Pop Culture

It's a lovefest from 'Idol' judges on Motown night

After the first nine singers had performed to near-unanimously positive feedback on “American Idol’s” Motown night on Wednesday, host Ryan Seacrest asked the gushing question, “If you’re at home, how do you vote?”

It’s hard, and not because people don’t know how to call, text or go online to support their favorites. It’s that the judges critiqued the singers as if they were scoring a high-school talent contest: Everyone was great, and the only criticism took the angle of how the singers could be even greater!

That’s where the show still misses Simon Cowell, or at least his crankiness. It needs someone who would have told Haley Reinhart, “I think you’re going home,” even though she sang much better this week. She had too much ground to make up and didn’t do it with her version of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold On Me."

And Simon would've slammed Thia Megia for flubbing her lyrics. The judges were so excited to see her do something up-tempo with Martha & The Vandellas' “Heat Wave” that they didn’t pick up when she let the band and backup singers have some extended time in the spotlight. To her credit (or detriment, depending on how the voting goes) she admitted the mistake to the "Idol" cameras afterward. But isn’t that something that Randy Jackson, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez should have caught?

And shouldn’t someone have asked Scotty McCreery, “What was the deal with those facial expressions and the dance moves? Was that supposed to be a comedy bit?” Instead, they gave him credit for “taking a chance” with Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life." (Like he had any choice on Motown night.)

Or noted to Paul McDonald that his performance of Smokey Robinson's “The Tracks of My Tears” got off to a rocky start instead of just complimenting him on his unique voice? We get it. Paul McDonald has a distinctive tone and has sewn up the role of “Young Rod Stewart” in the eventual biopic. At this point of the competition, praising him on that is like complimenting his hair color.

And someone should've told Stefano Langone his version of Lionel Richie's “Hello” was self-indulgent. Instead, the most criticism we heard was J.Lo doubting his connection to the audience and Gordon Ramsey dismissing his mother’s pasta leftovers as “fine.”

Or heck, even suggested to Lauren Alaina that she needed to quit complaining about the very tepid criticism she received a couple of weeks ago and let it go? Or told James Durbin that it would be interesting to see him clean up and take on a ballad now that he's proven he can wow everyone as a rocker?

Why didn't anyone ask Naima Adedapo whether she wanted to be a singer or a performance artist? Or asked Casey Abrams whether he wanted to be taken seriously or like a comedian? Heck, nobody was perfect, but it was tough to gather that from what the judges said all night.

Don’t get me wrong: The top 11 all performed reasonably well, and this was a lot better than the annual tribute to Detroit usually is. Ryan might actually be right when he calls this the most talented group ever. But still, it’s not like we’re in May. If being a little more brutally honest is this hard now, it’s tough to imagine what the compliments will be like when we get closer to the finale.

Maybe Ramsey needs to come out of the audience, put down the Tupperware and try passing a judgment on singers instead of food.

Here’s how to get better
Ironically, while the judges are very bad at telling singers when they haven’t hit the mark, they’re very good at offering constructive feedback.

Pia Toscano, for example, had another strong performance with “All in Love Is Fair” by Stevie Wonder. She’s been the queen of the ballads so far, and her results make its hard to fault that. But doing so risks viewer fatigue and the judges quite reasonably suggested she sing something a little peppier next week.

“You can’t live on ballads alone,” Randy said.

And J.Lo had the right tip for Langone in asking him to focus on telling a story with the lyrics rather than staying inside himself. His vocals on “Hello” were fine, but he again looked like he was singing for himself instead of the crowd.

“I don’t want the intensity to come because you want to do well. I want the intensity to come because your heart is breaking,” she said.

As if the lavish compliments from the judges weren’t enough, Jacob Lusk got some physical affection after his performance as well.

First, Ryan had him go out into the audience and give his grandmother a hug. Then, Ryan had pretty much the entire first row come up onstage and give him an embrace.

That might be taking this whole “kinder, gentler ‘American Idol’ ” thing a bit too far.

Craig Berman is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com.

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