Steven Tyler has no concept of "too soon."
We're a week away from the season-11 finale, but American Idol's TMI-prone judge has already crowned the winner.
"When you sing, you make people hang on your every note," Tyler gushed following Jessica Sanchez's subdued yet stunning rendition of Mariah Carey's "My All," adding: "I hope you get used to encores. And on another crazy note, I think you'll be the last person standing there."
Not so fast, Tyler, Joshua Ledet and Phillip Phillips also proved worthy contenders for the title, and, at this point, it's anybody's guess who will go home with it next Wednesday.
This Wednesday, the remaining trio of contenders each went through three rounds, performing songs handpicked from the judges and mentor Jimmy Iovine as well as a personal selection.
Without further ado, round one:
Randy Jackson selected Etta James' "I'd Rather Be Blind" for Ledet; per usual, the 20-year-old Louisiana native totally nailed it, emoting with all the lived-in passion of the late soul legend herself. (Idea! How about a duet between Ledet and James' hologram in the finale? Make it happen, Nigel Lythgoe. Now that's too soon.)
Predictably, Ledet won a standing ovation -- his one-millionth, if we're counting.
Next up, Sanchez crooned "My All," and we have Lopez to thank for that one. Sporting a Kate Middletonian purple gown, the 16-year-old wunderkind melted the judges' panel with her birdlike soprano and restraint on stage (none of her signature lounge-style dancing tonight -- sorry Jessica, Gwen Stefani was right).
Then Phillips took the stage with Madcon's "Beggin," a Tyler pick and nice match for the 21-year-old Idol eye candy's cool, impish, slighlty dangerous, back-of-the-classroom vibe. He got into the song, making those easily-impersonated John Mayer facial contortions, resulting in unanimous praise from the judges' panel.
"I'm hoping you write your own songs. You could be a new age Boss. You could be the next Springsteen," declared Tyler, on a roll with doling out the highest of compliments.
(At the point, outraged fans of the Boss turned off the TV, ran outside, screamed "NOOOOOOOO," and ran back inside to watch round two.)
And now for part deux: contestants' choice.
Before Ledet belted "Imagine," a song that holds special meaning for him (take a number, Josh), Idol rolled the footage of his hometown visit to Westlake, La., where he was shown reprising "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" in an arena overlowing with hundreds, maybe thousands, of fans. That's right, an arena. Also! There were fireworks. "People are acting like I'm Barack Obama," mused Ledet whilst riding in a limo.
As for the John Lennon classic, Ledet toned down his high-energy act to pay tribute to the pro-peace anthem, allowing the crowd to absorb the lyrics. The judges, suckers for that song like the rest of the world (smart, Josh), gave three thumbs up.
For her return home to Chula Vista, Calif., Sanchez was carried off by helicopter, landing on the diamond at the San Diego Padres baseball stadium, James Bond-style. (Hey, how come the other two didn't get 'copters? Oh wait, Sanchez is going to win. We forgot.) Alas, she then greeted the masses at the local amphitheater and naval base, winning a key to the city from the mayor and riding through town on the top of a car alongside her younger brothers. "I'm really gonna try to win this for you guys," she said.
Shrewd: Sanchez performed Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," earning kudos from Tyler, who's generally tougher on people who sing his material. "You just sang a great song and made it greater," he raved. (Thanks, but we actually prefer Tyler's version. Flashbacks of 1998!)
Phillips' visit to his hometown of Leesburg, Ga., involved a trip to his family's pawn shop, where he got all teary-eyed and various fangirls pressed their faces against the windows. No sign of Stevie Nicks. Or the brunette girlfriend we saw in the audience a few weeks back.
The Dave Matthews soundalike picked Matchbox 20's "Disease" -- a jazzy, moody number that Lopez and company weren't crazy about. Neither we were: 1) it's boring and 2) why Matchbox 20? If you're going to choose something from that band, go with "Push." (More flashbacks of 1998!)
Last but not least, round three:
Iovine, the toughest critic and lone voice of practicality on this show, paired Ledet with Mary J. Blige's "No More Drama" for the sole purpose of watching him riff at the end. The result: an explosion of gospel, soul and R&B that had fourth-place finisher Hollie Cavanagh on her feet, excitedly clapping from the audience. Also spotted: Heejun Han, DeAndre Brackensick and Shannon Magrane.
"At this point, it doesn't matter what you say, what you sing, .... people should just stand up and vote for you!," intoned Jackson, while Lopez praised Ledet's mix of slick professionalism and spontaneity.
"You don't know what's going to happen but you know it's going to be out of this world," she said of Ledet, who stomped his feet and wailed with a swagger that would make Blige proud. Like we said, he's way too good for Idol.
For Sanchez, Iovine settled on The Jackson 5 classic "I'll Be There," released circa 1970, because of its timeless-yet-youthful quality.
"That was a good choice by Jimmy," approved Lopez, telling Sanchez: "You almost sounded like Michael (Jackson)."
(J-Lo has also compared her vibrato power voice to Whitney Houston and Beyonce. But not Springsteen.)
Jackson, however, wished Sanchez's performance echoed the multi-octave emotional range of Carey's '90s cover. To which we respond: Randy, Jessica doesn't remember anything past 1998.
Then there was Phillips, slaying his fan base with the slow-burning Bob Seger ballad "We've Got Tonight" while Iovine, dressed as a middle-aged Justin Bieber, nodded with approval. Backed by a string orchestra, his voice cracked as he stared soulfully into the camera and sang such lyrics as "Turn out the light/Come take my hand now/We've got tonight babe/Why don't you stay?"
Cue a standing ovation from the judges, as Jackson pronounced his Seger cover as the "perfect song at the perfect time" as well as Phillips' best performance.
Meanwhile, Magrane -- giddy as a schoolgirl -- mouthed, "He's SO cute!" Somewhere, Nicks watched at home, wishing it was 1977 and Fleetwood Mac needed a new guitarist-frontman....
Questions, Idol Worshippers: who's going home on Thursday? Do you agree with Tyler that Sanchez is gonna win the whole thing? Come on now, is Phillips really the next Springsteen? Or is Springsteen the next Phillip Philips?