Motown Week on "American Idol" is a lot like the "required repertoire" part of a classical music competition.
The hits that mogul Berry Gordy's coterie of geniuses delivered, mostly in Detroit in the 1960s, are to aspiring Idols what Chopin etudes are to concert pianists: They truly (and dependably) test a singer's dexterity, timing and gift for real self-expression. The Motown songbook is familiar enough to put everyone sampling from it on an even field, but these family-gathering favorites are harder to sing well than they seem -- as Wednesday night's two hours of frantic moves and commanding victories clearly showed.
The evening began with a group outing to the Motor City, with Gordy as guide, and included some amiable mentorship from Smokey Robinson, whose natural grace as a vocalist goes so far beyond what these kids have that how little he had to tell them wasn't surprising. Few singers strayed from the interpretations forged by greats such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and David Ruffin, and surprisingly few mastered the rudiments of this familiar stuff. It was almost like an argument for natural selection: The strong thrived, and the weak fell back.
One contestant went against that formula, to her detriment. Though in past years America's love for inspirational, gospel-steeped black voices has given rise to "Idol" stars such as Fantasia and Jennifer Hudson, this year Lil Rounds stands as the sole survivor in that slot.
"You are the diva everyone has been waiting to hear," huffed judge Kara DioGuardi after Rounds raced through a clunky take on the Martha and the Vandellas song "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave." "If you don't nail this week . . . hmmm."
The pressure put on Rounds to succeed, which she didn't fulfill, brought to mind thoughts of high school coaches who think certain children might be better at basketball. Still, her mild failure was nothing compared with Megan Joy's yelpily disastrous "For Once in My Life," or the flu-besieged Michael Sarver's seemingly willful demonstration of diminished lung capacity on "Ain't Too Proud to Beg."
One of those two will probably depart tonight -- no shocker there. Nor will Anoop Desai's survival, despite a wobbly trip into falsetto range on "Ooo, Baby Baby," surprise, considering the wholesome heat the preppy pinup projects.
We've already come to expect these outcomes: another understated win from Kris Allen; a solid, cheerful one from Danny Gokey. Allison Iraheta rocked the house and didn't have to hit every note to impress; Scott MacIntyre worked the awkward sweetness that just might be keeping him in this thing, despite his lack of nuance. (Plus, the wardrobe folks put the unsuspecting, visually impaired crooner in pink pants, which might earn him a mercy pass.)
And finally, expectedly, we had another revelation from Adam Lambert. With his mall-rat mop slicked back and his cocky rock scream dialed down to a careful whisper, Lambert showed his overacting rivals what blue-eyed soul is at its best.
His version of "The Tracks of My Tears" was simultaneously restrained and painfully emotional, a description of the distance between yearning and fulfillment. Such intelligent readings are what nailing the repertoire is all about.