On any given Tuesday, the remaining finalists competing for glory on American Idol can be found worrying about whether they'll receive one of judge Simon Cowell's infamous verbal beatings, no matter how good they think they sounded up on Idol's fluorescent-lit Los Angeles stage. But perhaps they should be more worried about the scads of smaller judges sitting in the audience just a stone's throw away from celebrity fans like Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg. Take Kendyl, a 13-year-old schoolgirl giggling alongside her friend Tammy on the evening of April 5, as she tries to get Katharine McPhee's attention so that they can show her their homemade ''We've got McPheever'' sign. Just minutes ago, in the season's first true stunner, plus-size diva Mandisa was voted off, and Kendyl is notpleased. ''I wanted Bucky to leave,'' she sniffs. ''At least most of them are good. 'Cause last year, there was, like, only maybe one or two good ones. It's a good year.''
Every January, when Fox's unstoppable reality hit returns to the airwaves, anyone with a remote control, a phone, and at least one working eardrum automatically transforms into a very opinionated music executive. But for the first time in Idol's five-season history, audiences seem to think this is either the best group of singers yet, or like the bored blond woman parked a few seats down from Kendyl who couldn't stop yawning all night they think it's the worst. Some think Taylor Hicks is a Michael McDonald wannabe, but others consider him a gray-haired genius. Fans of rocker Chris Daughtry call him the front-runner, but detractors say he's an act-stealing fake. Katharine McPhee is the undisputed bombshell, but some find her boring. Kellie Pickler is a hoot to watch, but is she too ditzy for Idol status? Elliott Yamin and Paris Bennett have the pipes, but they're often inconsistent. Ace Young has the heartthrob thing going for him, but is it enough? And then there's Bucky. ''Every season there is one contestant you think will go home and they don't,'' laughs Idol vocal coach Deborah Byrd. ''That boy has nine lives.''
Which might explain why making definitive predictions has been such a treacherous task for Idol oddsmakers this year. Says Cowell, ''When the contestants are on it and the songs are good, suddenly it's a fantastic season. When they're singing bad songs, it's difficult to get excited.'' Especially during some of this season's ill-advised theme nights, like April 4's country night (''We did lose a good singer because of that,'' says Cowell. ''If the theme had been divas of the 21st century, Mandisa would have sailed through''), and April 11's Queen extravaganza, which judge Randy Jackson predicted would be ''a train wreck.'' Still, fans remain devoted: Since its return in January, Idol has averaged a whopping 31.1 million viewers per week (up 14 percent from last season), making it the most popular installment yet.