Phillip Phillips may have been crowned the next American Idol on Wednesday night's finale of the popular TV singing competition, but it's runner-up Jessica Sanchez who took part in the show's most talked about moment. The 16-year-old belter sang a duet of the behemoth ballad "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls with Jennifer Holliday, the Tony-winning star who performed the song in the original 1981 production. (Watch the video below.) Holliday's wild facial contortions — she looked like she "just might eat" Sanchez, says Rolling Stone — upstaged the entire star-studded two-hour extravaganza. A flurry of mocking gifs quickly surfaced, and Buzzfeed helpfully screengrabbed the "many faces of Jennifer Holliday's American Idol finale performance." What should we make of this odd duet?
It was way over the top — in a good way: "Holliday's expressions ping-ponged from rage to elation to suspicion to defiance," says Michael Slezak at TV Line. And "I could not get enough." Her histrionics redefined over the top, but in turn managed to cajole rare depth out of the typically vanilla Sanchez, forcing her to finally stop leaning on her powerhouse vocals and dig deep for added soulfulness. It was the "performance of her young lifetime." Though she didn't win the Idol crown, she's taking home a greater prize: "One of the all-time greatest moments this show has ever given us."
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It was way over the top — in a really bad way: Once Sanchez slayed this song a few weeks ago, a finale duet with Holliday was inevitable, says Dave Holmes at New York, but "I don't think anyone was prepared for what Jennifer Holliday would serve up." Holliday seemed to insanely channel "a Jim Henson Creature Shop creation that must eat Jessica Sanchez's nose to live." Everything about it was bonkers, with each face Holliday pulled so much crazier than the one before that watching her became a physically taxing experience. "And I am telling you, I am f***ing exhausted."
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Either way, Holliday was a revelation: Sure, Holliday "seemed poised to inhale Sanchez with no need for chewing," says Willa Paskin at Salon, but she did it with such passion and "wreckless disregard for what she looked like" that the performance almost "felt private." Sanchez was an afterthought; Holliday delivered a tour de force, and emerged as an unparalleled performer. "Who can possibly know what is going on inside of a person's body or mind when they are possessed by anything as Holliday was by this song?"
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And may have nudged Sanchez toward a Broadway career: The duet "offered a glimpse in to the future for the young Sanchez," says Todd Martens at the Los Angeles Times. Throughout this season, the young belter has been poised and robotic, "hitting all the right notes with passionless precision." Viewers could never get a read on what direction she'd take in her post-Idol career, or even who inspired her musically. Holding her own against Holliday, Sanchez showed that if she doesn't have a successful recording career, she's well-suited for life on Broadway.
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