Michael Becker / FOX
After a season of standout performances, the race to crown this year's American Idol winner is tighter than ever. Luckily for the singers and viewers, mentor Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records, guides the contestants in song choice and arrangement. "I'm like [the Wizard of] Oz," the all-knowing Iovine jokes. "I like helping the kids. It's creative to me. It's my opinion, and I have no trouble giving it." Iovine (and the Idols themselves) shares the keys for each contestant to win.
Phillip, whose acoustic stylings draw apt comparisons to singer Dave Matthews, was never in the bottom three. But the singer, 21, has been battling kidney issues during the live shows, which might slow his momentum.
Fine-tuning: Phillip brings freshness and originality to his Idol performances, but he's often criticized by the judges for lacking melody. "I know my boundaries of what I can and can't do," he says. "I'm more of a singer-songwriter instead of doing covers week after week, so it gets a little challenging."
Jimmy says: "Phillip's really talented and charismatic. He knows what he wants to do when he comes in. He's got to dig down deep and come up with a clever idea, song-wise. And he's got to somehow beat what he's going through physically...freshen up and start over again. He can do it because he's a tough kid."
Just 16, Jessica is the youngest finalist, but don't let her age fool you. She has stunned audiences with powerhouse performances of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Alicia Keys' "Fallin'."
Save me: Sanchez's Idol run almost came to an end on April 12 when the judges used their only save to keep her after viewers voted her out. "I'm pulling out the big guns and not messing around anymore," Jessica says. In the beginning, "I was self-conscious and I thought about my songs too much. The save pushed me as an artist."
Jimmy says: "Jessica has always been the one to beat. She is probably the best technical singer, but she has to keep it fun, dramatic and light. Not funny, just fun. She has a gift that comes very rare for a 16-year-old, but she should cherish 16 for a while."
Given the nickname "Mantasia" (after Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino) in the early rounds, Joshua, 20, is a judges' favorite and has received the most standing O's (14) for showstoppers such as the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" and James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."
Soul man: Joshua says it's important to get lost in the music. "When I'm excited about singing, all the energy comes from me through the song," he says. "I don't believe in a 99 percent performance. I have to give it my all, and I leave everything on the stage."
Jimmy says: "Every week, Joshua gets better and better at performance and feeling the record, understanding it and interpreting it. He's grown like a weed. It's really hard to beat 'To Love Somebody.' What he did on that song was exceptional and he deserves all the kudos in the world because it's hard to do. Joshua's just got to hold on and not blow it."
American Idol airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8/7c on Fox.
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