In a little over a week, "American Idol" will crown its latest champion, and any one of the three remaining contestants could feasibly be standing in the spotlight, being showered with confetti and force-fed a song they probably never would've chosen to sing under any other circumstances.
Many (myself included) would say that Joshua Ledet, Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips were the show's frontrunners right from the start -- perhaps along with Colton Dixon, if only because he's attractive and reasonably talented as both a musician and vocalist -- so the field is wide open as we reach the home stretch.
I gave up on being invested in the outcome of an "Idol" season the year that the phenomenally talented Adam Lambert lost to the pretty-but-bland Kris Allen, so I honestly have no horse in this race. I will say that Phillip Phillips seems to be the most marketable (as another pretty white boy with a guitar), while Jessica probably has the most malleable crossover appeal. Joshua will appeal to a very specific demographic, but his gospel-inspired warbling, while impressive, is not the sort of voice I would want to listen to over the course of an album. I guess that's my way of saying I'd prefer Jessica to win (not least of all because we've had a four-year run of dull, white boy winners) but that if I had to bet, I'd bet on Phillip -- especially since he's the only remaining competitor who has never been in the bottom three. Then again, seeing the way Joshua packed an arena during his hometown visit, maybe it's unwise to count him out entirely.
This week, the final three had to perform three songs apiece; one of their choosing, one that the judges picked, and one from Jimmy Iovine.
"I'd Rather Go Blind"
I'm often of two minds about Joshua -- he makes many songs look effortless, but at the same time, his performances are still so calculated. I would love to see him get lost in the music instead of being so polished, since every run he hits has a rehearsed quality instead of feeling spontaneous and heartfelt. But between his graveled depths and crystal clear high notes, it's hard to fault him for this retro performance, chosen for him by the judges. My only complaint (perhaps more of a reflection on me than him) is that I always feel exhausted listening to him, which is both a positive and a negative in terms of how well the record label will be able to market his voice.
The judges gave Joshua yet another standing ovation to add to the pile (though Jennifer was a little slower to stand than the other two). Steven called it "another Joshua moment" and told him that "there's only one American Idol, and you sang like that one tonight." Jennifer told him that she loves that he's such a throwback singer, and that he "brought down the house again," while Randy called him a "classic stylist."
The John Lennon classic was Joshua's own pick, but I liked this less -- being forced to go slow and understated doesn't suit him. The song's arrangement doesn't really leave much room for runs and vibrato, but that didn't stop the singer from inserting them regardless, which seemed to mess up the timing and make things feel alternately rushed or delayed in spots, where the accompaniment had been drawn out to allow time for him to ad-lib. Sometimes a song just needs to be sung, not SANG, and I think Joshua was veering a little towards self-indulgence in a song that's effective, in large part, because it's so simple.
No standing ovation this time around. Steven still called it "beautiful" and said it was a "thank you, god" moment. Jennifer praised his performance qualities and the way he digs deep into songs, seeming to get a little tearful when noting his "vulnerability" and "strength." Randy agreed that he digs deep into the meaning of songs and called it a "stellar performance."
"No More Drama"
Jimmy Iovine's choice seemed like an attempt to drag Joshua kicking and screaming (literally) into today's music industry, but all it really served to do was prove that Joshua isn't all that good at contemporary songs. The first half of the rendition felt uneven and out of Joshua's comfort zone -- probably the point -- and I didn't feel as though he was really connecting to the lyrics until he got to the latter half and started letting loose, scatting and growling and ad-libbing the way he does best. This was actually a demonstration of Joshua finally letting go, and while it was vocally impressive, it's a pity that it came with such a tonally dissonant song. Were there really no modern artists who fit him better than Mary J. Blige?
Randy said, "it doesn't matter what you do, what you sing, you have laid everything on this stage that there is to lay, people should just stand up and vote for you anyway." No favoritism, huh? Jennifer really approved of him taking off his jacket. Steven called it "over the top."
The judges didn't pull their punches with Jessica, choosing a nightmarish Mariah Carey number for her to sink her teeth into, but the 16-year-old acquitted herself admirably with a technically astonishing performance. It's rare for an artist to have such control of both their upper and lower registers, let alone the ability to transition so effortlessly between the two, but Jessica's voice truly is on another level. It wasn't a perfect rendition, since her enunciation needed work in the first verse and she lost control of the pitch on her high notes towards the end, but considering what a challenging song it is, I thought it was an amazing feat. I wish the judges had gone a little easier on her and given her something that she didn't have to think so hard about, because she was concentrating so much on the difficulty of the trills and adding vibrato that she didn't really have a chance to relax, and it showed.
Randy -- who is always eager to remind us that Mariah is "my girl," called it "one of the best times a Mariah song has ever been performed on TV." Jennifer noted her difficulties in the middle, but praised her for doing the song beautifully and in her own way. Steven predicted, "you'll be the last one standing here, I believe."
"I Don't Want To Miss A Thing"
Jessica chose one of the most ubiquitous Aerosmith songs in the catalog when she was given free rein, probably to suck up to Steven Tyler in a way that was wholly unnecessary, since she's the last pretty young thing left in the competition anyway. The beginning was awkward for me, since the key seemed to be too low for her, but once she hit the chorus and had the opportunity to open up her voice and belt, she got back into her comfort zone. The ending was perfect, quietly tender before launching back up into the stratosphere. She broke a little on the last note, which is rare, but it's kind of nice to see a little crack in the flawless facade once in a while.
Steven gave her a standing ovation and insisted, "you just took a great song and made it greater," while Jennifer said "that note at the end sent everybody into the heavens." Really, Jennifer, the one note she messed up? Randy said that he was "waiting on a big moment, and you delivered."
"I'll Be There"
Jimmy Iovine gave Jessica another Mariah song, albeit one that was first performed by the Jackson 5. It's firmly in her wheelhouse, although she seemed to be out of time at the start and I was jarred by the key change after the first verse, especially since her lower register tends to be shakier than her belting high notes. I appreciated the soft and tender moments in the middle, but this performance didn't set the stage on fire and it didn't have the impact or heart of some of her standout performances.
Steven called it a "perfect song, perfect voice," as well as being "delicious." Jennifer thought it was a good choice and praised her "perfect tone." Randy, wisely "liked it OK" but didn't love it. He felt like she needed a "moment moment," that didn't quite come.
The judges supposedly chose this song to allow Phillip to show his melodic side, so of course, he had to mess with the melody. I appreciated the gorgeous acoustic start before the percussion kicked in, graduating to something rocky and bluesy that seemed to have the whole audience engaged. He's very good at what he does, with lots of personality, even if he doesn't have an iota of the range that Joshua and Jessica have. I still respect that he has a clear idea of who he is as an artist and refuses to stray from it, and judging from the crowd's reaction at the end, who he is will sell. I also dug the abrupt ending, and the fact that Phillip allows himself to truly have fun with his performances without getting so caught up in the polished perfection of it all.
Steven loved the performance and expressed hope that Phillip will write his own songs in the future, "because you could be a new Springsteen." Jennifer loved that he changed up the melody and that he catches his own groove in songs. "You are who you are and we love it," Randy enthused.
Phillip chose one of my favorite Matchbox 20 songs for his second performance, and it's another good choice for his voice. He also made it more personal by choosing to slow it down a little and bring back the awesome saxophonist to add some soul. It doesn't seem to have the heart or energy of his first song (mostly because it's a mid-tempo number) but it's husky and sounds like something that could play on the radio today, which is something that can't be said of Joshua's repertoire. The way he hugged the sax player towards the end definitely makes me wonder if there's a little somethin' somethin' there.
"I didn't feel like it was the "wow" performance," Jennifer observed, with Steven agreeing that it wasn't "over the top," which is his go-to complement this week. Randy didn't like it either, calling it "a subdued moment" and "just OK."
"We've Got Tonight"
Jimmy chose something completely out of Phillip's comfort zone with this Bob Seger number, and miraculously, he didn't Phil-Phil it. There were no instruments in his hands, no crazy saxophonists or bongo drums beside him, just Phillip laid bare, raw and surprisingly vulnerable, and for perhaps the first time all season, he actually sang. You could hear melody and actually get a sense of his range, and it was beautiful. He kept nervously rubbing his hand against his thigh like he was itching to hide behind a guitar, but even if it wasn't his ideal choice, it was the ideal song to close the show and really prove that Phillip is, as Randy loves to say, "in it to win it." Quite a revelatory performance.
A standing ovation from the male judges (and belatedly Jennifer, again), and most of the audience. "The perfect song at the perfect time, and your best performance on the show ever," Randy said, calling it a giant moment. Jennifer said that 20 million girls out there were wishing he was singing that song to them (if that's true, he's definitely going to win). Steven dropped an s-bomb just to see if the editors were awake upstairs, but called the performance "beautiful" and, you guessed it, "over the top."
We're down to the wire now, and all three performers have their pluses and minuses. I'm guessing that Phillip, as the remaining pretty white boy, is probably a lock for the Final 2, and who joins him will depend on whether the audience wants stage presence (Joshua) or a marketable modern sound (Jessica), since both are technically accomplished and could sing the phone book in an array of mindblowing ways.
Who do you think will make it into the Final 2? Share your predictions below!
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.