The opening of Tuesday night's episode of "American Idol" presented the juxtaposition and similarities between the two remaining finalists. They both came from different sides of the United States, but of course shared the same common dream: becoming the winner of the show's 11th season.
After thinking back on the season that was and while watching the top two's final performances, there's certainly more differences between Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips than mere geography.
Most notable, as the judges pointed out, is their inherent differences as overall artists. Jessica embodies the big ballad singer that possesses urban-styled music leanings, while Phillip is a tried-and-true singer-songwriter whose guitar playing and growling vocal sets him snug inside the alt-rock/folk genre.
By season's end, it's all about which singer elicits the soundest emotional response, a point the judges also mention early on. That, I think, makes this year's finale results more intriguing than ever.
Rather than ranking each of tonight's performances, I'm going to take a page from the judges and grade in terms of each round. After talking a bit about each song, check out who the judges gave the edge to in each round, followed by my opinions.
Round One: "Idol" Creator Simon Fuller's Choice
Jessica Sanchez - "I Have Nothing"
The Whitney Houston tune was a great start for Jessica, as it was reminiscent of some of her best performances of the season. It wasn't a total ballad, nor did it have an up-tempo groove with which the 16-year-old usually struggles. Her verses were near-flawless, with the chorus only lacking at a few instances, her voice not quite hitting the note as squarely as she could have. It didn't blow anyone away, but her performance was certainly more than solid.
Phillip Phillips - "Stand By Me"
In what could be seen as a potential glimpse into what the singer-songwriter's future holds, Phillip's version of the Ben E. King classic was very much within the adult-alternative genre, perhaps more so than he's been all season. He didn't alter the melody too much, opting for his usual guitar while a bevy of musicians backed him with an easy-going arrangement. It may never be single-worthy per se, but it showcased everything Phillip does best, and he definitely seemed to connect with the audience, which is always a major plus when he can manage it. Just think of "We've Got Tonight."
Judges: "Round one probably went to Jessica," said Randy. Jennifer agreed.
My Take: I have to go with Phillip here. Jessica simply didn't do enough to really wow anyone this time around -- something that she needed to do pretty much each time tonight -- while Phillip sounded more relaxed and in what could be his eventual element. There's no room for mistakes here, and Phillip was the one who slipped up the least.
Round Two: Performer's Choice (Song They Performed This Season)
Jessica Sanchez - "The Prayer"
I honestly got chills from this performance. Jessica's rendition of "The Prayer" topped her previous take on the song, and may have even been her best of the season. One had to think she'd be performing a ballad for her choice song, and given that she really hit a home run here, I'm totally OK with that. Even if Jessica doesn't go on to win the night or even the competition, this performance alone should solidify an eventual career in the industry.
Phillip Phillips - "Movin' Out"
For a second straight performance, Phillip streamlined the various takes he's done on the alt-rock vibe for a song that played it safe in the sense that he stuck to his guns and didn't try to do anything incredibly esoteric. Vocally, he tamed his growl enough to only let it out of its cage when it really counted -- for instance, at song's end. Judging by the strain in his voice, Phillip didn't hold back here, and that's admirable.
Judges: Steven gave it to Jessica. Randy called it a dead heat. Jennifer chose Phillip.
My Take: Siding with Steven here, by a nose. I thought Phillip played it just a little too safe, while Jessica really went for it. It's really hard to argue against a vocal like that.
Round Three: Potential Winning Songs
Jessica Sanchez - "Change Nothing"
Randy Jackson started off his critique of Jessica's performance by noting that he wasn't a fan of the track, but thought that she "made something out of the song." His fellow judges agreed, and I have to as well. It was a nice pop ballad, but it lacked much of Jessica's vocal character. It didn't have the wow factor either (but, really, do the winners' songs ever?), which caused the feeling of a lackluster end to an otherwise excellent night for the California native.
Phillip Phillips - "Home"
Phillip's song had the feeling of the folk music revival that's taken the world by storm since 2009, which was probably the best possible choice the producers could have made with him. The performance was totally reminiscent of Mumford & Sons (ha! Remember when I said he'd sound great with one of their songs last week? Thanks for kind of listening, "Idol"), though with a little more of a folk singer-songwriter vibe via, say, Ben Howard. One of the most fitting songs the producers have ever written for a contestant, it fit Phillip like a glove and should shake the Dave Matthews comparisons many (including I) keep making.
Judges: They all disliked Jessica's song. They all loved Phillip's song. Actually, "loved" may not be a strong enough word.
My Take: Phillip. I needed to hear a song from these two that described and fit them perfectly as artists, and "Home" was that song.
Overall: Phillip edges Jessica, 2-to-1. Based on his final song alone, I'm going with Phillip as the next American Idol.
Who will win season 11 of "American Idol" -- Jessica Sanchez or Phillip Phillips? Don't hold back now -- tell us what you think in the comments!