"American Idol" in the past few years has gone with the idea that the winner's song should be individualized (because everyone remembers Simon Cowell mocking the banal Kara Dioguardi-penned "No Boundaries" performed by Kris Allen and Adam Lambert). It is a great idea when the songs chosen work, but when they do not... well... The Lee DeWyze cover of U2's "Beautiful Day" for the Season 9 winner was a case in point. And so was the song chosen for Jessica Sanchez for the Season 11 finale, because if there was one thing Sanchez would alter about her winner's song, "Change Nothing," it would be to do far more than change nothing, starting with the song selection itself.
In short, Phillip Phillips won the Winner's Song category (or Round 3). With a acoustic guitar-driven sound that hearkened back to the soft folk sound of Paul Simon's earlier works, the song "Home" also brought with it the newer folk sounds of Mumford and Sons. Judge Steven Tyler pointed out the first likeness, Randy Jackson the latter. And they gave the performance a standing ovation. It was the closing number for the finalists and it very well could have sealed a victory for Phillips.
Randy Jackson said he loved it, that it was the best performance of the night. Judge Jennifer Lopez said it was a "Phillip Phillips song" and that there was nothing on the radio like it. Tyler said Phillips sounded "perfect."
Sanchez preceded the 22-year-old Georgia crooner with the pop ballad that most likely cost her the season title. "Change Nothing" was a simple pop song with no real rise and fall. And the judges agreed that it just wasn't that good of a song (which reflected on mentor Jimmy Iovine, who chose the categories songs). Jackson said that even though he did love the song, Sanchez "made something of it." Lopez said it was too pop and not enough Sanchez, not enough soul and blues. She told Sanchez she had to be true to herself when doing her music and to fight for it and finished by telling the 16-year-old that at least she "brought the song to life" but "it was just okay." Tyler agreed, simply saying that he "didn't feel like that was the proper song" for her.
Prior to the final round, Sanchez had had a good night. Since Phillips had won the coin toss before the show, he chose to end each round, so it was Sanchez who led off the evening in Round 1 (a song chosen for the artist by "American Idol" creator Simon Fuller) with Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing." In her comfort zone, Sanchez belted the tune like she owned it.
Phillips followed by a completely subdued cover of Ben E. King's classic "Stand By Me" with a Phillips twist. The melody was a little off-cadence in that way Phillips has rearranged several songs throughout the season.
Host Ryan Seacrest asked Lopez who she thought had won the first round. She attempted to be neutral, noting that the show was displaying a "battle of opposites." Sanchez was all "power" and "control." Phillips was "soulfulness" and full of "originality." She said America had a tough choice to make. When Seacrest asked if anyone would predict a winner for Round 1, Jackson looked like a schoolkid trying to get noticed without actually raising his hand. When Seacrest acknowledged him, Jackson said that the round had gone to Sanchez.
In Round 2, the two contestants got to choose a favorite performance from the year and perform it one more time. Sanchez chose "The Prayer," the powerful duet song made famous by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli. It seemed to lake the power it had when she first performed it (which may have had everything to do with the fact that it is a duet and needed the strength of another voice, much like Chris Mann's version with Christina Aguilera on the season finale of NBC's "The Voice"). But Phillips' reprise of his excellent cover of Billy Joel's "Movin' Out" seemed even better than before, although it might have simply been his chemistry with the band playing around him (he played alone at center stage during the Top 10 performance, the band hidden from view).
When Seacrest asked the judges for the opinions on Round 2, Steven Tyler quickly said he thought "Jessica took it again," which also let the "American Idol" audience know who he thought had won Round 1 as well. Jackson said he thought it was even, but Jennifer Lopez quickly said she had to give the second round to Phillip because it was "authentic Phillips."
Although ending strong was a bonus for Phillips, who has been predicted to win the competition by oddsmakers and power rankings listers, it by no means guaranteed him victory. Sanchez' performances were all good (just as were his). But there was definitely something lacking in her Winner's Song, "Change Nothing."
So the final judges tally would leave America hanging as well. With Tyler giving the first two rounds to Jessica and Lopez giving the last two rounds to Phillip, Jackson was no help with a vote for Sanchez in the first, Phillips in the third, and calling Round 2 a draw.
Regardless, if Jessica Sanchez does manage to pull off a victory, she will not only be the first winner from California, she will be the first female artist to win the competition since 2007 and the youngest contestant ever to win "American Idol." If Phillips wins, he'll be the first Georgian to take the title and the fifth guy in as many seasons.
Also appearing on the finale was R&B artist Jason Derulo, who debuted "Undefeated," his latest song, the lyrics of which were partially co-written by "American Idol" fans. And at the end of the show, last season's winner, Scotty McCreery, performed the exit song, a cover of Tim McGraw's hit, "Remember Me."
So did Jessica Sanchez win over enough voters to get the win? How about Phillip Phillips? The phone lines and Internet were open for voting for four hours following the show, so there will undoubtedly be a deluge of votes. Given the enormous difference in vocal stylings and overall sound from the two artists, the winner could easily be either of them.
And that winner will be revealed on the Season 11 finale on Wednesday evening. The two-hour show, which begins at 8:00 p.m. EST will feature songs from the both Sanchez and Phillips, plus music from the rest of the finalists. Also appearing will be Tyler's band Aerosmith and R&B star Rihanna.
(photo credit: Walmart, Creative Commons)