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'American Idol' recap: Jessica Sanchez, Phillip Phillips vie for the win

"American Idol"
Well, America, who will it be? Jessica Sanchez, the powerhouse singer with the gorgeous tone, total control and just enough grit to make it seem perfectly imperfect, or Phillip Phillips, the soulful crooner with a sound all his own?

The 16-year-old with a sweet smile, a perhaps precocious taste for high heels and a passionate performance style, or the sly guy with a sneaky glint in his eye, a handsomely scruffy look, twitchy tendencies onstage and a steady insistence on doing things his own way?

The girl, who'd be the first female winner in years and the only contestant ever to have made it to the finals after having been saved by the judges, or the boy, who resembles the show's recent winners and has never been in real danger of elimination?

INTERACTIVE: "Idol" vs. "The Voice"

Personally, I like them both, though in different ways and for different reasons. I like the way Phillips sings. I admire that he is who he is and no one else. I find his performance style peculiarly riveting. I dig his guitar riffs and I really like that chicken walk he sometimes does and the mad-bird stomp. I even find it cute that he has a hard time saying anything coherent into a mic, like a young Elvis and prefers to let his music speak for him. It makes him seem winningly shy and genuine.

Also Phillips has all along been the contestant whose album I'd be most likely to buy. (Elise Testone, perhaps, too.)

But let me be clear, Sanchez has the better voice. And it's a singing competition. If we were to choose a winner by vocal power and tone and beauty alone, Sanchez would win. Hands down. Case closed. End of story.

So who will win? It's anyone's guess, and it's hard to predict how Tuesday night's final performance show will tip the balance. Sanchez power-balladed. Phillips crooned. The judges said a few wishy-washy things. And then, after Phillips sang his final song, they gave him a standing ovation and indicated they thought he just might have hit a game-winning home run.

In fact, both contestants did well, overall, with some performances better than others. Each sang three songs: Round 1 was Simon Fuller's choice. Round 2 was the contestants' choice, reprising a song they had previously sung on the show. Round 3 was their official "winner's song," the first single they'll release following the competition. Phillips, who had won a coin toss, had chosen to perform second, giving him an advantage.

In Round 1, Sanchez turned in a powerful, polished performance of Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing." Phillips responded with a sleepy take on the classic "Stand by Me." After some noncommittal hemming and hawing from Lopez about how voters should pick the person who made them "feel something," Randy Jackson gave the first round "probably" to Sanchez. The other judges ultimately agreed.

Round 2 was closer. Sanchez soulfully sang "The Prayer," which Ryan Seacrest reminded us had "earned her a spot in the top 24." Phillips reprised "Movin' Out," from Billy Joel night, giving a somewhat less exciting, yet also somehow sleeker and more confident performance than he had the first time around. The judges were split, with Tyler giving the round to Sanchez, Jackson calling it "a dead heat," and Lopez contending Phillips claimed it, thanks to his authenticity.

In Round 3, Sanchez was saddled with a "winner's song," "Change Nothing," that was sort of a loser. She still sounded great on it, but there really wasn't much in the lyrics or the melody to connect to. The judges were not kind. Jackson said he "did not love the song," adding he missed Sanchez's urban "swag," but praised her for doing with it what she could. Lopez advised Sanchez to assert herself more, in future, when presented with material that didn't suit her, adding, "Everything has to be you, Jessica, so you can be you, which is really good." Tyler also "didn't feel like that song was the proper song," driving the point with a pitiful, "Yeah, baby."

Then Phillips gave his best performance of the night (though he hadn't set a terribly high bar), with "Home," on which he was backed by, among other things, a passel of marching drummers.

The judges gave him a standing O.

Jackson was beside himself. "Dude, I loved the song. I loved you. I loved the production. I loved the marching band. Everything about that was perfect. I loved it," he said, dubbing it a "true artist performance … brilliant … genius."

Lopez praised Phillips for being "so different," saying the song sounded like nothing on the radio today.

Tyler compared Phillips to Paul Simon and said, "By virtue of your vulnerability and style, you have made the world your home, my friend … and I think you are the man."

So does that mean Phillips has clinched this thing? Or will Sanchez's fans feel more motivated than ever now to vote for her?

We'll find out Wednesday. Who do you think should be crowned "American Idol's" Season 11 winner?

RELATED:

Full coverage: 'American Idol'

'American Idol' recap: Joshua Ledet goes out with style

'American Idol' finale: Can Jessica Sanchez be first 'save' to win?

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Phillip Phillips, left, Jessica Sanchez and Ryan Seacrest on "American Idol" airing Tuesday, May 22, on Fox. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox.

 
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