Here’s a piece I wrote for the print edition of The Atlanta Journal Constitution:
This has been a mixed bag of a year for “American Idol,” the aging Fox music competition show.
With increased competition from NBC’s “The Voice,” “Idol” lost a quarter of its viewers this year from 2011, the biggest dropoff in the show’s 11-year history. The judges were pilloried for hyperbolic praise and excessive standing ovations for the contestants. Most infamous: Jennifer Lopez declaring Joshua Ledet “one of the best singers of the past 50 years.”
But all was not lost. “Idol” this season managed to find genuine talent who generated passionate debate on the AJC Radio and TV blog.
Tonight, the finals feature Jessica Sanchez, a San Diego teen with exceptionally mature vocal skills, and Phillip Phillips, a Leesburg native who blends a confident, laid-back attitude with an emotive vocal approach.
Phillips could finally bring home the “Idol” crown to Georgia for the first time. The state has gotten close a few times. Season three’s Diana DeGarmo of Snellville and last year’s Lauren Alaina of Rossville were runners ups while two others who came in second – season one’s Justin Guarini and season four’s Bo Bice – spent parts of their formative years in metro Atlanta. (Bice now lives in Cumming.)
Here we handicap Sanchez and Phillips:
Hometown: Leesburg (estimated population: 3,000) also home to country star Luke Bryan and San Francisco Giants catcher/first baseman Buster Posey
1) He brings unalloyed joy and passion to his singing. When he grabs the right tune – such as Damien Rice’s “Volcano” or Usher’s “U Got It Bad” – he can be mesmerizing. As record executive and mentor Jimmy Iovine noted Monday in a press conference: “he’s got incredible charisma.”
2) He’s cute. That never hurts on any TV show.
3) He fits the mold created by recent winners: dude with a guitar.
1) His vocal skills are nowhere near those of Sanchez. His upper register is weak, a problem exposed three weeks ago when he struggled on the chorus of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” Normally, he covers that issue up by growling.
2) He can feel derivative at times – his shoulder hunches and vocal stylings evoke the likes of Dave Matthews, Joe Cocker and Chris Martin.
3) He’s suffering from painful kidney problems, which landed him in the hospital in March and has impacted his performances. His personal doctor recommended immediate surgery earlier this month but he’s holding off until after the finale, TMZ said last week.
Chance of winning: 75%
Hometown: San Diego
1) She’s a fearless singer, tackling some of the most challenging songs in the pop music canon such as Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Jennifer Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She even picked an Aerosmith song “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” last week in front of lead singer and show judge Steven Tyler.
2) She’s developed a passionate fan base who will fiercely defend her when critics strike. And she has more Twitter followers than Phillips (398,000 vs. 316,000.) And it’s possible Ledet’s fan base will more likely gravitate votes to her than Phillips.
3) Last year, the youngest finalist (Scotty McCreery) won. She could, too. And this is not her first reality TV trip: she performed on “America’s Got Talent” at age 11.
1) A female hasn’t won the competition since Jordin Sparks season six.
2) During the top 7 week, Sanchez drew the fewest votes and needed to be “saved” by the judges.
3) She is often criticized for not connecting with the songs she sings. One AJC Radio and TV blog commenter Uncle Buck dubbed her “songbot.”
Chance of winning: 25%
“American Idol,” 8 p.m. tonight. Fox.