After the requisite opening montage about the finalists, the finale for Season 11 of “American Idol” started with the rest of the Top 12, all dressed in white, singing “Runaway Baby” by Bruno Mars. It was a high-energy performance, and they seemed to be having a blast, all wearing white with silver accents. Joshua Ledet did a split, which was impressive, until he fell on his butt! Four dancers in black suits came down, then, and did some impressive hip-hop moves, with a little breakdancing thrown in. Then a couple who did swing dancing joined in. Just a little preview of what fans might see on the summer tour.
Host Ryan Seacrest was in a tuxedo with black tie. He revealed that a total of 132 million votes had come in for the two finalists, Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez, who came in then, also wearing white.
In the first celebrity duet of the evening, Phillip performed with John Fogerty from Credence Clearwater Revival, starting with “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” They sounded good separately (though not so great together), Philip playing his guitar and wearing a light brown shirt over a brown V-neck, while Fogarty wore a blue plaid shirt. This is the sort of music Phillip ought to be doing. Of course, because he was performing with the guy who wrote the song, Phillip couldn’t take too many liberties, but he did play with the melody a little bit in the middle verse.
After that, Phillip introduced “Bad Moon Rising,” which they also performed together. Again, this kind of music is Phillip’s wheelhouse, and he seemed to have a good time playing with a musical legend. Afterward he turned towards John and, in a very classy move of respect, applauded him.
Next was a montage of wacky moments from the season, including some moments from the auditions that we’d had months to forget.
Then, Joshua Ledet performed an Elton John song, “Take Me to the Pilot,” wearing a shiny silver jacket over a black button-down shirt and black pants. He was joined by “the biggest inspiration in my life, Fantasia Barrino.” She had really long extensions and was wearing a body suit covered in black and red sequins. They jammed out together, then moved into the audience to get the audience worked up, walking down the aisle and singing directly to people. After hugging her near the end of the song, Joshua kind of brushed her aside and shook Jimmy Iovine’s hand. Then the two singers continued jamming into the commercial break.
Ryan announced, then, that music mentor Jimmy Iovine had a “special love letter” to share with judge Jennifer Lopez. There was a montage of him repeatedly calling Jennifer “Jessica” by mistake.
The ladies of the Top 12 sang a medley of Chaka Khan songs together, then, all wearing glittery mini dresses. At times, it was pitchy. Their medley led into a performance with Chaka Khan, who was helped down the steps by four dancers, who then took her jacket with them. She was wearing a skin-tight brown body suit with sequins on the chest; not a great look. Her singing made up for it, though, on “I’m Every Woman,” although near the end it got a little shouty.
This week’s Ford video was a combination of highlights from the season, showing the contestants’ names in the order of elimination. They had Jessica last. Does that mean anything? We would find out later.
Afterward, Phillip and Jessica presented cars to two people who have inspired them (his brother-in-law and her musical mentor). Ford also presented cars to the two finalists, a 2013 Ford Fusion.
Next on the stage was Rihanna, performing “Where Have You Been” on a smoke-filled stage, emerging from a large black cube pushed on by dancers. The performance included green lasers and lights sweeping across the ceiling as if it was the night sky, as well as dancers crawling and moving. Rihanna wore a black bikini top and a skirt that was more like a floor-length black loincloth. There were some great dance sequences, involving very tribal moves, in the musical breakdown, which is a much better place to insert those kind of moves than in the middle of a singing passage.
Performing “Turn on the Radio,” Skylar Laine took the stage then wearing a black satin jacket with white ruffles. She started in the audience next to Steven Tyler and then marched onto the stage and introduced Reba McEntire, who came out to sing with her. Their voices blended well, and they had good on-stage chemistry.
Ryan had taken over Jennifer’s seat at the judges’ table, and he introduced a montage about Steven Tyler and his dressing room, which was filled with Playboy bunnies, a pet sloth and pet monkey, pirate gear, and a white organ. “My first manager, Quetzalcoatl,” Steven joked, pointing out a skull on top of the organ.
Jessica Sanchez had to follow that silly piece with a reprise of “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. It was lovely, and so was she, in a floor-length one-shoulder bright-blue evening gown with some keyholes at the top near the shoulder. She got a standing ovation by Season 10 competitor Haley Reinhart.
The guys of the Top 12 (except Phillip) performed next, doing a medley of Neil Diamond songs. Colton and Heejun both sounded great. All of them wore black and gray. They then launched into “I’m a Believer,” written by Neil for The Monkees. Ahh, Davy Jones, we miss you. Colton announced Neil Diamond, who strutted down the stairs singing “Sweet Caroline,” wearing a black shiny jacket over a black shirt. He did it William Shatner style, talking much of it until the chorus, when the guys jumped in. There was an all-female brass ensemble onstage. Awesome. Shot of “Glee’s” Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) in the audience.
Then came a montage of judge Randy Jackson at various moments using one of his favorite phrases, that “you can sing the phone book.” In honor of that, the Top 12 a clever song derived from the yellow pages, wearing choir gowns and holding phone books like hymnals. Brilliant. Can we retire the phrase now, Randy? Scotty McCreery, in the audience, presented Randy with a phone book wrapped in a red ribbon. “Get some new material for next year,” Ryan urged Randy, before asking him to help announce a performance by Jennifer.
Jennifer Lopez performed next, wearing a sparkly tank top with baggy sparkly pants and a bedazzled baseball cap. She took the mike away from her mouth while the first phrase was still ending (lip-synching, for sure) and did a dance routine with some dancers dressed like her. The performance also used green lazars and sweeping lights.
At the conclusion of the first number, she stripped off the tank top to reveal a sparkly bra. She was joined onstage with two rappers, Wisin y Yandel, who swung out on what looked like giant ski poles, which were then pulled away.
Lauren Alaina and Taylor Hicks were in the audience. Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo, the “first American Idol couple,” came up onstage. She was still wearing her favorite color, pink. They’ve moved in together, and Ace felt this would be the perfect place to ask a simple question. Ryan had the lights dimmed, with the dramatic music used for results. Ace said, “We have conquered Broadway together and created music together.” He dropped to one knee. “I love you to death. You’re my best friend. I want to make this last forever… Diana Nicole DeGarmo, will you marry me?” She said yes and gave him a big kiss, through tears! Viewers might remember she lost Season 3 to Fantasia Barrino, but she’s since won Ace’s heart.
Hollie Cavanagh performed next, doing a standard, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” She introduced Season 6 winner, Jordin Sparks, who picked up the song partway through and walked down the steps in a silver gown, with long extensions in her hair. They were joined onstage by a full choir for the inspirational song.
Ryan spoke about the fact that Robin Gibb, who performed on the “Idol” stage two years ago, had passed away over the weekend. The Top 12 guys (without Phillip, again) sang some Bee Gees songs in tribute to him.
Shot of Harry Hamlin and wife Lisa Rinna, big “Idol” fans, in the audience.
Another celebrity duet, with Jessica Sanchez performing, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” with Grammy winner Jennifer Holliday, who originated the song in the Broadway production of “Dreamgirls.” In this case, Jennifer started the song, with Jessica strutting out, wearing a black floor-length sleeveless dress. You could really see how much Jessica has patterned her singing on singers like Jennifer Holliday when they sang together, down to the growling and arm gestures. I loved the diva face-off with the stank faces. Awesome. Did anyone else get “goosies”?
Jennifer and Randy jumped to their feet to applaud, with Randy exclaiming, “Crazy.” Steven was missing: getting ready for his performance?
Aerosmith took the stage next, with guitarist Joe Perry rocking it out and Steven Tyler taking control of the stage while singing their new single, “Legendary Child.” It sounds a lot like some of their earlier hits, and while it took a while to get going, it ended strong. Then they wisely went for a well-known hit, “Walk This Way,” with Steven strutting around the stage in his floor-length leopard-print jacket. High-octane rocking out.
Then, the finalists, Jessica and Phillip, performed a duet to the Joe Cocker song, “Up Where We Belong,” both receiving huge applause from the audience. Phillip sat on a stool, and Jessica walked over to him. He was dressed in black with a jacket, and she wore a burgundy gown. Their voices complemented each other well.
As Ryan called them up for the final results, the show officially ran long. Asked for final thoughts, Phillip said it’s been an honor and thanked the band and the fans. Jessica thanked the whole crew and the fans, as well.
“After a record-breaking 132 million votes, the winner of ‘American Idol’ Season 11 is… Phillip Phillips!” Ryan declared. No surprise there. Immediately, Heejun Han ran out to congratulate him, followed by the rest of the Top 12. Scotty presented him with an official trophy (is that a new thing). Ryan handed him a guitar and congratulated him as he sang his single, “Home.” As he sang and the confetti started to rain down on him, he began to tear up and stopped singing while the background singers continued. He handed his guitar to one of his fellow finalists and walked into the audience to be embraced by his family.
As the credits roll on another season, some may be asking, “With such a talented group of finalists, how did we end up with another WGWG (white guy with guitar)?” Now is the time that I reveal a piece of information that I kept under my hat until now. While I was watching his audition, I said to myself, “There’s the Season 11 winner.” Why did I think that? And why was I right?
From the start, Phillip exhibited the perfect mix of qualities required for success on “American Idol.” While not the strongest traditional vocalist, he was talented. He was original: performing an acoustic version of a Michael Jackson song that the judges raved about. More than that, he was humble. (Did you EVER hear him brag, the entire season, or take the judges’ praise for granted?) The “guy next door,” he was friendly and supportive of his fellow competitors. (Did you EVER hear anyone accuse him of giving someone the evil eye or being dismissive of someone else? Or do you remember, instead, funny moments of him interacting with them in a fun way, especially with best friend Heejun Han?) He was willing to take risks and bounced back from his mistakes by trying harder. Most importantly: he grew throughout the season, peaking at the right time.
Only some of these qualities were evident at his audition — the musical skill, the originality, and the pleasant personality — but it was enough for me to envision him getting the “Idol” crown. On top of that, he kept doing his best — and succeeding — even while enduring painful medical problems (fighting with kidney stones all season long, leading to various hospitalizations and doctor’s visits, with an upcoming surgical procedure scheduled).
Of course, this is a story about two strong finalists. A Jessica win would have been historic on “American Idol” for multiple reasons. She would have been the first woman to win since Jordin Sparks, way back in Season 6. She would have been the youngest winner, the first winner who was neither white nor African-American (being Mexican and Filipino), and the first winner to take the crown after being saved from elimination by the judges. These emotional factors, in addition to her talent, gave her a bit a boost. Sadly, though, her final performances didn’t deliver the “moment” that her duet with Jennifer Holliday did on the finale show. Add to that the fact that Phillip went second and therefore, his version of “Home” was stuck in viewer’s minds, and a Jessica win would have been a real upset.
The takeaway from this: you don’t need to be a “white guy with a guitar” to win “American Idol,” but you do need to learn from this season. To win “American Idol,” viewers have to not just like your performances, but they have to also really like you. That’s the true magic formula to win.