Three weeks of competition remain for the 2007 American Idol final four, from left, Jordin Sparks, LaKisha Jones, Blake Lewis, and Melinda Doolittle.
The final four - whether we're talking about the NCAA college basketball tournament or American Idol - is when things get serious.
And obviously, I'm talking about American Idol, which airs at 8 tonight on WUPW-TV, Channel 36.
The contest is down to the cream of the crop, and although the runners-up have a good chance of scoring some sort of record deal, there will be only one winner.
The judges have said from the beginning that this year's competition is for the women to win, and that's been especially evident over the past three weeks, as America has seen male after male - Sanjaya Malakar, Chris Richardson, and Phil Stacey - leave the show.
Mathematically, each remaining contestant has a 25 percent chance of winning the competition. Which means Blake Lewis - the only guy still in the running - has as good a statistical shot at taking home the title as the three divas left: Melinda Doolittle, Jordin Sparks, and LaKisha Jones.
Realistically, Doolittle and Sparks rank well over that arbitrary barrier that sits between going home and going on to win the popular reality TV competition.
These two front-runners couldn't be more different.
At 29, "Mindy Doo" of Brentwood, Tenn., is the oldest competitor left. Sparks of Glendale, Ariz., has always been one of the youngest contestants at 17 years old.
Doolittle was a music major in college, has taken vocal lessons ever since, and spent years singing back-up vocals for famous names, including Idol alumnus George Huff. Sparks has no formal singing training.
All three judges have been continually impressed with Doolittle's consistent performances - except for one. A week after Judge Simon Cowell said that he didn't think he'd ever be able to criticize her, he got his chance during the week of Latin-themed music
"I didn't like it. It had to happen, Melinda," he said after she crooned "Sway" on April 10. "I found it cabaret. Someone has good as you has to come out and put on a 'wow' performance every week."
Performances by Sparks, on the other hand, are more all over the board. She shines like the most seasoned performer one week, then bombs the next.
After Sparks belted out "You'll Never Walk Alone" on April 24, Judge Randy Jackson sang her praises. "I think that's one of the best vocals by any contestant ever in six seasons," he said.
Just a week later, on May 1, he told her that the verses of "Livin' on a Prayer" were rough and that her rendition of the song wasn't her best.
Cowell was a bit more blunt. "It was just out of control," he said. "It was on the verge of screaming. It was terrible, to be honest with you."
The same day that Sparks screeched her worst performance, Lewis from Bothell, Wash., rocked out with his best. There were 16 bars of drums and beat-boxing on the singing competition last week during his unique rendition of "You Give Love a Bad Name."
But Cowell said that taking such a bold risk was "absolutely the right thing to do."
"Shake 'n Blake" has been known to mix up the beats to classics - most notably the song "You Keep Me Hanging On" - to fit his personal taste.
Yet when he's alone on stage, slowing the tempo down at the microphone (as on April 24 when he chose to croon "Imagine"), his weaker voice stands out as much as his unique sense of style.
While they said Blake's performance was sincere, the judges also described it as plain, OK, and flat.
A performance has never been called flat when judges are criticizing "Kiki" Jones, who was born and reared in Flint, Mich., and now lives in Fort Meade, Md.
From the get-go, Cowell has said that her strong, full voice would take her far up the ladder of the competition. In fact, he even went so far on Feb. 21 to say he was tempted to tell the other members of the top 24 contestants to book their plane tickets home after hearing Jones sing "And I am Telling You I am Not Going."
For several weeks, there was a lull in her usually amazing performances to the point where she was a member of the bottom two vote-getters on April 18. She bounced back so strongly with "This Ain't a Love Song" last week that Cowell said he could kiss her for her performance (and did so).
Yet only one contestant can claim the title of the next American Idol on May 23, so stay tuned.
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