LOS ANGELES (AP) — "American Idol" viewers could be in for a serious case of deja vu if Phillip Phillips wins on the Fox talent contest's 11th season finale next week.
While the soulful strummer from Leesburg, Ga., has certainly proved he can be a risk-taking showman by transforming songs like Usher's "U Got It Bad" into searing acoustic covers, a victory for the 21-year-old would prove something that everyone has suspected for a while: "Idol" voters prefer humble Caucasian heartthrobs over, well, anyone else.
Since he first caught the judges' — and America's — attention with growly renditions of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson hits at his audition, Phillips has seamlessly moved up the ranks, never appearing as one of the show's low-vote getters. That can't be said of his two final challengers — sassy 16-year-old Jessica Sanchez and booming 20-year-old Joshua Ledet.
And folks just seem to like Phillips, who has comfortably filled this season's reluctant heartthrob role. He's been silly, constantly flashing funny faces at the camera. He's been rebellious: When Tommy Hilfiger advised him not to wear grey on stage, he donned two shades of it. He's been sexy, even melting Ryan Seacrest's girlfriend.
Then there's the humility: Asked if he's confident of claiming "Idol" glory, Phillips said backstage last week, "Oh, gosh, no, I'm never confident. ... I'm so nervous when I get up there on stage. Josh and Jessica ... they're so much better at singing than I am."
It's also impossible to ignore the fact that the bluesy Phillips bears a striking resemblance to the past four champions.
While the musical styles of David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery and Phillips are varied, they're each young Caucasian male guitar players, or as they've become known by many "Idol" devotees: WGWGs — white guys with guitars. There hasn't been a female or non-white winner since Jordin Sparks bested Blake Lewis in 2007.
Lyndsey Parker, who writes Yahoo's "Reality Rocks" blog, blames the lack of diversity on block text voting among younger viewers and the introduction of contestants playing their own instruments four years ago in season seven.
Parker believes a bigger focus on instrument-playing singers, who tend to be more male than female, helped past winners like Allen and Cook ascend to the "Idol" throne with similarly masterful rearrangements of song choices, while text voting allowed obsessive fans — namely, eager young women — to tap, tap, tap their favorites to the top of the pack.
"I think people are wondering if girls or, frankly, people of color should just go audition for 'The Voice' and 'The X Factor' instead because 'Idol' has become a closed door if you're not a Caucasian guy who plays folky rock or country music," said Parker. "I know some people will be outraged if Phillip wins. That's unfair to him, but that's the reality."
Phillips' besting Sanchez, who has Filipino and Latino heritage, or Ledet, an African-American gospel singer, could prove problematic for "Idol," a contest that has always prided itself on the fact that any singer in America — be it the girl next door, teen mom down the street or even a prematurely grey-haired Southern gentleman — could capture the "Idol" title.
"I think if Phillip Phillips wins season 11, then as 'Idol' fans, we kind of have to collectively shrug our shoulders and say, 'It's clear as day. You don't have to be the best singer. You just have to be a cute white straight guy that appeals to a lot of the voting demographic,'" said Michael Slezak, a senior editor at TVLine.com who writes about "Idol."
Parker and Slezak agreed that Phillips has been outperformed by other finalists for several rounds. His low point came two weeks ago when he failed to reach the high notes on The Zombies' "Time of the Season" and ditched the melody on The Box Tops' "The Letter." However, viewers wouldn't gather that from the judges, who always pour praise on Phillips.
"I appreciate that die, sink or swim, you will still be yourself. I love it," judge Jennifer Lopez beamed to Phillips three weeks ago after he performed the Dave Matthews tune "The Stone." ''It was a pretty song, but I feel it was too artsy, not right for this point in the competition. I need you to do songs that are going to get you on that last show, so you can win."
While he lacks the balladeering prowess of Sanchez and Ledet, and critics have called him a clone of Dave Matthews, Phillips' silly personality and musical certainty have seemingly made up for any vocal deficiencies he has in the eyes of voters. Matthews himself joked to New York magazine that perhaps he can retire and Phillips "can take over my band."
Slezak is less optimistic. He thinks if Phillips wins, he'll be a redux of DeWyze, the least successful "Idol" in the show's history. (DeWyze's post-"Idol" album, "Live It Up," sold just 39,000 copies when it debuted.) Besides a fondness for gritty vocals, they both share blue-collar backgrounds. DeWyze worked in a paint store. Phillips helped out in his family's pawn shop.
"'Idol' could desperately use another winner on the charts," said Slezak. "What makes it a must-watch show is the contestants you're voting for today end up playing on the radio and selling out concerts tomorrow. 'Idol' doesn't need another winner who sells 40,000 copies and gets dropped by their label. What's the point in watching if that's the end result?"