Tuned In

Idol Watch: The Sing-Off

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Michael Becker / FOX

I’m not convinced that American Idol finale performances actually mean anything. They don’t happen in a vacuum; fans have the whole season to base their votes on, and they’ve already fallen into camps. I’ve seen enough Idol finales where an underdog had a great night–and lost anyway. Still, there are the casual viewers you can hope to win over with a strong finale night—the Idol swing vote, as it were—so let’s see how diva Jessica and folkie Phillip did with their final pitches:

Jessica Sanchez, “I Have Nothing”
I would assume Simon Fuller watches every episode of his own show, and yet he’s apparently not sick of this very, very, very much-performed Idol standard yet. I feel this performance is a bit of a wash for Jessica: big ballads are her thing, and this shows off the power and warm tones of her voice. But she doesn’t have the fire to really sell the diva desperation of the song, and gets a little screechy when she tries.

Phillip Phillips, “Stand By Me”
One thing about Phillip: he always sounds like himself. It gives him a strong brand and shows that he knows his style, but it means that he needs songs that will adapt to his laid-back jam style, and this one doesn’t. It should be a raw, open-hearted call, but I just feel like I’m standing by him while I wait for a soy latte.

Jessica Sanchez, “The Prayer”
Jessica may be young, but she’s smart: she knows she’s not here on finale night to surprise us but to fire that voice-cannon the way we did before. She reprises her golden ticket song and lets it build to a set of notes that may have left a dent in my living-room wall. Not an exciting choice, but it had to help her among anyone voting on raw vocal talent.

Phillip Phillips, “Movin’ Out”
Huh. I would have expected Phillip to repeat Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” not this acoustic-guitar arrangement of a Piano Man song. (He also does that odd thing where he shifts mercurially from goofy and smiley to menacing in the same song verse. I’m Nice Kermit! Now I’m Mean Kermit!) But maybe he knows better than me; while he can’t compete with Jessica’s firepower, he makes up for it in growly drama.

Jessica Sanchez, “Change Nothing”
Ah, the Idol coronation song: lots of dreams, mountains and reaching for your tomorrow. Jessica is kind of a human Idol coronation song, though, and this polished, generic pop ballad does fit her voice pretty well—belting out some of those glory notes, she practically unhinges her jaw. But she can’t wring real drama out of this musical Splenda.

Phillip Phillips, “Home”
If Phillip wins Wednesday night–and I’m guessing he does–he should split the prize with the composer of this song. (Not, though, whoever decided to bring a drum corps on stage.) It’s not that the song is special in itself—Simon and Garfunkel by way of Mumford and Sons–but it’s a song, one that sounds like it was actually written for his style and his voice, not for a computer average of Idol contestants. Which means his last performance was memorable, unlike Jessica’s (largely because of her song)–and that’s what America’s going to remember when it goes to vote.

So that’s my call; Phillip takes home the win. I haven’t been reviewing Idol every week this season, but I have been watching, and while his Dave Matthews-style groove is not to my taste, he pulls it off well, consistently and with a sense of what he wants to be. I may not buy his record, but he’s earned it—also, for better or worse, his winning would fit the trend that only boys seem to win Idol anymore. Who got your vote, undecideds?