From the moment he first stepped in front of the judges and unleashed a folksy take on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” guitar-playing crooner Phillip Phillips seemed preordained to win “American Idol,” and not just because he’s another white guy with a guitar, the all-too-familiar profile of the previous four “Idol” champions.
“I’m just lucky,” the former pawn shop worker said Wednesday night in his backstage dressing room after his win.
It was more than just luck that helped Phillips easily overcome 16-year-old mini-diva Jessica Sanchez to become the Fox talent competition’s 11th season victor. The combination of his goofy personality, ah-shucks Southern humility, rebelliousness, risk-taking originality and, yes, those good looks kept him at the front of the pack all season long.
While he is indeed a WGWG — the “Idol” fan term for “white guys with guitars” — Phillips differentiated himself with a musical style that was grittier than past winners David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze and Scotty McCreery, as well his competitors with much wider vocal ranges, like gospel singer Joshua Ledet and soaring vocalist Hollie Cavanagh.
Mostly, Phillips was just so darn charming. When given the opportunity, he always excelled at genuinely letting his personality shine through on the show, often as much of a challenge as hitting the right notes. He established a silly bromance with finalist Heejun Han and seemed downright distraught at the unexpected dismissal of alt-rocker Colten Dixon.
Despite Sanchez’s unstoppable voice and a savvy-beyond-her-years approach, she was essentially living on borrowed time after she was supposed to be eliminated but was saved by the judges. She realized that during Top Three week.
“I told Phillip, `You’re gonna win this whole thing,’ and he was like, `Nah, I’m not,’ ” recalled Sanchez backstage. “I’m like, `Yes, you are.’ I don’t think he totally believed that, and I totally believed it. I just went out in this competition after that moment and just sang. Phillip’s gonna win, anyway. I might as well just sing my heart out.”
The total votes for each singer weren’t released, but it was likely a landslide for Phillips, who accomplished his feat despite serious kidney problems that plagued him all season.
Several online outfits predicted he would take home the top prize: the “Idol” title and a record contract. DialIdol.com, which tracks busy signals on the phone lines dedicated to each contestant, correctly projected Phillips as the winner Wednesday morning.
The Leesburg, Ga., native never appeared at the bottom of the pack, a testament not only to his die-hard fan base that kept him safe but also to some of his more talked-about performances. Like the time he turned Usher’s “U Got It Bad” into an acoustic ditty or unleashed a flawless take on the obscure — for “Idol,” anyway — Damien Rice tune “Volcano.”
“I’m excited to do my album,” said Phillips. “I know it’s going to be challenging because a lot of opinions will be coming my way, but it’s like the show, I know my music. I know how I want it. I’m not trying to win Grammys or be famous or anything.”
Phillips’ future success, as with all “Idol” winners before him, will be determined by record sales, not viewer votes. With his folksy singer-songwriter leanings, Phillips could capture the public’s attention in the same way that Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and Mumford and Sons have or, like ninth season winner DeWyze, he could just fade into obscurity.