Idol finales tend to be a very mixed bag musically. There’s plenty of bad – crap “Winner’s” Songs that are giant booby prizes, reprises, and doubtful song choices – but there is the occasional diamond in the rough.
What they aren’t is decisive. No Idol contest has been won or lost on the basis of how well someone sung on finale night. The only season where you might be able to dispute that is Season Seven, but that came in a year with a fairly evenly matched top two.
Neither contestant really had a great night. Jessica Sanchez had the best individual performance of the night with The Prayer. For all the praise she gets with the big songs, technically she’s just as sharp – if not better – with the more restrained, subtler songs like The Prayer. The one negative is that I don’t think Jessica was able to impart the gravitas that the male half of the song usually brings to the table, but overall it’s a relatively minor nitpick.
However, Jessica also had the worst song of the night – and it wasn’t even her fault. Change Nothing was so bad, it almost made me nostalgic for a Kara DioGuardi special. Jessica was uncomfortable with the entire song, and it clearly showed. As for I Have Nothing, there’s not much to say about it. It was a big ballad done competently, but how many times have we seen this before? Also, Jessica ended up self-confined to the Ballad Ghetto with all three of her performances ending up that way. She may not have had much choice in the reprise, given how her non-ballads have not been all that good. But she picked
It’s not like Phillip Phillips had a much better time, either. His best song was his coronation song Home, but that comes with two huge caveats: Jessica had a much harder song to deal with, so Phil was that much less likely to screw up. What really bugged me, though, was he did so little singing. After the drum corps enters, he basically did some (mumbled) humming, and the last line. That was it. He basically had training wheels for his coronation performance. Overall, it was a great performance, but as a pundit I cannot given it full credit. And how appropriate that in a season full of ridiculous overpraise and standing ovations… we got exactly that on the last competitive performance of the season. It was good, but not that good.
Like Jessica, Phillip had one stinker and one so-so one. His Billy Joel reprise was… surprising. Of all the performances he has to choose from, he chose that? It was another trademark Phillip Phillips performance, with the highlight being Hot Saxophone Girl again. Stand By Me was a completely and utter mess. Bad song choice and Phil did it remarkably poorly.
It’s hard to say who had a better night. Jessica’s peak was higher than Phillip’s, but her trainwreck was also worse. You could argue endlessly about who “won”, but to me it looks like a tie. At best it’s a razor-thin victory for someone.
Bowing to the Inevitable
A narrow win for Jessica was not what she needed if she had any chance of winning. She basically needed to pull out three outstanding songs and hope Phillip had an off night. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
There was one telling moment in the show which may have told us why Jessica really had no chance of winning. It was when she was trying to justify her pick of Change Nothing and she basically said that she chose it because that’s what she thought an Idol winner’s song should be. Palm went to face at that moment and I thought, “oh god.” I’ll delve into this more deeply tomorrow, but: one distinguishing characteristic of this Idol epoch is that the finalists are largely left to their own devices and free to do what they want.
Someone like Phillip who appeared to have a good idea of where he is musically can do well in that climate; someone like Jessica (or, perhaps more correctly, someone close to her) who doesn’t will struggle. Jessica had the best pure vocals, but she never seemed to figure out how to make the most of it on the Idol stage. In a very real way, unwittingly or not, it was Phillip who figured out the rules of Idol in a way that otherwise superior singers did.
What’s more interesting, actually, is how Phillip and Jessica handle their post-Idol debut albums. In normal circumstances neither Phillip nor Jessica have any business recording an album in the short timespan that being in the Idol top two calls for. Phillip, with his reluctance to compromise on even small items (remember how he defiantly wore grey on Billy Joel night?), might have trouble with the give-and-take process that will accompany an Idol winner’s album. Jessica has the opposite problem: it’ll be tempting to hand her a pile of generic ballads with a couple of change of pace songs for variety. But that’s not a recipe for success – either commercial or critical – and would be a disservice to her exceptional talents.
In any case, I wish them luck. As a practical matter, both of them have won, since they both get a shot at earning fame and fortune in the music industry. May they both sell well.
Your winner of American Idol is…. Phillip Phillips.