American Idol: “Performance Show”
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American Idol: “Performance Show”

Well, a girl can dream.

As recently as last week, many Idol commentators, including your regular recapper Claire Zulkey, were calling the season for Jessica Sanchez, which is a nice thought that would be nicer if the proposed outcome weren’t so damn boring. It’s funny; at the start of the live shows, having a female winner for the first time in five years seemed like an electrifying, revolutionary possibility; now, I find myself strangely excited for Phillip Phillips being crowned the winner, if only for how blatantly it would signify that this particular star-making mechanism is broken. Call it the Vote For The Worst appeal, if you will (that site, incidentally, is pulling for P2 this year). And while it’s easy to sit back and say that the teenyboppers are just picking the closest thing to boyfriend material that this season has to offer, I’d posit that there’s a lot more going on behind this fifth consecutive occurrence of the White Guy With Guitar phenomenon.

The remaining two sang three songs tonight: one chosen by show producer Simon Fuller, a reprise of their own favorite performance from the season, and then their would-be first single if they indeed win the whole thing. With two finalists as wildly different as Phillip and Jessica, the result was a predictably schizophrenic hour; 2011’s Country Idol this was not. And because Idol is only a personality-based competition in the most superficial sense (Phillip and your totally! wacky! faces, I’m looking at you) tonight’s penultimate episode was a battle of aesthetics: What mood is America in this year? Has our grief-triggered nostalgia for old school divas like Whitney Houston and Donna Summer made us long for another ballad wailer, or are we more into that quirky “indie” folk band with the catchy song that we Shazamed off the latest iPhone ad?

To my ears, the guy with the oboist and marching band win. Those who thought that a bunch of Whitney and Celine songs could catapult Jessica Sanchez to the win severely overestimate the Idol voters’ appreciation for a genre of music that rose to popularity before most of them were even conceived. They also forget how numb viewers are to that genre; it’s the stereotype of what Idol is at this point, despite the fact that nobody since Jordin Sparks has won with it. So in many ways, perhaps counterintuitively, Jessica Sanchez represents the Idol establishment. Season 11 ultimately became a showdown between the teacher’s pet and the class clown, and anyone who’s made it through junior high knows who gets elected student body president.

That the class clown in this situation happens to have a dreamy smile and play the guitar doesn’t hurt either. I’m sure the judges think they’re boosting Jessica’s chances by fawning over her week after week, but they forget that teen girls have a vicious, hormonally-charged anarchic side. It’s all too appealing to vote for the guy who continually resists conforming to the Idol box, despite repeated stern talking tos (alternated with hyperbolic praise for “artistry” and “originality”). Whether they meant to or not, the judges and Jimmy Iovine (and yeah, Tommy Hilfiger too) painted Phillip Phillips as much more of a boundary-breaking rebel than he probably is, and there’s no faster way to drive a nation of girls into a guy’s arms than to tell them he’s bad for them (or their show).

The six performances tonight mostly served as a reminder of how little the idols have changed since we first met them. Phillip has stubbornly stuck to his DMB-aping guns, while Jessica has rarely been pushed by the judges to do anything other than keep being flawless. But Phillip’s schtick has a certain degree of surprise built in; I’ll admit that of all the performances tonight I probably hated his encore of “Movin' Out” the least, if only because of what a relative oddity it is. (He applied a similar sensibility to his first song, “Stand By Me,” to lesser effect.) Jessica ultimately ignores the only solid piece of advice she’s gotten this season (Jimmy’s insistence that she not skew so old and serious with her song choices) and belts out “I Have Nothing” and “The Prayer” with flawless precision and the imitation gravitas of a pageant girl on autopilot.

But the real kicker is the winner’s songs, and if the judges want to reverse-psychology the audience into voting for Jessica, they picked the wrong round to underpraise her. “Change Nothing” was every bit as bland and unremarkable a pop ballad as Randy said, but imagine how awkward it will be in the unlikely scenario that Jessica wins – this clueless girl singing a boring song that nobody likes as the victory confetti falls down on her. If I’m completely wrong about who the powers that be are pulling for, then congratulations, you’ve successfully prolonged the WGWG winning streak for another year.

Yes, on Season 11 of American Idol, soaring notes and bombast won’t cut it. It’s the marching band and the hummable chorus that get the normally standing-O-happy judges to their feet for the first time tonight. Jennifer says that Phillip’s “Home” sounds like nothing else she’s heard on the radio, which is an obvious indication that Jennifer Lopez doesn’t listen to the radio much; the song fits comfortably at the intersection of Edward Sharpe and Mumford and Sons, which is exactly why it’s the most viable winner’s single in years. At the very least, we’ll be hearing it in the trailer for the next Nicholas Sparks adaptation (as long as it’s a 20th Century Fox production.)

I’d like to think that this 1000-word-plus thesis on why Phillip will win will seem extremely foolish 24 hours from now, but seeing 2011’s Best Singer in America Scotty McCreery up there doing his thing as we watched a Jessica/Phillip highlight reel only nailed the point home: All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. Once American Idol ceased to be a phenomenon, once it could be taken for granted, the only people still picking up the phones were those with the time and the inclination to obsess over it (even if lots of other people were still watching and not voting). Unless it can find a way to drastically change its formula, American Idol will continue to be ruled by millions of amnesiac teenagers giving lip service to some vague idea of “artistry” and eye service to their dream prom date.

Stray observations:

  • I was so disappointed that that Jason Derulo song ended up having more stage production than just a folding chair.
  • It’s funny to me that so many people have branded BBChez as “fierce” or at the very least “probably possessing more personality than Thia Megia.” When J Lo tells her to speak up next time someone gives her a song that doesn’t feel like her, it seemed pretty clear that Jessica has no idea what does feel like her.

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