At one time it seemed that "American Idol" Season 11's arguably two most technically proficient singers, Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez, were destined to make it to the finale. But based on this Wednesday's crucial top three performance show, only half of that prediction is about to come true.
While Joshua unsurprisingly delivered the standout vocal performance of Wednesday night with his fiery Mary J. Blige cover, the usually flawless Jessica rather surprisingly stumbled on all three of her songs, and she even received some tough criticism from her biggest fan on the judging panel, Randy Jackson. (He dismissed her final performance of the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" with "I liked it, but I didn't love it," and griped that she really never had a "moment moment.") It's possible that this was because of her sore throat (which was--CONSPIRACY THEORY ALERT!--not mentioned on the air), or because of a couple song choices that were unfortunately out of her control. But whatever the reason, this development of course cleared the way for the already unstoppable Phillip Phillips, who, granted, received some really harsh comments for his second song--but memorably closed the night with what Randy actually said was the best Phillip performance yet.
Phillip's seemingly in-the-bag advancement to next week's finale, and Jessica's probable third-place defeat, will likely reinvigorate debate over whether female contestants are doomed on "Idol," or whether anyone other than a "WGWG" (white guy with guitar) will ever win this show again--a debate in which I've heartily partaken, many times. But let's put the conspiracy-theorizing aside for a second: The simple fact of the matter is, Jessica, as talented as she may be, just was n0t at her best this week, when it counted most. However, regardless of what happens, she should still be proud that she went further than any other Judges' Save recipient in "Idol" history...and if Jimmy Iovine makes good on his earlier promises, she'll probably land a record deal anyway. She certainly deserves one.
And as for that whole WGWG thing? Well, Joshua Ledet should not be counted out just yet. Even if "Idol" remains a man's, man's, man's world...we still don't know which man will win Season 11.
So Wednesday, each contestant sang three songs: one picked by the judges, one of their own choosing, and one selected by in-house mentor Iovine. And here's how everyone, including Jessica, did...
JUDGES' CHOICE: "I'd Rather Go Blind," Etta James
This was a somewhat predictable choice for an old-fashioned balladeer like Joshua; I would have preferred something a little more contemporary, something a little more unexpected, which would have let him put more of his own stamp on a song. This Etta classic simply wasn't much of a challenge for Joshua, and it was nothing we hadn't seen and heard from him before. That's not to say it wasn't an amazing performance--of course it was. But the problem with Joshua is he has simply set the bar too high for himself now, and this song didn't allow him to set it any higher. The judges roundly praised Joshua, as would be expected (and gave him his lucky 13th standing ovation of the season), with Steven Tyler appropriately calling this "another Joshua moment" and adding: "Out of 70,000, there's only one American Idol, and you sang like that one tonight." Jennifer Lopez admitted that the judges had gone with a totally within-the-box song pick, saying, "We just fed you what we know you would feed back to us." (Er, was that a good thing?) Randy's critique was the oddest, as he said, "You're such a classic stylist, and this fits you so like a glove--hopefully in the future, you can bring that back into modern times." Um, so if that is Randy's hope for Joshua, then why didn't the judges choose a more modern song for him now? Weird.
CONTESTANT'S CHOICE: "Imagine," John Lennon
Once again my hopes for unpredictability from Joshua were dashed when he went with this overdone "Idol" staple, one that is still associated in many viewers' minds with David Archuleta's landmark performance from Season 7. Joshua explained that he picked the tune because its message connected with him when he heard it on the radio this week, not because it was a big, belty song--and while I admired his intentions, I still didn't think this was the point in the game for him to start holding back. Joshua didn't receive a standing ovation this time, but the judges still adored this effort. Steven called it "another thank-you-God moment," Randy said it was "brilliant," and J.Lo actually praised Joshua's restraint, saying, "It was a pulled-back and controlled performance for you, which I know is the hardest thing for you to do."
IOVINE'S CHOICE: "No More Drama," Mary J. Blige
Luckily, Joshua did NOT pull back one bit for his final performance, and he delivered the first genuine "wow moment" of the night. "I figured he could use another moment," reasoned Jimmy, further proving that he is "Idol's" most valuable player and the only one who really knows what he's doing on this show. This was a genius song choice for Joshua: It had the drama, of course, that allowed him to "just go off," but more importantly...IT WAS MODERN. As Joshua tore into the song, tearing off his jacket in the process, he really seemed like a current and relevant R&B "divo" (as in, like a male diva). Forget about no more drama--I couldn't get enough of Joshua's drama, and neither could the studio audience members, among them many members of this season's top 13. (Joshua's bestie Hollie Cavanagh was practically in tears, and Skylar Laine was even bowing down.) This was awesome, and it was the performance that--unless that "God" Steven was referring to earlier decides to forsake this season--totally clinched Joshua's rightful spot in next week's finale. "At this point, it doesn't matter what you do; you have laid everything on this stage that there is to lay," raved Randy. "You have this perfect marriage of knowing exactly what you're doing and letting go at the same time," said Jennifer. "I watched you and I felt the last 40 years of the music business," said Steven. Whoa, Steven can actually remember the last 40 years? Ha. But I understood what Steven meant. This performance was the perfect past/present/future musical blend that I'd wanted all along from Joshua.
JUDGES' CHOICE: "My All," Mariah Carey
This was a rare stumble for Jessica, unfortunately at a time in the competition when she really couldn't afford to have an off night, sick or not. Yes, maybe Jessica can sing the phone book, as Randy has often loudly claimed...but apparently one thing she cannot sing is this very, VERY tricky Mimi number (at least not with a sore throat). For the first time this season, Jessica seemed like she was struggling to get through a song, sometimes sounding way too low, other times sounding way too shrill, and only erratically hitting her vocal sweet spot. When she did hit it, those moments were sweet indeed, but this performance was a shocking disappointment overall. However, the judges were apparently listening to some other performance, or maybe they wrote their notes before Jessica even got onstage, because they had nothing but gushing praise for her. "Absolutely beautiful! The perfectly right song for you!" howled the apparently deaf Randy, before he mentioned for like the jillionth time that he and Mariah are BFFs. (We know, Randy. We know.) "A hard song! But you did it so beautifully--you didn't even go to the big part at the end," said J.Lo, as if shying away from a song's money notes was a GOOD thing. (I experienced déjà vu flashbacks to similarly apologistic critiques the judges gave Lauren Alaina last season when she messed up "Unchained Melody." Lame.) "When you sing, you make people hang on your every note," said Steven, before schizophrenically changing his winner prediction from Joshua to Jessica, and boldly stating: "You'll be the last one standing here, I believe." But come on, as great as Jessica usually is, this was not a winning performance. I wish the judges had just been a little more honest here, and I really can't wait to hear what Iovine has to say about this performance when it's his turn to speak Thursday night. I suspect he will not be nearly as effusive.
CONTESTANT'S CHOICE: "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing," Aerosmith
I'm not sure if Jessica thought it was a shrewd strategic move to sing a song by Steven (it certainly worked for Lauren Alaina when she did it during her Season 10 audition). While some viewers probably believed it was gutsy for her to dare to cover a song right in front of the man who originated it, I didn't think this was a risk at all. On the contrary, I thought the song choice was way too safe; it's been done on "Idol" many times before, by David Cook, Allison Iraheta, Aaron Kelly, and of course Lauren. Jessica did a fine job with it--at least until she hit a surprisingly ouchy sharp note at the end--but it was not enough to put her back in the game, even if the judges were very kind. "You do not know what a big deal that is...that note at the end sent everyone into the heavens," J.Lo said, even though I thought that last note was far from heavenly. "You just took a great song and made it greater," said a way-too-nice Steven. "You've chosen some real tough hills to climb," Randy said diplomatically. Sadly, I don't think Jessica quite got to the top of the hill with this one.
IOVINE'S CHOICE: "I'll Be There," The Jackson 5
This was Jessica's best effort of the night, performed with a great deal of joy and a radiant smile that evoked the innocence of little Michael Jackson's original. Jennifer even told Jessica that she "almost sounded like Michael!" Steven called the performance "delicious," but Randy shrugged, "I liked it okay. I didn't love it." The audience vociferously booed Randy's remarks, but I have a feeling that after the votes are tallied this week, it'll be obvious that many viewers agreed with him. I just don't think this was enough.
JUDGES' CHOICE: "Beggin'," Madcon
This actually would have been a great song for Joshua, a perfect hybrid of old Motown soul (Madcon's song was based on a Four Seasons hook) and modern-day pop. And so, at first I assumed that the judges were totally throwing Phillip under the proverbial bus by making him do the song instead. (The judges even got in a little dig, when Steven explained that they'd picked the song in order to force Phillip to stay on "that melody that we're trying to drag through him...we want to see if he can do it." Oh, snap!) But if the judges' intention was to derail Phillip, then they totally failed in that mission. This was a fantastic performance, totally "Phillip Phillips'd" to the max with dual drummers and lots of Vedder-esque growling, and it somehow just worked. And despite what J.Lo said with a slightly nasty laugh, P-Squared did stay on the melody for the most part. "You're funny. You can't help it, you gotta mess with [the melody]!" Jennifer snarked, "but you catch a groove in the song and you ride it all the way home." Randy and Steven were less passive-aggressive, with Randy saying, "You have been in the zone since day one, and that was another incredible performance by you," and Steven even declaring that Phillip could be The Next Springsteen. And after this, Phillip certainly seemed to be the boss of round one.
CONTESTANT'S CHOICE: "Disease," Matchbox Twenty
Really? This was the song Phillip chose for himself? I know that sometimes "Idol" has trouble clearing certain songs, but surely there was a better option than this. But you know what? Phillip did okay here, and his "Disease" was catchier (pun intended) than Rob Thomas and company's original. It was a low-key performance, not a "moment moment" as Randy would say, but it was solid, and Phillip seemed confident and natural in his band-leader role. The judges, however, were underwhelmed. "That was an easy, flowing performance from you. I didn't think it was the wow performance that we are needing and wanting now. We'll see what you got next. You're closing the show!" said Jennifer. "I feel the same way. It wasn't over-the-top, but it was Phillip Phillips," Steven sighed. "You guys didn't love that? Wow, this is weird," Randy began, making it seem like he was about to disagree with his fellow judges and praise Phillip...before he pulled a Seacrest-style fakeout and quipped: "I didn't like it either! It was such a subdued moment. You can do those things in your sleep." Yikes. Not nice, Randy. Even Jimmy Iovine would not stoop so low. But Phillip only upped his likability quotient by laughing it all off.
IOVINE'S CHOICE: "We've Got Tonight," Bob Seger
The judges' critiques probably wouldn't have mattered much anyway to Phillip's diehard fanbase, but when Jimmy wisely picked a song for Phillip that appealed to both his male and female fans, it pretty much eradicated any chance of P-Squared going home in third place. This gruffly romantic power ballad was perfect for Phillip, and even though he seemed nervous singing it, looking a little lost without his guitar and rubbing his presumably sweaty palms on his trousers throughout, that boyish vulnerability somehow oddly worked for him. It was a lovely, tender, string-laden performance--and YES, it was melodic, too. I loved it, and so did the judges. "The perfect song at the perfect time, and your best performance on the show ever!" raved Randy. (I still think last week's "Volcano" was Phillip's best performance, but whatever. Praise is praise.) "There's about 20 million girls out there who wish you were singing that song to them," said Jennifer, in what was one of her more intelligent observations of the season. "That was beautiful; there's no other word," said Steven. Wait, does Steven even know any word besides "beautiful" when it comes to positive critiques? Yes, he does, a hyphenated one, "over-the-top"--and he eventually got around to using that one, too.
So now it is prediction time, and it seems like Jessica will be the one going home Thursday. But there have been upsets at this stage of this show in the past. Remember, in Season 8, Danny Gokey--who, like Phillip, had never been in the bottom three before--shockingly went home in third place. So that could happen to Phillip, too. But somehow...I doubt it.
Tune in Thursday to find out if I'm right! Until then, Parker out.
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