It was a "battle of the opposites" on the pre-finale of the 11th season of the FOX singing contest series "American Idol" on Tuesday, which featured yet another Whitney Houston tribute and an underwhelming choice for a potential first single from Jessica Sanchez.
The 16-year-old power vocalist from San Diego, California, who was eliminated and saved by the judges in a rare move earlier in the season, and her opponent, Phillip Phillips, a 21-year-old Georgia rock musician, faced off before judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.
Sanchez impressed them by belting out the ballad "I Have Nothing," from Houston's breakout 1992 film "The Bodyguard." It was the third time the teenager sang a song by the pop icon on the show since she first wowed the audience and judges with her cover of the movie's main track, "I Will Always Love You," in March, less than a month after Houston's death.
Phillips, the season's token heartthrob, who has been compared to alternative rocker Dave Matthews, performed an acoustic version of "Stand By Me." Jackson and Jennifer Lopez said Sanchez won the first round.
"It's like a battle of the opposites," Lopez said. "How do you compare?"
If she wins the season, it would mark the first time a female contestant has won "American Idol" since Jordin Sparks captured the title in 2007.
Sparks, who plays Houston's daughter in her final film, "Sparkle," sat in the audience at the episode's taping and was seen cheering on boyfriend Jason Derulo , who performed on stage as a guest. The two recently attended the 2012 Billboard Music Awards. Sparks performed a cover of "I Will Always Love You" at the event to honor her late co-star.
On Tuesday's "American Idol" episode, Sanchez also performed "The Prayer," a Celine Dion ballad that helped get her into the Top 24. The judges seemed less impressed by it. Phillips rocked a slightly slower version of Billy Joel's "Movin' Out." Judge Steven Tyler thought Sanchez still won the round, while Lopez said she's seen the teenager "do that before and that Phillips beat her this time. Jackson thought it was a tie.
The final part of the episode featured the two finalists singing songs they could potentially release as singles.
The judges appeared to loathe Jessica Sanchez's rendition of a ballad called "Change Nothing," written by Joleen Belle and Harry Sommerdahl. Jackson cited her "urban" sound, which he likes, and said her performance "lacked pop flavor." She told him, Lopez and Tyler: "Definitely, when I make my record, if I ever do, it's going to be a lot more me."
Phillips Tweeted to his some 335,000 followers after the taping: "Such a fun night, crazy its over.... @JSanchezAI11 KILLED IT! (sic)"
Sanchez did not mention Phillips on her Twitter page after the episode. On Wednesday, she Tweeted to her some 436,000 followers: "So what did YOU guys think of my 'winning' song #changenothing ? :)"
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Wednesday's finale, which airs at 8 p.m. ET, will feature performances from Sparks, Tyler's band Aerosmith and from Rihanna and well as tributes to recently deceased singers Donna Summer, a 1970s disco queen and former guest performer on "American Idol", and Robin Gibb, a member of the 1970s disco trio The Bee Gees, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The female contestants will perform with 1970s icons Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, Nelly Furtado, Sheila E., Jennifer Holliday and Gladys Knight, and later, with Chaka Khan. Sanchez will also perform with Holiday the power ballad "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls," the movie that won "American Idol" alum Jennifer Hudson an Oscar.
The male finalists will perform with Neil Diamond and Phillips will sing a duet with John Fogerty, the outlet said, adding that Kristin Chenoweth, a Broadway and "Glee" actress who recently starred in the short-lived ABC series "GCB," will sing the Summer and Barbra Streisand duet "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" with Sanchez.
Diana Degarmo performed the song on the season 3 finale of "American Idol" before losing to Fantasia Barrino, who will reportedly perform with second runner-up Joshua Ledet on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Sanchez booked a high-profile gig - she is set to perform at PBS' National Memorial Day Concert in Washington D.C this Monday, days after the "American Idol" finale.
The first hour of Tuesday's episode earned a 4.2 rating among viewers aged 18 to 49 and was watched by about 14.3 million people. The second hour garnered a 3.2 rating and had an audience of about 9.29 million people. The ratings were lower than those earned last week. Last year's pre-finale was watched by about 20.5 million people. More than 29.2 million watched the final results show, which saw Scotty McCreery beat Lauren Alaina.
Ratings have dropped since acerbic judge Simon Cowell left the series in 2010 to launch "The X Factor" on FOX. This season, "American Idol" lost nearly a quarter of its audience, especially in the 18 to 49 demographic, according to The New York Times. It quoted Kevin Reilly, FOX's president of entertainment, as saying there would be some "creative reinvigoration" of the franchise for next year.