‘American Idol’ Recap: The Top 11 Find A Little Soul

Wednesday night’s (March 23) “American Idol” was Motown themed because nothing says “contemporary artist” like songs that were written half a century ago. That didn’t prevent the stars from showing up in droves. Look! There’s Jennifer Beals and Liv Tyler! Is that Kirsten Dunst having a gal’s night out in the studio audience? And golly! Adam Shankman looks just divine in sweatpants!

The tension was extra-thick Wednesday, and not just because the audience clearly loves Steven Tyler a million times more than Jennifer Lopez. (Awkward!) You see, the top 11 were competing for 10 spots on this summer’s “Idol” tour, which is not only a big money maker for the contestants but also an opportunity to be in close contact with stalkers from coast to coast.

Seacrest giddily pointed out that this was the first time Randy Jackson made it through a telecast without using the word “pitchy” but he failed to congratulate Tom Petty for no longer being the most decayed-looking American rocker alive. That distinction now goes to Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford, who was also spotted in the audience. Golf claps! (Anything louder and he’ll be spooked back into his hole.)

Before I go on a rant about how you need to tune into my new weekly show “Idol Party Live,” airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. on MTV.com, let’s get to Wednesday’s (mostly solid) performances!

Casey Abrams
Song: Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
Verdict: I Heard It On The Subway
Team Iovine tried its best to reign in Casey’s “screechy scream.” Team Hair Stylists tried its best to reign in Casey’s curls with hair gel. And I tried my best to reign in my Negative Nancy side so I might finally enjoy Casey Abrams’ vocals again. Everyone failed. I love Casey Abrams as a TV character. He can whip the crowd into a frenzy with a simple demon face and mere proximity (except for Gordon Ramsey who refused to clap and some goddess in a leather jacket who didn’t even acknowledge the growling hippie walking past her).

J. Lo squeed, “You’re so specific as to who you are. Is there anybody like you right there?” Truth, Ms. Lopez, but there’s also nobody like the homeless lady on the A train who sings her original drum-and-vocal composition, “Gotta Eat! (This Ain’t No Joke, For Real I’m Broke)” — do you want to give her a million dollar record contract too? More importantly, what’s the phone number to vote for Casey’s adorable gal pal Megan? More of her, please!

Thia Megia
Song: Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”
Verdict: Cold Front
Motown launched the successful careers of kid stars like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. So how frustrating is it that Jennifer Lopez gave Thia Megia’s stiff stage presence a pass on Motown night because she’s “only 15, I mean 16, I mean 15, I mean, how old are you again?” I’ll give Megia a little credit for attempting something other than an end credits movie ballad, but I’ll be damned if there’s anyone on out there that believe this girl’s ever felt a burning sensation anywhere, other than that one time she had chicken pox two weeks ago. (She’s young, y’all!) After her performance, Thia let America in on a dirty little secret: “I flubbed the lyrics a little bit but hopefully nobody noticed.” You mean, the lyrics of “Heat Wave” aren’t “[stop singing, turn nervously to the band leader, mumble]?” You learn something new every day!

Jacob Lusk
Song: Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need To Get By”
Verdict: Holy S—!
I’ve been saying for weeks that Jacob Lusk was this year’s Jennifer Hudson. Like J-Hud, he learned to sing from sassy women in a church. Like J-Hud, he angers white people who don’t understand the concept of gospel performance. And like J-Hud, he will be unfairly eliminated while a young PageantBot and deep-voiced teen sit safely on the sidelines. But until that day, let us all bask in the glory of Jacob Lusk’s “Circle of Life” moment, his stunning “You’re All I Need To Get By.”

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Jacob finally learned that if he sings the majority of a song like a human being, the audience will appreciate it when the Holy Spirit finally decides to put ants in his pants at the very end, so much so that they’ll line up single file to embrace him! (Except for you, sir. Sit down. This is Fox. We only allow gays to be out on “Glee.”)

“You milked it!” exclaimed Steven Tyler after spontaneously hugging Lusky and whispering, “Baby Luther!” “You made us beg for those notes! Give it to us, Jacob! Give it to us, Jacob,” shouted J. Lo. Fun fact: “Give it to me, Jacob!” are words you’d normally only hear during a sex scene in a Woody Allen movie. Overflowing with emotion and personality, Lusk’s “You’re All I Need To Get By” may go down as one of the best “Idol” performances of all time — or at least the one most worthy of a Nana hug.

Lauren Alaina
Song: The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”
Verdict: Better Than Leah LaBelle!
Lauren Alaina’s been reading the blogs, guys. She said it got her down at first but now she’s able to handle the scrutiny. Good! Because I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out that her zebra print muumuu belonged on a Real Housewife of Miami, and if she flirts her way towards the judges one more time this season I might start a petition to surround the panel with bulletproof plastic (just like my local liquor store). Her voice was on point, as always, but I don’t know that I’d call her mannered neck snaps and facial ticks “swagger” the way Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez raved. I’m still waiting for Lauren Alaina to lose herself in the music. If you’re reading this, Lauren, I’m hard on you because I think you have crazy potential. Also, stop reading the blogs.

Stefano Langone
Song: Lionel Richie’s “Hello”
Verdict: Eyes Wide Shut
Stefano Langone was given one thing to work on: keep your damn eyes open, fool! So why did he pick the ultimate closed-eyes ballad, Lionel Richie’s ode to blind sculptors? You could see Langone struggling to keep his eyes open for the first half of the song, like a little kid on the MonoRail after a long day of Disney rides, desperately trying to prove to his mom and dad that he’s awake enough for the fireworks. And, like little Timmy at Disney World, Stefano’s eyes were shut less than a minute later. Whoops.

Langone admitted that he’s never heard this song before. (He must have been watching “Lost” during David Cook’s “Idol” season.) That’s probably why his performance was as believable as an episode of “Passions.” His odd phrasing and pronunciations didn’t help, either. Ladies and gentleman, Tony Montana sings Lionel Richie’s greatest hits! “Hello! Yis it me yo loookeeng for. Say hello to my little friend. My soul patch.”

Haley Reinhart
Song: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”
Verdict: Bus, Meet Haley
Let’s count the ways in which producers set up Haley to fail.

1) Her pre-performance package reminded America that she’s hanging on by a thread. “My huge goal is to not be in the bottom three. I gotta prove that I really wanna be here,” said Haley. It’s not so much that America doesn’t think you want to be there, Haley. It’s more that America doesn’t want you to be there.

2) Her advice from the judges week after week: look less awkward on stage. Producers solution: walk down stairs in nine inch heels at the beginning of your performance. “That will be graceful,” said Nigel Lythgoe, rubbing his hands together. “Trust me!”

3) The director rarely cut to a close-up, letting us experience every strange body bend and flail in gloriously unflattering head-to-toe camera angles.

4) The stylist dressed her in an outfit that said, “After this is over, I’m going to interview to be a paralegal at Playboy.”

5) The judges had nice things to say about Haley’s growly, balls-to-the-wall rendition, giving her fanbase a false sense of hope. “I don’t have to stay up all night voting for Haley! J. Lo finally liked her!”

Scotty McCreery
Song: Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life”
Verdict: Pimped Ain’t Easy
During the night’s next Coke “Real” Moment, Ryan Seacrest shared incredible footage of Scotty hurling a basketball from an “Idol” mansion bedroom balcony into a hoop across the driveway. It’s like “Idol” was saying, “Even if Scotty’s new jack country swing isn’t your cup of tea, and even if you don’t enjoy his newly-adopted aggressive hand choreography, he’s still the most perfect human specimen who has ever walked the Earth, so you better vote for him or else.” McCreery pushed his vocals further than we’ve heard thus far, but was still smart enough to end on his deep-toned money maker (or “lady killer note,” as Randy called it). Let’s all close our eyes (except you, Stefano) and imagine Scotty singing a low F# causing hundreds of tween girls to fall to the ground like a herd of fainting goats.

Pia Toscano
Song: Stevie Wonder’s “All In Love Is Fair”
Verdict: Stronger Than Xanax
Dear Pia Toscano fans. With regards to calling your girl “Sweet P,” I’m going to have to respectfully ask you to stop. Reality TV already has a Sweet P and I run her fan club so to avoid a cease and desist from my lawyer, you’ll come up with a new nickname for Pia immediately. Capisce?

How about, “Pia, The Amazing Balladeer Who Sounds Like Celine But Performs Like Her Legs Are Tree Stumps Planted On Stage”? Or maybe “Pia: The ‘P’ Isn’t For Personality”? If those are too long, how about simply making a snoring sound effect? Efficient!

Paul McDonald
Song: Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks Of My Tears”
Verdict: John Cougar Melancholy
Paul took a song that Adam Lambert perfected two years ago but put his own quirky Americana spin on it. And lo and behold, it was Paul McDonald’s best “Idol” performance to date, mostly because producers let Paul cover up his weird with a guitar. It’s like how pregnant sitcom stars hold laundry baskets for half a season.

The Children of the Corn backup singers drowned him out during the chorus, too, which boosted my overall enjoyment. It’s not that I didn’t want to hear Paul’s signature croak, mind you. I was just impressed that an “Idol” arrangement could sound so full and lush.

Naima Adedapo
Song: Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing In the Street”
Verdict: Waka Waka
“It doesn’t matter what you wear,” sang the girl in the bell-bottoms. It also doesn’t matter what you sound like if you’re going to bust out some crazy dance moves on a singing competition every week. I whole-heartedly support Naima rocking choreo on the “Idol” stage, especially if it keeps her from singing. (If you think that’s harsh, Randy pretty much said the same thing to Naima’s face.)

To be fair, Naima sounded damn-near perfect on the Martha & the Vandellas hit. Okay, so the African dance breakdown made as much sense as Jennifer Lopez wearing a poodle skirt on Motown night. (Wrong decade, J. Lo!) But if that level of commitment, finally combined with on-key vocals, doesn’t keep Naima out of the bottom three, I hope that injustice inspires millions of people to storm the streets doing the Watusi.

James Durbin
Song: Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City”
Verdict: Dance White Boy!
There’s something off-putting about watching a seven-foot tall white man wearing chain jewelry sing about poor Southern African-Americans while doing the “Running Man,” no? If you’re able to swallow that pill, you were treated to a funky fresh finale.

Surprise of the night: Realizing Steven Tyler’s earring was modeled after a monkey-in-a-barrel toy. Surprise of the night #2: Realizing James Durbin has some stank-nasty rhythm. Werk!

What did you think of Wednesday night’s performances? How hard do you want to punch Gordon Ramsey for dismissing Mama Langone’s penne? Do you think Paul wore a cougar pin as a secret message to his fans? Did anyone else catch Adam Shankman wincing during Haley’s song? And which “Idol” do you hope to see break into African dance next? (The only answer is Scotty.) Leave a comment below!

And trust me, you do not want to miss Thursday night’s (March 24) “Idol Party Live.” My guest will be Michael Buckley (aka the host of “What the Buck” on YouTube). Tune in to MTV.com as soon as the results show is over. Tweet me your thoughts @jambajim using the hashtag #idolparty and we’ll share our favorites live on the air.