Top 11 Song Choices: Motown

Nigel is back and he’s changing things up drastically. Crazy backup dancers and music videos! No semifinal rounds! No white guys with (bass) guitars as front runners! And no theme weeks that force contestants into genres! That’s why this week, the theme is the extremely current, inclusive, fresh “Motown” week. It’s only been done, oh, four times before on Idol. (And that’s not even counting the R&B, Soul and 1960’s nights which, due to Idol’s expansive list of cleared songs, seem to amount to “Motown” night more often than not.) That said, I love myself some Motown songs and I appreciate the fact that Scotty will have to sing something outside the country genre, so I’m hyped up.

I would like to think that with 50+ performances of Motown songs in the Idol history books, this year’s contestants will stay away from the usual Motown pitfalls, but I know better than to assume contestant’s learn anything from year-to-year. But here are some songs they should have learned to stay away from:

“Heat Wave” (Martha and the Vandellas): After four performances over eight years, not one singer has been able to update “Heat Wave” into anything other than a cheesy karaoke imitation. It’s killed two eventual top 3 finishers, a Grammy/Oscar winner… and Lil Rounds. The Burger King flames have just been too much for any singer to handle and I don’t see this year’s crop faring any differently.

“My Girl” (The Temptations): Like “Heat Wave,” “My Girl” has been performed four times on Idol already. Unlike “Heat Wave,” no one remotely relevant to the Idol-world has sung it. (When the best performance was delivered by High School Student Aaron Kelly, you know something is desperately wrong.) It’s either been too vocally taxing or emotionally distant (again, HSSAK and lifetime-VFTW member John Stevens have performed it). In the end, the song is too classic or too attached to cheesy, hand-gesture filled college a capella groups to be reprised in any serious fashion on the Idol stage.

“Let’s Get It On” (Marvin Gaye): Asking America to get it on with you is typically not a good idea. The two men who sung it in the semifinals got axed the following week. (Although, Nikko Smith would be asked back after Mario Vazquez dropped out to pursue his blossoming musical career. “Gallery” says holla!) The other, Matt Giraud, was sent to the bottom three. (Not that it mattered in Matt’s case, he proved that getting eliminated on the show doesn’t actually matter – the judges will just save you over and over again!) But really, even if you perform this song capably, it won’t end well.

There are other songs that have been done poorly on Idol multiple times (“For Once In My Life,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to name a few) but none with the inherent suckitude of the above three. The fact of the matter is, it seems like it’s impossible to really update a Motown song. Even the most radical reinventions on the Idol stage (Kris Allen’s “How Sweet It Is” and Adam Lambert’s “Tracks Of My Tears”) have colored inside the lines with regards to many elements in the original song. The key to a strong performance with these instantly recognizable tunes is to, at all costs, avoid the cheese. Sing well. Don’t look stupid. And for the love of all that is holy, do not try to do a throwback tribute. It’ll be stupid. And cheesy. And not the fun kind of group sing cheesy, either.

On to song choice advice:

Casey Abrams should sing “Tears Of A Clown” (Smokey Robinson): The goal here was to find a song that I can’t imagine Casey Abrams yelling. He needs a song that’ll force him to sing and hopefully draw out an emotion that wouldn’t end up in some sort of felony.

Haley Reinhart should sing “If I Were Your Woman” (Gladys Knight and The Pips): Or not. Really, it’s kinda soul-y. I could see her trainwrecking this now that I’ve written it. But I don’t care enough to go back and find a better song.

Jacob Lusk should sing “Since I Lost My Baby” (The Temptations): The best parts of the song are the softer verses and I don’t think it’d lend itself particularly well to a camp-fest off-the-rails approach. He could still show some of his “Lusky Stank” but, y’know, not as terribly.

James Durbin should sing “Tracks Of My Tears” (Smokey Robinson): Because he’d obviously have the best rendition ever on the show. Really, his vocal talent is unparalleled on Idol and I can’t think of anyway that this could go wrong at all.

Lauren Alaina should sing “Quicksand” (Martha and the Vandellas): It’s like singing “Heat Wave” without the BK flames. (Okay, I have no idea what Lauren Alaina should sing. Something that doesn’t require a whole lot of emotional maturity.)

Naima Adedapo should sing “Cruisin'” (Smokey Robinson): Apparently I love Smokey Robinson songs. But this one is really good and Naima’s tone would absolutely work on it. Plus, she could remind us that she can actually sing without all the craziness. (And then immediately go back to the craziness next week.)

Paul McDonald should sing “Mercy Mercy Me” (Marvin Gaye): He needs to pick a song he can sit on a stool and sing faux-emotionally. Because lord knows people aren’t voting for Paul because of his stunning presence and technical vocal excellence.

Pia Toscano should sing “Where Did Our Love Go” (The Supremes): It’s not a full-blown get up and dance number, but it’d be hard to sing like a ballad. And with Pia we need to take baby steps out of rote-Idol-ballad-mode. It’s fun-ish and a little bit quicker paced than “All By Myself” and that’s all that really matters.

Scotty McCreery should sing “Money (That’s What I Want)” (Barrett Strong): Honestly I just kind of want to hear Scotty sing the “that’s what I want” repeat in a really low voice. I think it’d be amusing.

Stefano Langone should sing “Just My Imagination” (The Temptations): I just really really want someone to sing this song and I find Stefano to be the least offensive male singer in the competition so it defaulted to him.

Thia Megia should sing “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (Gladys Knight and The Pips): Thia has been varying degrees of mind-numbingly boring for three weeks. With this song, she won’t be boring. (She might be downright awful, but I don’t think it’s possible to be boring on this song.)

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