Jessica Sanchez seemed to have Phillip Phillips' number through two rounds of singing on Tuesday night's "American Idol" season 11 [article id="1685625"]performance finale[/article] .
While Phillips has steamed toward an [article id="1685557"]all-but-certain coronation[/article] Wednesday (May 23) night with almost no missteps along the way, Sanchez has [article id="1685583"]clawed back[/article] from a near-elimination to stand on the cusp of history as the potential youngest "Idol" winner ever, as well as the first Asian-American to make it to the finale.
She seemed to make the case for her right to the crown with a titanic cover of Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" as well as a reprise of the emotional Celine Dion/Andrea Bocelli song "The Prayer." Phil hit back pretty hard with Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" and an acclaimed retake on Billy Joel's "Movin' Out."
But it was the final round, which featured the original songs written for the winner/runner-up, that proved to be the equalizer. Bottom line: Jessica got sucker-punched.
For the past four seasons, "Idol" has had a suspect record when it comes to the coronation song. From season seven winner David Cook's bathetic "Dream Big" to Kris Allen/Adam Lambert's corny [article id="1616630"]"No Boundaries"[/article] and Scotty McCreery's Velveeta-dripping "I Love You This Big," the tunes have been fluffy at best and just plain awful at worst.
Once Sanchez began singing the Cool Whip light "Change Nothing" it felt like more of the same. The song was too poppy and tame and completely stalled any momentum Jessica built up. Longtime viewers were left to imagine that "Idol" producers had cooked up a similarly off-key tune for Phillips ... only they didn't.
Not only did "Home" fit perfectly with Phillips' jammy, acoustic style, but the lyrics were sharp and evocative. The rootsy ballad sounded at once contemporary and classic, mixing elements of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul Simon with the folky strum of Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes. With a marching band providing backup, the tune felt rich and nuanced, while Sanchez's felt generic and one-dimensional.
Phillips, yet another in the string of "Idol" WGWG's, was already in the [article id="1685583"]driver's seat[/article] , but the combination of his killer song and the judges' over-the-top praise (along with their disdain for Sanchez's original) almost surely sealed the deal.
"I loved the song, I loved you, I loved the production, I loved the marching band, everything about that was perfect! I loved it!" gushed judge Randy Jackson. "That's your best performance of the night. That was amazing!" Though her comments suggested she hasn't listened in a while, Jennifer Lopez agreed, telling Phillips, "There's nothing on the radio that sounds like that."
Contrast that with the across-the-board contempt for the Sanchez song, which Jackson said was "just OK," even as he praised Jessica for making "something more" out of it. Lopez and Steven Tyler seconded that emotion, as did Sanchez herself.
"Ummm, I mean, I definitely agree with them," Sanchez told host Ryan Seacrest after the judges weighed in. "I did want to do more urban something, but like, this is the finale, and, like, I was trying to pick a winning song, something more that shows my voice. But definitely when I make my record -- if I ever do -- it's going to be a lot more me."
Phil will almost surely win "Idol," which will merely continue the string of [article id="1684935"]generic so-called "white guys with guitars"[/article] who've gotten a stranglehold on the voting public. But by giving the contestants songs of such markedly different quality, the show's producers missed a golden opportunity to pull off a truly thrilling finale and possibly turn the tide on a series that definitely began to show its age this year.
Though still the #1 show on TV, "Idol" shed nearly 25 percent of its audience this season, falling below 20 million viewers for the first time since 2003. According to reports, the steepest drop-off was among viewers 18-49, the most sought-after demographic among networks.
Sanchez was a long-shot to begin with, but giving her a song on par with Phillips' seems, at the very least, like the decent, fair thing to do.
I'm not suggesting that they threw the fight (considering that Jessica said she "chose" the tune herself), but when you have a press-magnet come-from-behind "Rocky" narrative like Jessica's, you don't make her punch with one hand tied behind her back.
Get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.