I don’t know how many novenas were offered. I don’t know how many fans of a certain age went to sleep with aching wrists and fingers. I certainly don’t know if, at the end of the day, they asked themselves the tough question: Was she worth the vote?

I’m talking of Jessica Sanchez and this is American Idol. And if there’s anything this Idol fanatic knows, it is that merit is not what always drives the vote.

Fleeting moments

Randy Jackson can talk about “moments” until he turns purple. When I think of the word, the images are of ephemeral things. If we’re talking of five white dudes who bagged the title, the lesson is, moments don’t last forever. Hell, some couldn’t even make it past three years.

In the case of the Lee DeWyze (dropped by a record label after just barely a year), it’s not much of a surprise. Crystal Bowersox clearly drubbed DeWyze performance-wise three for three in the finale. But did America vote on the basis of merit? No, ‘twas fear that fueled that vote. Righteous America could not abandon a paint salesman with an OK voice and the personality of white bread for a gap-toothed, dreadlocked, diabetic, hippie single mom who insisted on using a mic shaped like some suspicious herb.

Kris Allen gave a few magic moments and showed boldness in upending a Kanye West song. But the triumph of the praise singer was largely due to the ferocity of the third-placer’s homophobic fans. They were willing to launch a new crusade just to ensure Adam Lambert didn’t get his due.

David Cook won by a landslide over David Archuleta, the stuttering gamine from Utah. But Cook, for all the genius flashed on that seminal Idol year, is also now shopping for a record label. (And he looks 50, not 30.) And let’s not even talk of Taylor Hicks, who’s now reduced to aping some 50’s smarmy guy in tier-four roadshows of “Grease”.  Hicks is funny, almost like George W. Bush after that second, embarrassing election – nobody wants to admit voting for him.

There’s Scotty McCreery, of course, who’s at least succeeding as a high school baseball pitcher, which is fine because you never know what next year brings.

Top 3, 2012

As we near the end of Season 11, we’ve got yet another white guy with a guitar vying for the Idol title.

Phillip Phillips comes with a limited voice range, just a tad broader than Scotty’s bass, with gravel rather than rumble.

He’s had more pitchy than perfect moments all season. He has the dance moves of an arthritic dad. But gals of all ages dig his rebellious persona and goofy charm. They hyperventilate when he forsakes rock and roll for some tender crooning.

Ranged against Phillip is Joshua Ledet, the powerful gospel singer from Louisiana. Joshua’s initial persona was as timid as his performances were bold. His luck turned once he ditched the idea of serenading the gals and focused on gender-neutral songs with social themes. He can be too loud for comfort. But the last thing you can accuse Joshua of, is not feeling his songs.

Fil-Mex-American Jessica is the lone woman in this year’s Idol apex.

Petite and waif-like and a bit mousy when she’s not using those power pipes, Sanchez is a bundle of contradictions: The sheltered, home-schooled kid prefers sultry, vavavoom songs about escapades that could give her hunky pa a heart attack. Her fashion taste is also wildly uneven. Some days she’s a young goddess; a week after, she’s the neighborhood bag lady. At her homecoming, she was very much the girl next door. Tonight, Jessica was a classy debutante, daughter of the earth and escapee from the Pied Piper, in that order. Her long locks turned unruly as the rounds progressed.

In the earlier weeks of competition, contestants chose their songs, give and take some wheedling from resident guru Jimmy Iovine and guest mentors. For the Top 3 performance night, a judge chose their first song, they chose their second song, and Iovine did the honors for the final round.

Judges’ picks

Consistency has never been a trait associated with Jackson and his fellow judges, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.

Okay, that’s not accurate. The judges have been consistent with their over-the-top praise for Joshua, even during his most self-indulgent moments. They’ve all been consistently vocabulary-challenged. And Tyler, of course, has been consistently lecherous.

Jackson chose an Etta James song, “I’d Rather Be Blind”, for Joshua.

It’s a bit galling to see them give him a standing ovation for the very same growling affectations, shrieking and gratuitous runs that Jessica has taken hits for.

The judges’ response may be overkill but they may have a point. Jessica seems to think of herself as an old soul. She simply sings old songs. It is Joshua who’s the genuine old soul. His eyes blaze with memory of personal and collective pain, hope and redemption. There is a natural dignity to this son of a preacher man that no amount of screeching and jerking and stomping around can erode.

Yet, there is a certain ambiguity in the codespeak of these judges that indicate some problems ahead of Joshua, whose homecoming crowd wasn’t as raucous as those that greeted Jessica and Phillip. When JLo talks of “throwback” and Randy of “classic” stylists, you get a feeling they’re saying, we’re giving you all the love kiddo, because Middle America sure won’t give you that.

JLo seriously needs to see a shrink and it’s not because she likes dancing half-naked with a man young enough to be her son. That’s just fine; cougars rock.

But having scolded 16-year-old Jessica in the past for taking on too-adult songs, she chooses one about giving all to a man?

The Mariah Carey tune, “My All”, doesn’t even have the tongue-in-cheek wit or the naughtiness factor of a James ditty. Instead, it has all the foolish delusions that cause so many young girls to offer their half-formed selves to the first strutting man who comes along.

“I am thinking of you/ In my sleepless solitude tonight/ If it’s wrong to love you/ Then my heart just won’t let me be right/ ‘Cause I’ve drowned in you/ And I won’t pull through/ Without you by my side… I’d give my all to have/ Just one more night with you/ I’d risk my life to feel/ Your body next to mine/ ‘Cause I can’t go on/ Living in the memory of our song… I’d give my all for your love tonight…”

It would take Tyler to forecast victory on the basis of this song. Sheesh. All the judges seem to love it. There are no “big notes” but there’s a lot of pure singing, even with the cold. The lower tones are clear – the words aren’t.

But the greatest problem here is, Jessica doesn’t sell the emotions. And you can’t blame this home-schooled teenager who admits she hasn’t had a lot of opportunities for dates, much less for giving “all”.  In terms of emotional failure, the only song where Jessica has fared worse was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, where she pretended to be a young, repentant murderer. Frankly, I don’t know which is a more ridiculous notion.

See, Jessica’s a little bit like Joshua. It’s when they sing of abstractions and universal wisdom, rather than personal sagas, that they’re most effective.

Phillip ends the round on a high note. There are no spectacular notes. But it is a great arrangement and he’s lose and frisky, flashing the mega-smile and shimmying in a way that sparks a hungry gleam to JLo’s eyes. I don’t know about you, but I loved it, found myself bopping to it. Eh, a quarter of the newsroom, the ones monitoring via YouTube, were jiving as they typed.

Their songs

Irony of ironies, Jessica topped the boys here with her homage to a geezer who was in his heyday when she was three. (Okay, Tyler and toddlers just don’t make for healthy images, though daughter Liv probably was gorgeous while drooling at that age.)

Joshua tried to backpedal on “Imagine” but he was still too loud for the John Lennon classic. Besides, it’s a song more suited for gentle dreamers, not anguished souls. And really now, gospel and Lennon is as strange a combination as Tyler and diapers.

Joshua lacked vocal dynamics here. There was just too much vibrato from start to finish. He grunted when he should have been sweetly yearning, howled when it called for a soft falsetto. Not a good show from Joshua. And still the judges rhapsodized.

As for Phillip, well, if that’s what he intends to sing post-Idol, good luck. It’s going to be one very brief moment in the spotlight for him. This was just another snoozy, middle of the road song, almost like elevator music. I’ve heard better around Malate’s folk bars though, admittedly, few singers come close to P2’s beauty.

Truth is, Jessica sang the hell out of the Aerosmith anthem, “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” It’s crazy that Jackson labeled the start “slow”. You start that song like a rocket, you’re never coming back to earth. She built up fine, made the slight hoarseness of her illness give some gravitas to the verses. Plus, hey, she was smiling in spots.

Iovine’s vision

I didn’t know Iovine was so protective of Jessica. He’s almost like a dad who wants to keep a daughter perpetually in pigtails.

But “I’ll Be There” actually worked because Michael Jackson’s crazy range suits Jessica’s lyrical side. She threw off some firepower in the chorus. Maybe Randy was right in saying a few Mariah notes would have led to a “moment” but you can’t sneeze at MJ either. I prefer the original because it has a more innocent vibe – and friends cajole, they try not to bludgeon one another.

So if there wasn’t a “moment” with Jessica, what was that all about with Phillip?

I get what Iovine’s doing. He’s subverting Philip in the hope that, if you can’t beat the tweens, at least you could give the guy some staying power with the fickle ones. So he gives Phillip “We’ve Got Tonight”, a soft rock ballad about quiet midnight games. And dang if the white dude doesn’t slap us all senseless.

Just like that, he turns method actor – and I’m not talking about all the hand slithering around his delectable thigh. It’s everything about him. That slump, that far-away look; it’s so Glee, but it works. And when Philip goes into that lone high line, you grit your teeth. Because it’s not fair that Jessica has to do somersaults for a “moment” and the guy needs just one line.

But life isn’t fair and Idol isn’t just about holding those notes. It’s making the most of the cards you’re dealt with. I’m cheering for Jessica but do realize that Phillip is a sex object precisely because he taps into the fantasies of girls and boys (whether they like boys or want the girls to like them). He wouldn’t be a sex object no matter how he tried if his voice wasn’t that good.

But the round really belongs to Joshua. I suspect the ovation for Philip couldn’t be helped. The judges usually rise for the Top 3 closing song.

As when he sang “A Change is Gonna Come”, Joshua shows he has the intellect and passion to carry a narrative arc.

… tired of this drama/ No more, no more/ I wanna be free/ I’m so tired, so tired… Broken heart again/ Another lesson learned/ Better know your friends/ Or else you will get burned… No more pain/ No more pain/ No drama/ No one’s gonna make me hurt again… Only God knows where the story ends for me/ But I know where the story begins/ It’s up to us to choose/ Whether we win or loose/ And I choose to win”

If you need to let it all out, this is the way to do it, this is the song for it. To reach deep, deep into that secret place, grab at that aching piece of you and then fling it out to the world. Music, the best music, makes voyeurs of us all, because we all really need to see a mirror that reflects our lives.

He was so exhausted after that song. There was something so sad on Joshua’s face, almost like he were preparing for a blow. And the desperate tone of the judges’ compliments, the note of apology in their voices, made me wonder if Joshua has a little bit of prescience in him.

Because Jessica wasn’t at her best tonight, but she had her people with her. Phillip has the screaming hordes. Joshua has our respect but pageants need to draw from more than that.

I still wish Jessica the best. But if Joshua leaves, it will break my heart. If Phillip does, hell, we’ll break out the champagne – and wait for him to come to these isles.

If Jessica goes? I will accept it with sorrow but with good grace. Because an Idol is as good as the night’s performance. And this was too close to call.

4 thoughts on “Idol Top 3: SAVING JESSICA

  1. I always read articles after every performance night (and before elimination) to gauge what people really thought of the show and your piece is spot on. Thanks for your insights. I’ll also accept her exit with grace and pride, although I’m still crossing my fingers America remembers her entire journey versus the mediocre repertoire of last night. Cheers!


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