American Idol: The Fab Four Emerge

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For some reason, American Idol makes a big fuss out of the Top 12 even though it's really only the Top 10 that counts.

The show is shameless in its willingness to fabricate drama and tension, as Ryan Seacrest and the judges did last night by repeating over and over that only the final ten contestants will embark on the summer tour. Simon equated elimination at this stage to hitting five lottery numbers and then missing on the sixth.

It used to be that the Top 12 all hit the road, but apparently even the girls who wave their arms and sway and shout out things like “WE LOVE YOU TIM, WHOOO!!!” have a limited tolerance for another round of Jason Mraz and Jack Johnson songs. Those contestants who reach the Top 12 will always be able to tell their grandchildren that, yes, they were in fact finalists on American Idol back in the day. But instead of spending the summer ordering room service and riding around in white courtesy vans, they’ll be back at the Piggly Wiggly by day and scrounging for gigs at the Strom Thurmond Lounge at the Extended Stay America Hardeeville City Centre by night.

But the reality of this year’s Idol is that, tour opportunities aside, there’s really not even a Top 10. Instead, we’re down to a Four Tops of Siobhan Magnus, Crystal Bowersox, Michael Lynche, and Casey James. Others will have their moments, but it’s hard to imagine anyone displacing these four—especially the two women. Here’s how things are looking after last night.

Fab Four

Crystal Bowersox: What I love about her is that she succeeds on her own terms and maintains her dignity in the process. She got into a nice run on “Me And Bobby McGee” that didn’t exactly make anyone forget Janis Joplin but sounded spirited, respectful, and not overly derivative. The only cautionary note was that Crystal was told to put down her guitar, and she coyly said she was planning something new for next week. And a word about Simon: I had planned to bash him for even suggesting that Pink’s version of the song was better than Joplin’s, because it’s not. But after watching a clip of Pink singing “Bobby McGee” at a tribute to Kris Kristofferson, I have to say she was pretty darn good.

Siobhan Magnus: Okay, I hammered her last week. You know, train wreck, truck hitting it, etc. Her “Paint It Black” just wasn’t all that. But on “Superstition," Siobhan rocked a real talent. That said, whether it’s the now-predictable big note (thanks, Simon!) or the improbable Sanjaya-meets-Sixteen Candles hair, she should stay clear of gimmicks.

Michael Lynche: Both Mike and Idol worked the birth of his baby for all it was worth, and the early hype obscured a few basic facts about him. He absolutely loves to perform and taps into genuine emotion. Mike’s ease has made him instantly familiar, and when you combine that with the soul groove he settled into on “When A Man Loves A Woman,” he becomes hard to deny.

Casey James: I almost didn’t include him in this top tier, but he still has a shot. The Idol format constrains him and may have been the reason for his choice of a blandly passable song like “The Power of Love” last night. His guitar-playing is solid, and if you listen to his voice you can hear the timbre of Bob Seger and echoes of classic American rockers.

Tier Two

Aaron Kelly: He performed an Aerosmith song and it wasn’t “Love In An Elevator?” Where are the musical gods when we need them? Yet you still have to give the Boy Wonder credit. He has earned his place, and with the backing of high school girls and soccer moms everywhere, Aaron should last deep into the competition.

Katie Stevens: She seems to have dropped a lot of her cutesy mannerisms and appears ambitious enough to do whatever is necessary to stay alive. The fact that the judges now think she has listened to their advice will help, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” was a good choice for her.

Lee DeWyze: Alex Chilton, who died last week, was a true American Idol and lots of folks have lamented that nobody on the show even brought up his name—despite his classic vocals on The Box Tops' version of “The Letter.” To quote a friend, “That’s a little asking a lot” from a show like Idol. Besides, with all of its horns and wailing back-up vocals, DeWyze’s version of “The Letter” was straight out of Mad Dogs & Englishmen-vintage Joe Cocker. Minus the sweat and spasms.

The Foregone Four

Andrew Garcia: Dude can’t catch a break—and maybe doesn’t deserve one. The camera even missed his moonwalk during “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Not sure he has anything left in his apparently limited arsenal.

Didi Benami: She tried torching up “You’re No Good,” strayed out of her narrow comfort zone, and couldn’t recover.

Paige Miles: Miley Cyrus made one big mistake in her advice last night when she told Paige that her voice was still strong when she sang softly. Paige was uncomfortable from the start and her heels weren’t the problem. Due to the nature of Idol voting demographics, she is almost certainly the one to go this week. Even if a certain contestant is still more deserving of ouster.

Tim Urban: He increasingly reminds me of a young George W. Bush.

Who are your top four contestants? Who do you think has a real shot on American Idol this season?