“American Idol” Finale: We Have a Winner! And Some Problems.

I’ve been with you every hilarious, embarrassing step of American Idol‘s eleventh season, and with utmost confidence I can tell you this: It’s over. It’s so over. It’s both awesome and sad to say so, because although Idol is black tar heroin for fans of competition and pop superstardom, a season of the show really wears on you. It’s like a looming bar exam or your fast-approaching wedding: You’re torqued for the outcome, but you have to suffer through tons of compulsory nonsense (and sometimes an exasperated wedding planner played by Jennifer Lopez) to get there. Sometimes it’s so nervewracking, I worry that I’m going to be crowned the American Idol. I honestly might be Shannon Magrane. We both have volleyball legs and wonky stage-crossing posture.

Before we get to the results (and an official ranking of the finale performances), let us reflect on the evening as a whole. OH MY GOD I DON’T REMEMBER ANYONE EXCEPT JENNIFER HOLLIDAY. Wait, not true. Not true! I swear! There were others. Like the contestants! They were there! I saw Erika Van Pelt show off her renewed blonde coif like an angel returning to the light of Nigel Lythgoe‘s approval. I saw Jeremy Rosado faithfully trill a few bars from “How Deep is Your Love.” Um. Jermaine Jones? He was not there because of the 71 warrants he forgot. There were guest-stars too, like Neil Diamond and Chaka Khan. They used the stage to take dramatic naps. Extraordinary! K. But onto things I actually care to express some outrage over. Like the final verdict.

The coronation moment was semi-dramatic because we kept hearing about the “132 million votes” that rolled in for Phillip “Phillip” Phillips and Jessica “Literally Sixteen Years Old, Just Crazy, Can She Even Read” Sanchez. I guessed yesterday that Jessica Sanchez’s fanatics would rally at the last minute. But did they? They did! They really did! In huge numbers! But it was no use, because 21-year-old pawnshop clerk Phillip Phillips is your new American Idol. Yayyyyy. Well done, sir! Also: Jesus Christ, I hate this show. I don’t hate Phillip, but I hate the nauseating predictability with which contestants like Phillip (white, male, guitar-slingin’, apathetically irreverent, poorly jeaned) rise to the top. Jessica Sanchez has been bursting with genius moments in recent weeks, and it’s annoying that I’m ending yet another season of Idol wondering if there will ever be another female winner. You do realize the last Idol graduate to score a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 is the last lady champion, Jordin Sparks, right? Here’s a hint, Idol voters: WOMEN MAKE GOOD POP STARS. ENCOURAGE THEM SOMETIME.

Fin. Onto the rankings of the collaborative performances last night, which ranged from “painstakingly awkward group numbers set to Bruno Mars songs about penis innuendo” to “literally the greatest stage moment Idol has seen in a decade.” I’ll reserve extra column inches for that one. (I haven’t included evaluations of Jennifer Lopez, Aerosmith, and Rihanna‘s performances because I’m in no mindspace to accept twitching and gurgling as stage techniques right now.)

10. “Runaway Baby” with the cool rocking kids of the Top 12

“Runaway Baby” is that song Bruno Mars performed at the Grammys, the one where he jived in front of a glitery gold backdrop and led what looked like a wonderful Chips Ahoy commercial. There’s a quaint line about women who want his junk that goes, “There’s only one carrot and they all gotta share it.” Hope you’re thinking about Heejun Han with carrot genitals too. It might be a more pleasant sight than the stilted choreography, shock-white wardrobe, and needless backup dancers of this performance.

9. The Idol dudes sing a Bee Gees medley, sort of

Heeeeey, everyone? What happened here? Robin Gibb would like to know how to mend a broken heart for real, because all of you actually stomped on his ventricles with this sad-ass, pitch-tripping mess. Sounded like Colton Dixon started meowing into the big end of a tuba near the end. Jesus is going to be pissed.

8. Neil Diamond and the Idol gents, “America”/”Cracklin’ Rose”/”Sweet Caroline”

Am I the only one who can’t look at Neil Diamond without thinking of Will Ferrell‘s SNL portrayal, the one where he’s performing on VH1′s Storytellers and recounting the grisly tale behind “Sweet Caroline”? “Yeah, well, we were driving down this dark road, and I hit a kid. So, we got out, and sure enough he was dead. So, we just took off. Pretty fast. And, two hours later, I wrote ‘Sweet Caroline.’” I feel like I was watching THAT Neil Diamond onstage, which made the awkward melody that much stodgier and funnier.

7. Chaka Khan and the Idol gals, “Ain’t Nobody”/”Through the Fire”/”I’m Every Woman”

Get this: I saw Chaka Khan perform with motherf*cking Prince at the Forum last year, and she was fantastic. She was even better than the other surprise guest that evening, Ms. Whitney Houston. Wait, did I say Whitney Houston? Five words ago? I did. I saw Whitney Houston perform with Chaka Khan and Prince, mortals. In 2011. I’m the best. Anyway. Chaka was a catsuited, weave-eating mistake on Idol last night, and her refusal to acknowledge her collaborators was unnerving. Though Elise Testone managed to sneak in with a couple of superfly runs, the memory of Chaka’s Forum cred propelled me through this otherwise cringe-y performance.

6. Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez, “Up Where We Belong”

First of all, LOL. I had no idea what was happening when Phil and Jessica started cooing An Officer and a Gentleman‘s unbearably maudlin theme, but I certainly waited for Phillip to scream, “Ladies and gentlemen, MR. LOUIS GOSSETT JR!” for waaaay too long an interval. Actually, the best scenario would’ve been if Debra Winger descended from the ceiling and started telling lies about Richard Gere, songlessly. Then she could’ve launched right into a screed about Shirley MacLaine. Lickety-split. The window of potential here was exhilarating and sorely unfulfilled, but Phil and Jessica’s simple rendition was ultimately quite sweet.

5. Hollie Cavanagh and Jordin Sparks, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”

I know Hollie isn’t the most commenter-approved chanteuse here, but my only problem with Periwinkle Princess’ duet was the sappy song choice. Hollie thrives on a teaspoon of adrenaline, y’all. And so does Jordin. They needed a pop beat, and I’d have been thrilled to see Hollie collaborate with Jordin on the latter’s catchy tune “One Step at a Time.” Love, love, love that song. Underrated.

4. Skylar Laine and Reba McEntire, “Turn on the Radio”

I’ll continue to give it up for Skylar Laine’s cropped-jacket swagger and Nadya-Ginsberg-as-Madonna realness, but I mostly found this performance competent, cute, and safe. Skylar had the fiercest stage presence of the season, but she always settled for the most unremarkable song choices. She’s a hokey, stunting Reba copycat, which means my nickname of “Reba Kneivel” remains trenchant and too true for discussion.

3. Joshua Ledet and Fantasia, “Take Me to the Pilot”

Look. This was probably not real. I probably did not see Joshua Ledet skip around the Nokia Theater like Pee Wee Herman‘s ballerina stepchild while Fantasia Barrino stalked the audience in a swamp monster suit. The odds aren’t good. I mean, the swamp monster suit had side-leg cutouts. Legal? No. Swamp monsters are often demure. I don’t believe Josh or ‘Tasia sang any of the words to this song, either. They screamed and ran around, and at one point Fantasia had been lost for 40 minutes. But the mess was an unbelievable spectacle, and an unsettlingly titillating one too. I loved it.

2. Phillip Phillips and John Fogerty, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and “Bad Moon Rising”

Now this, THIS is what the Idol finale is for. It’s about collaborating with true legends who want to perform at their best and bother to make the contestants look good. Fogerty sounded wonderful up on that stage, and you could tell he got a kick out of Phillip’s respectful growls and be-boppity stage antics. The pair seemed utterly comfortable, and it’s kind of inspiring to see an honest-to-God rock hero be such a good sport. Normally I’d place this at #1. Except… well, this other thing happened…

1. JENNIFER HOLLIDAY featuring what’s left of Jessica Sanchez, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”

I was prepared for Jessica Sanchez to buddy up with Jennifer Hudson and gangbang this Biblically staggering number. I was all set. Then when I heard Ryan Seacrest‘s long-winded, patronizing introduction (“I saw this in rehearsal — it was really great! Honest! The guest’s not very famous, but hey! Heh-heh! Whatever! Don’t change the channel!”), I realized J-Hud wouldn’t be in the picture. No. Not J-Hud at all. Someone else.

It was Jennifer Holliday, the original Tony-winning Effie from Dreamgirls, and. words. already. fail me. 

I’m now going to throw a number of GIFs at you, culled lovingly by AfterElton friend Matt Cherette. If ever you needed a way to sum up the lackluster qualities of season eleven with one performance, this would be it. Because this? This was supreme. Jennifer Holliday was pitch-perfect and present like all these idols, whose talent we keep hearing about, but she gave us so, so, so much more than a run-of-the-mill regurgitation. She gave us her everything (which is what performance is supposed to be about), and that included face explosions. It included involuntary stank. It included Gayle King‘s favorite hairpiece and a possessed/self-possessed command that bested every single performance from this season. Note how Jessica, who is routinely fearless, is hiding.


OK. That is Foghorn Leghorn choreography paired with Charles Laughton‘s Henry VIII grimace. That is ethereal, unhinged, and beautifully scary. To borrow a cliche that finally warrants usage, it was everything.

Jessica was a great contestant. But she was an even greater Jennifer Holliday dinner.

Praise God. We didn’t know we waited all season for this performance. And that’s why it’s so, so satisfying. Congrats to Phil, but bigger congrats to us. We earned this gorgeous absinthe nightmare and all the monstrous dreamgirls within it.


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