Phillip Phillips & Jessica Sanchez [photo: Fox]From the moment that Phillip "P-Squared" Phillips walked into the "American Idol" audition room, I thought his Season 11 victory seemed preordained. (I actually wrote in my recap that night: "So basically, this guy just won, right? Like, do we even need to have an entire Season 11?") And four months later, I still haven't changed my prediction. Barring some major upset, Phillip Phillips will be the next American Idol. I suspect this will be a controversial result, but the man does have genuine talent, and he deserves a lot more credit than he's received this season. He's not just another "WGWG."
It is undeniable that Phillip sometimes comes across as an amalgam of "Idol's" past four champs, concocted in some sort of 19 Entertainment lab by Nigel Lythgoe's team of mad English scientists. At his audition, he played a rocked-up guitar cover of a Michael Jackson song, like David Cook. He wears a lot of plaid, like Kris Allen. He has a regular-guy working-class job, like Lee DeWyze. And he's a humble Southern gentleman, like Scotty McCreery. And of course, like Cook/Allen/DeWyze/McCreery, he is technically a WGWG (i.e., a "white guy with guitar"). Phillip has gotten a hard time during his "Idol" run for all of these reasons, often being held up as an example of everything that's wrong with the show and its presumably female-dominated voting patterns. But that's really unfair to him. Seriously, if Phillip wins "Idol" this coming Wednesday, I won't begrudge him his success, and neither should anyone else.
True, Phillip may not have the technically best voice of "Idol" Season 11, but he has delivered some of the most interesting and original performances of the season, and this year's finale would be a lot less exciting without him. Other contestants--especially Jessica Sanchez, who will square off with him this week--may be more vocally proficient, but they haven't always gotten very creative with their song interpretations or selections. It was Phillip who dared to turn Usher's "U Got It Bad" slow-jam into a growly Pearl Jam jam, and it was Phillip who took risks with relatively obscure tunes like the Dave Matthews Band's "The Stone" and Damien Rice's "Volcano." These were some of my own favorite performances of Season 11.
The point is, we have to acknowledge that this show is not just a "singing competition." If it were, then yes, Jessica would be the clear victor. However, "Idol" is also a personality competition, and a performance competition, and at times even an artistry competition--and in those departments, Phillip, with his Steven McQueenish charm and even his marquee-worthy name, has almost always had Jessica beat. Jessica is young, and many teen contestants often have trouble truly connecting to emotionally deep material (and, thus, connecting with viewers)--and Jessica has been no different. Last week, covering Aerosmith's yearning, passionate power ballad "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" right in front of Steven Tyler, her lack of life experience showed. True, sometimes her mature performances have impressively belied her 16 years, but on other occasions, she has come across like some sort of robotic Stepford Child onstage. She may have THE best voice of the entire season, but singer-songwriter Phillip is the one who's taken bold artistic liberties with his song arrangements. Jessica, on the other hand, usually just stands there and simply sings really well. History on this show has proven that that's no longer enough.
But putting aside my own or anyone else's musical preferences for a moment, let's talk cold, hard statistics regarding my prediction that Phillip will win this week. Eight of the past 10 "Idol" winners were contestants who were never once up for elimination, never in the bottom two. And Phillip fits that pattern: He coasted through every week, unstoppable and unscathed, no matter what he sang, how harshly the judges critiqued him, or how many gray T-shirts he wore despite Tommy Hilfiger's wishes. Conversely, it should be noted that Jessica would not have even made it to the top two at all, if the judges had not opted to use the Judges' Save on her several weeks ago on the top seven results show. There was, frankly, a time not too long ago when Jessica received THE fewest number of votes, so perhaps she was never quite the frontrunner that many people assumed. Kudos to her for being the first Judges' Save recipient in "Idol" history to even make it to the finale (the previous record-holder was Season 9's Michael Lynche, who placed fourth), but the fact that she almost got booted off in seventh place probably does not bode well for her overall momentum in the competition.
Another cold, hard fact to consider is that Jessica is from the West Coast, and not from a small town (she hails from Chula Vista, California, a large suburb of Adam Lambert's home turf of San Diego). No Californian contestant (think Lambert, McPhee) has ever won "Idol," and seven of the show's past winners have hailed from small towns in the South. Phillip is from a small town in the South. So, there's also that.
Sure, if Jessica won, it would definitely be a game-changer for "Idol": It would mean that, for the first time since Jordin Sparks's Season 6 victory, the winner of "American Idol" would not be a "WGWG." It would be a great PR development for "Idol," which over the years has been accused of being a closed door to contestants of color or of the fairer sex, or basically any contestant that doesn't sing rock or country, while rival shows like "The X Factor" and "The Voice" have seemed more open to a diverse array of winners. I am sure the Fox publicists would love to blast out a press release declaring "FIRST GIRL WINS IN FIVE YEARS!" or "JUDGES WERE RIGHT TO SAVE JESSICA!"--rather than be forced to anticlimactically announce that yet another cute young boy has prevailed.
But let's face it, the "Idol" franchise would still be in good shape even Magic Cyclops won Season 11, so even producer Nigel Lythgoe urged fans on Twitter to simply vote for whomever they like. And I suspect that there are more people out there--including myself, and yes, probably thousands of block-voting teenage girls--that like Phillip just a little bit more, for varying reasons. But come on, I don't think it will create such an "image problem," for a show claiming that it wants to launch long-term career artists, if the winner is a guy who writes his own songs, plays instruments, and actually knows who Damien Rice is. Right?
Anyway, if Jessica loses, I expect some serious fan-warring on "Idol" message boards (years later, diehard Clay Aiken, David Archuleta, and Adam Lambert fans are still outraged). Conspiracy theorists will surely argue that her defeat is yet another example of the aforementioned longstanding gender bias on "Idol," and there's probably a little something to that; it can't go totally unnoticed that a girl hasn't won this show since 2007, indicating that young female viewers would rather vote for the contestant they want as a boyfriend, not the contestant they want as a best friend. But remember, this is all kind of moot, because every "Idol" runner-up since Season 1 has received his/her own record deal, and some runners-up (like Aiken, Archuleta, and Lambert) have done quite all right for themselves. So no one needs to worry too much about Jessica, or feel too sorry for her. With the right material--give her a "Bleeding Love" or a "Since U Been Gone"--she could still go very far, and possibly even outsell Phillip in the long run.
But if P-Squared wins, I'll totally be okay with it--and honestly, either way, it's Phillip's post-"Idol" album that I'll personally be most likely to buy, guitars and all. Parker out.