The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of May 22 (Finale)
Intro: Final 2 Sing Simon Fuller’s Choice, the Contestant’s Favorite Prior Performance, and a Prospective Debut Single
It was all in the hands of the voters on May 22, 2012. All in all, the final performance night was a worthy showcase of everything that the two contenders brought to the table, though containing few surprises. The show was hampered at times by song choice issues and a publicity stunt in the middle. These, of course, are familiar bugaboos for regular viewers, and it was known for much of the season that Jason DeRülo would be warbling his “Undefeated” with the lyrics sent in through a Coca-Cola contest. Although it’s good to hear that DeRülo has recovered from his injury on tour that inspired the song’s premise, the “Undefeated” segment was pompous and lacked direction, no doubt partly due to the committee approach to writing that clearly did not pay off. Simon Fuller, the founder of Idol production outfit Fremantle Media, is an extremely busy man who makes surprisingly good choices, on the whole, for finalists singing for the title, and though Jessica’s choice was no exception, Phillip’s was somewhat odd. Each contestant reprised their personal favorite among their past performances, apparently going back to Hollywood Week, and each brought back numbers that represented what got them this far. The prospective debut singles that closed the show were a mixed bag. Usually, they have been uniformly bland and syrupy, a natural consequence of the record having a built-in audience and guaranteed recording, but Phillip’s proved an exception. Overall, though Phillip is more ready than Jessica to start a recording career from day one, the performances were so even that this race was, quality-wise, too close to call. If 2011 winner Scotty McCreery’s performance at the end of the broadcast, serenading the two with his version of “Please Remember Me” that sends off those outvoted each week, is any indication, Jessica and Phillip could both grow by leaps and bounds in the year to come. Who knows how incredible they, and many of the other talents we’ve seen this season, will become by this time in 2013?
Jessica Sánchez – “I Have Nothing” (Whitney Houston) – Runner-Up
“I Have Nothing,” also sung by Shannon McGrane in the 2012 Idol season (see week 3, the Top 13 Whitney Houston-Stevie Wonder week, for her performance), came from Whitney Houston’s record-breaking soundtrack to 1993’s The Bodyguard. Whitney lit up the screen in an average film with Kevin Costner, playing a pop diva who hires a former Secret Service agent to protect her from a stalker. Producer and co-writer David Foster was at first a Canadian rocker from the group Skylark and a promising R&B session man, but he became famous as the father of the adult contemporary format, the type of synthesizer-driven pop music that dominated easy listening radio from the 1980s on. In “I Have Nothing,” Foster and his wife Linda Thompson-Jenner gave Whitney a rather literal showcase of her character’s vulnerability, set to a melody that played to Whitney’s strengths: intimate and slow verses ramp up through a powerful chord change to a chorus including the power notes that were the Voice’s stock-in-trade. Simon Fuller was right on the money with his choice of “I Have Nothing,” no doubt motivated by Jessica’s exceptional performance of “I Will Always Love You” from the same soundtrack, which was the first performance on the live shows to truly make me believe that she had the potential to win. All the hallmarks of Jessica’s exceptional voice, those echoes of great R&B and pop divas from Whitney to Mariah and Beyoncé, are present in her first song of the finale, and she manages to respect the iconic melody while adding her own slight variations. Her stage presence, as well, has improved to the point where she truly controls her environment in a way that few performers her age do.
Jessica Sánchez – “The Prayer” (Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli)
“The Prayer,” a spiritually themed pop ballad, was penned for one of the great flops of the 1990s animated feature film renaissance. Quest for Camelot, based very loosely on Vera Chapman’s 1976 fantasy novel The King’s Damosel and in turn on the Arthurian sidebar of Lynette and Lyonesse, followed a young girl named Kayley who wants to join her father as a Knight of the Round Table and a blind hermit named Garrett who wants nothing less. Together, the two journey to search for Excalibur and save the kingdom from an avaricious Mordred type named Ruber who wants to abuse his position at the Round Table to mount a coup against Arthur, sometimes with the help of the usual animal/faerie sidekicks. The movie was lovingly animated, albeit with a slightly dated 1980s feel, and the soundtrack had some heavy-hitting singing and writing talent (producing several hits), but Warner Brothers couldn’t repeat Disney magic in what seemed a Western transplant of Mulan and the movie bombed at the box office in 1998. “The Prayer” was meant to be an invocation for Kayley’s safety by her mother, Juliana, and Céline Dion was tapped to sing for her. Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian tenor who would soon become a hot item in the pop market as the latest crossover classical sensation, recorded a half-Italian version for the soundtrack as well. Both later released a duet combining them for her next album, the 1998 Christmas release These Are Special Times, and his next record, the career-making 1999 Sogno (“Dream”). David Foster, one of the main soundtrack supervisors, had worked extensively with Dion and wrote a haunting, epic melody, and he had the good sense to bring in top-flight lyricist Carole Bayer-Sager. Bayer-Sager had started off her career as the co-writer of pop hits such as “A Groovy Kind of Love,” Melissa Manchester’s “Midnight Blue,” and Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You,” but her movie experience started early with such experiments as Carly Simon’s Bond tune “Nobody Does It Better” (from The Spy Who Loved Me). She went on to marry and extensively collaborate with Burt Bacharach in the 1980s, racking up an Oscar win in 1981 with “Arthur’s Theme” and getting another nomination with “The Prayer,” long after their 1991 divorce. Bayer-Sager’s lyrics were appropriately sepulchral, though hopeful, and helped the song become a commonplace tragic redemption anthem around the turn of the millennium. Tony Renis and Alberto Testa, the composer-lyricist team that handled the Italian version for Bocelli, had extensive careers already. They had collaborated on the international hit “Grande grande grande” in 1972 but also enjoyed individual hits with Renis’s “Quando, Quando, Quando” (sung by Renis as a bossa nova at San Remo in 1962) and Testa’s 1959 San Remo entry “Per tutta la vita” (the melody for Brenda Lee’s “I Want to Be Wanted”). Jessica Sánchez’s first version this season got her into the Top 25 for the voters’ consideration, and she decided to reprise it for the finale. It’s hard to top Dion and Bocelli’s pure vocal talent, since they are at the top of their game at what they do, so Jessica does it her way. She sings as the soul-pop diva she is, letting the song speak for itself and making it very much her own. “The Prayer” is an excellent showcase of her range, and she’ll surely make an excellent addition to any soundtrack in the future.
Jessica Sánchez – “Change Nothing”
“Change Nothing,” Jessica’s putative debut single, is unusual in some respects. It’s a love song, unlike the standard Idol song that focuses on inspirational platitudes about the singer’s amazing stroke of good fortune. However, in terms of quality and originality, the song is very much in the company of its bland predecessors. My theory has long been, of course, that the song can afford to be that way because it has a built-in audience and artist and doesn’t need to prove its worth. “Change Nothing” is a typical “they don’t understand our love” song, the kind often sung by young artists such as Jessica. The writers are anything but famous in the U.S., a curiously common circumstance among the writers of songs chosen for this crucial purpose. Joleen Belle has experience writing for the Asian market, including some Filipino releases, while Jaden Michaels has worked as a background vocalist for Demi Lovato. Harry Sommerdahl is yet another busy songwriting Swede, who’s been around the block before as the co-writer of Katharine McPhee’s Idol starter song “My Destiny.” Jessica, of course, tried her best to make “something more out of” the unmemorable song (in Randy’s words), and she succeeds in proving that she will be able to handle a song that doesn’t fit her well in a pinch. Of course, as Jennifer wisely points out, Jessica will need to learn how to fight for songs that are right when she launches her recording career. She’ll always have a tall order with low-grade material such as “Change Nothing.” In the final assessment, Jessica is one of the most promising singers Idol has seen in a long time. Regardless of the finale’s outcome, her future is limitless. One great possibility in the short term, if her summer tour schedule permits, would be for her, or even some other high-school age contenders such as DeAndre Brackensick, Skylar Laine, and Shannon Magrane, to join the cast of Glee as recruits for the show choir. As the designated follow-up to results shows next season, and the show that just graduated some of its standout vocalists after the finale’s broadcast, Fox’s trailblazing, weekly mix-tape musical could stand some new blood.
Phillip Phillips – “Stand by Me” (The Soul Stirrers via Ben E. King) – Winner
“Stand by Me” was one of those great examples of gospel music’s influence on secular soul music. The song originated as an exegesis of some lines of Psalm 46, turned into a spiritual in 1960 by Sam Cooke and his manager James W. Alexander for Cooke’s old gospel group, the Soul Stirrers. Ben E. King, working on sessions that year for his 1961 solo debut after leaving the Drifters, was drawn to the song and decided to put together a more down-to-earth romantic version with his producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller, two Jews from the East Coast who met in L.A. in 1950 and bonded over their mutual love for African-American music, went on to become some of the foremost writer-producers in the young R&B genre, creating countless hits for stars such as Big Mama Thornton and Ruth Brown. They were best-known, however, for their late 1950s work with Elvis Presley, the Coasters, and the Drifters, in which the duo pioneered a style of Latin-tinged soul that came to define pre-Beatles pop in the U.S., alternating between soaring romance and witty humor with equal aplomb. By 1960, Leiber and Stoller were five years into their career as the first producers with their own independent deal, and they continued the sophisticated uptown sound of the Drifters on King’s version of “Stand by Me,” complete with strings doubling the I-vi-IV-V chord changes often called the 50s progression, or even named after the song itself. Though an afterthought to the session that produced the hit “Spanish Harlem,” “Stand by Me” became almost as big a hit and is still King’s signature tune. Is it right for Phillip’s style, though? Despite the wonderful options more germane to his work from the Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Leonard Cohen catalogs, for instance, Simon Fuller chose the oft-covered doo-wop standard for Phil, and we’re left with a performance where he makes the best with what he’s been handed. Phillip’s vocal is heartfelt, and he tweaks the melody here and there to try and add his quirky individuality to the song. The problem, which Fuller should have anticipated, is that the song’s stately formula doesn’t hold up well to the sort of improvisation in which Phillip specializes. I don’t begrudge him the performance one bit, of course, since the song choice wasn’t up to him. It’s not unpleasant, either, just unremarkable on account of an extremely busy producer’s failure to come up with something to suit an eclectic but highly distinctive singer. We’re all human.
Phillip Phillips – “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” (Billy Joel)
On The Stranger, Billy Joel showed his yen for cutting satire with “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” The melody was rather humdrum, putting into sharp focus Joel’s criticism of his era’s version of the “soon-to-haves” overvaluing upward mobility. It was not an easy listen for those it skewered, but there was a positive message about gratitude and magnanimity amidst the vitriol for those paying close attention. In general, the acoustic intro and electronic remainder that Phillip sang during the Billy-Joel-themed Top Ten week sound similar in the finale. He’s somewhat more entertaining this time around, putting more energy into the lyrics and adding some delicious guitar touches. The dissonant licks at the end, reminiscent of the chord that started the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” is the perfect addition to Phillip’s version of “Movin’ Out,” reminding us that he’s here to challenge as well as to please our ears.
Phillip Phillips – “Home”
“Home” is the first candidate for an American Idol debut single that actually impressed me. It comes as no surprise to me that the song already does exist in some form, as a composition of a British rising star in acoustic rock named Greg Holden and his collaborator, the arranger Andrew Pearson. It’s certainly new to me and would be to countless American listeners, and it’s fitting that Phillip would wrap up his campaign by once again introducing us to an utterly obscure but unbelievably talented singer-songwriter. On “Home,” Holden and Pearson crafted a solid folk-rock love song, combining simple, comforting verse chords that reminded me of Paul Simon (as it did Steven) with a catchy bridge in the falsetto vein of Coldplay. Phillip evoked both Simon and Coldplay lead Chris Martin on his vocal, but Phil’s terrific guitar wizardry, his distinctive tone, and the classic marching-band gimmick near the end all made this performance a recognizable Phillip Phillips experience. With a single like this, Phillip would truly signal a new era in American Idol, telling other multitalented musicians that Idol has a place for them and can support music other than the standard Auto-Tuned pop with which the show has been associated for so long. Indeed, American radio hasn’t been in need of such an original sound on its airwaves in a very long time. The sort of support that Phillip gets from the industry’s current target audience of teenage girls should provide an overly consolidated business with the impetus it needs to take risks on fresh new music. It’s an incredible way to end a truly momentous season of competition, but it’s also a bold new beginning.