American Idol Top 30 Performances of All Time: No. 3, Phillip Phillips, “We’ve Got Tonight”

This was his moment

This was his moment

It’s rare that an American Idol winner’s best performance is among his least recognized.

Phillip Phillips wasn’t your normal Idol.

Anyone who watched Season 11 can tell you what P-Squared songs they liked – “Home” is usually first, then there is “Thriller” or “You’ve Got It Bad,” a more musically inclined watcher will say “Volcano” and there’s definitely jam-band fans out there who throw out his cover of Dave Matthews Band’s “The Stone.”

Those all have there merits and “Home” came in at No. 17 on our all-time list, but there was one Phillips moment that surpassed them.

Every Idol has their moment and Phillips’ came thanks to a brilliant song choice by Jimmy Iovine that gave Phillips a chance to show he was more than a confrontational, misunderstood folk/rock performer.

There was heart and soul behind his cover of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” and between the flawless execution, passion of the performance and the way it closed the door on Season 11, it’s not just Phillips’ best performance – it’s one of the best of all time.

THE SITUATION: I’m not going to sit here and portray Phillips as some sort of underdog heading to the final three. The second he auditioned, anyone with a brain said “well, this guy is going go win American Idol” (unless you were running a fledgling Facebook site and wanted to be edgy and different so you picked Elise Testone instead. Idiot).

Phillips was a different brand of WGWG than the show had seen. He wasn’t as hard as David Cook, wasn’t as poppy as Kris Allen, wasn’t as buttrock as Lee DeWyze and wasn’t country like Scott McCreery. He was the folksy-type performer many of the Idol snobs pined for – basically a male Crystal Bowersox, who was universally loved – but so many so-called “Idol experts” turned on him because of the WGWG stigma.

It didn’t matter with the fans. He was just too damn good and too damn entertaining. Week after week Phillips performed the hell out of songs that weren’t quite as popular as the ones his competitors chose but week after week he delivered. There were many amazing performances that season – Testone’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Joshua Ledet’s “Man’s World” made the list and if I were picking personal faves, Colton Dixon’s “September” and Jermaine Jones’ didn’t-sing-it-live-because-he-got-booted-from-the-show’s “Somewhere Out There” would have been on it too – but nobody had the week-in, week-out impact of Phillips.

When it came time for the final three, Phillips was well out in front but America was in love with Ledet, whose final four performance of the James Brown classic gave him an outside shot at winning. Jessica Sanchez, who was eliminated in the top seven but saved by the veto, had a young following and had momentum following her save. Put her in the final – and she did, thanks to a rough night for Ledet and a strong last performance – and who knows, right?

So there was a chance Phillips wasn’t going to win.

Until he closed the show that night.

HIGHLIGHTS: This wasn’t a Phillip Phillips we knew.

There was no guitar. No horns. No backing band. Just Philips, a stool, and former Idol musical director Ray Chew, who looks like he should be the starting linebacker for the Raiders, playing piano. It just looked and sounded perfect.

There were no tricks. No growls, which had become a staple that season. You get lost in the vocals because there’s nothing to distract you. Between Phillips’ all-black ensemble – maybe a step or two about his plaid shirt/tattered jeans combo he rocked all season – and the starry backdrop, you focus on the words as they come out of his mouth when it hits you.

This guy is more than show. He can sing.

By the time the goosebumps start to form up and down your arms, the strings kick in. There’s something about a classical arrangement on a classic rock ballad that just works when it’s done right. Mixed with Phillips’ voice – a gravely, soothing sound that no Idol winner has had and really no musician outside of Dave Matthews made commercially viable until hipsters introduced folk music to the pop charts two years ago – you sit there and beg for someone to sing something like this to you.

Everyone stands and applauds. When they cut to the crowd, you see Iovine nod and mouth the words “good job” to himself. Randy Jackson, Steven Tyler and J-Lo stand and applaud. Season 11 evictee Shannon Magrane applauds and says, to no one in particular, “he’s so cute.”

There’s not much to critique. Randy avoids Randy-isms and simply calls it his best performance ever, mumbles, then remembers he’s got a character to play and stumbles into mindless Dawgfather babble.

J-Lo says something about millions of girls wishing he was singing that to them – with a perfect cut back to Magrane getting her faced fanned by Hollie Cavanagh – before Steven Tyler nails it, saying

“When you first came out here you sang like you didn’t give a shit,” which was obviously bleeped out with some added laughter from J-Lo and Randy, who have never heard swearing before. Tyler continues on, adding “You just showed you’ve got all that passion wrapped up inside of you … and you just nailed it.”

WHY IT’S HERE: The performance was a perfect storm of Idol performances. It was a perfect song choice from Iovine, who’s contribution to the show was horribly underrated; it was the first time we saw a sensitive side from Phillips and there was genuine passion and heart behind every note. This was his Idol moment and it just so happened that it closed the door on any hopes Sanchez or Ledet had of winning that season.

So why does it get forgotten? Likely because of the commercial success of “Home,” everyone remembering his audition songs and because the Idol blogosphere prefers indie music, “Volcano” gets a ton of cred.

What this performance meant to the competition cannot be ignored. Any chance Ledet or Sanchez might have had and while Phillips performed the hell out of “Home” the following week, that was simply a coronation song. The Season 11 title was won when Phillip Phillips sat down and showed America his heart. There aren’t many moments in American Idol’s 14-year history better.

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