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!

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