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Shocking night on ‘American Idol’

Come on, FOX, release the weekly vote totals, already
/ Source: contributor

A few weeks ago, Simon Cowell said Mandisa was the best singer in the “American Idol” competition. On Wednesday night, she became the fourth of the 12 finalists eliminated.

That might say something about Simon’s sense of talent, except that he tends to say that three or four different people are the best singers, or the clear choice to win the competition, or something else that he can use to look like a genius should that person actually make it to the final week. It might say something about Mandisa, except that she didn’t sing poorly Tuesday night and bid farewell with the same class she’s shown throughout the competition.

Mostly, what it says is that “American Idol” is a tough show to predict, because it depends on the audience’s willingness to pick up the phone.

As Ryan Seacrest reminds everyone every week, viewers have to vote. What he doesn’t say is that it’s up to the contestants to give the audience some incentive to do so. When that doesn’t happen, and fewer people pick up their phones than normal, chance plays a much greater part in the results.

For the second week in a row, none of the singers did anything to stand out. One night after , it was tough to remember which songs were even sung. Anyone who hadn’t voted before wasn’t going to start this week, and even those who had their favorites picked out didn’t get much to inspire devotion.

That proved fatal to Mandisa, which is a shame. She’s 29 years old, and has fewer chances of hitting it big in the music world than some rivals. She’s been one of the favorites since her audition, and the judges love her, but a questionable song choice last week and a fair performance on Tuesday was enough to knock her out of the competition.

Spotlight of shame is spread around
That’s typical of the "Idol" season so far. While Mandisa’s the first to go who once seemed to have a legitimate shot at winning it all (Melissa McGhee, Kevin Covais and Lisa Tucker were long shots at best), the bottom three have been tough to predict all season. No week, however, had as surprising a trio as this one.

Usually, once a singer finds themselves among the bottom trio of vote-getters once, it’s a sign that they need to be phoning the local bars to beg for stage time by the end of the month. Sometimes, a contender winds up in the bottom three for some random reason and doesn’t go back until the end of the competition, but that’s relatively uncommon.

But this season's finals are just four weeks old, and  only three singers haven’t had to stand in the spotlight of shame: Chris Daughtry, Taylor Hicks and Kellie Pickler. This week, Seacrest divided the nine remaining finalists into three groups of three, and that trio was the first to get sent to safety. No big shock there; they’re the three Simon Cowell named as his picks to be the final three singers in the competition. He’s also talked up Katharine McPhee, meaning that a full 50% of the remaining contestants can be considered his picks to win.

The second trio included Paris Bennett and Elliott Yamin, who joined Mandisa in the bottom group for the first time. That left Ace Young, McPhee and Bucky Covington safe this time around, despite the fact that Young and McPhee were in that group last week and Covington clearly is only avoiding disaster by secretly devising a computer program that votes thousands of times a minute. He might look and sound like a run-of-the-mill singer who can be found in every bar in North Carolina, but he must be doing something right to stay in it as long as he has. 

Yamin sang well and the judges love him to pieces, but he hasn’t found it easy to connect with the audience and always looks uncomfortable on stage. His spot in the bottom three was a surprise, but not a shock. Bennett’s demotion came out of nowhere, since she’s one of the favorites and came through with a strong performance.

Bennett’s only 17, and the cameras usually catch her crying every Wednesday night as though she’s genuinely surprised that once again somebody is leaving the show for good. But upon receiving the bad news she was as calm as a veteran performer, chirped out her answers to Ryan Seacrest’s questions, and was rewarded with the news that she was safe.

That left Yamin and Mandisa onstage. Both looked like they were prepared to face the firing squad, but Yamin gets at least another week to hunt for an on-stage personality that matches his voice.

Ironically, while McPhee’s appearance in the bottom three last week was more likely a blip than a sign of her imminent demise, she benefited along with Young and Covington from the fact that "American Idol" continually refuses to release the weekly vote totals. The secrecy can create a disincentive to vote.

That’s not the intent, of course — the show’s producers likely feel that if a Chris Daughtry fan knows that he’s been in the top two every single week, that fan won’t have much incentive to burn up the phone lines to keep him safe.

The actual result, however, is that the only people who know they have to make every effort to vote early and often are those fans of singers known  to be in trouble.

McPhee was in the bottom three last week, Young’s been there a couple of times, and Covington is always one bad note away from disaster. Particularly with the two men, fans know that they need to vote as often as possible to keep them on the show.

Mandisa’s fans might not have felt that sense of urgency, since she hadn’t even sniffed danger for the first three months of the season. Not all surprises are pleasant ones.

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