Some things never change and through 11 years, and you can count on “American Idol” as one of them. The show follows a well-worn pattern—and as much as the faces and names change—the results, in which the final two will be chosen for next week’s finales—stay pretty much the same.
You can count on at least one church-trained gospel singer with an eye towards becoming the next big soul star. That’s 20-year-old Louisiana native Joshua Ledet, dubbed “Mantasia” by pundits after Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino, who is no less than a preacher’s son with a singing style to match—half declamatory, half testimony, and all the kind of sensuality upon which empires have been built. He’s got God on his side, and the southern Christian coalition, too.
Then there’s the girl-next-door with the ballad-belting vocals, in this case sweet 16-year-old Jessica Sanchez, a Mexican-Filipino from the SoCal melting pot of Chula Vista who is equally at home singing Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson, a charmer who freely admits no one liked her in high school, though now she has boys chasing her car. “It’s awesome,” she gushes. Never count out the Filipino populace for loyalty and block voting.
The underdog—but most certainly the one the little girls understand—is a 22-year-old guitar-strumming good ole boy from smalltown Leesburg, Georgia, with the cornball name of Phillip Phillips (a junior no less, named after dad)—who counts Dave Matthews among his influences, a young guy with classic rock in his blood, and a penchant for tampering with melodies, much like the gravelly-voiced ‘X Factor’ finalist Josh Krajcik.
So, it’s down to the final three, and that’s where I came in, things coming to a close, every performance under the microscope, the slightest misstep costing the finalists a shot at the grand prize.
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About a third of the way through the show, there’s a commercial for the HTC One camera phone, featuring sky divers, set to the dulcet tones of performance artist Laurie Anderson’s left-field 1981 hit, “O Superman.” It’s as jarring to hear the song 31 years later as it was then, a tune that sounds every bit as futuristic today. Suffice to say, “American Idol” will not be finding the next Laurie Anderson, but rather the next David Cook, the new Taylor Hicks, the latest Ruben Studdard, and if you’re asking, “who are they,” then that’s my point.
This week offered the three final contestants three separate performances incorporating judges’ picks, their own choices and selections made for them by creative guru—and this season’s breakout star—Jimmy Iovine, who uses the occasion to plus his new phone and Beats wireless speakers combo, delivering his song suggestions by good old snail mail and text message. It also featured the traditional hometown victory laps for each of the final three, who return to lord it over everyone who ever doubted them.
Ledet opens up the Judges’ Picks with a typically urgent, if predictable, reading of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind,” recommended by Randy Jackson, last heard sung by “X Factor’s” cherubic Rachel Crow, though this one was a grown-up man’s version, complete with smoldering sexuality. The kid has an angelic countenance like Johnny Mathis, croons like Sam Cooke and gets down like Otis Redding, and is generally considered the front-runner, doing nothing to threaten that status here after his previous breakthrough performance of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
“It’s another Josh moment,” says Steven Tyler. “So surreal, it’s like a dream come true.”
J. Lo called him “a throwback… We just fed you what you feed back to us.”
Randy praised him as “a classic stylist…bringing that old feeling into modern times.”
Lopez picked Mariah Carey’s “Smile” for Jessica to sing, and she did the song justice without overdoing it, no small feat, according to the judges.
“Absolutely perfectly the right song for you,” gushed Randy before letting us know Mariah is his homegirl. “One of the best versions of her ever songs performed on TV.”
“That’s a hard song to sing, but beautifully done in your own way with tenderness and control,” gushed Lopez.
Added Tyler: “Whe you sing, you make people hang on your every note,” then offering, “You’ll be the last one standing,” promoting Ryan Seacrest to ask if he were makng a prediction. “Don’t I always?” answered Steven.
Tyler picks “Beggin’” for Phillips, but bothered me when he credited the Four Seasons Bob Crewe song to the version done by Norwegian hip-hop group Modcon. Phillips took the song and ran with it, for good or ill, but received the kind of enormous reaction from the crowd that could just guarantee him an upset victory if all those teenage girls put their cells on auto-dial.
J. Lo claimed, “You messed with the melody again, but you catch a groove in a song that’s all yours and just ride it home.”
Tyler responded, inscrutably, “When you’re facing the sun, the shadows fall behind you,” calling him “a new age Boss.. a Springsteen.”
Randy said, “You are so in the zone… You are who you are and we love it.”
In the second round, Josh turned the tables by picking John Lennon’s “Imagine” as much for its message as its music, and sounded as if he were at the pulpit.
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On returning to his native Louisiana for a rousing hometown hero welcome, he noted, “They’re acting like I’m Barack Obama,” and the comparison is apt when it comes to ‘Idol’ voters.
Tyler called it “beautiful… another ‘thank you God’ moment.”
J. Lo dug the ‘pulled back and controlled performance,” while Randy noted, “You dug deep into the lyrics and meaning, a stellar performance.”
Jessica went with Aerosmith’s Diane Warren-penned power ballad, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” and blew away Steven in the process, bringing him to his feet, touching his chest.
“You just took a great song and made it greater,” he beamed, while J. Lo acknowledged how rarely Tyler gave good reviews to a cover of his band’s music. Randy called the performance “bold… by the time you got to the finale, you delivered.”
The judges were tepid on Phillips’ pick of Matchbox 20’s “Disease,” calling it “too easy” (J. Lo) and “something you could to in your sleep” (Randy). Platinum-haired sax player Mindi Abair remains Phillips’ secret weapon.
It was the judges’ only critical moment, so it was refreshing to get the perspective of Iovine for his picks of songs for the contenders.
The Interscope chief chose Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama” for Joshua, pointing to the singer’s Grammy performance, where she “brought the church to that stage.” And that’s exactly what Ledet did with the kind of performance that wins a show like this, all bravado and whipping his jacket off, playing to the crowd.
Randy: “You have laid everything on the stage that there is to lay. That’s what being a great artist is all about.”
Said J. Lo: “You have this perfect marriage of knowing what you’re doing and letting completely go.”
“I felt the last 40 years in the music business when you sang,” said Tyler. “Over the top.”
Jimmy selected the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” for Jessica, noting Motown’s Berry Gordy originally picked it for Michael and his brothers because it appealed to both a younger and older audience.
It’s a faithful version that Steven called “delicious,” and J. Lo noted sounded “just like Michael.” Only Randy sounded a sour note. “I didn’t love it. There was never a ‘moment,’ oh-my-God moment.”
Iovine hand-delivered Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” the perfect choice for Phillip Squared. “I wanted to find a song to address both his female and male fans, one that’s romantic, but also dark.”
He got his wish, with a string-laden, dramatic—and unusual for him, melodically faithful—version that put Phillips, as a breathless Randy succinctly pulled out one of his favorite cliches, “in it to win it,” calling it “the perfect song at the perfect time… your best performance ever on the show.”
J.Lo offered, “There are 20 million girls out there who wish you were singing it to them,” while Steven mentioned another performance, where he was bleeped saying “you didn’t give a sh*t,” to, “It’s not about hitting the notes, it’s about passion and you just nailed it.”
And with that we’re down to tomorrow night’s results show, with performances by former Idol contestant Adam Lambert and Lisa Marie Presley, and the three become two. And judging by the judges’ lack of creative comments here, not a moment too soon.
1. Joshua Ledet: His series of show-stopping performances should carry him all the way.
2. Phillip Phillips: The darkest of dark horses, this good-looking country boy should’ve tried to go the Scott McCreery route, which he’ll end up doing anyway.
3. Jessica Sanchez: Technically perfect, but a little on the ballad overkill side.
1. Joshua Ledet, “No More Drama”: Simmered and cooked, the perfect blend of R&B sexuality and gospel spirituality.
2. Phillip Phillips, “We’ve Got Tonight”: Pulled a rabbit out of his hat just when it looked like he would disappear.
3. Joshua Ledet, “Imagine”: A curveball that crossed the heart of the plate.
4. Jessica Sanchez, “I’ll Be There”: Her Michael impression evoked some chills.
5. Phillip Phillips, “Beggin’”: Frankie Valli, let alone those Norwegian hip-hoppers, would’ve been proud to call this one his own.
6. Joshua Ledet, “I’d Rather Go Blind”: Wrenched the requisite emotion out of a world-weary lament.
7. Jessica Sanchez, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”: Cue the Bic lighters. Sanchez brings Tyler to his feet.
8. Jessica Sanchez, “Smile”: A little laid-back for a Mariah torch song.
9. Phillip Phillips, “Disease”: No there there.