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Early favorite Stephanie goes home on ‘Idol’

Exit proves that if you don’t stand out and if you sing early, you go home. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Singing early on one of these early two-hour “American Idol” heats is bad. Being unmemorable is worse. Combine them, and any finalist risks going home early regardless of past performances.

Chris Richardson sang second on Tuesday night, while Stephanie Edwards was third. Neither was the worst performer of the night, but there were eight more singers and nearly 90 minutes of television between their songs and the opening of the “Idol” polls. Since both were bland, they wound up in the bottom two, and Edwards became the second of the 12 finalists sent packing.

A few weeks ago, that would have been a bigger surprise. Simon once called Edwards one of four singers who were way ahead of the pack, along with LaKisha Jones, Melinda Doolittle and Sabrina Sloan. Sloan didn’t even make the final 12, ousted in dramatic fashion in the semifinals. Edwards, as Simon so accurately put it Tuesday night, lost her edge. If Jones and Doolittle get voted off soon — and that would be a tremendous shock — Simon’s endorsement will be the biggest bit of bad luck this side of the Hope Diamond.

Edwards didn’t do a bad job with the vocals for “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield. But the song didn’t allow her to shine, and the performance itself was completely unmemorable.

Ironically, Edwards probably would have been better off had she been truly awful, either this week or last.

Sanjaya Malakar and Phil Stacey were both in the bottom three last week, but avoided that this time around in part because their fans knew that they were in danger and apparently voted accordingly. Edwards’ supporters clearly lacked that sense of urgency, so she got the fewest votes even on a night where she wasn’t the worst singer.

A voting competitionJust because Simon keeps saying “It’s a singing competition!” doesn’t make it true. If that’s all “Idol” was, it would be called “Star Search,” the judges would pick the winner, and Ed McMahon would host instead of Ryan Seacrest.

As guest judge Peter Noone said on Tuesday’s show, “Idol” really is a competition for votes, not vocals.

It takes more to advance than having great singing performances, picking the right songs, or pleasing the judges. All those certainly help, but they’re not absolutely necessary.

To go far in “Idol” simply requires that a contestant inspire lots of people to vote for them, for any reason whatsoever. Most of the time, that inspiration occurs because the singer in question is really good. Sometimes, it’s because they are really bad and their fans know that every vote will be needed (call this the Sanjaya Malakar factor).  Whatever the reason, “Idol” requires people to take the initiative to vote, even if it’s as simple as picking up the phone and figuring out the right numbers to dial.

Better late than earlyThe trick is that voting doesn’t open until everyone has performed.

From one perspective, that’s the only fair way of doing it. How can anyone know who the best singer is until everyone’s had a turn?

But for all practical purposes, that puts the early singers at a disadvantage, particularly those who fail to stand out. Gina Glocksen wasn’t great, but anyone who saw her sing and wanted to toss her a vote or 50 just had to twiddle their thumbs for 20 minutes or so to get that chance. Malakar was a little bizarre covering the Kinks, but his fans already knew they had to vote a thousand times apiece to keep him around, and just had to wait a few minutes for the privilege.

Richardson and Edwards supporters had to wait an hour and a half, and since neither was in the bottom three last week, they may have engendered a false sense of security. At some point, apparently, too many of those fans changed the channel or fell asleep.

On the other hand, Haley Scarnato sang first, and advanced despite being a less accomplished vocalist than Edwards. Her secret? Pick a fun, catchy song, dress to impress, and run around the stage. Some people liked her version of “Tell Him” and some didn’t, but a lot more people were humming that song today than were singing “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”

Unfortunately for Edwards, voters took her at her word. Had they taken the time to call up that 1-866 number and say they loved her, she’d still be around.

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