, the boys' seemingly unrehearsed and embarrassingly amateurish performance had been cringe-inducing and hardly deserving of praise; it actually gave me nightsweaty flashbacks to all those terrible lyric-flubbing performances from this season's Hollywood Week rounds. In fact, if these boys had given a group performance like this back then, at least one of them (Lazaro, duh) would not have made it beyond Hollywood. But still. Nicki was shockingly ruthless to all three boys--so ruthless, in fact, that even Simon Cowell probably would've told her to take it easy if he'd been sitting on the panel with her.
Nicki's angriest alter ego came out for this critique to end all critiques, as she raged: "It's a beautiful day in Hollywood, because that's what it felt like--I felt like I was back in HOLLYWOOD WEEK! I don't know what that was, but imma act like I ain't even seen it, or heard it! Imma thank gawd that all three of you already had your solo performances. Lazaro, you fell as flat as a pancake. Don't ever do that again. All three of y'all, go! GET OFF THE STAGE!"
And then things went from bad to worse to Vote For The Worst, when Devin and Burnell--obviously the two stronger vocalists of the three--so blatantly bused their weakest-link singing partner, I half-expected Ryan to announce that Greyhound was now "Idol's" new sponsor. "I did what I was supposed to do. Not to throw anyone under the bus," said Burnell, before he did precisely that, "but it is a competition." Said Devin, in an even more ill-advised attempt to defend himself: "I learned my parts. I tried to save a couple of people"--implying that he thought both Burnell and Lazaro had messed up. (Oh, dear. It's going to be very interesting when these three have to share a bus, literally, on this summer's Idols Live Tour.) Lazaro, meanwhile, once again blamed his poor performance on his lack of familiarity with the song, the same lame excuse he used last week.
Honestly, as this trio floundered onstage Wednesday, it almost seemed like Ryan should've just told them to remain in their centerstage places until Thursday night, when they'll likely be called back to that very spot and informed that they're all in the bottom three. While it's true that neither Devin nor Burnell were the worst of the night, their unsupportive attitude probably won't go over well with voters who continuously, bafflingly sympathize with struggling sob-story case Lazaro. However, after this evening, my guess is Nicki won't be sad to see any of these three go home.
Here's how all eight contestants fared with their (thankfully) much better solo performances:
Candice Glover - Oh, noes. My gurl Candice was singing first, which is almost always a disadvantage, even for an undeniably amazing singer like her. And she was doing "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," the song that was almost Casey Abrams's downfall in Season 10. So I was worried. I do think Candice will probably be safe this week, since she's one of the best singers of Season 12 and has a devoted fanbase. (And the judges are among her biggest fans, so she'd probably get the Judges' Save if, for some bizarre reason, she was up for elimination this week.) However, if I'm being honest, which I usually am…I hated this slowed-down, sax-heavy arrangement. Candice did what she could with it, and sang the heck out of the song, but it was so much more exciting to see her let loose on the uptempo Beatles rocker "Come Together" last week. I was surprised that none of the judges (particularly music nerd Randy Jackson) complained about the arrangement at all, but all four all had mad love for Candice. "You've raised the bar exponentially," said Keith Urban, before oddly adding, "That was your best performance tonight." (Um, did Keith mean "best performance to date"? This was only the first performance of the entire episode. Did Candice perform some other song I missed? Or did Keith suffer from the same sort of brain-fart that Paula Abdul had when she accidentally critiqued a not-yet-sung song by Jason Castro in Season 7?) Nicki praised Candice as well, saying, "You kept your eyes alive throughout the whole performance. It was very exciting, and you stayed in it completely." Mariah Carey told Candice, "In a lot of ways, you epitomize what this competition is." And Randy blathered a bunch of cockamamie babble about how he was so glad that Candice finally believes in herself--something he says every week, despite the fact that I cannot remember a single moment (including when she first tried out in Season 11) when Candice didn't seem completely confident onstage. And I'm sure she'll seem confident again next week--but I do hope she gets a better song arrangement. She deserves one.
Lazaro Arbos - After last week's "In My Life" disaster, which ended in tears for everyone (including Lazaro himself), there really was nowhere to go but up for Laz. Well, either up, or off the show. This week, Laz's cover of Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life" was a major improvement over last Wednesday: He got a bit of his groove back, both literally (he didn't need a click-track this time) and figuratively (he was so confident, he even called the judges "baby" and "boo"). But just because Lazaro was this week's Most Improved didn't mean he deserved all the judges' praise he got, or that he deserved to stay over other, more ready-for-prime-time contestants (as his aforementioned catastrophic group performance later in the night readily proved). Mariah once again praised Lazaro's "courage" and basically gave him a kindergarten-style gold star just for showing up. Keith employed his new favorite adverb and said Laz was "exponentially" better this week. Nicki just spent most of her critique time shamelessly hitting on her new "husband," guest mentor Smokey Robinson, proving that there's not a single solitary person on the planet who will be spared her lecherous advances. "I don't know if you completely redeemed yourself, but this was far better than last week," said Randy, before Lazaro squandered all that goodwill an hour later with "I Can't Help Myself." The bottom line is, the judges have been assessing Lazaro's subpar performances using a very different (lower) standard than they employ for this season's less fragile (but more talented) singers. And this simply is not fair--to viewers, to the contestants, or even to Lazaro himself. It has to stop.
Janelle Arthur - Nicki told Janelle, "You always shine when you have your guitar in front of you," but I don't recall ever seeing Janelle strumming a six-string before this week. I am pretty sure I would have remembered something that awesome. Janelle's acoustic-guitar rendition of "You Just Keep Me Hangin' On"--her own arrangement, which she first came up with at age 14--was absolutely amazing, and I developed new respect for this girl. (She gave me a bit of a Brooke White vibe, and that was a very, very good thing.) This was the second superb week in a row for Janelle, following her lovely, countrified take on the Beatles' "I Will" last Wednesday, and she raised the bar again, both for herself and for the show. Her woman-scorned performance had passion, but was nicely understated--it was just real and raw, almost like she was singing it directly to an on-again/off-again ex. "That was you at your best!" shouted Mariah. "That was beautiful. I love your fearlessness, the things you'll go for vocally. That arrangement really brought out the angst in that song, in a way I've never heard before," raved Keith. Randy said Janelle was "in it to win it" (ugh) and that this was one of Janelle's best performances yet. I actually thought this was Janelle's best, period. Basically, Janelle needs to play her guitar every week--especially since no boys are playing guitar this season.
Devin Velez - Devin took on one of guest mentor Smokey Robinson's own tunes, "Tracks Of My Tears"--a gutsy move indeed, not just because he was performing it in front of the song's originator, but because one of "Idol's" all-time greats, Adam Lambert, set the series' standard for "Tracks" back in Season 8. Devin's version came nowhere close to Adam's, mainly because he didn't do anything new with the arrangement--his rendition was very safe, very oldies-revue, with no real modern flair. The problem with Devin, week after week, is never his voice--it could be argued that he has always been the technically best male singer in this year's top 10--it's just that, well, he is boring. The most exciting thing about him this week was that he looked like a "ripe banana," according to Nicki, or like one of the Jedward twins, according to me. Nicki called Devin "amazing," Mariah said he was "flawless," and Randy said he was "back!" (Why is Randy always claiming that every contestant is staging some sort of miraculous comeback every week?) But I was not wowed. "I hope America understands how really good that was," said Mariah. Unfortunately for Devin's sake, I don't think America will.
Burnell Taylor - Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" was a great song pick for Burnell's unique crackly tone, and it put his pleasingly idiosyncratic diction and phrasing on full display. His performance was a nice mix of old soul and new-school swag, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And so did the judges. "You reminded us why we fell in love with that voice. I could definitely hear you back in that [Motown] time," mused Nicki, who also bizarrely compared the white-suited Burnell to a "sexy priest." Randy said, "I love your choices. It just shows that you don't always have to do the big runs; you can do little twists, little inflections." Said Mariah: "You picked one of my favorite songs, and you really did a great job with it." And Keith gushed, "What I love about your voice is…I love everything about your voice!" I sincerely hope this performance was enough to save Burnell, and that the horrific group performance he did later in the night with Devin and Lazaro does not remain uppermost in voters' minds and ruin his chances.
Angie Miller - Angie, usually the judges' favorite, the girl who has all but been declared the Season 12 winner for weeks now, was surprisingly the other contestant who was targeted by the judges this week. However, I don't think she deserved all the flak she got. Sure, her decision to do the doo-woppy novelty hit "Shop Around" was a risk, and maybe she didn't 100 percent pull it off; at times, "rocker chick" seemed like yet another role that this self-confessed theater geek was just trying on for size. But this performance was hardly a disaster of Lazaroan proportions. In some ways, it really was fun to see this girl, who is only 18 years old, rocking out, kicking up her kitten heels, and sort of channeling Katy Perry (or Patty Smythe circa Scandal's "Goodbye To You"). I gave Angie credit for trying; the judges, however, did not. "You came out to try and show a different side of Angie that didn't need to be shown. You need to stop. You don't need to be sexy. Don't show us another side. We ain't asked for another side yet!" barked the on-fire Nicki. An also-disgruntled Randy said, "This was a very strange one for me. I don't know if there was something going on in your ears, but this was first time ever that I'd seen you have such a pitchy performance. You're usually so right-on." Mariah said the Jackson Five's "I'll Be There" would have been a better song choice, then not-so-subtly plugged her own famous cover of the J5 classic. Mariah then mentioned Angie's "faith-based" musical background, implying that Angie may have betrayed her religious roots by giving a performance that Mariah exaggeratedly described as "risqué." I have a feeling that comment could hurt Angie this week. After all, remember what happened to Christian music singer Colton Dixon last year, after he took a chance covering heathen Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance"? We shall see if Angie experiences a similar backlash.
Amber Holcomb - Amber, who was inexplicably in the bottom three last week, definitely sounded lovely this Wednesday interpreting Stevie Wonder's "Lately." It was probably enough to keep her safe this week, because her rich, buttery vocal was pretty much perfect. So…why was I bored? I'm not saying Amber had to do a cutesy version of "Shop Around," but something about this didn't quite connect for me. The performance felt old-fashioned, very Season 3. The judges of Season 12 loved this, though. All four of them gave Amber a standing ovation, perhaps in a desperate attempt to convince America that she should not be in the bottom three again. But then Mariah alienated much of America by using the F-word (at least I think that's what the Fox censors beeped out), just to make her point to supposedly uneducated viewers who apparently do not know what Mimi's favorite phrase "tour de force" means. The other judges, even Nicki, kept it classy. "You picked the right song. You sang it beautifully, and you felt it beautifully," said Keith. "That was just out of this world. You are something very, very special. When God created them vocal cords, He was showing off, honeychild," said Nicki. And Randy declared, "Best vocal of the night! Crazy, crazy vocals!" I am not sure if this was the best of the night, but I do think it was impressive enough to earn Amber a spot in next week's top seven.
Kree Harrison - Getting the pimp slot was Queen Kree, ending the uneven episode on a much-needed literal high note. Her cover of the Aretha Franklin version of Ben E. King's "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)"--a song, it should be noted, that was once performed on "Idol" Season 1 by almighty future champ Kelly Clarkson--was really bluesy and earthy, and subtly sexy…and of course it was vocally perfect. Kree never disappoints vocally. I was slightly disappointed that Kree didn't let loose quite as much as she said she intended to--Kree always seems slightly reserved onstage--but she did perform like a natural. "To take on the Queen Of Soul is a tough thing. You're one of the best of the competition. You're definitely here to stay," said Randy. Mariah babbled a bunch about herself, of course (apparently she has covered this song too; um, who cares?), but she eventually got around to saying, "I commend you for doing that song. I love you, and I also know that you're here to stay. Bravo!" Said Keith: "I love that you keep reminding people of the blues and soul roots that are in country music. Your voice is inherently country, in the most beautiful way." Nicki called Kree a "queen" and told her, "Your confidence never wavers. You're so organic in everything that you do."
So, will it indeed be the three boys in the bottom three this week? That's my prediction. And though it should be Lazaro who leaves, I think it'll be either Burnell or (more likely) Devin who'll get cut--even if they don't deserve to, based on their performances this week as well as their overall Season 12 body of work. Tune in Thursday to find out what happens, and until then, Parker out.