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‘American Idol’ is down to a dozen

Ranking the remaining singers, from longshots to favorites
/ Source: contributor

With the “American Idol” finals set to begin Tuesday night, the 12 contestants remaining already have reached a critical stage in their musical careers. They’re the last dozen standing among 90,000-plus auditioners, and have impressed both the judges and the voters.

That means that all 12 have demonstrated the ability to get millions of votes each week, whether from dedicated fans waiting to buy their albums or jokesters who are just looking to mess with the system. It doesn’t mean that they all have a legitimate chance to win. Most would do well to set a smaller goal: avoiding last place for as long as possible.

That’s because as some of the older finalists know all too well, there’s only a small step between singing before Ryan Seacrest and millions of Americans, and playing random bars in South Carolina for beer money. The longer a contestant can stay on the show, the more likely that at least some sort of record deal comes out of the experience.

Each week’s individual results aren’t always predictable, but the eventual winner usually is. Scott Savol may have lasted a long time last year for reasons impossible for mortal man to understand, but what have you heard from him lately?

It’s impossible to win without a lot of talent and a personality that’s strong enough to secure dedicated supporters who will burn up the phone lines even if the singer has a down week or three. Of course, most people with talent and personality already are set with record deals, so these contestants tend to have more of one and less of the other.

While it’s still too early to be betting the mortgage on anyone, but here’s a look at where the field stands as the final round begins.

The longshots: Kevin Covais, Bucky Covington , Melissa McGhee, Elliott Yamin

As Ryan Seacrest points out dozens of times each and every week, anything can happen when America votes. But it would be a huge upset if any of these four got to the point where they were serious threats to win the competition.

Covais is one of the most likeable contestants on the show, but that doesn’t hide the fact that he’s 16, looks 11, and doesn’t have anywhere near the vocals of the other singers in the final 12.

That doesn’t mean he’ll be the first to go, but it means he won’t win. If nothing else, Simon will get meaner and meaner the longer he lasts, because he won’t want to think about marketing a Kevin Covais album. It would make the Backstreet Boys look like hardcore rappers, and would be found next to the Harry Potter audiobooks in the kids’ section.

As Simon Cowell suggested a couple of weeks ago, Bucky Covington is more of an opening act than a diamond in the rough. He doesn’t rock as well as Chris Daughtry, doesn’t pull off the Southern charm as well as Kellie Pickler, and isn’t as quirky as Taylor Hicks. Covington’s likely to struggle once he gets away from his comfort zone in country rock. But even if he was allowed to pick his own music every week, it would be hard to see him winning. Is anyone out there ready to pay good money to see Bucky Covington in concert?

McGhee and Yamin are vulnerable to being caught in a numbers game. They haven’t been able to showcase their personalities as much as their rivals, and their vocals aren’t strong enough to inspire people to climb on their bandwagons.

McGhee sings well and wants it badly, but it’s hard to find people who would rank her among the top four women, and she would need to jump over a lot of strong singers in a hurry to make that change. Yamin’s vocals are strong, but he’s way behind the top three men at this point as far as developing a fan base. Both are just too bland to win.

Potential challengers: Ace Young, Lisa Tucker, Katharine McPhee

Young is a tough candidate to figure. He looked much better in the initial auditions than in the semifinals, although his voice technically may be the best of the six men. He just hasn’t shown the same verve on stage that he did in the early rounds.

Part of the problem is that he’s treating this like an audition rather than a popularity contest. If his only audience were the judges, he’d be in better shape because he’s picking songs that showcase his range and his ability to hit notes. What he’s not doing is singing songs that get the audience involved.  At this point, his main asset is that smoldering look he feeds the cameras each week, and unfortunately for him Paula Abdul does not get millions of votes.

Tucker is only 16, but still stands as one of the most experienced performers in the competition. She’s performed live before expectant audiences for years, so the pressure won’t be anything new. Her problem will be outshining Paris Bennett and Kellie Pickler in the later stages of the competition. The other two teenagers have emerged as personalities as well as singers, while Tucker so far is just a teen who sings very well.

McPhee is the most likely to flip from this category to the “favorites” field, but she falls just a little short of that right now. She’s still one groundbreaking performance away from emerging from the pack.

The wild cards: Taylor Hicks, Mandisa

Hicks has a nice voice and a legion of fans already, and he legitimately looks and sounds like a young Michael McDonald. But there’s a very fine line between having a personality and being a nut, and Hicks walks all across that line every week. The bottom line is that he’s a talented singer, but also a grey-haired 29-year-old who looks like a contestant dreamed up by "The Daily Show." It wouldn’t be shocking if he won, but it also wouldn’t be shocking if “Dateline” were to run an expose revealing him to be a 40-something stand-up comedian from Tampa.

Mandisa stands out among the six women left because she’s the oldest by eight years. She has more experience than her rivals, and knows what styles suit her vocals. If "Idol" were being judged by record producers, she’d be a clear favorite. But it remains to be seen whether someone who sounds more like Aretha Franklin than anyone currently on the pop charts and doesn’t neatly fit the teenage music demographic will gather the teeming hordes of fans needed in the competition’s later stages.

It also remains to be seen whether someone with her class stands a chance on a reality television show. She’s had numerous chances to smack Simon around for those comments about her weight during the auditions, and has graciously brushed them aside. That’s not the way to make good television.

The favorites: Paris Bennett, Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler

Bennett should feel the least pressure of anyone in the competition. Her family connections to the group “Sounds of Blackness” gives her a familiarity with the business, and she’s a gifted singer and performer. Perhaps because of that, she seems to be the most relaxed of anyone onstage each week. At 17, the weight of the world isn’t on her shoulders. Regardless of whether she wins the recording deal or not, odds are close to 100% that she’ll get one at some point. It’s an opportunity for her, but not The Opportunity. Win or lose, she’s in good shape.

For Daughtry, it really is The Opportunity, and he knows it. He came to this competition straight from the service industry, and has no interest in going back there. But so far, he’s been able to make that work for him. He’s been the guy who’s looked most comfortable performing onstage without playing a role or cultivating a particular stage persona.

Pickler’s no Carrie Underwood yet, despite a loony comparison Simon Cowell made last week. Clearly, however, she’s read the Underwood Bible, and knows how to play that farm girl fish-out-of-water image to the hilt, even down to the mispronunciation of "salmon."

But she’ll get used to it soon enough, and if she doesn’t so what? Are viewers really going to want to send her back to her home with the father in jail and the mother who-knows-where? Are those millions of viewers made of stone?

The key for all 12 contestants isn’t just to work towards victory, but to stay around as long as possible. The weeks when four contestants bit the dust in one night are gone now, and one by one, the numbers will soon be narrowing.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.