Can Jessica Sanchez be an 'Idol' for her times?

By Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at May 23 2012 08:34 PM | Updated as of May 24 2012 06:12 AM

Vocal competitions have never been purely about voices. We know that. There are things like verve and charisma and emotional connection. The last factor, of course, is linked with a host of other things: your age, your geographical location, your lifestyle, your mores or religion and, yes, let's not forget race.

Several forecasts say American Idol Season 11 is for Phillip Phillips to lose. There are varied reasons given:

1) The soft-rock hunk from Georgia has never landed in the bottom of a competition where voters can vote a gazillion number of times until their fingers and wrists tire of the effort. In contrast, Fil-Mex-American Jessica Sanchez had to be saved by judges from premature exit.

2) Phillip has natural charm just on the right side of rebellious; he is equally adept at flashing killer smiles as in making goofy faces. Jessica covers her lips when she smiles, perhaps an offshoot of less than stellar dental work or just an Asian thing.

3) Both are known for their work ethics. But while Phillip was a regular guy working for pistol-packing Dad’s humble pawnshop, home-schooled Jessica has apparently been singing for a living since childhood. The first falls right smack with patriotic American lore; the latter probably gives some folk concern, given the sad turnout of so many child stars.

4) Phillip carries on the tradition of white guys with guitars being crowned Idol and then dumped a few years down the road. (Yes, the tweens easily outgrow their idols for the badder bad boys of rap and R&B.)

Sound choices

Poll after social media poll has given Jessica a large lead. But it is a fact that not all of those who answer these polls are American Idol voters (It's not really clear if people found ways of voting from outside America).

Even on weeks when Phillip was at the bottom of those polls, he didn't just survive – he was safe. Jessica almost fell by the wayside on a week these polls were placing her at either top or second rank. So yes, the petite singer has a lot to overcome.

It is probably strange that 350 words into the article, I have not mentioned voice. Or performance. Or, as the judges love to stress, the song choices.

When we come down to it, their choices tonight – on the second, "reprise" round -- were stellar.

Jessica eschewed the more flashy but overdone “I Will Always Love You” (Whitney Houston) for “The Prayer” (Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion). A great choice; having been performed very early in the season, it had not gotten that much exposure. It also allowed Jessica to express her more lyrical side, coming off the R&B ballad, “I Who Have Nothing” (Houston).

The arrangement, with its sudden chord change, could have tripped up a lesser singer. But Sanchez sailed through with the added benefit of not sounding like anyone’s copy. It also had lyrics that could invoke uncomplicated emotions --even a 13-year old would be able to handle peace and fraternity. Best of all, it had range AND dynamics, leading to that memorable end swoop from on high to the softest of falsettos.

Phillip, who skirted close to disaster with a poor first round, broke back with “Moving Out," the angry Billy Joel screed that highlights his working-class roots. Phillip brings the sexy back to rage, although his voice is a bit thinner than months back, his lines more rushed, vocals more strained on the higher notes.

Yet, it also seemed more infused with Phillip’s famed dark side – the part that makes JLo and the cougars squirm and speeds up the hearts of budding femmes.

If it hadn’t been stacked against "The Prayer," Phillip’s song would have won the night. But Jessica simply had the more beautiful performance, though these two, sometimes distant singers, connected with their choices.

 'Winning' songs?

Phillip almost succeeded in turning a fave rock song like “Stand By Me” into a lazy afternoon fishing tune – dotted throughout with pitchy moments.

Jessica was so much better with “I Who Am Nothing” – with a series of growls and fluid runs. But what is this penchant for whining, begging songs? She won round one clearly but only older women would be genuinely moved by that song.

The last round left a bitter taste. It also answered the question of why so many Idol stars have fizzled out so fast: The people behind the long-running reality show have a talent for picking the lousiest songs.

We’ve heard coronation song horrors, not the least Kris Allen’s “No Boundaries,” which Idol judge Kara DioGuardi co-wrote. David Cook also had a bad pick; it was a testament to talent that he managed to make us digest the song. Somewhere along the way, they ditched giving contenders the same song, ostensibly to provide them more “suitable” picks.

Well, it’s almost an impossibility fathoming how the brilliant Jimmy Iovine could sic on Jessica a song meant for Miley Cyrus – a few years post the loss of that precious thing.

Everyone knows Jessica is not your ordinary moon-eyed teen. She may not quite have mastered the blues yet, but she’s even more lost with these saccharine paeans to night-time comforts.

The song, “Change Nothing”, was clearly filched – listen to its first few notes and hear the chorus of “The Climb”. It did allow Jessica to show off some minor runs. One could make a case that, even with musical and stage directors, contestants have some discretion with their moves. The problem with Jessica is, she never came down from her piano perch. You don’t sing an entire song atop a piano! So that when she was supposed to be bopping a bit, we only got the voice, and that’s just half of it.

But do not let those judges tell you Phillip was worth a standing ovation. And if I were Paul Simon, I’d be suing Idol bigwigs tomorrow.

“Home.” My god, they couldn’t even pretend. The first line of this song is almost identical in tune to the first line of the chorus of “Homeward Bound”. It had high notes – not a usual for Phillip – but the marching band and the chorus overpowered his voice. There was nothing special in his vocals and his face was the blankest I’ve seen, except when he went high, wearing an embarrassed grin.

Tough luck, dude. Call it the prize of success. It will probably kill your rocker soul but if country-fying you will stop the hemorrhage in profits, Iovine will bury you in 101 uniformed drummers.

Great brown hope

But there may be hope for Jessica. She came into Idol at the right time, when Americans are finally being forced to address the issue of millions of residents "otherness."

This is the decade of the immigrant. It may be unfair to lay that burden on this young woman’s shoulders, but it’s probably nothing new to her.

Born to Filipino and Mexican parents, she must have grown up listening to fierce whispers about people’s belief in her. The great brown hope, who will merge the traits of the hard-working Asian and the fiery Hispanic and melt it down into – and that’s the problem here. What is it that Jessica wants to be? And why don’t people like it when she tries to sing what she feels is in her heart?

Maybe because it’s incongruous at this stage for a waif-like, sweet 16, Daddy’s girl to be vamping to songs of seduction. And maybe because it’s so clear that Jessica can’t muster seduction if her life depended on it – today, anyway. She has the moves and there is no question about that voice, which has yet to sing a note wrong. But she has to get from Point A to B to convince us that she understands what can move people to ecstasy and despair.

Hispanic, yes. Asian, yes. Hispanic and Asian could be a bit hot to handle for some folk. Especially because Jessica doesn’t fit stereotypes. She isn’t lush and vixen, not bold and sassy, and not in a hurry to grow up (outside of her songs). She isn’t cold or imperious, or acerbic and brilliant (like Heejun), or tough as steel (like any of those kickin’ babes with long, straight black hair).

But it is this outsider status in formerly outsider groups that allow so many to latch on to Jessica as their dream girl.

She taps into aspirations, a bit like Hollie Cavanagh did. She represents the refined part of one group, the vulnerable part of another. She comes from a family of immigrants that have done themselves – and their nation – well. They are not a burden to society. They are a flag to wave, a message to display to those who doubt that America is richer for the melting of the races.

Joshua’s fan base, perhaps with real cause for bitterness, will probably have shifted some votes to Jessica. It is next to impossible imagining a Joshua supporter voting for Phillip’s last song – simply too alien to them. Jessica they can understand better. Sweet young women grow up to be broken hearted hags or fierce mothers who raise their children single handedly.

The US Census office has just made multiculturalism official. As The Washington Post notes, "For the first time in U.S. history, most of the nation’s babies are members of minority groups, according to new census figures that signal the dawn of an era in which whites no longer will be in the majority."

Hispanics, black, Asian-American and other minority groups represent 50.4% of children younger than 1 in 2011. "The latest estimates, which gauge changes since the last census, are a reflection of an immigration wave that began four decades ago. The transformation of the country’s racial and ethnic makeup has gathered steam as the white population grows collectively older, especially compared with Hispanics... Although minorities make up about 37 percent of the U.S. population, the District and four states are majority minority — California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas."

Hispanics and Filipinos have emerged as some of the more effective minority activists in this last decade, with more from each group winning elective office and getting appointed to high-profile posts. It is interesting to see Fil-Ams in their 50’s and 60's invoke EDSA and other activist experiences to get out the vote for Jessica.

Both minorities are well-known for musical talent and it has come to roost in Jessica. Both groups can be harsh and mocking towards pretenders. But in this shy woman, they have found a talent worth their passions.