American Idol Top 3 Performance Night Recap: Feeling Right at Home(town)

phillip phillips jessica sanchez joshua ledetWe’ve reached that point in the American Idol season — after 37 episodes, hundreds of magnificently awful images in the backdrop oval, and what feels like 73 hours of nonsense critiques from Tweedle-Huh, Tweedle-Abs, and Tweedle-Yo — where I start hunting for conspriracy theories with the vigorousness of Skylar Laine tracking an eight-point buck in the woods. (Run, Bambi, run!) And this week’s Top 3 performance episode had ’em in spades:

* There was Ryan Seacrest’s intro, touting Phillip Phillips and his hometown of LEEsburg, GA, which might’ve been a not-so-subtle reminder of the last growly-voiced, guitar-playing, untucked-shirt-wearing Idol winner Lee DeWyze, who hasn’t had a particularly noteworthy post-Idol run.

* There were Jimmy’s song choices for Jessica (“I’ll Be There”…in the finale?); Joshua (with the impassioned line “I choose to win!”); and Phillip (who had to sing the refrain, “We’ve got tonight. Who needs tomorrow?” Um, only a contestant who wants to perform at the Nokia next Tuesday).

* There were spangled shoulders on Joshua’s last shirt, spangled pockets on Jessica’s last jacket, but not a single spangle for Phillip Phillips (J.Lo: “Unless you count the twinkle in his eyes!)

* We had standing ovations from the judges for Joshua and Phillip, but none for Jessica.

* We had Jessica’s hometown-visit package including a trip to an empty stadium.

* Then again, Joshua wound up with the deadly leadoff performance slot.

* And after one round of performances, Steven predicted Jessica would win it all.

So who’s a lock for next Tuesday’s finale, and whose dream is destined to fall a week short of Nokia glory? It might boil down to this question: Will voters reward Jessica’s season of high-level performances punctuated by a single lackluster night, or will they choose Phillip, a contestant who’s had a decidedly bumpier Idol run but benefitted from a stellar final impression? Then again, maybe it’s premature for me to assume Joshua’s got a lock on a Top 2 berth: It’s possible that the Idol audience wasn’t quite ready to be dragged to church on a Wednesday evening, even if mandatory attendance allowed them to simultaneously experience a baptism, an exorcism, and the holy union of Gospel, soul, and soap-opera theme songs.

If I had to predict who will make the Top 2: Joshua and Phillip. As for who should, well, that’s a trickier question. Phillip’s show-closing performance was a real stunner, while Jessica had her worst night of the entire season, but since I subscribe to the idea that one night or one performance does not an Idol make (or break), I’d go with Joshua and Skylar Jessica.

But enough prognosticating! Let’s take a deep dive into the performances.

Judges’ Choice
Joshua Ledet: Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” (picked by Randy) | On paper, I suppose it made sense to choose an old-soul classic for Joshua. Or, at least it required the least amount of mental strain for the judge who can’t tell his Marvin Gaye from his Al Green. But in practice, making Joshua cover “I’d Rather Go Blind” was the equivalent of getting Michael Phelps to show up for a teaching exhibition and limiting him to swimming the width, not the length, of the pool. Indeed, at the exact moment the judges should’ve been looking to stetch the idea of what Joshua can do as an artist — hadn’t Randy mentioned Terence Trent D’Arby’s music as a potential career template just a few weeks back? — they asked him to color within the lines of prior performances like “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” And of course, it didn’t help that Joshua sang the first verse with Etta James’ chosen pronouns — “when I saw you and her talking” — and then later switched his romantic rival to a “him” (almost as if he’d never truly inhabited the song, but was rather just imitating the original). Yeah, he hit all the notes. And yeah, the outfit — black jacket with white stitching and red button holes, gray vest, red shirt, red rose accessory — was stupendous. But the damp gray cloak of expectedness kept this number from truly taking off.

Jessica Sanchez: Mariah Carey’s “My All” (picked by J.Lo) | “Oooh! It’s hard!” giggled J.Lo, as if she’d just realized the degree of difficulty of Mariah Carey’s roller coaster ballad after Jessica had sung her final note. But in all seriousness, what was the point of assigning a 16-year-old contestant a song that she’d have to “get through” (as J.Lo put it) rather than one that could point her out as a potentially relevant recording artist who might help purge the airwaves of tinny-voiced divas like Ke$ha and Rihanna and, er, J.Lo herself? (Ohhhhh, I get it now.) Everything here seemed to work against Jessica: The constricting fru-fru purple gown, the platform that kept her confined to a three-foot radius, a melody that was all airy tenderness and no meaty growl, lyrical content that placed the bubbly teenager in the position of wanting to feel her body pressed against her lover (eww), and a backdrop that featured Jessica’s blown-up head singing down onto her tiny frame. Yet, alas, the biggest problem was the fact that Jessica seemed to be just under the melody for most of the performance — a jarring misstep for a vocalist who’s been thisclose to spotless all season. She may have given her all, but in this case, her all just wasn’t enough.

Phillip Phillips: The Four Seasons’/Madcon’s “Beggin” | Urgh. J.Lo really needs to stop giggling during her critiques. Especially when she’s critiquing Phillip as if she’s the just-out-of-college 12th-grade English teacher and he’s the sort-of brainy quarterback who’s too cool to treat his essays with complete and total seriousness. J.Lo’s whole point — that Phillip is “funny” because he “can’t help” messing with melodies, even ones as earwormy as “Beggin'” — ignored the fact that the overall performance would’ve been a-okay during, say, Top 11 week, but felt a little lackluster just seven days before the finale. Phillip’s greatest asset is the way he feeds off the musicians behind him, and vice-versa. The drummer on “Beggin'” was such a complete and total beast — just wailing away to the rhythm — that it was hard not to fall into the groove along with him. But Phillip’s vocal itself — particularly in the echo-y intro and again toward the end of the number — came off a little winded and withering. In other words, I didn’t not enjoy “Beggin,” but I also don’t think I’ll remember it a couple of months from now.

Contestant’s Choice
Joshua Ledet: John Lennon’s “Imagine” | Joshua’s hometown visit finally showed off his dormant sense of humor — I giggled at his “They are really acting like I’m Barack Obama!” and that “this is crazy!” dance move — and I’ll admit I teared up watching the congregation of his dad’s tiny church weep for joy at their hometown boy’s successes. But it was his stop at the Burton Coloseum — sold out for the first time with a veritable sea of human beings — that drove home just much power Joshua holds in his vocal cords. With the right material and production, maybe this fella could bring old-school vocal stylings to modern radio? For that to happen, though, he’ll need better arrangements than the one he got for “Imagine.” The Lite FM strings and the shoop-shoop cheeriness of the background singers as they echoed the “join us” lyric really detracted from what was otherwise a restrained and lovely vocal from the Talented Mr. Ledet. As Steven noted, it was “Another ‘thank you, God’ moment.” But I do wonder if J.Lo felt the burn when Randy, praising Joshua’s choice of a lyric that held a lot of meaning for him, opined that today’s charts feature “a lot of people singing a lot of things they have no attachment to.” After all, does anyone really think J.Lo singing “Brazil, Morocco, London to Ibiza/ Straight to LA, New York, Vegas to Africa/ Dance the night away/ Live your life and stay young on the floor” is anything more than a series of syllables that happen to fit a groove that makes her booty move?

Jessica Sanchez: Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” | When Jessica described herself as a homeschooled dork, then giggled about the fact that she had guys chasing her car and handing her phone numbers durng her hometown parade, we got a glimpse of the real-life teenager behind the Terminator-like singing machine who’s been exploding our TV screens with her monster voice for the last three months. Unfortunately, her “Contestant’s Choice” pick felt like it came from a kid whose only exposure to music was from watching American Idol. Why else would Jessica choose a song that’s been previously tackled by Josh Gracin, Lindsey Cardinale, Antonella Barba, David Cook, Allison Iraheta, and Aaron Kelly? A song that neither tapped into her youthful energy nor gave her a real chance to flex the stunning brute force of her instrument. By the time she hit the bridge, it felt like Jessica had given up trying to convince herself she was interested in getting to the end of this sappy Aerosmith ballad, and unfortunately, the feeling was contageous. J.Lo’s muted praise — “really, really good job, baby” — told the tale, but at least Jessica’s pantusit and necklace from the Modern-hontas Collection were pretty awesome.

Phillip Phillips: Matchbox 20’s “Disease” | Phillip — or should I say Phillip’s dad — wins the award for most emotional hometown visit. When Papa Phillips hugged his son and talked about the hardship of just catching glimpses of his son, not being able to actually put his hands on him the last few months, I had to reach for the Kleenex again. (What good is the hometown visits episode without tears, yes?) And then we had Phillip turning on the waterworks, too, overwhelmed by the response of fans at a local parade. None of that passion seemed to find its way, however, into Phillip’s pedestrian rendition of “Disease,” in which the contestant and the sexy lady saxophonist sat on crates, jammed out with a bongo drummer, and compressed the song’s melody into the three-note stew that’s become the all-too-common daily special at the P2 Diner. You know Phillip had a tough performance when even J.Lo had to break out the “hi, sweetie” treatment — and not in a flirty way, either!

Jimmy’s Choice
Joshua Ledet: Mary J. Blige’s “No! More! DRAMA!” | The image of Season 11 finalists Hollie Cavanagh and Shannon Magrane in the audience — throwing Gospel hands, laughing, and weeping at the end of Joshua’s number — conveyed everything about Joshua’s insanely good performance that I can’t put into words. Was it flawless? Not really. The opening verse felt almost tentative, with Joshua bouncing up and down, maybe fearful of what would happen if he exorcized his inner demons right there on the Idol stage. Was it executed the way he’d planned? I’m guessing not, since Joshua’s ear monitor took flight around the time he tore his jacket off and hurled it to the floor. But damned if Joshua didn’t somehow didn’t give us all a spiritual experience. I’ve always thought Mary J. Blige’s “Young and the Restless Theme”-sampling ditty was one of the greatest self-empowerment anthems ever written — honestly, if you’re a magnet for bad relationships and career setbacks, give those lyrics a listen, then heed ’em, brothers and sisters! — and with his gutteral wail, Joshua simultaneously conveyed the joy of letting go of drama, and the pain of leaving it all behind. When Mr. Ledet ad-libbed toward the end and asked, “Do I have anybody in this place, that can say they don’t want no more drama?” I had a hand in the air and tears in my eyes. And if that’s not enough to get him to the finale, then to hell with next Tuesday night.

Jessica Sanchez: Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” | As I noted in my post-show item, Jessica’s vocal was as light and pretty as a swarm of butterflies rising from a mountain meadow, but the song didn’t give her the explosive moment of last week’s “And I Am Telling You…” And while Randy always likes to break out the “if you can sing, you can sing anything” blathering, let’s be honest: When you’re trying to claw your way into the finale of America’s most popular singing competition, you need to close your set with a ditty that packs either vocal or emotional heft — not something that’s accompanied by a breezy backdrop of carnival rides, a foreground of infuriating swaybots, and a “good job, baby” critique from J.Lo. I wanted the earth to open up and swallow Randy whole when he complained that Jessica didn’t deliver a “moment moment moment” — but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a point at the center of his layers of verbal idiocy.

Phillip Phillips: Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” | Yeah, he’s given us his naughty “does your daddy let you date” soundbites, and shored-up his bad southern boy appeal on “U Got It Bad” and “Time of the Season,” but to this point in the competition, Phillip has seemed a little reluctant to latch on to the role of Season 11 heartthrob. Fortunately for him, Jimmy had no such qualms, and the mentor’s brilliant choice of “We’ve Got Tonight” allowed Phillip a moment of pure vulnerability, playing a lonely guy, standing in front of a lonely girl, asking her to love him — at least until morning. I do wish the audience had refrained from trying to clap (you know the swaybots had something to do with it), but the flawless, dialed-down arrangement and the gorgeous melody really highlighted the character of Phillip’s creaky voice. If Jessica is a magnificent cruise ship, and Joshua is a luxury yacht, Phillip is a dinged-up sailboat, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a place on the water, if you know what I mean. Had “We’ve Got Tonight” been Phillip’s opening number, it might not have made enough waves to carry him to the finale, but as a show-closing performance, I think it might have sealed Jessica’s fate as a third-place finisher.

Letter Grades
Joshua’s “No More Drama”: A
Phillip’s “We’ve Got Tonight”: A-
Jessica’s “I’ll Be There”: B+
Joshua’s “Imagine”: B+
Joshua’s “I’d Rather Go Blind”: B
Phillip’s “Beggin'”: B
Jessica’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”: C+
Phillip’s “Disease”: C+
Jessica’s “My All”: C+

Now it’s your turn. Hit the comments and share who you think deserves to advance to the finale. And for all my Idol news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!