‘American Idol’ recap: The top three vie for the finale

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The three ‘American Idol’ Season 11 finalists -- Joshua Ledet, Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips -- took the stage Wednesday night to compete for a spot in next week’s finale and, ultimately, the ‘Idol’ crown. It was a surprisingly unexciting fight for the finish.

How could that be? You may ask. After all, the three remaining contestants are all talented, all have dedicated fan bases, all have a shot at the win. This neck-and-neck-and-neck race should have had us on the edge of our seats.

Yet many of the show’s performances didn’t seem to fully gel. There were, as Randy Jackson was wont to point out, few ‘moments.’ (Though I will say that the critique in which Jackson used the phrases ‘moment-moment’ and ‘moment-moment-moment’ for emphasis was itself a great moment.)

Each contestant sang three songs apiece: one picked for them by the judges, one they chose themselves, and one selected by ‘Idol’ mentor Jimmy Iovine.


Part of the problem may have been the judges’ less-than-stellar choices, which in two out of three cases didn’t do much to highlight the singers’ talents. (Jennifer Lopez said there’d been a lot of back-and-forth, so perhaps they’ve overthought it.)

Part of it may have been that the contestants’ ‘hero homecoming’ montages lacked a certain drama this year. (Phillip Phillips Sr.'s heartfelt description of the pride he felt in his son for pursuing his dreams ‘with integrity and passion’ was lovely, however.)

And who knows? Maybe the fact that it could be anyone’s game doesn’t add to the excitement, but instead detracts from it because we don’t have a clear favorite to root for. (At least, now that arguably the best three have made it to the top three, I don’t.)

In any event, even the judges, after rising to their feet to applaud Ledet for singing the song they’d chosen for him (it was their one good song choice), didn’t feel moved to scramble onto their tootsies again until the very end. (Steven Tyler gamely stood after Sanchez sang one of his songs, but no one joined him, and he quickly re-took his seat.) They rolled out the superlatives, but then -- to paraphrase Tyler after Ryan Seacrest asked him if, in praising Sanchez, he’d just predicted a winner, which Tyler had also just done while praising Ledet -- don’t they always?

Here’s how the performances broke down:

Joshua Ledet
Ledet proved to be the evening’s most consistent performer, kicking off the evening with a song the judges said would highlight his classic R&B style: Etta James’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind.’ Ledet gave a solid performance there. (Coincidentally -- or not -- the very same song was used in a commercial aired immediately thereafter.) Then Ledet pulled back to give a restrained, if somewhat schmaltzy, take on his own pick, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine,’ later explaining that he picked the song after hearing it on the radio. And then he pulled out all the stops on Iovine’s pick for him, Mary J. Blige’s ‘No More Drama.’ His energetic bouncing was a bit distracting, as was all his jacket removal as the song reached its emotional peak, but he can’t be faulted for lack of enthusiasm.

Jessica Sanchez
Poor Sanchez got saddled by the judges with one tough song, Mariah Carey’s ‘My All,’ which was pitched low for her and had a complicated melody and a lot of lyrics to remember, but she managed to pull it off. Then she tasked herself with singing Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ in front of Tyler, the man who’d made it a hit. Tyler often looks irritated when other people sing his songs, but in this case, he generously stood for Sanchez and told her she’d made the song even better. Iovine’s selection for Sanchez, the Jackson Five’s ‘I’ll Be There,’ may have brought her best performance of the evening, no matter what Randy Jackson said, showing off her vocal sweetness and the power of her upper range. But Sanchez, usually a compelling presence onstage, seemed to lack a certain weight on Wednesday. Will that spell her doom?

Phillip Phillips
The judges picked Madcon’s ‘Beggin’’ for Phillips, Tyler explained, because they wanted to pull the melody out of him. But no matter how much the judges were beggin’ for it, the song proved not terribly melodic in Phillips’ hands. Of course, that didn’t keep Tyler from predicting that Phillips could be the new Springsteen. Phillips’ selection for himself, Matchbox Twenty’s ‘Disease,’ didn’t go much better. But on Iovine’s pick, Bob Seger’s ‘We’ve Got Tonight,’ we saw what felt like a new side of Phillips. He sat still, facing front, unsmiling, with no guitar and none of his trademark leg moves. And he sang the melody faithfully, looking almost fearful in the process, as if he himself was unsure if he could hit all the notes. He did hit them. It was an honest moment -- Jackson hyperbolically called it ‘giant’ -- and startling for its simplicity. Will the audiences respond well to this tame, tender, terrified-looking Phillip Phillips, as they have to him all season long?

We’ll find out tonight.

What did you think of the performances? And who do you predict will be sent home?


Full coverage: ‘American Idol’

‘American Idol’ recap: The final four duke it out

‘American Idol’ recap: Hollie Cavanaugh ousted, three remain

‘American Idol’ vs. ‘Voice’: Jessica Sanchez better than Jermaine Paul?

— Amy Reiter