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Twenty, twenty, twenty-four Idols to go

Who are the villains, the veterans, and the teachers’ pets?
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

With the audition rounds mercifully over, “American Idol” now puts its contestants’ fates in the hands of the viewing public. As Ryan Seacrest will remind everyone over the coming weeks, if someone popular gets voted off, you, the “American Idol” viewer, are personally to blame.  Think about that, the show is saying, before you think about flipping the dial to watch Olympic figure skating instead.

Of course, with other networks unwilling to simply concede Tuesday, Wednesday and (for the next few weeks) Thursday night to the Fox network, the “Idol” talent evaluators have worked to create a compelling group of 24 semifinalists. The show’s producers want viewers rooting for singers, not countries, sports teams, crime dramas or comedies, as the television season continues.

It’s way too early to make bold predictions about who the favorites are; keep in mind that at this time last season, eventual second-place finisher Bo Bice had barely gotten any airtime at all. However, it’s not to early to speculate, or to divide the contestants into groups. Here’s one crack at determining where everyone fits in.

The Teachers’ Pets
The judges role in selection is (theoretically) over. Simon, Paula, Randy and the producers can no longer wave their hands and choose who advances and who does not. Apart from making snarky comments and browbeating offending contestants and the audience until the unlucky person is voted off (see Simon and Anthony Fedorov last year), there isn’t anything they can do about the audience’s tastes.

But it is clear that there are some singers the judges hope make it far in the competition, based on the amount of airtime and positive feedback we’ve seen. That won’t carry enough weight to help the contestants last very long, but it’s crucial in the early weeks. Contestants who have been given a chance to develop a fan base already are likely to survive early struggles, while those lesser-known contestants are under more pressure.

Three men and three women look like the early favorites in this category.

Nobody has been praised more often than Paris Bennett. She’s young, she has good singing genes, and one really powerful voice. With both her mother and grandmother members of the Grammy-winning Sounds of Blackness gospel choir, she likely has the knowledge and strength to avoid typical teen flameouts. (Exhibit A: Mikalah Gordon’s deer-in-the-headlights stare last season).

Kellie Pickler was the star of the Greensboro auditions, and is the closest thing this competition has to Carrie Underwood, who sources say won this competition last year and is selling an awful lot of records. Pickler is no Underwood clone, but footage of her shown at her auditions paints her as someone who could develop a very strong and devoted following.

Lisa Tucker is only 16, but also has the stage experience to carry herself through the competition. She’s been less hyped than Bennett, but the two could develop the fake teenage rivalry that could also lead to more votes. She’s probably less secure than Bennett and Pickler.

The men are easier to spot, probably because so few have been impressive.

The producers really want viewers to like Taylor Hicks. The 29-year-old looks and sounds like Michael McDonald, which isn’t necessarily an easy sell. But he has that rock—star voice and a personality that’s either whimsical or eccentric. It remains to be seen whether bringing a harmonica into the Idol tribunal — and then actually playing it — was the sign of performing genius or utter lunacy.

Chris Daughtry is another rocker who’s developed an early following. He has the very heartwarming backstory and the super-supportive wife that the viewers learned about at the auditions, but hasn’t gotten quite as much airtime since. However, he’s a strong enough singer that odds are small he’d be an early casualty.

Finally, there’s Ace Young. He’s not quite the rocker that Hicks or Daughtry are, but he does have that come-hither look going for him, as well as a nice voice and stage presence. He, too, could go a long way.

The VillainVillains usually are determined later in the year when fans of a voted-off singer turns on the “unworthy” performer who unfairly took the spot. (Scott Savol, anyone?)

However, Brenna Gethers is the early leader in the how-not-to-win-friends-or-influence-people category. Of all the remaining contestants, she’s the one who has been shown in the most unfavorable light, particularly with the emphasis on her feud with the other members of her group. While she may not win Miss Congeniality honors, she is establishing her name and her personality, and that could be instrumental in keeping her around.

The Brittenum twins would have been favorites here as well, had they not been booted off the show for that whole .

The Backstreet Boys
Kevin Covais
, Will Makar and David Radford are 16, 16 and 17 years old, respectively. So far, all look and sound about the same, more crooners than rock stars.

Since they’re all in the same demographic, they’re likely competing for the same voters. It would be shocking if all were still around by the time the final 12 are picked, and it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if none made it that far.

The Veterans
The dirty little secret of American Idol is that some seasons it’s dangerously close to being American High School Talent Show. That was the impetus for the show’s decision to increase the age limit to 28 last season, which led to a much deeper and more experienced group of finalists.

Mandisa (29), Sway Penala (28), and Elliott Yamin (27) all fall under this banner. Mandisa has gotten the most airtime of any of the three by far and is in a much stronger position, but most of her time on television has centered around Simon’s crack about her weight and her subsequent reaction. Penala and Yamin have gotten on camera, but not enough to get the kind of fan reaction that others have.

The “Oh Yeah, What’s-His/Her Name”"Idol" shows a lot of singers for just a little bit of time. The producers put them on the air at various points like they’re going to be stars, and then rarely or never feature them again.

Katharine McPhee was a big star of her auditions, but until the semifinalists were selected she was fairly quiet. However, she was one of the stars of that show, both with her criticism of the dismissal of another contestant and her excitement at kissing all three judges.

Patrick Hall got 15 seconds of fame at the beginning of the Hollywood round, then a brief aside when he cracked about not being as pretty as Ace Young — “but then again, who is?” He sounded good in his brief moments on TV, but starts the real competition already behind those with more media exposure.

Becky O’Donohue really didn’t get a ton of face time after her audition in Boston until the selection show, but as a former “Fear Factor” contestant it seems like she’ll have a lot to say. Ayla Brown was another Boston favorite, and can always fall back on college basketball if she doesn’t make it.

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The Who?
Because the top women seemed to get more screentime than the men, it was harder for some of the others to stand out.

Kinnik Sky, Heather Cox, Stevie Scott and Melissa McGhee have all had a difficult time making an impression, because they’ve had a difficult time getting on camera. For them, this week’s performances are critical; one bad night could well be their last.

Bucky Covington and Gedeon McKinney fall into that category on the men’s side. All the viewers know about Covington is that he wears a cowboy hat when he performs; all anyone knows about McKinney is that he’s really happy to be here.

A contestant that’s unknown or unappreciated at this point doesn’t need to fret. Nobody would have predicted Scott Savol would last as long as he did (in fact, that’s still hard to believe now), and nobody had seen Bo Bice sing at all. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for being the early favorite: Carrie Underwood grabbed that title almost immediately last year and held it all the way to victory.

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