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American Idol Season 11 Finale Recap: And the Winner Is… [Updated]

If the Phillip Phillips-vs.-Jessica Sanchez showdown of American Idol‘s eleventh season was an apples-vs-oranges kind of affair, then tonight’s season finale — featuring the inarguably terrific Top 13 12* — was a weird and occasionally wonderful smorgasbord. (*Uncle Nigel: “Jermaine Jones was just a figment of your imagination!”)

We had Season 3 champ Fantasia Barrino in a Crystal Gayle wig and, um, unfortunate spangled catsuit with side-leg cutouts (!) grabbing Joshua Ledet and turning the Nokia into a beautiful, howling messerie. We had John Fogerty, Reba McEntire, and Jordin Sparks dueting with Season 11 standouts Phillip Phillips, Skylar Laine, and Hollie Cavanagh. (More on those performances — including letter grades — a little later in this recap.)

PHOTOS | American Idol: The 21 Best Performances of Season 11!

Marriage was “spontaneously” proposed (said spontaneity almost certainly practiced and perfected in the office of Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo’s publicists). The phone book was sung. (Randy Jackson: “Literally!”) Too many medleys robbed us of individual moments for Elise Testone, Erika Van Pelt, Colton Dixon, and Skylar (who should’ve gotten two numbers, no?). And Rihanna and J.Lo showed us exactly why it’s Idol alumni — and not many of today’s “regular” chart-toppers/floor-writhers — who are the go-to candidates when it’s time to belt the National Anthem at the start of most televised sporting events.

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And then Jennifer Holliday and Jessica Sanchez tore the face off of music as we know it, flipped it, revesed it, performed an exorcism on it, and made it whole again. Or something insane like that. Mama Holliday scared the tarnation out of me, and I loved it.

I could’ve/should’ve blacked out when the performance was finished, but there was still the matter of crowing the American Idol season 11 champ.

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Dim the lights, Kieran! Your new American Idol is…Phillip Phillips! Congrats, sir, and be thankful you got the first decent coronation single in Idol history. There really are no boundaries anymore. Maybe not even at alternative/rock radio? (I know, I know, but I’m an optimist at heart.)

But before we start mullipng P2′s future, let’s review the night’s disparate and many performances:

The Top 12 (minus the Top 2), “Runaway Baby” I can’t lie and say I didn’t like this better when Joshua covered it by his lonesome a few weeks back. (Proof that one voice can be more powerful than 10.) That said, who knew Skylar was so adept at group choreography? And who’d have guessed Mr. Ledet would get his SYTYCD on and wind up falling on his butt? (E for effort, though!) Grade: B-

Phillip Phillips & John Fogerty, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” I couldn’t not love how genuinely excited Phillip looked sharing the mic with the CCR frontman for this performance, but why cover something P2 already sang just a few weeks ago? It’s not like Uncle Nigel couldn’t shake out the couches in J.Lo’s dressing room and clear a half-dozen new ditties for the finale, right? That feeling of déjá vu, combined with just a slight lag in energy, left me spending too much time focusing on what was around Fogerty’s neck (a black rubber bandana, maybe?) and not enough on the music. Grade: B

Phillip Phillips & John Fogerty, “Bad Moon Rising” Aha, now that was more like it. This swampy stomper fit Phillip’s vibe like a teaspoon fits a jar of peanut butter during midnight snacking hour. And the Phillips-Fogerty chemistry definitely benefitted from having a warmup number, too. I just wish the dudes had made it a trip (that’s a typo for “trio,” but “trip” works fine, too) by waving up Carrie Underwood, who jammed out and sang along from her seat in the audience. Grade: A-

Random observation: Of course Randy yells awful stuff like “Put him in the dumpster!” when he sees a wee thing like Ryan Seacrest get hoisted in the air by a mob of dudes.

Joshua Ledet and Fantasia Barrino, “Take Me to the Pilot” A hot, honeyed catastrophe of straining sequins, frantic camera work (Idol Director: “They’ve gone and left the stage!”) and ridiculous holleration? Or two of the best Idol contestants of all time breaking free from musical convention and letting the Holy Spirit take over? My sane half says the former, but the part of me that lost my damn mind hollering and clapping says the latter, obviously! (Also: Is this song set on an airplane?) Grade: D+/A+

Random observation: My take-home message from that whole “Jimmy Iovine repeatedly referring to J.Lo as ‘Jessica’ during his results-show critique tapings”? Dude’s observations are as carefully groomed and managed as Ryan Seacrest’s eyebrows.

Chaka Khan and the Ladies of the Top 12, “Ain’t Nobody”/”Through the Fire”/”I’m Every Woman” I’m not 100 percent sure the music of Chaka Khan brought out the best in any of the Season 11 chicas — though Elise sounded surprisingly solid growling it up on that disco nugget “Ain’t Nobody.” It’s also a shame that Chaka didn’t take notes from John Fogerty/Jennifer Holliday/Reba McEntire about how to engage with the Idols — namely, don’t treat them like underpaid backup singers. They’re the ones pulling in 20 million viewers, after all. Then again, maybe Chaka couldn’t see over her breasts? File under: #PantsuitFail Grade: C

Rihanna, “Where Have You Been” She hasn’t been going to her vocal lessons, that’s one place she hasn’t been. This was all writhing bodies and Egyptian-themed set pieces and pre-recorded vocals, signifying that there’s something really wrong with how we’re choosing our hitmakers nowadays. Grade: D

Skylar Laine & Reba McEntire, “Turn on the Radio” The camera work and sound mix on this performance malfunctioned harder than Fantasia’s stylist. But dangit all, Skylar and Reba’s pumped-up pipes and effervescent stage presence turned it into one of the night’s most enjoyable moments. It’s amazing that a teenager who just finished fifth on a televised singing competition can hold her own — without the slightest bit of awkwardness or trepidation — opposite one of the true legends of country music. Prediction: In five years’ time, Skylar will have sold more records than anyone from Season 11. (Which is not a knock on any of the contestants of Season 11. Skylar’s just gonna sell a lot of records.) Grade: A-

Random observation: Tell me I’m not the only one who half-gagged at that “two become one” image of Steven Tyler embracing a live sloth.

Jessica Sanchez, “I Will Always Love You” Nigel Lythgoe, seriously, clear more songs for these kids! Jessica sounded as powerful and potent as ever on this encore presentation of her Top 13 Week number, but right down to her blue ballgown, all the details were exactly the same. I mean, why buy the Idol Season Finale when you can get the milk for free on YouTube, if that makes any sense? Grade: B+

Neil Diamond and the Top 12 guys (minus Phillip), “America”/”Cracklin Rosie”/”I’m a Believer” True confession: I don’t care for medleys in general. And I especially didn’t care for this medley in particular. Which is not to say that everything in life needs to play to the 18-34 demographic — otherwise you might as well take me out to the field with a fresh-baked Cinnabon and a blunt object — but everybody involved seemed like they would’ve been more excited to get their hands caught in the door of Jessica’s new Ford whateverthatcarwas. Grade: C

Idol Top 10 (minus the Top 2), “Sing the Phone Book,” A brutal skewering of Randy Jackson’s turgid critiques is always appreciated. But the closing bit of this number — with Joshua getting carried away in a fit of Gospel showboating, and his fellow Idols giving him the exhausted side eye — was a hilarious bit of self-deprecating humor from Season 11′s third-place finisher. Grade: A-

J.Lo and Some People Who Flew in On Pogo Sticks of the Future, “A ‘song’ from a new Step Up movie not starring Channing Tatum and his meaty brand of hotness”/”And also another ‘song’” Ooh, her lipsynch game is as tight as…actually, her pants were shockingly baggy this time around, no? Grade: Girl, don’t you make enough money from Idol and movies and all your product endorsements that you can stop pretending to be a singer now? (J.Lo: “Enough. A 2002 thriller starring yours truly and that dude from The Killing. Get it on Blu-Ray today on for $14.99.”)


Hollie Cavanagh and Jordin Sparks, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” Perhaps not the most inventive, unexpected performance in Idol finale history, but sometimes isn’t it enough to have two lovely ladies belting a ballad with charm and style to spare? Why yes, sometimes it is! Grade: B+

Top 12 guys (minus Phillip), Bee Gees medley Yikes. Nobody told me When Harmonies Attack was returning to the Fox lineup. (That said, Joshua’s “To Love Somebody” kinda rescued the medley, even if it was yet another retread from earlier in the season.) Grade: C

Jessica Sanchez and Jennifer Holliday, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” Holy face-pulling, Batman! La Holliday’s expressions ping-ponged from rage to elation to suspicion to defiance and all the way to “SAAAANG HEFFFUH!” — and I could not get enough. If Steven Tyler needs someone to help him understand the meaning of “over the top,” the search is finished. I loved how the original Broadway Dreamgirl shook and cajoled Jessica using only her eyes and her powerhouse vocal, somehow managing to get the Season 11 finalist to dig even deeper into her reserves of soulful growl, and counter with what’s likely the performance of her young lifetime. Jessica may not have won the title of American Idol, but as far as I’m concerned this duet was the telecast’s biggest prize, one of the all-time great moments this show has ever given us. The end. Grade: A++

Jessica & Phillip, “Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong” A sweet little interlude to take us past 10:00 pm, and thereby cut into Idoloonies’ Revenge time (over on ABC). No, I’m not sure why Jessica wore violet curtains, or why Phillip couldn’t be bothered to wear a dress shirt underneath his tux, but I’ve seen a lot worse outfits on the Idol stage and in my own closet, so lemme just shut my pie hole. Grade: A-

Phillip, “Home” Whether or not you voted for the 21-year-old pawn-shop worker, it was hard not to get a little choked up watching him try (then fail) to get through his lilting coronation single. Because regardless of race, gender, or musical style, at the end of the Idol season, these three things must remain: Hugs, confetti, and tears. But the greatest of these is tears. So thank you, Phillip Phillips for doing your championly duty, and best of luck on the charts! Grade: A

And with that, I thank all of you for joining me for another “Idol journey.” But remember: It’s not over yet! I’ll have an interview with executive producer Nigel Lythgoe posting here at TVLine on Thursday, Idology interviews with the Top 5 contestants running over the next couple weeks, and plenty of galleries and post-season goodies comin’ ‘atcha, too.

So with that, I turn things over to you: What did you think of the final two hours of Season 11? What were your favorite performances? What do you think of Phillip’s win? And was the J.Holl duet a good enough consolation prize for Jessica? Sound off below, and for all my Idol news, interviews, and recaps — including those extended video Q&As with the Idol Top 5 — follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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