From left, Burnell Taylor, Devin Velez and Lazaro Arbos perform on "American… (Michael Becker / Fox )
The "American Idol" top 8 tackled the music of Detroit on Wednesday. That turned out to mean mostly Motown, but also, incongruously, a song by Madonna -- "Michigan's own Material Girl," Ryan Seacrest reminded us – and a countrified version of it at that.
Under the twinkling green eyes of Motown legend and guest mentor Smokey Robinson, it ought to have been a miraculous gem of a show, but alas, while some performers shined, others turned in woefully flawed performances. The judges' critiques too seemed a little off -- either rambling (Mariah Carey), strangely combative (Nicki Minaj), cliché (Randy Jackson, as is his wont), or blandly benign (Keith Urban).
Oh, and excuse me, but happy birthday, Mariah. Many of the contestants really, really, really wanted to offer Carey their birthday wishes. But for some reason (because she's turning 43? What's wrong with 43?), she refused to acknowledge the occasion. Seacrest was reduced to wishing her a "happy anniversary."
In other news, both Carey and Minaj wore bright red dresses. (At the very least, they agree on clothing color.) And, in addition to their solo songs, the contestants performed in groups.
Those group performances -- and the subsequent critiques (since when were group performances seriously critiqued?) -- made for some uncomfortable moments.
Janelle Arthur and Kree Harrison were happy to duet on that aforementioned Madonna song -- "Like a Prayer," performed a la Jennifer Nettles -- but Arthur wasn't completely in her element, wavering from the pitch early on before finally finding her groove. Still, because group songs are supposed to be "just for fun," it seemed unkind when Minaj pointed out Harrison not only "outshined" Arthur but bested her so much she looked like a pro who had flown in "to do a duet with an 'Idol' contestant." Ouch.
And while Candice Glover, Angie Miller and Amber Holcomb earned a standing ovation from Urban, Minaj and Jackson and a "hashtag pow" from Carey with their take on Diana Ross and the Supremes' "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," Lazaro Arbos, Devin Velez and Burnell Taylor fared far, far worse. Attempting the Temptations' "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch," Arbos -- it appeared, though perhaps also Taylor -- flubbed his lines, missing a cue and making a mess of it, and Minaj couldn't help herself from royally ripping into all of them. Saying it was a Hollywood Week-level performance, she ordered them out of her sight: "All three of you, go. Get off the stage!"
Seacrest tried to save things by noting how much his dad loved the song and even pretending to dance like his pops, but it was "Idol" at its most awkward.
As for the solo performances …
Candice Glover turned in a terrifically bluesy version of Marvin Gaye's "Heard It Through the Grapevine," playing off her backing band like a seasoned pro. The judges rightly loved it. Urban told her she had raised the bar "exponentially."
Lazaro Arbos, with Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life," did better than he had last week, a bit less like a deer in the headlights, but still came off as cheesy and cabaret-ish. The judges soft-pedaled their criticism -- Carey again commended Arbos on his "courage" and "guts" – except Minaj, who offered her funniest critique of the season. "Ricky Ricardo, you're definitely back," she began, then stopped to ask Robinson whether he'd be her "sugar daddy" before looping back to Arbos. "Fonzie, you gave it to me tonight," she said, adding she deserved credit for Arbos' renewed confidence -- "not just my husband, Smokey."
Janelle Arthur -- "our zumba instructor," as Seacrest calls her – performed her own folk-country arrangement of the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On," accompanying herself on guitar and working toward a powerful finish. "Janelle at her finest," Carey said.
Devin Velez performed confidently, if a bit remotely, on Robinson's own "Tracks of My Tears." Minaj said she loved "every single choice" he'd made and he looked "like a ripe banana … and that's a good thing."
Burnell Taylor offered a bouncy, playful version of Wonder's "My Cherie Amour," which suited his voice well. Minaj called his sound "rich and soulful" and his style "very artsy."
Angie Miller, a judge fave, meanwhile, turned in a truly terrible "Shop Around," written by Robinson, proving Jimmy Iovine had been right to have suggested she had a few youthful flaws to work out. She wanted to show her "fun, crazy side," she said, but came off like a showy theater chick performing at her high school battle of the bands -- self-conscious, overly stylized, off pitch and just all wrong. "Not great," Jackson said.