‘American Idol’ Recap: Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips Square Off for the Crown

Phillip Phillips on "American Idol" (FOX)

After four very long months, “American Idol” has finally reached “finale week,” and there were a number of firsts. It was the first hour-long performance episode of the season (and how wonderfully refreshing!). It was the first time the contestants’ potential victory songs weren’t about achieving dreams while riding unicorns as they sail over rainbows. It was also the first time the judges gave strong opinions that distinguished how they felt about one contestant from how they felt about the other.

That last thing was a big surprise, and maybe it was too little, too late to have an impact. But maybe not. If the judges’ opinions have any influencing over the voting, we wouldn’t know it yet, but we’ll find out tomorrow. Because tonight, they clearly chose a favorite. And at this late point in the game, it almost seemed mean. In fact, it was like Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler had outright ganged up on Jessica Sanchez.

Let’s take a look at why, shall we? First off, the narrative of the battle was laid out, painting both Jessica and Phillip Phillips as more alike than not: “They shared the same drive, they shared the same fears, they shared the same dream,” the same excessive use of growling. The only distinction made was that “their stories began on opposite coasts.” (Although I wouldn’t think of Phillip’s Deep South hometown as a part of the East Coast, but whatever.) But the choices their teams made for them couldn’t be more different.

Round One
The first number was producer Simon Fuller’s selection. Jessica was given what should have been glory on a platter: Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.” And if that was her only number of the night, she’d have had it in the bag. While it was her third Whitney song of the season, it was certainly one we wanted to hear. Huge notes for her huge voice, and she hit them spectacularly. Plus, per Jimmy Iovine’s past coaching, she carefully restrained her growl, only employing it at the most impactful moments.

Phillip, on the other hand, was given “Stand By Me,” rearranged acoustically and minus the jam band that usually follows him everywhere. It was a good move. He smiled and came across as more comfortable than usual. The song was short and simple, and coming after Jessica’s powerhouse, made her look almost like she overexerted. Here’s a person who could just strum a guitar, not really even carry a note, and be at least as effective a performer.

The judges declared Jessica the winner of round one. And before we could move on to round two, we had a visit from Jason Derulo, now conveniently without the bedazzled neck brace that had been the most interesting thing about him. Derulo came by to perform “Undefeated,” that song that Ryan Seacrest has been incessantly promoting all year but was most likely overlooked as a Coca-Cola ad, the lyrics of which America—whoever that is—voted on over the past few months. Good going, America. This overbearingly inspirational song certainly filled the void of the achieving-dreams-and-rainbows numbers. Derulo started out in a folding chair and it seemed like that’s where he was going to stay, but he did carefully do a little footwork, while scores of dancers around him did the stuff he probably would have if not for his injury. I won’t lie—I was a little nervous watching him move around the stage, fearful he’d pull something. It’s live TV, after all. And though nothing terrible happened, that possibility provided the dramatic tension the rest of the show was missing.

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Round Two
The contestants got to choose their favorite song they’ve already performed this season, and Jessica made a bold move, selecting “The Prayer,” the number she sang for the judges in Vegas that convinced them to send her to the Top 24. Since we never really got to see her do it (since Jessica was largely ignored during the audition episodes—why is that again?), it was like a whole new number. I happen to think it was a smart move, giving us something fresh, but that she knows was a success. But maybe she should have done “Sweet Dreams,” her first non-Whitney standout of the season. It was old enough that it wouldn’t feel repetitive, and it really cemented Jessica as a finalist-caliber performer.

Phillip went with his number from Billy Joel week—also a good move. It was long enough ago that it isn’t still in our heads. He certainly has had better weeks recently, but it was good to bring back something most people probably forgot. The arrangement was pretty much identical to the first time he did it, but it felt new. Maybe because now we’re really paying attention. Plus, it helped that he had the band on stage with him, mainly because the hot sax lady (today playing a clarinet, I think) is the sexiest wind player ever and that has to count for something.

The judges disagreed here: Steven felt that Jessica won the round, Randy said they were even, and Jennifer chose Phillip as the winner. But here, it became clear who the audience wanted to win. When Steven chose Jessica, they actually booed.

Round Three
The last round generally belongs to excruciatingly trite pop ballads about moments and dreams, so it was a big surprise when Jessica came out and sang “Change Nothing,” a trite pop ballad about teen relationship drama, in a sort of overly emotional Demi Lovato style. Dressed in pleather stretchy pants and stiletto boots, with a yellow shirt and white jacket, Jessica looked and sounded very much her age. I think this song was very calculated on the part of mentor Jimmy—while it didn’t show off Jessica’s otherworldly maturity, that’s a good thing. She sings too old. And if she’s going to steal any teen girl votes from Phillip, she has to appear to be more like a teen girl.

The judges, however, were disappointed. None of them liked the song. “You got that Beyonce kind of swag, you got urban in you,” said Randy. It was “weird” he said, to hear her sing a “straight pop song.” JLo told her that when she makes her own record, Jessica will have to stand up to producers and say “this is not me.” Jimmy, meanwhile, appeared to be laughing.

But everyone expects these songs to suck, so it wasn’t all a huge surprise that it was pretty dreadful. Until Phillip came out and sang his song, “Home.” I cannot believe I’m saying this. The song was good. Not just decent, or something you’ll get used to hearing it on the radio a hundred million times. No, it was really good.

It fed his storytelling singer-songwriter sensibility, and sounded a lot like many of the more successful pop-crossover indie songs out there. It particularly made me think of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros—even down to the name. Phillip seemed really happy singing it, too.

The judges gave Phillip their one and only standing ovation of the night. “I love the song, I loved you, I loved the production, I loved the marching band”—oh yeah, there was a marching band—“everything about that was perfect,” raved Randy. He compared it to Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons. JLo said it was moving and that she “couldn’t think of any other singer or band you sounded like”—except for every marginally successful indie band out there right now. And Steven said it reminded him of Paul Simon.

Phillip even dressed up for the number, wearing a gray suede jacket that is the fanciest thing we’ve seen him in all season. Seriously, it was triumphant, for him. Even I wanted to vote for him, and I’m just a neutral observer.

Finally, we got a montage video of all the cast-offs to date, while Scotty McCreery came to sing his goodbye song one last time, “Please Remember Me.” I tried to watch closely, and I think Jermaine Jones was not in the video.

Last Words
Was Jessica sabotaged? Or was her victory song a psychologically rooted, carefully calculated move on behalf of the producers? I consulted my mother, Roberta, who from time to time has weighed in with her own observations. Here’s what she said:

“It was a set-up against Jessica. They gave her a horrible song and then criticized her unmercifully for it.
And Phillip pt a decent song. Not fair!”

There you have it. Both my mom and I are predicting a Phillip Phillips victory tomorrow night.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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