"American Idol": Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez sing for the title

AMERICAN IDOL: L-R: Phillip Phillips, Jessica Sanchez and Ryan Seacrest on AMERICAN IDOL airing Tuesday, May 22 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. CR: Michael Becker / FOX.
Phillip Phillips, Jessica Sanchez and Ryan Seacrest on "American Idol," May 22, 2012.

(CBS News) What would you prefer? A suit or a sofa? A manicure or six skinny hazelnut lattes?

This is the kind of slightly absurd choice "American Idol" was offering in its finale - two singers of entirely different types, entirely different mindsets and entirely different levels of originality, only one of whom would get the allegedly coveted title.

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Jessica Sanchez has dreamed of "Idol" ever since she saw her very first one, when she was barely out of nappies. Phillip Phillips, on the other hand, has probably only made jokes about the show, while sipping a beer with his buds and admiring his daddy's gun.

Yet here they were, one the wannabe Mariah Carey, the other a vague Dave Matthews with a kidney disease so serious that a doctor reportedly wanted him to immediately go for surgery.

For those of an entirely cynical bent, it is easy to imagine that these two had been the producers' choices from the start. But look at the way they were dressed as the show began: Sanchez in a long, alluring dress. Phillips in stuff the Gap just couldn't sell.

Because they were a mere two, they had to sing three times. The first would be the choice of "Idol" creator Simon Fuller, the second their own selection and the third some cheesy song that would surely be accompanied by a gospel choir and would be their first single.

Sanchez went first. In a fit a sublime imagination, Fuller had chosen for her, gosh, a Whitney Houston song. Well, it either had to be her or Mariah Carey. How could anyone hope that Sanchez would offer something greater than the original? It's not her fault, but she didn't. The stage saw a plethora of violins and cellos, but this, yet again, was a little girl dressing up in mommy's clothes and putting on her makeup.

Yes, Sanchez can sing. Performance, though, is something else.

Surely Phillips wouldn't be sent down the same deeply trodden path. Surely he wouldn't be asked to sing a Dave Matthews song. In fact, Fuller (or perhaps his assistant) had chosen Ben E. King's "Stand by Me."

Well, now. One could immediately imagine Joshua Ledet doing this. But Phillips? Ah, but the pink-pajama-clad girls' dream took the melody and didn't entirely toss it into the trash with the leftover grits. Yes, he offered his slightly drunken inflections, but he tried to make it original. This was as oddly seductive as Sanchez's Houston had been predictably lacking.

The judges were asked to comment at the end of the round.

Jennifer Lopez referred to Phillips as a "modern-day crooner." She inadvertently made Sanchez sound frightfully ordinary when she used the words "originality" and "artistry" in reference to Phillips. For Sanchez, she offered words like "beauty."

Randy Jackson opined that Sanchez had won the first round.

Sanchez second song was "The Prayer." She was clearly branching out. For this wasn't Houston or Carey, but Celine Dion. Did she add to this song? Did she make it somehow fresh, new or different? She is an excellent singer. But if ever there was evidence that she needs a couple of years to find - at the very least - an original song, this was it.

"They're on their feet for Jessica Sanchez in the house," said Ryan Seacrest, as we were offered an image of the three judges, resolutely seated.

I am being unfair to Sanchez. She did offer something original in this song: she didn't wear heels.

Phillips, on the other hand, decided to reach for some Billy Joel. No, not "Captain Jack", which would have been a little too smokingly relevant. Instead he performed "Moving Out," surely a song that reflected so many of his deeper wishes.

You might have noticed that both these performances were actually reprises. Each had sung them in earlier weeks. Is this the best "Idol" could do? And where was Jimmy Iovine to add a little flavor to this suspicious lovefest?

"Moving Out" is at least a generous enough song to mention Hackensack, a town that time didn't forget because it never knew it in the first place. This ditty gave Phillips free rein to reach for his truly maniacal side. His face contorts, the vein that runs vertically down his forehead bulges like a river after rain and the whole effect is pleasantly genuine.

At the end, Phillips shivered, as if he himself had rather enjoyed it all. Finally.

Steven Tyler seemed to be affected by the maniacal interlude, for he offered this critique of Phillips: "You don't always have to be a good egg. Hatch or go bad. And tonight, you know, he's hatched some, but I would have to say that Jessica took it again."

The audience booed. Somewhere, several psychiatrists salivated. Jackson called it a dead heat. Lopez called it for Phillips, but with a very hunched back, as if she was slightly ashamed of offering something like a veritable opinion.

So what of their first singles? What would these nascent artists be sending down our mp3 lines? Someone has a sense of humor on "Idol," for Sanchez's song was called "Change Nothing."

She began seated on a white piano, wearing dark and threatening platform boots. This was her best performance of the night, perhaps because it was such a relief to hear her not copy something that had been sung a thousand times before. And she did it without a gospel choir. What has happened to this show?

Suddenly, the judges were asked to critique an individual performance. This is traditionally the moment when Jackson says he didn't love the song.

"I did not love the song," he said. But he said she gave it all she could, given that this was just a "straight pop song."

Lopez tended to agree. She believes Sanchez has soul, and she missed it.

"I know how good you can sing and so can millions of people in America and all over the world." Yes, these were the words of Steven Tyler. Study them carefully.

The producers cut to Jimmy Iovine in the audience. He was laughing.

Phillips' final effort was called "Home." At the beginning it positively reeked of Mumford and Sons. And then boy drummers in pale blue t-shirts emerged from all corners of the stage. As they did, Phillips entered into the lyric-free chant that surely must have reverberated in so many pink-walled bedrooms across America.

"A-uh-A-uh-A-uh-A," sung Phillips and, surely millions of others. Or perhaps it was "O-uh-O-uh-O-uh-O." Vowels tend to melt in the midst of so much drumming.

As the audience lost its breeches, Tyler and Jackson stood, followed by a slightly reluctant Lopez.

"Dude. I love the song. I love you. I love the production. I love the marching band," said Jackson. Extraordinarily, he then mentioned Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes.

"What was moving about that was that it was so different," said Lopez. "I couldn't think of any other singer or band that you sounded like." Well, other than Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes, perhaps.

"By virtue of your vulnerability and style, you have made the world your home," waffled Tyler. He then claimed he'd heard "Paul Simon and other un-God-like creatures." Of course he had.

Phillips looked relieved. He is more contemporary, more relevant and even writes his own songs. Sanchez is pleasant, nice and desperate to be another diva. Not a different diva, just another diva.

Whom might the little girls texting away have chosen? If you go by the previous five years, the answer isn't very hard to find. This time, though, they might have even picked someone vaguely relevant.

  • Chris Matyszczyk

    Chris has been a multi award-winning executive creative director with some of the most celebrated advertising agencies in the world. His creative work has been recognized at the Cannes Advertising Festival, the New York Festivals, Clio, the One Show, as well as many other festivals around the world. His writing has appeared in such publications as the Financial Times, the European, the Sacramento Bee and The Singapore Press Holdings Group.

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