If Phillip Phillips loses American Idol, kidney stones are more likely to cause his fall than one of the other singers.
The only contestant to never have been near the low end of the weekly vote totals, the 21-year-old from Leesburg, Ga., has so far followed the trail blazed by previous Idol victors David Cook, Kris Allen and especially Lee DeWyze: Find creative ways to bend songs to your style — in Phillips' case, a bluesy, grainy voice raised on the likes of Dave Matthews— then let the eager young girls and older women take care of the rest.
At his worst — like last week, when he strained for the high notes in Time of the Season and more-or-less dispensed entirely with the melody of The Letter— Phillips sails through on Teflon-coated charm and aw-shucks charisma. When forced to address it, he downplays his medical problem, but he's in enough pain that Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine has felt compelled to mention it on the show.
If Phillips' path to the Idol finale May 22 and 23 is all but clear, that leaves three other singers —Hollie Cavanagh, Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez— to compete for the second spot. That position looks wide open, but some of the singers may need it more than others.
Iovine has all but promised a record deal to Ledet, the R&B/gospel shouter from Louisiana. On the show, Ledet has favored ballads that let him revel in his melismatic tendencies, but his occasional forays into other material, like Bruno Mars' Runaway Baby, and an ability to quickly internalize unfamiliar material suggest a more contemporary turn for his post-Idol career.
Besides, no black male contestant has finished higher than fourth on Idol since Ruben Studdard won in 2003, so every week Ledet remains is icing on the cake for him.
Cavanagh is in a different situation. The British-born Texan has been the most inconsistent performer of the Final Four, delightful when she's on her game, awkward and off-key when she's not. She finally seemed to hit her stride last week, but it still didn't keep her out of the Bottom Two.
Cavanagh needs a couple of more good weeks, and perhaps a finish as high as second place, to overcome the stigma of the several weeks she has spent near the bottom of the pack.
When Idol's final rounds began, Sanchez seemed like the find of the season: a tiny, 16-year-old wunderkind of Mexican/Filipino heritage. But Sanchez's surprising near-elimination four weeks ago exposed her weaknesses. Her preternaturally developed voice makes her capable of singing material better suited for women twice her age, but many viewers feel she doesn't connect emotionally with her songs.
She's still growing into her talent: Sometimes she comes across like a mature 30-year-old; other times she looks like an 11-year-old playing dress-up.
Sanchez has such phenomenal potential that people like Iovine won't be able to stay away from her. Unless she wins, however, the true measure of her success won't have anything to do with where she finishes on Idol.
It'll be tough for her, or Cavanagh, or Ledet, to take the title from Phillips. His popularity seems too overwhelming, his fan base so devoted that they'll support him through good performances and bad.
At this point, Phillips' fans should hope that his determination, his work ethic and his pain threshold are high enough that he can bear down for three more weeks and get the job done.