Michael Slezak
March 14, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”American Idol”: It’s not a two-way race

This season of American Idol is not a two-way race.

Maybe it should be, but it’s not.

Because while American Idol is, at its heart, a talent competition, it’s also a television show. And its producers (and, yes, its audience) know deep down that a 12-week diva-off between Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones wouldn’t really make for good television. Tuneful, yes. Soulful, definitely. Compelling and suspenseful, well, not so much.

And so while LaKisha and Melinda are, as Simon declared tonight, performing at a completely different level than their ten competitors, there are still four other singers who could deny the front-running duo their predicted places in the finals. In no particular order, the major threats to Idol‘s New Diva Order are:

The One the Producers and Judges Are Pimping For those of you who’ve missed the last three weeks of Idol, that’d be Jordin Sparks. Now don’t get me wrong: Jordin is the human equivalent of Alka-Seltzer, bringing a healing dose of effervescent goodness to the competition every time the camera lands on her. Guest coach Diana Ross (who nailed each singer’s strengths and weaknesses in what appeared to be a matter of minutes) summed it up when she described the ”glitter, the shine” in the 17-year-old’s eyes. And Jordin’s a pretty darn good vocalist too, as she proved tonight on the tricky (albeit treacly) ballad ”If We Hold On Together.” What’s bugging me, though, is that for the third straight week, the judges failed to call out Jordin for losing control of her massive instrument; the bridge tonight was chock full o’ notes — flat ones! — and the closing seconds flopped harder than Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell’s intensely inappropriate ”I know you’re gay, but what am I?” banter. Perhaps even more troubling, given the choice of seemingly hundreds of Miss Ross’s hits, Jordin settled on an obscure, milquetoast cut off the soundtrack of The Land Before Time. How come the judges didn’t question her song choice, especially when they were so tough on…

The One Who’s Not Getting the Respect That She’s Entitled To If Jordin’s getting mad props for having so much stage presence at the tender age of 17, shouldn’t 19-year-old Stephanie Edwards get a little of the same, especially after delivering ”Love Hangover” with a slow and sultry self-assurance that, in my book anyway, ranked behind only LaKisha tonight? Sure, Stephanie may not have the Lemon Pledged polish of Melinda, or the High School Musical sparkle of Jordin, but every week, she takes the stage, rips into her number, and makes me believe that she’s actually here to win this thing. (She did appear to miss the line ”If there’s a remedy, I’ll run from it,” but she covered it beautifully.) And while there was truth in Simon’s criticism that Stephanie’s failure to dive into the song’s awesome, disco-fied second half made her performance something of a tease, it also gave her the kind of originality she’s been previously condemned for lacking. Girlfriend just can’t win! She wasn’t alone, though, as tonight, neither could…

The Man With a Plan Ah, Blake Lewis. Not the strongest singer in Idol history, not with the way he clips notes that he’s smart enough to know aren’t gonna fly. And maybe not the most likable, either, with the tiny hint of arrogance that flashes across his face during the judges’ critiques. But while Randy and Simon criticized his beat-heavy interpretation of ”You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” I actually agreed with Paula that Blake could release it to radio tomorrow and have a hit. A minor one, but still…And what’s more, how boring would tonight’s episode have been without the snazzily dressed, spiky-haired beat boxer? I wish all 12 contestants had the confidence and the vision to aim for something beyond karaoke, which is why I couldn’t completely hate the botched attempt at originality by…

The Man Who Needs to Get His Groove Back Lucid, constructive (!) Paula said it best: Chris Sligh is trying ”ultra hard to be ultra hip and cool” — and it’s ultra not working. If this were an ice-skating competition, I’d have given the mop-topped ham some pretty good scores for ”artistic impression” but hit him hard in the ”technical merit” department. Yet I thought the judges got it wrong, too: It wasn’t the Coldplay-lite arrangement that killed his version of ”Endless Love” but the fact that Chris sounded strained and out-of-breath right from the opening notes. Which was more evidence backing my nagging theory about Chris S.: When you take away the unusual look and the snarky jokes, he might not be a particularly skillful singer. But I think he’s one of the six true contenders of season 6.

The remaining half dozen, well, I hate to say it, but there ain’t no valley low enough for me to indicate their long-term chances in the competition, starting with…

The Totally Naked Emperor A lot of folks I know think Chris Richardson, with his husky-dog eyes and close-cropped hair, is the perfect, accessible sex symbol — a Justin Timberlake who’s battled (and beaten) the bulge. They’ve also called him the leader of the pack on the men’s side this year. Me? I haven’t gotten the guy’s appeal, not at all. But at the behest of a few friends, and encouraged by his choice of one of my all-time favorite songs, ”The Boss” (which I listened to like 23 times today in an effort to will one of the Idol contestants to cover it), I really, really tried to keep an open mind tonight. Then dude opened his mouth, and out came that dull, reedy, nasal blade of a voice, hacking and killing every beloved note of a classic disco-era hit. As Paula and Randy started heaping on the praise, I considered pausing my DVR, grabbing a Q-tip, and trying again. But Simon (thank you!) was the needle of reason, scratching across their delusional record, arguing that without Chris’ looks and personality, his run-filled, unmelodic performance was ”dreadful,” the kind that would make you switch the radio ”instantly.” So maybe I’m not crazy (or tone-deaf) after all. But, America, if you must latch on to a doomed contestant, why not go for…

The Not Quite Dynamic (But Prone to Shouting) Duo Gina Glocksen and Phil Stacey are the classic Idol midpack players, trying desperately to squeeze their way into the top six, while occasionally screaming at the top of their lungs. They’re triers — and who doesn’t like triers? Gina’s ”Love Child” was decent, although considering that Idol‘s season-3 champ charted with a single called ”Baby Mama,” Gina might as well have performed the 1968 hit in Latin, no? Phil, meanwhile, showed vast improvement with a rousing cover of the not-terribly-exciting ”I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” That Diana Ross pep talk appeared to have boosted his confidence and stage presence. If there’s any justice, he will continue to get better, and outlast (at the very least)…

The Troika of Torture Somewhere out there, A.J. Tabaldo, Sabrina Sloan, Nicholas Pedro, Tami Gosnell, Rachel Zevita, Sean Michel, and a couple dozen other talented Idol wannabes are sitting on their living-room couches and wondering how Brandon Rogers, Haley Scarnato, and Sanjaya Malakar managed to get this far into the competition. In honor of Brandon forgetting the words to the two-note sleeping pill of a song that is ”You Can’t Hurry Love,” I’m going to forget to say anything more about him other than ”Good luck booking backup gigs after that debacle, dude!” He is so going home on Wednesday!

Haley and Sanjaya (and his hair), I suspect, will be around to terrorize us next week. Miss Ross may think ”Sanjaya is love,” but I’d use a different noun to describe him. Unease? Discomfiture? Mortification? Shame spiral? Take your pick! His rendition of ”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was like a child’s gasp wrapped in a kitten’s cough — only with a disconcerting flip of permed hair at the end. Really, I’m running out of words to describe how painful Sanjaya’s performances have become. If he survives Wednesday’s eliminations, I want everyone reading this column to lean out the window Thursday morning and yell, ”Who are you and why are you voting for him?”

Haley, well, I know why she’s getting public support. She’s pretty, the judges are mean to her, and sometimes it makes her get a little teary eyed. It can’t be for her meek performance of the gorgeous ballad ”Missing You,” which Haley started so breathily I worried she’d caught a case of the whispers from Sanjaya. By the time she forgot her words on the bridge, mumbled some atonal plea, and ended her performance by dropping her arm in defeat, I was waiting for Simon to drag her off stage with a hook. But instead, he declared, ”I didn’t think it was that bad.” Which, translated, means, ”I am trying to be nice so you don’t get sympathy votes.” Too late, I fear!

But at least Haley’s not threatening anybody for the top two spots. I mean, LaKisha’s ”God Bless the Child” was the kind of awesomely restrained vocal that every screaming pop and R&B diva on the charts today should be forced to watch and take notes on. Better still, this magnificently low-key, humble everywoman has yet to hit one solitary sour note in four live performances this season. Then again, you could heap the same praise on Melinda, whose misty-eyed response to the live-audience love seemed really genuine to me tonight, too. I’m going to admit I really did not care for her choice of the rambling ballad ”Home,” and I thought she started her performance a little tentatively, but that’s only because, at this point in the competition, I hold LaKisha and Melinda to a higher standard. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, Kiki and Mindy Doo will actually surprise (and delight) me and take this all the way into May in a good old-fashioned diva-off. There are worse ways the season could play out, no?

What do you think? Which contestants have a shot at derailing a Melinda-LaKisha showdown? And which are starting to lose momentum? Be sure to weigh in below, and to check out the newest episode of Idolatry playing at EW.com!

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