"Idol" finale: Quiet kids seek loud success

OK, by now I'm reasonably excited about the "American Idol" finale, Tuesday and Wednesday. My original bitterness -- Joshua Ledet, maybe the best "Idol" singer ever, is gone -- is subsiding; this will still be fun.

I've sent papers two versions of an "Idol"-finale story, the second one adding comments from Jimmy Iovine, the show's mentor. Here's that version:


Right now, two people stand at the
brink of an “American Idol” championship.

One could be propelled toward the fame
and fortune of a Carrie Underwood or a Kelly Clarkson. Or, at least,
to some temporary confetti and cheers,

So what are Phillip Phillips and
Jessica Sanchez really like? “They're both very quiet,” said
Nigel Lythgoe, the “Idol” producer. “The final four were all
very quiet, gentle people.”

And that may be one reason the show has
had trouble keeping its huge audience.

The talent is there. “These are the
best three I've seen in the finals,” Lythgoe said, lumping Joshua
Ledet (his personal favorite, who finished third) into the mix. But
the ratings? They're:

– Soaring by normal standards. The
first four May shows ranged from 15.6 to 16.7 million viewers,
leading in the age categories advertisers and networks want. “'Idol
will again be the No. 1 show on all of television for the ninth
consecutive season,” said Joe Early, Fox's marketing director..

– Low by “Idol” standards. In
total viewers, those four episodes were edged out by “NCIS” and
(sometimes) “Dancing With the Stars”; the show has been down 20
percent from the previous season. “That was a bigger drop than we
anticipated,” said Kevin Reilly, the Fox programming chief.

Lythgoe blames much of that on
overcrowding. Fox added “The X Factor,” NBC added “The Voice”
and “The Sing Off”; ABC will launch “Duets” the day after
“Idol” finishes its season. “The public does get bored with the
same show,” he said.

Still, part of the problem might be
those quiet personalities. Viewers haven't seen the on-stage zest of
an Adam Lambert, Bo Bice or Allison Iraheta. They haven't seen the
off-camera fun of a Danny Gokey or Sanjaya Malakar, the rich personal
story of a Fantasia Barrino or Scott MacIntyre. They've seen people
who simply stand and sing well.

They're dead-serious about it, Lythgoe
said, “so diligent in their focus.” Added Jimmy Iovine, the
show's mentor: “Especially the final four or five, the kids really
care and are interested.

Phillips has the potential to tell
stories. He grew up in Leesburg, a Georgia town of 2,900, near the
college town of Albany; he worked in his dad's pawn shop and
graduated from technical school.

So far, however, he's had little to
say. That could be due to his ongoing kidney-stone problem – “he
is in a lot of pain” his mother tweeted at one point – or simply
to small-town Southern reticence.

Under that surface, Iovine said, is a
quietly witty approach; “he has such charm and such a vibe and
great character.” He's also a songwriter, Ionine said; like others
– Dave Matthews, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen – that will help
him stand out.

Sanchez has said she's focused on
singing most of her life. She started singing at 2, did “Showtime
at the Apollo” at 10, “America's Got Talent” at 11.

The bad news is that this leaves little
else for her to talk about except music. The good is that she's a
consummate performer. “Jessica is only 16 and the way she sings,
she sounds like she's in her 20s,” said Hollie Cavanagh, another of
the quiet final four.”

Iovene agreed. “She's a pro. When
that girl is 18 ...”

Still, she needs to prove something
Tuesday. She needs songs that “click the emotion,” Iovine said;
she needs “a magic moment,” Lythgoe said.

Then there's Phillips, who tends to
surprise. “He has his very own style and … takes you to a whole
other place when he sings,” Cavanagh said.

It can be a strange place. Phillips
chooses obscure songs – or makes familiar one seems obscure.

“He needs to go find a song that
people know,” Lythgoe said.”I think Phil loves the mid-tempo
music; I don't know that's right for him, especially in the national

– “American Idol,” 8-9 p.m.
Tuesday, 8-10:07 p.m. Wednesday, Fox

– Jessica Sanchez, 16, of San Diego;
Phillip Phillips, 21, of Leesburg, Ga.

– Trivia: Both finalists have fathers
who are armed. Sanchez's dad, in the Navy, has been to Iraq and
Afghanistan; an “Idol” clip of Phillips' dad at his pawn shop
showed him wearing a holstered pistol.

– Trivia II: If Phillips wins, he'll
be the fifth straight white male champion. The first six seasons
weren't like that: Winners were three white and three black, two male
and four female.

– Trivia III: In 2008, five Hispanics
were in the final 12; still, the closest to an Hispanic winner was
last season's Scotty McCreery (one-fourth Puerto Rican). Sanchez's
roots are half Mexican, half Filipino.