Wednesday, May 23, 2012

AI Recap: "It's in the Hands of the Universe, Now..."

And here we are, kids. Live from the Nokia Theater, it's time for "the tightest finale in Idol history." According to our nattily attired Ryan, this is a battle between "the 21-year-old pawnshop worker and the 16-year-old powerhouse, it's guy vs. girl, east vs. west, unique artist vs. talented mimic." (Oh, wait. Ryan didn't say the last one. My bad.) J.Lo came dressed for battle in a one-sleeved, black sequined top that could have easily been worn by a member of the Borg from Star Trek. (Resistance is futile.)

For the first and only time all season, the show ran an hour. (Boy, I had forgotten what it was like when they ran the show with no silly filler.) The contestants sang one song "chosen" by Simon Fuller, pick one of their favorite performances from the season, and then sing the single they'd release if they win. Phillip won the coin toss, so he chose to sing second, leaving "the pride of Chula Vista, California" to sing first.

Simon Fuller "picked" I Have Nothing for Jessica's first song. Wow, there's an original choice. Not only has Jessica already sang Whitney Houston this season, but this song has been performed on the show more times than the judges gave Joshua standing ovations. (Seriously. Trenyce sang it in Season 2, Leah LaBelle and Jennifer Hudson sang it in Season 3, Vonzell Solomon sang it in Season 4, Katharine McPhee sang it in Season 5, LaKisha Jones sang it in Season 6, heck, even Shannon Magrane sang it earlier this season.) She sounded good and hit some terrific notes, although she lost her tempo at the end and rushed through some of the lyrics. In a strange change, the judges wouldn't be asked to give feedback until both contestants performed.

For Phillip's first song, Simon "chose" Ben E. King's Stand By Me, previously performed by Bo Bice in Season 4, David Archuleta in Season 7, and Danny Gokey in Season 8. I really enjoyed this performance—I thought he changed up the melody in some really effective ways, and the entire song fit really nicely with his voice.

After both contestants left the stage, Ryan approached the judges and said, "Let's gossip," asking for them to call the winner of Round 1. J.Lo took about 90 seconds to explain that it was a tough choice between a singer with power and nuance and a modern-day crooner who was authentic, so it really depended upon what America wanted. Randy wasn't so indecisive, calling Round 1 easily for Jessica. When the show returned from commercial, J.Lo said she "seconded the motion" that Jessica won the round. Steven was in a daze.

Jason Derulo showed up next to sing the new song they had been threatening us with promoting the entire season. (It would have been nice if Jason's girlfriend, Jordin Sparks, could have sung with him, as that would have given the song slightly more relevancy.) The whole segment was sponsored by Coca-Cola, yet basically Jason sang the song sitting on a folding chair in the middle of a blank stage. Maybe I should drink some more Diet Coke if times are that tough that they can't afford scenery?

For her second song, Jessica chose to reprise her Top 25 performance, The Prayer. I thought she tried far too many runs in the very beginning of the song, but vocally, she sounded powerful, pure, and lovely. Phillip revisited his Billy Joel week performance, Movin' Out (Anthony's Song). Interestingly enough, being the gigantic Billy Joel fan that I am, I really didn't like his rendition when he originally performed it during the season, but this time I felt he brought a swagger and a deeper tone to the performance. (As always, he plays so well against the energy of the band.)

Steven roused himself to say something about Phillip being a good egg, but "you have to either hatch or go bad, and although he hatched some," he called Round 2 for Jessica. Randy disagreed, saying it was "a complete dead heat," while J.Lo said Phillip won the second round, because while she had seen Jessica perform similarly many times, this was "an authentic Phillip Phillips performance."

Which brings us to the contestants' final songs, the first single the winner will release. Jessica's song was a pop monstrosity called Change Nothing, which, like everything else she has sung this season, was a little more adult than she is. It also wasn't in the right key for her, as at times she struggled with her lower register, and the chorus was a wee bit sharp. Ultimately the song proved Jessica's strengths and weaknesses—she's a tremendously talented singer who can mold her voice to fit different styles and sing like other big voices, but when it comes to setting an individual style for herself, she's just not capable.

This time, the judges gave feedback directly after the performances, and they all agreed they didn't like the song. Randy said that Jessica has "urban swagger, like Beyonce," and needs a single that isn't a straight pop ballad, although she "brought the song to life." J.Lo said that while she "sang the song really well," it wasn't a song she'd choose for Jessica to record. She then advised Jessica, "When you go to make your record—and you're going to make many records—you need to be able to say of a song, 'It's not me,' or 'It's me and I can put a cool kind of twist on it.'" Steven told Jessica, "I know how good you sing and so do millions of other people, but that song didn't show off your voice or take us where you have so many times before." Now many on the interwebs again are alleging Jessica was sabotaged. But herein lies the proof she wasn't. She told Ryan she agreed with the judges and wanted to do something a little more urban, "But this is the finale, so I picked a song that could show off my voice. When I make a record—if I do—I'll definitely want to do something different." So there. She picked the song herself, conspiracy theorists.

Phillip's potential single is a little ditty called Home. It definitely (as name-dropper Randy would attest to in his feedback) has a Mumford & Sons-type feel, with a Coldplay's Paradise-type refrain of "oh's." Phillip was totally in the groove during this song, and at one point during the performance he was accompanied by a marching band, which was super cool and in no way as over the top as it sounds. I thought it was one of the best finale songs I've seen performed and one I will (hopefully) play over and over and over again. And when the song ended, Phillip looked around at the 70,000 people in the Nokia Theater and muttered a shy "Wow" out of the corner of his mouth. This and the emotions he showed during his homecoming demonstrate to me that he is still the humble guy he was when he started, despite J.Lo's flirting and young girls screaming his name.

The judges gave him a standing ovation and Randy was even cheering. He said, "Dude, I loved the song, I loved you. It was the best performance of the night, with that Mumford & Sons/Fleet Foxes vibe to it. It was brilliant. Genius." J.Lo said the song was "like nothing I've ever heard on the radio, and it was so different I honestly can't think of anything like it." Interestingly, Steven was fully awake at this point, and said, "By virtue of your vulnerability and style, you've made the world your home, my friend." He talked about hearing Paul Simon and "other ungodlike [sic] creatures" in Phillip's vocals and then proclaimed, "You were perfect tonight. I think you're the man." (This, of course, despite his earlier assessment that Jessica won Rounds 1 and 2.)

With a few minutes left I thought Ryan would ask the judges to further manipulate the results the way Nigel wanted call a winner, but instead he gave each finalist the opportunity to say something to each other. Jessica called Phillip "such an amazing performer, which is why he's here, and I'm so glad to be in this moment with him." Phillip mumbled that "I'm not good at talking in front of millions of people staring at me," but he called Jessica, "an absolutely amazing singer, one of the best I've ever heard, especially at 16. She has a huge future ahead of her."

With that, "It's in the hands of the universe, now," Ryan proclaimed. (Umm, way to stay humble, Seacrest.) Then last year's winner, Scotty McCountry (umm, McCreery) came out to sing Please Remember Me,, the song they've played all season when contestants have been eliminated. They were supposed to show a montage of the season, but the camera crew must have been asleep by then, because we kept seeing the montage on the jumbo screen without close-ups, and instead were treated to side-shots of Scotty and his band. Not the crew's finest few minutes.

So, what do you think will happen tonight? Other than 110 minutes of filler and lots of footage of Heejun preening, that is. (I wish there was someone out there who was as funny as Heejun thinks he is. Does he think his making stank faces into the camera is appealing in any way?) It will be nice to see some of the contestants perform duets and group numbers with celebrities—anyone think Mary J. Blige might show up to duet with Joshua?

In the end, I feel like Phillip has demonstrated far better what kind of artist he will be than Jessica has. There's no denying her amazing voice, and she'll certainly have a career, but as Simon Cowell used to say, "This isn't just a singing competition." Believe me, if it was, we would have seen several different contestants in the top 13 than we did. While Phillip has never been in the bottom two or three before, I just don't know if he'll win, because I think the show desperately wants someone other than another "White guy with guitar" to win for the fifth season in a row. But I'll definitely be disappointed if Jessica wins.

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