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Some Reflections on American Idol Season Eleven

AMERICAN IDOL: The final 2: L-R: Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez.
Photo: Michael Becker / FOX

This week, season eleven of American Idol comes to an end. It’s been a frustrating ride, as the most talented group of singers this show has ever produced met a useless panel of judges, spun their wheels through theme weeks too broad to have any meaning, and gave us the same performance show thirteen times in a row. Tonight, Phillip and Jessica — two singers from opposite ends of the Idolverse — face off in the finale. It’s finally going to get interesting. Cruelly, it’s also the first and only one-hour performance show of the season. Here are a few thoughts before we crown a winner.

The Case for Phillip
I mean, look at him. Phillip Phillips is the most nonthreateningly handsome contestant we’ve had since Kris Allen. His sleepy charisma would have made an impact even if his peers hadn’t suffered such obvious stage fright, but in season eleven, he fairly leapt off the screen. Make no mistake: It is preteen girls who run the Idol world, and the young women who flock to the acoustic-guitar-playing dreamboats in their college quads have to start somewhere. Phillip is a gateway imaginary boyfriend.

Plus, the kid can really sing. Sure, he’s been treading water for most of the season, but when Jimmy Iovine assigned him “We’ve Got Tonight” last week, Phillip stretched into his higher register and pulled out a truly beautiful performance. There’s some versatility in there, and I wish we’d gotten to see more of it.

And then there is the Case of Phillip’s Mystery Illness. Some sort of kidney issue has bedeviled poor Phil all season, conveniently only flaring up in time to keep him out of those humiliating Ford Music Videos. Phillip has brought the words “urethral stent” into my life, but I can’t stay mad at that face.

In short, Phillip is a dreamboat with passion in his voice and actual aching in his actual loins. He cannot lose.

The Case Against Phillip
On the other hand, he does sound (and growl, and move his feet) just a little too much like Dave Matthews, and our feckless judges didn’t even mention Matthews’s name until just a couple of weeks ago. His “We’ve Got Tonight” was revelatory, but would have been so much more effective two months ago, when his shtick started to wear thin.

Phillip also occasionally gives the impression that he simply doesn’t give a shit about Idol, and why should he? He is poorly suited to a competition like this; he doesn’t want to sing Broadway or big-band or David Guetta songs, and he won’t ever need to. But his unwillingness to stretch, coupled with his slacker affect, can sometimes make him seem like he’s over it all.

Plus, if (when) he wins, he will be the sixth Nonthreatening White Boy in a row to win this thing, and none of the previous five are exactly setting the world on fire. Phillip is an album artist in a single-download world; he can’t do the Max Martin songs or hip-hop hooks that can make 19 Entertainment some money. I’d expect the producers to do everything they can to push this final toward Jessica’s wheelhouse.

The Case for Jessica
Jessica Sanchez is probably the most naturally gifted singer American Idol has ever seen. If she missed a single note all season, I missed it. She can belt, she can whisper, she can take whatever the show throws at her.

The Case Against Jessica
Aaaaand that’s all I can say about her. After what seems like years of season eleven, I can’t tell you a single thing about her personality, other than that she wants to win. Jessica is Exhibit A in my case for why American Idol’s age minimum should be raised to 18; raw talent is great to hear, but after a few weeks, you want someone to start cooking that shit.

Let her ride her Idol fame, become briefly estranged from her family, and fall for some dude from the CW’s Sex and the City prequel who will dump her for some other dude from the CW’s Sex and the City prequel. Then, let the resulting isolation and heartbreak give her voice some character and watch as she becomes a truly great singer. Right now, she is just the best pageant contestant I’ve ever seen.

This Season’s MVP
Jimmy Iovine has the ear, the insight, and the decades of real-world experience to guide these kids toward stronger choices. It’s a shame he was so often pushed to the side for pointless guest mentors, and his critiques didn’t reach the singers’ ears until results night, when it was too late to apply them in any meaningful way. Idol needed a music authority this season more than it ever has, and Jimmy’s already there; why not expand his role a bit?

This Season’s LVP
Randy Jackson. Where does one even start with this guy? Randy has been doing this for eleven seasons, yet week after week he seemed genuinely surprised that the top handful of tens of thousands of hopeful singers would be able to make pleasant noises with their mouths. He loved 99 percent of what the singers did this season, and gave no insight as to why he only mostly loved the other one percent. Yes, Steven and Jennifer were as guilty, but Randy wins Least Valuable Player for his too frequent excursions into standup comedy: When someone mentions J. Lo’s abs, he bellows, “What about my abs?” When Steven mentions a specific songwriter, Randy shouts, “I thought I wrote that song!” Randy simply calls attention to himself at every available opportunity and does nothing else except wear man brooches. Someone should have given this dude the hook years ago.

Best Evidence of Judicial Malpractice
Nobody embodies the schizoid nature of Idol season eleven like Heejun Han. More than anyone — and all this year’s top thirteen were guilty — Heejun consistently left his personality at the stage door. A cut-up in interview segments and rehearsal footage, Heejun never forgot to take his Michael Bolton pill when it came time to perform. Then, when he finally decided to cut loose on Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” the judges upbraided him for not taking the competition seriously enough. Sure, it was a weird performance, but there are some clear cultural differences here; maybe if they’d given him some constructive feedback, Heejun could have fused his two sides and become something we’ve never seen on television before. Instead, he retreated to Boltontown and caught the bus back home from there.

The Contestant We’ll See the Most Of
In a season almost completely devoid of personality, Skylar Leigh brought the spunk and stage presence. At times, it seemed like she was the only one who knew there was a live audience in the IdolDome. She had spirit, yes she did. And she’ll be just fine. Country is a format where Idol contestants thrive: Even Josh Gracin and Bucky Covington have had radio hits. Idol has already produced a young Faith Hill in Carrie Underwood. Right now there’s an opening for a gal-next-door, a Reba in the 18 to 24 demo, and Skylar is the perfect applicant.

Colton Dixon runs a close second in this category, but he’ll be seen mostly in Hot Topics and rock churches, two places we won’t be looking.

Thing I Had to Ask Myself More Than Anything Else
Are teenage girls wearing pantsuits these days?

The Contestant Who Got Robbed
Erika van Pelt had an expressive voice, a sly smile, the wisdom of age (she’s 26 — God help us), and the poker face her comrade-in-eldercare Elise Testone lacked. In the shallowest Idol season yet, she had depth. Someone like Jimmy Iovine at the judges’ table might have challenged her to explore some of it, to show the rest of these kids what emotion can sound like. She could have been a more soulful Kelly Clarkson, a grown-up belter who’s done some living. She could have broken out in a season when the rest of the singers ran in place. Instead, Tommy Hilfiger gave her a Kris Jenner haircut, and the Kylies and Kendalls of our kountry gave her the heave-ho.

What Will Actually Happen Wednesday Night
Phillip by a landslide. Just lay back and accept it.

Some Reflections on American Idol Season Eleven