Three seasons ago on "American Idol," it was "the guy-next-door versus the guyliner." This year, apparently there were a few layoffs in the Fox copywriting department, since the best slogan anyone could come up with for this week's Season 11 showdown was the somewhat insulting-to-both-contestants "the musical artist versus the big ol' voice." Whatever. But I suppose it was an appropriate summation of the massive contrast between this year's two "Idol" finalists, humble singer-songwriter Phillip Phillips and girl-wonder powerhouse Jessica Sanchez.
Yes, not since Adam Lambert and Kris Allen in Season 8 had there been a final face-off as diverse as this one. Wednesday night's result will really come down to just a matter of personal taste, methinks. But I have a feeling that when it comes to personal taste, many more voters are going to be swayed by Phillip's final song.
So on Tuesday, Jessica and Phillip sang three songs each: One selected by "Idol" mastermind Simon Fuller, one reprise of a memorable Season 11 performance, and one "coronation song." And while Phillip seemed to maintain his edge (remember, "Idol" isn't just a singing contest, it's also a popularity contest), Jessica delivered a couple performances that put her squarely in the game. Sadly, though, for her final song, she was severely handicapped by a blah ballad that wasn't nearly as memorable, or praised, as Phillip's, even if that was out of her control.
But may the best man--or girl--win!
Jessica went first, having lost this week's coin toss (bummer for her), and kicked off the show with Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing." It was a somewhat predictable song choice for Jessica, but she did put herself on the "Idol" map with a Whitney cover, so I guess Fuller didn't want to mess with the formula now. Jessica sold the song (a bit of her growly alter ego, Bebe Chez, came out to play), and she sounded flawless, of course. And she looked flawless as well. (Side note: I was amused by how she was all dolled up like she was headed to the Oscars, and aw-shucksy Phillip was wearing rumpled, fresh-off-the-bedroom-floor everyman-wear, like he was headed to work at his pawn shop.)
Phillip was up next, doing Ben E. King's "Stand By Me"--again, kind of a boring choice, but at least one that allowed his usual P-Squared charm to shine. He strummed his guitar, he made his funny muggy faces, he flapped a bit, he stayed on the melody (for the most part--a little deviation is par for the Phillip course), and it was all very Phillip Phillips. He probably didn't win over many new fans with this, but judging by his unstoppable "Idol" run so far, maybe he didn't need to. And P-Squared diehards surely enjoyed it.
Randy Jackson declared that Jessica won round one, while nicey-nice judge Steven Tyler declined to comment, and J.Lo did little to earn her reported $15 million paycheck by just rambling about the "battle of the opposites" (which at least had a better ring to it than "the musical artist versus the big ol' voice," but still--not worth $15 million)...before eventually agreeing with Randy when pressed by Ryan Seacrest. I think this round, however, was pretty much a tie. Both excelled in just doing what they do. Vocally, Jessica had Phillip beat, but Phillip was no slouch.
For her second number, Jessica reprised "The Prayer"--an interesting choice, since her signature songs on this show, in my opinion, were "I Will Always Love You" and "And I Am Telling You." ("The Prayer" is also the song that "The Voice's" finalist Chris Mann sang when he went home in fourth place. Just sayin'.) But this was a very classic "Idol" performance, reminiscent of the seemingly long-gone days when female "Idol" belters like Kelly Clarkson and Jordin Sparks ruled the roost. I didn't find this very exciting, personally--I've often wished that Jessica would choose more youthful material--but once again, I couldn't find a single fault with her lovely voice.
Then Phillip returned, and his reprise choice was even more unexpected than Jessica's: "Movin' Out," from the top 10 week's Billy Joel Night. Um, what? Usher's "U Got It Bad," or Damien Rice's "Volcano"--his two best performances of the season, and two of Season 11's greatest performances overall--would have been MUCH better choices. I almost thought he was trying to throw the competition! He did a good job with the song--he "Phillip Phillips'd" it, as he always does, and honestly, I thought it was a more interesting performance than Jessica's--but I don't think this was the right song pick to win the competition.
The judges were mixed in their round two verdict. Steven finally piped up and called it for Jessica, but Randy said it was a "dead heat," and J.Lo said "that was authentic Phillip right there" and gave the edge to P-Squared. And so...it all came down to their original songs. This would be the make-or-break moment, and also prime time for conspiracy theorists to speculate regarding which contestant the "Idol" producers were favoring--depending on who got the better coronation song.
The song that Jessica will release as her debut single, if she wins this week, is "Change Nothing"--somewhat ironic, and fitting, since really I don't think Jessica has changed things up enough week to week on this show. This was typical Jessica: a belty, evangelical power ballad, which she performed while sitting on a white piano and flanked by a string section. I thought the song was kind of meh (even Randy said he didn't like it!), but she did the most she could with it and milked every big power-note. "You brought the song to life, but I thought the song was just okay," said Randy. "I just didn't think that song was the proper song for you to sing," shrugged Steven. Even Jennifer agreed that it was the wrong, soulless song for Jessica--which of course, was not Jessica's fault, so I am sure outraged Sanchez fans will complain that Jessica was thrown under the bus...unless this was all some advanced, clever reverse psychology to rally her worried fanbase.
Phillip closed the show with his original tune, "Home," and I actually loved this song, which surprised me. (I usually loathe those "I Believe A Moment Like This Is My Now Because I'm Flying Without Wings And Having The Time Of My Life Inside Your Heaven" sapfests on "Idol.") I've always preferred Phillip in acoustic-troubadour mode than in jam-band mode, and this was the P-Squared I adore most, exactly the type of music I would want him to do post-"Idol." He didn't write the song, but it sounded like he could have--or, actually, like Mumford & Sons could have. I have to say, if Phillip wins (which he probably will), this will be my favorite "Idol" winner debut single ever.
The judges dug this as well, giving Phillip a standing ovation. "Dude, I loved the song, I love you, I loved the production, I loved the marching band--everything about that was perfect!" howled Randy. "I couldn't think of any singer or band that you sound like; there is nothing like that on the radio," said J.Lo, who apparently can add Mumford & Sons to the ever-growing list of artists she's never heard of. And Steven called Phillip "the man." I think Phillip totally clinched his victory with his performance--although it's not really fair that he got such a superior song to sing.
So now, it is prediction time...and while I do believe this could be THE closest finale since Ruben versus Clay, I'm not changing my original prediction that Phillip will take the Season 11 title. He certainly didn't do anything to turn off the dedicated fans who've been voting for him all season long (and probably already had their minds made up, and their dialing fingers ready to go, before Tuesday's episode even aired)...and with his final song, he probably won some new fans, too.
Tune in to Wednesday's big finale to find out if I'm right! Parker out.