Last night on American Idol was Motown Night, when we all learned that Motown songs (like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”) should all be sung as seriously as possible, wearing a scowl, with all the fun sucked out. (And that was a performance that was pretty good.) It’s in keeping with this season, in which melodramatic ballads have dominated even more than usual.
But when the three remaining male singers, Burnell Taylor, Devin Velez, and Lazaro Arbos, got together to sing a straightforwardly upbeat rendition of “I Can’t Help Myself” (probably only because it’s difficult to angrily growl the words “sugar pie honeybunch”), it suggested that maybe they really should have kept scowling.
One problem with the arrangement they’re using — common to situations where three people split up a love song — is that they’re trading off one line at a time. Well, no: they’re trading off one phrase at a time. One guy says “sugar pie honeybunch,” and the next guy says “you know that I love you.” You wouldn’t blame Sugar Pie Honeybunch for being a little bit confused about who exactly is making this plea in the first place: “Oh, the guy on the right! He’s cute! Wait, no. Guy in the middle. Wait, I’m sorry, who thinks I am a honeybunch?”
When you ask kids who may very well not know this song (hey, even a lot of much older people would be hard-pressed to remember what order these lines come in, and not a small number of them probably think it goes “sugar pie honeybunch, blah blah blah”) to not only sing it with probably limited rehearsal time but also constant switches so that they have as many cues to miss as possible, you … encourage them to miss their cues.
It appears that the trouble starts when Devin and his white bow tie (?) sing “leavin’ just your picture behind,” which would obviously call for someone else to sing “and I’ve kissed it a thousand times,” because why would anyone finish a thought? It looks like maybe the person meant to finish this thought was Lazaro. But when that doesn’t happen, Devin and his white bow tie go in with the rescue and finish the line.
After that, not only is Lazaro kind of not singing his lines, but he’s not joining in backup very much either. But Devin and Burnell just keep singing as much of the lyric as they can scrape up, trying not to look panicked, thinking, “Just keep smiling. Keep smiling. Keeeeep smiling.” If someone had next sung “Let’s all go to a taco show,” I would not have been surprised.
The miles and miles of sound desert that appears on the horizon right before “burnin’ in my heart” is the moment where you can almost imagine the director backstage, wondering whether to just go to the long beep and the “PLEASE STAND BY” graphic where the little cartoon man is running across the screen with a wrench.
And then they start dancing. Sort of.
The upside of all of this — including the parts where you can hear someone half-mutter-singing into the microphone — is that now you know they’re really singing live. Whatever this performance does not have, it does have spontaneity. You can sort of see Burnell and Devin both taking the attitude that they are going to just sing their parts, no matter what, like Olympic relay racers pretending to grab a baton that wasn’t handed to them and just happily running off in imitation of what they would be doing if anything were going the way it was supposed to, like speed mimes.
Normally, bad performances end in pity. This one ended with Nicki Minaj telling them literally, “Get off the stage.” After that, Ryan Seacrest quizzed them all about what went wrong, which resulted in a fairly painful situation in which Burnell and Devin stressed that they knew their parts, while Lazaro pointed out that it has a lot of words that were tough to remember. Simple, not very glamorous, but undoubtedly true. And not really how group performances work.
Let’s pretend this never happened.