With just 12 contestants left in the competition, could St. Petersburg-raised Michael Lynche be the man to beat on American Idol?
The question arises after Lynche's powerhouse performance Wednesday — an emotional take on R&B crooner Maxwell's version of Kate Bush's This Woman's Work, which left judge Kara DioGuardi in tears and the Internet exploding with high praise.
A survey of nearly 3,000 Idol viewers by HCD Research found the highest number — 24 percent — believed Lynche should advance to the top 12 on Thursday, which he did. And while other contestants still seem to be finding their artistic identities or learning how to work the stage, Lynche — a graduate of the stage performance magnet program at Gibbs High School — has basked in the spotlight with a deceptive ease since day one.
Lynche joined male contestants Lee Dewyze, Casey Jones, Aaron Kelly, Andrew Garcia and Tim Urban in the top 12, leaving long-struggling dancer-turned-singer Todrick Hall and stiff-but-tuneful Alex Lambert to take the long walk home.
Among the ladies, Crystal Bowersox, Paige Miles, Lacey Brown, Siobhan Magnus, Didi Benami and Katie Stevens made the cut, with charming bohemian Lily Scott and smoky-voiced Katelyn Epperly left out.
The results were a surprise to those of us who have been paying attention, because viewers didn't reject the worst singers this week — or the week before. This time around, shaky singers Kelly and Brown deserved the big hook most, but Idol viewers this year have been rewarding weak vocalists with appealing images to an extent I've haven't seen in a while.
By the time this competition gets going, we may have a couple of Sanjaya-style hangers-on, surviving by their bubbly personalities and ability to galvanize Idol's vast viewership.
As the show's top 12 prepare to tackle a Rolling Stones theme next week, the competition already seems to be shaping up as a faceoff between Lynche's smooth soul and Bowersox's eccentric Tracy Chapman-meets-Melissa Etheridge folkisms.
Of course, you can ask eighth-season washout Danny Gokey about the dangers of peaking too soon on Idol — where the biggest danger to survival this season seems to be in courting the audience's boredom.