An opening montage to the final performance show of Season 11 on “American Idol” showed the two finalists on their journey so far, reminding viewers that they started out on opposite coasts but with the same dream. These performances would decide which one will get the “Idol” crown.
Host Ryan Seacrest pointed out there were 7,000 fans in the audience for the finale at the Nokia Theater. Round one would be creator Simon Fuller’s choice, round two would be the contestants’ choice of a reprise from the season, and round three would be an original single. Since Phillip won the coin toss, he would be going second.
1) Jessica Sanchez kicked off the program singing “I Have Nothing,” which was Simon Fuller’s choice for her, wearing a coffee-colored floor-length dress with a white ruffle at the bottom she had to gather up to walk down the steps. Her big voice was a perfect match for the Whitney Houston standard. She’s one of the few “Idol” contestants who could do that song justice. Her last note was controlled and sweet.
Ryan announced that we would hear from the judges at the end of Round One. There would be no padding in this one-hour final performance show.
2) For Phillip Phillips, Simon Fuller chose the Ben E. King classic “Stand By Me,” a much simpler song, vocally. Phillip sat at a microphone stand, playing his guitar, wearing a light blue shirt over a white T-shirt. Some background singers and percussionists accompanied him onstage. The first part of the song was pleasant. The transition into the chorus was a little rough, and he was underneath the notes for a bit when he tried to play with the melody a little later.
Asked to judge round one, Jennifer Lopez said it was a tough one because it was “the battle of the opposites.” She liked the power and control demonstrated Jessica and likened Phillip to “a modern-day crooner” (really?). When asked who won round one, Randy Jackson said it went to Jessica.
After the commercial break, Ryan asked Jennifer if she agreed on who won the first round, and she said she did. Steven Tyler just sat back, silent. Maybe he thought he was at home watching. Either that or Ryan was sitting on him, due to timing.
Then, Jason Derulo debuted his new single, “Undefeated,” written with the help of viewers. He danced with a group of dancers in street clothes, and his neck brace was finally gone. The first verse wasn’t too impressive, but the chorus was catchy. Coca Cola, Ryan said, would give away free downloads, but only 10,000 of them. I clicked immediately, but no luck.
3) Singing Celine Dion’s “The Prayer,” the song that earned her a spot in the Top 24, Jessica stuck with a ballad for Round Two. Wearing a floor-length pink dress, she was surrounded by smoke. This choice may have been a misstep, for while it was a song that means something to her, it’s not a song that the viewers would recall fondly from her having a moment with it. After all, nobody but the judges got to see her full performance the first time she sang it. Then again, maybe it was smart, since people won’t compare this performance with her first version of it. Either way, she was strong vocally, as she always is, but there was no moment in this.
4) Phillip’s favorite song from the season was “Moving Out” from Billy Joel Week, which must have been a personal favorite, because it wasn’t one of the songs that viewers and critics had raved about. Phillip wore a black long-sleeved shirt and played his guitar, with some other backing instruments onstage with him. The relaxed vibe on the stage made it seem about 110 percent cooler than Jessica’s performance had been. Once more, he wrenched the melody around to suit himself.
Asked about round two, Steven said, nonsensically, regarding Phillip’s performance, “You don’t always have to be a good egg. Hatch or go bad.” He thought that Jessica took round two. Randy said it was a dead heat. Jennifer thought Jessica blew it away in the first round and Phillip succeeded in this round. “That was authentic Phillip right there.”
5) Performing the single she would release if she won, Jessica sang, “Change Nothing,” written by Joleen Belle and Harry Sommerdahl. She started the song sitting on the piano, wearing a mustard-yellow blouse with white jacket with ruffles on the front and black leggings. It was a typical “Idol” single, bland and generic. She did the best she could with it.
Randy didn’t love the song but liked that “you made something more out of the song.” He complimented her for having a Beyonce vibe and said she brought the song to life. Jennifer thought she sang the song well. It was a pop ballad, but she would have liked her to do something with soul or blues. Steven didn’t feel the song was the proper one for her to sing (as if it’s her fault!).
Ryan asked how Jessica felt about the single, and Jessica said that she would rather do something more urban, but she’d also wanted a single that showed her voice. She said her album would be “a lot more me.”
* 6) Phillip’s single “Home,” written by Andrew (Drew) Pearson and Greg Holen, sounded much more like him, starting out with guitar picking. “Just know you’re not alone, because I’m going to make this place your home.” This is one of the best singles that a finalist has been given. Talk about good luck. A drum line came out on stage near the end (shades of what they did with Lee Dewyze). It’s a song I’d listen to on the radio on my favorite station, WXPN. Standing ovation from the judges.
Randy loved the song, the production, everything about it. “That’s your best performance of the night,” he said. It reminded him of Mumford and Sons or Fleet Foxes. Jennifer thought it was “a Phillip Phillips song” and that there’s nothing that sounds like that on the radio (clearly, she’s not listening to WXPN, a.k.a. Adult Alternative Radio). Steven heard a little Paul Simon in there. He loved it, too.
Ryan asked the finalists if they wanted to say anything to each other. Jessica said that “he’s an amazing artist… I love him so much. I’m so glad I’m here with you.” Phillip said, “She’s an amazing person, and … one of the best singers I’ve heard in a long time. She’s got a huge future ahead of her.”
For the last three minutes, Scotty McCreery sang “Please Remember Me,” the good-bye song that had been used each week. He wore a white button-down shirt with a brown vest and dark jeans. His deep, rich voice got the audience waving their hands along, as a montage of season highlights played on the screen behind him.
Kudos to Phillip for stepping it up on the single and to Jessica for strong vocals throughout the night. Now it comes down to how viewers will decide the winner. Will they go for Jessica, the 16-year-old vocal powerhouse who came back into the competition via a judges’ save and could not only make “Idol” history but also break the WGWG (white guys with guitars) winning streak? Or will they vote for Phillip, the guy-next-door who’s given his all every week despite health issues, and whose winning single was the most listenable in “Idol” history?
Based on the buzz online amongst fans, don’t rule Jessica out. She has a strong following, and Phillip seems to have more detractors. Whatever happens, I predict it will be a squeaker. This is Phillip’s contest to lose, based on previous “Idol” history, but I wouldn’t rule out a surprise Jessica win.