American Idol Top 2 Performance Night Recap: Home Is Where the Artistry Is

For the final salvo in what’s arguably been the deepest, most evenly matched field in American Idol history, Tuesday night’s Season 11 finale came up surprisingly light in the competitive fireworks department.

Maybe the Top 2 — Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips — were still heeding last week’s instructions from their fallen comrade Joshua Ledet: “NO! MORE! DRAMA!” Or perhaps it was just the incongruousness of the matchup, which was akin to making a choice between a stunning courture evening gown and a perfectly battered old t-shirt. (“But what’s the occasion?” you might’ve asked.)

Whatever the case, even Ryan Seacrest’s introductory narrative lacked a certain Boom Boom Pow: It’s a battle between a “21-year-old pawn-shop worker” and a “16-year-old powerhouse,” he said, giving almost no sense of what kind of artists Phillip and Jessica might hope to become. “It’s guy against girl,” Ryan continued with thudding obviousness, and then, with a misguided nod to decades-old hip-hop rivalries that couldn’t have less to do with the Idoloonie Nation, he added, “East Coast vs. West Coast.” Um, okay?

Heck, even if you watched the telecast wearing a “Team Bebe Chez” or “P2” hoodie,  it was hard to view this as a showdown as much as it was two talented kids trying to survive one round of brutally unimaginative song choices, one very nice round of encore performances, and finally a round of “original” material that so drastically favored Phillip that it was like watching a prison-cafeteria skirmish where one combatant’s got a shank in his hand, the other a tater tot.

Not since both Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis were asked to tackle soaring power ballad “This Is My Now” in Season 6 has an Idol finale agenda been so clear: Somewhere behind the scenes, the Great and Powerful Nigel (or was it Jimmy?) was speed-dialing for Phillip, and sending a pack of flying monkeys to carry Jessica into the Forest of the Runners-Up.

Presided over by J.Lo (dressed from the waist up as Once Upon a Time‘s evil queen), Steven Tyler (still awake?), and Randy Jackson (delivering a death blow to tangerine sherbet sportscoats everywhere), this is how the evening’s performances played out:

ROUND 1: Idol Creator Simon Fuller’s Pick
Jessica Sanchez: Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” | I’m trying really hard to understand Simon Fuller’s thought process in assigning Jessica one of the most overdone ballads in Idol history, but I can only come up with two possible explanations: Either he gave the decision all the care and seriousness of selecting which of the six quarters in one’s pocket should go into a parking meter, or he simply wanted to rob Jessica of any chance of having a “moment” for Round 1. Why else would he choose a tune not only covered by Shannon Magrane earlier in Season 11, but also by Trenyce (Season 2), Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and Leah LaBelle (Season 3), Vonzell Solomon (Season 4), Katharine McPhee (Season 5), and LaKisha Jones (Season 6)? Was it Jessica’s fault that by the time she dragged this soggy ballad down to the copying machine, it turned out to be a little low on toner? Jessica certainly hit all the right notes, gliding through the octave change with her trademark growl, and her gown — a cream, floor-length number covered with black organza overlay — was the outfit of the night. But I have nothing (nothing) (nothing) else good or bad to say about the performance aside from the fact that, yeah, it was to win Round 1.

Phillip Phillips: Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” | Compared to the dead horse of “I Have Nothing,” “Stand By Me” hasn’t gotten flogged nearly as much on Idol — with only Bo Bice, David Archuelta, and Danny Gokey having tackled it in prior seasons. And yet while I understand Phillip’s attempt to doctor up the oldies-station staple, to not merely offer a Henley-clad hologram of the versions that came before him, there’s a difference between executing a little facelift and cutting the song from stem to stern, scooping out its guts, and leaving it on the side of the highway in a sealed Hefty bag. There was an atonality to Phillip’s choices — and a froginess in his tone — that boredered on the unpleasant, and worse yet, seemed to strip any and all meaning from the lyrics. It’d be like smothering a perfectly good steak with so much sauce that you can’t even tell what kind of meat you’re eating.

Me: “Chicken?”
Phillip (breaking into his conspiratorial grin): “Guess again!”
Me: “No. I’m gonna just have a bowl of cereal, but thanks.”

Round 2: Season 11 Encores
Jessica Sanchez: Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli’s “The Prayer” | Kudos to Jessica for choosing to reprise her Vegas Week solo, instead of rehashing one of her live performances from the last 11 weeks of competition. That decision brought about a sense of the unknown — and fostered a feeling of genuine anticipation — as she offered up a music-box pretty cover of a song that was all bombast and melisma in the hands of Christina Aguilera and Chris Mann during The Voice season finale a few weeks back. In a lot of ways, “The Prayer” served as not only a victory for Jessica — who was note perfect and displayed the finesse of Eric Ripert working with a rainbow trout — but for merciful restraint in the Idolverse. All too often, we see power vocalists like Jessica unable to tame the wild beast within their vocal cords, but this time around, Jessica held the reins tight in her hands, only opening up with a single stunning glory note on the line “we are AAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL God’s children.” If Jessica ends up wearing the Season 11 crown, you can rewind your DVR and pinpoint the exact note where she stole it off of Phillip’s head. And she didn’t even need heels to reach it.

Phillip Phillips: Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” | Billy Joel week was definitely a high point in Phillip’s Season 11 journey, and his choice to repise “Movin’ Out” for the finale provided a smart, stark contrast to Jessica’s ballad-heavy final two weeks on the show. I loved that Phillip’s guitar skills were front and center in the opening verse — dude really has some ability in that department that he doesn’t always get credit for — and that he delivered the ode to a guy chasing something a little bigger than the American dream with a puckishness that wasn’t quite as tangible first time around. I kinda wish the band — and Phillip’s go-to sexy sax player — had never kicked in, that the performance had stayed small and intimate, that Phillip’s voice hadn’t had to strain into Muppet-y territory in the final refrain just to be heard. But all things considered, this was a solid moment that couldn’t have knocked a single voter off the dude’s jaunty bandwagon.

In fact, the only part of Round 2 that enraged me was J.Lo’s critique while calling it in Phillip’s favor: “I’ve seen Jessica do that before. And I just feel like that’s authentic Phillip right there.” Um, wait. Jessica performed a tune she’d never before covered in a live voting round, while Phillip gave almost a note-for-note rendition of his Top 10 Week ditty, and yet Jessica is the one who gets the “been there, done that” dismissal? Only on Idol, and only from the mouth of Tweedle-Abs, folks!

Round 3: Jessica and Phillip’s Debut Singles
Jessica Sanchez: “Change Nothing” | Look, Jessica’s barely hit a bum note all season, so am I going to heap criticism on her for the fact that she got saddled with an original track featuring a verse that was pitched too low, and a chorus that left her voice sounding strained and sharp? Or that the lyrical content was about a girl who wishes she’d just “shut my mouth and kept it all to myself” about a rollercoaster relationship, since now her family and friends want her to put aside the drama and walk away from the emotional turmoil? Why not just have her sing “He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss“? And while I can’t blame the judges for shrugging their shoulders and questioning Jimmy Iovine’s choice of a straightforward pop ballad for Jessica — as opposed to something with a little more youthful, R&B edge — it was infuriating that the final impression left by Randy, J.Lo, and Steven was “Oops, girl, you messed up,” without any acknowledgement whatsoever of the vocal excellence, calculated risks (“Sweet Dreams,” “Stuttering”) and consistency she’s displayed week after week after week.

Phillip Phillips: “Home” | I’m not sure how it happened, but for the first time in Idol history, one of the show’s finalists got assigned a song that not only fit his voice like champagne and orange juice fit 11 a.m. on a Sunday, but also sounded like something he could take to modern radio without carrying an “I’m sorry” Edible Arrangement in his other arm. Was the track a little bit of a hybrid of Mumford & Sons and Simon & Garfunkel (with a hint of U2’s “All I Want Is You”)? Yeah, sure. But what elevated the number — aside from the nifty touch of a team of marching-band drummers taking the stage mid-performance — was Phillip’s genuine emotional connection to the material. When he delivered the refrain “know you’re not alone/ I’m gonna make this place your home,” he did it with such genuineness that in a matter of seconds, everything I’ve liked about any of Phillip’s performances dating back to the Idol audition rounds in January flashed before my eyes. The whole anthemic “ooh-ooh-ohh” part toward the end — where the energy of the band and the drummers and the backrground singers carried Phillip to heretofore-unheard heights — felt like a winning Idol moment in the way Jodin Sparks’ “This Is My Now” or Fantasia Barrino’s “I Believe” or Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This” did once upon a time. I’d still wager my money on a Jessica Sanchez victory — her fans have to be twice as motivated after seeing her get saddled with such weak material — and in my heart of hearts I’m still rooting for her, too. But if Phillip inherits Scotty McCreery’s crown and sash, I’ll be a little bit happy to hear an encore of the best Idol finale anthem ever written.

Letter Grades for the Week
Phillip, “Home”: A
Jessica, “The Prayer”: A-
Phillip: “Movin’ Out”: B+
Jessica, “I Have Nothing”: B
Jessica: “Change Nothing”: C+
Phillip: “Stand By Me”: C-

What did you think of the Idol finale? Who will win? Who should win? What moment made you happiest? And which left you angriest? Sound off below, and for all my Idol news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. lovesickheroine says:

    It was just announced that Tommy Mottola who discovered and handled talents such as, Michael Jackson, Mariah, JLO, Celine Dion, Destiny’s Child, Jessica Simpson etc., will be producing Jessica Sanchez’s 1st album. I think if Jessica loses she’ll be signed by Sony BMG, which is a very good thing. I’m betting all my money once her album will be released she’ll be a huge international superstar!

  2. db says:

    In my opinion, P2 didn’t even have a chance until that last song. Her’s that bad, his that good. Prior to that, she had him I think. But not so much to his ability, but song choices stunk up the place. She sings amazingly. He does his thing in the spectrum he wants to go. So it is a good setup if you think about it. The first set was completely wrong for P2 – I couldn’t imagine him picking that song (good song just not for him) and somebody should be flogged….lol….For her she sung wonderfully but it was so predictable I felt bad for her. Second flogging should ensue. I was afraid somebody was going to have to singGoodbye Yellow Brick road…Or don’t let the sun come down on me….so small victories. The second round felt indifferent; he bored me with that one and she did too. So the only one with any hope for flair (or flare -lol as some said) was the last one. So for her, three slow songs doesn’t make a champ and it didn’t allow for variety in the feeling she projected or for us to be taken in by a slow beautiful song; and only his third had the thing ya looking for. Thot all of them great overall; good job they did picking this group. And I thot any of the top ten could have won legitimately…so tonight doesn’t goose me. Good job Mike on your writes up all season. Man, you are funny……that tangerine-sherbet jacket line slayed me…lol.

    • tewence says:

      lol i apologize for my flare/flair mix-up! i’m a new parent, so lack of sleep has taken its toll…and i didn’t feel like looking up the difference haha

  3. Jennifer says:

    Usually I’m frustrated with Michael for not giving Phillip enough credit, but I’m really pleased with his review. Even though Jessica wasn’t at her best in the first round, she won it hands down. I was really happy that Jessica chose The Prayer and Phillip chose Movin’ Out for the second round. I think Jessica needed to do The Prayer because doing a song from the live shows wouldn’t have made enough of an impression. I think Phillip needed to do a mid to up tempo song for the second round because he’s been having “moments” with slower songs the past few weeks. I would call the second round a draw or a little more in Phillips favor just because the fun he was having was tangible. For the last round, Phillip hands down had the better performance. I think that because it was a slower song, Change Nothing made Jessica’s night seem kind of bland. Though she sounded great, there was nothing that made the song special. I think that she made a mistake in not telling Jimmy and the other record label executives that the song wasn’t for her, but I think that she really doesn’t know exactly what kind of music she wants to make. She mentioned that she wanted to be more urban after the judges said it, but she’s barely sung an urban song all season. Last week she had a choice of song she wanted to do, a perfect opportunity to show people the kind of music she wants to make post-Idol, and she sang Aerosmith. I really enjoyed Phillip’s song. I don’t think it’s exactly the kind of music he’ll make post-Idol, but it was really great that it was close to his style and showcased some great things about him like his emotional connection to material, his talent as a musician, and his ability to really command a large arena.

    I only start watching Idol when it goes live with the Top 24 (though if I really like someone I’ll go back and watch their audition performances), and after the first live shows I told everyone I know that watches Idol that it was going to be a Jessica/Phillip finale. I think these two deserve to be here, and even though they are very different, they’re both great. I think Jessica needs a little more time to mature emotionally, gain some life experience, really decide what kind of music she wants to make, and to gain the confidence she needs to be able to state her opinion and not allow people in the industry to push her around. I think Phillip is going to do really well no matter what the outcome is tonight, but based on the last few weeks of competition, his personality, and his unwavering stance on what kind of artist he is, I think he should win.

  4. ohreli says:

    Michael, umm…no mention of Haley Reinhart’s “moment” covering “I Who Have Nothing” last year….???!

  5. Debbie M. says:

    Last night was the first night all season that I did not vote. No Joshua, no Skylar, no Elise, no interest. Jessica is undeniably talented, but I don’t see me buying any of her records. I probably won’t buy anything of Philip’s either because I don’t even like Dave Matthews.

  6. booknblues says:

    Phillip’s go-to sexy sax player is Mindi Abair who is a band leader and has several good cd’s under her belt.

  7. Yo' says:

    I haven’t been a PeePee fan much, but if I had voted last night I would have voted for him. I simply do not think Jessica is ready. He is entertaining, she is not. And she arced way too soon; she has had an unimpressive couple of weeks. I actually think if P2 wins this, he will do better with the opportunity it provides. Jessica needs to lay low for a while. I can’t care about her – and I should.

  8. Jared says:

    Although Phil Phillips is talented..he will only just be another white guy with a guitar to win American Idol..and be forgotten about by next season..

    Jessica Sanchez will have the career..ala Katharine Mcphee..

  9. Chris says:

    “In fact, the only part of Round 2 that enraged me was J.Lo’s critique while calling it in Phillip’s favor: “I’ve seen Jessica do that before. And I just feel like that’s authentic Phillip right there.” Um, wait. Jessica performed a tune she’d never before covered in a live voting round, while Phillip gave almost a note-for-note rendition of his Top 10 Week ditty, and yet Jessica is the one who gets the “been there, done that” dismissal?”

    You stated above what my entire household said out loud last night and the only thing that irritated us from the finale. I laugh off most of everything the judges say but this was just…. so very, very, very wrong on some very deep levels.

    As far as what Simon chose, who cares (I mean I’m past hoping for change with this tv show). We knew what to expect before they opened their mouths and it’s what was delivered. I will say I preferred Jessica’s rendition over Chessa’s from that other singing competition. As for their personal choices I was OK with both of them (actually over the top happy with Jessica’s choice and she was so beautiful in every way. I would have preferred another cover of “Volcano” from Phillip knowing good and well it was too soon and too mellow for that to happen). Was it my tv or were there some bum notes at the end of PP performance…

    For their ‘could be’ singles I didn’t have a ‘problem’ per say with the song Jessica sang. In fact it’s a lot like Beyonce’s music with a twist of Jennifer Hudson (that you don’t hear on syndicated radio). With that said if she continues to sing that song I am sure they’ll make some slight changes because it’s a song that can be mixed. The studio version is really pretty great however, as her collective audience in my household we all thought it was written as a ‘country’ tune. We all know Jessica had not much say in the greater scheme of things…come on now. The guy that wrote the song Phillip sang is a big Mumford & Sons fan hence the sound but I thought there was a little Arcade Fire mixed in too. The production was great knowing full well there wouldn’t be a ‘marching band’ sound on the recorded track. I have to say I was a little like what is this? when he started playing but it turned into the opposite of what I initially heard. If I were doing my 30 second listening party when buying new music I would have easily passed on Jessica’s as well …so….

    The biggest difference between Phillip and Jessica other than the obvious is one is a global success and the other potentially national success ridden. However the votes turn out tonight Jimmy Iovine has known this for some time (his behavior was hideous last night). I can say will 100% certainty that there are many deals waiting in the wings for Jessica and it won’t be long before we hear her on syndicated radio,

    In full disclosure I would not go see either one at a headlining show or buy their albums until they both get a lot more miles underway. Maybe they’ll surprise me but I am VERY picky when it comes to giving up dollars in a very over-saturated market of seriously talented folks – even ones without a ‘record deal’.

    I am looking very forward to all the festivities being buzzed about online for tonight’s show! Best of luck to them both but my call is Jessica Sanchez by a high margin. Toodles and tunes….

  10. D says:

    I always like when Slezak picks a different favorite contestant than who I am voting for, because he is always wrong and disappointed by the finale! It almost makes me feel less anxious about tonight’s results :-) Love the witty comments and critiques, though!

  11. J says:

    Personally, I’d like to see an overhaul of the judge’s panel for next season.

    Randy (sadly) isn’t likely to go anywhere, Cowell’s caustic honesty is sorely missed, and I’m 100% tired of J-Lo. I was initially happy to see Steven join the show, I’m a huge fan of his, but he doesn’t seem to be much of a mentor. His responses are more cliche and cryptic than honestly helpful and easily translated.

    AI would only benefit from fresh faces with a lifetime of knowledge and decades of mainstream appeal, judges from multiple genres who are more interested in honest mentoring than staying awake or in their own shameless self-promotion. Maybe even, dare I suggest, artists with a larger vocabulary, yo dawg.

    I’d choose the likes of Stevie Nicks, Carlos Santana, Jay-Z.

  12. davej says:

    I was thoroughly disappointed in the entire evening. I so wanted PP to do an encore of that Jonny Lang song that he did. If he had, I think that would have stood out as the only song that rocked the house.

  13. billybob says:

    I keep seeing dunderheads referring to illegal votes…what is an illegal vote????I checked the Fox site and I did not see any rules. best I can decipher is : somebody thinking their fave is gonna lose -ready made excuse. “Duh, we woodda won but for dose ILLEGAL Votes”

  14. millie says:

    Not interested in who wins, either one is fine. But I am so tired of the way this show is run. Three judges who don’t judge – Randy completely useless, JLo doesn’t know enough about music to critique anyone and although she never really says anything she doesn’t shut up, and Steven in a coma? I don’t understand why the peole that produce this show don’t think they’d have an audience if they just got 3 “real” judges and let them take the wheel. Give honest and constructive criticism based on the performances, not on some script that’s provided for them to manipulate the outcome. And the manipulation isn’t even subtle, it’s like getting shot between the eyes. Considering that last night’s finale was down 25% from last year which was already down shows something is very wrong. I see that people in the industry blame it on reality show overload or the tiredness of the format. But I think it’s that the audience is tired of being made a fool of. Have an honest show, let the NEW competent judges really judge, let the mentors mentor all the contestants to the best of their ability, not just the ones the producers favor, limit the amount of votes per person, and let the chips fall where they may. Its just my opinion, but I think they’d get their big audiences back.

  15. Jessica wins says:

    This has been the first time I have watched AI in 3 seasons and it has been since season four since I have watched more than the audition shows. That being said, of Jessica loses I will go in AI hiatus again. I have nothing against Philip but it was Obvious by the big production he had on his original song, better song choice as well, that the fix was in. Then the standing O and the o over the top praise just made it seem fixed.

    Plus if Jessica was going to sing one Whitney song, why not what she did tonight?

  16. Jessica wins says:


  17. lisak says:

    lordy lordy that was really werid

  18. maryann says:

    “Home” is originally sung by Greg Holden…

  19. Summer says:

    sorry I posted this twice it appeared that it was deleted or didn’t go through..