American Idol Shocker: The Next Chris Daughtry?

Season 6 of American Idol isn’t fondly remembered for the most part, but reminders of it kept popping up during Thursday’s results show, which set up the final three for Season 10. The champion of that season performed: Jordin Sparks, looking more slender and sounding much more aggressive. And with the announcement of the surprising ouster of James Durbin, it felt like an era of Idol was coming to an end. For the first time since Season 6, two of the three finalists will be female. And whoever the new champion is – Lauren Alaina, Haley Reinhart, or Scotty McCreery—he or she will be the first winner since Jordin who isn’t a male rocker.

Durbin, the scruffy screamer from the Bay Area who drew comparisons to Adam Lambert for his range, came closest to fitting the profile of recent Idol winners, though his various issues (Tourette’s syndrome, Asperger’s, poverty, fatherhood) gave him some underdog appeal as well. His was the final audition featured in the preseason, and in a year where the judges like everybody, he often came across as their absolute favorite. His stage presence was among the best we’ve ever seen on Idol. But despite having not been in danger before now, James is the fifth straight male voted out, and will be going home in fourth place – the same spot where Chris Daughtry left in Season 5, the last season as tightly packed at the top as this one.

While James’s fans exploded online Thursday following the startling news, in truth, the tightness of the race ensured that whoever left was going to have some angry supporters. No one seemed more upset than the judges. However, this may be another case where their leniency ended up hurting the person it was meant to help. James had some excellent efforts this season, notably “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” But whether he was terrific or mediocre, he got the same bouquets from Steven, Jennifer, and Randy – no reminders to work on his lower register or to sell the parts of his songs that don’t call for screams.

That James might be in danger snuck up on everyone at the last minute. When Lauren was declared safe early in the hour, it at first seemed surprising that Idol would work it that way, as the news apparently signaled certain doom for Haley, who created such a stir Wednesday with her tense back-and-forth with the judges. But when Haley was called safe with just minutes to go in the show, James looked crestfallen, knowing that as solid as he’s been in the voting all these weeks, Scotty has been even more bulletproof. James’s singout of “Maybe I’m Amazed” betrayed the emotion behind the rocker that’s often bubbled to the surface.

Haley has been making narrow escapes going all the way back to her initial audition, which frankly wasn’t very good. Now, she’s probably one decent night away from the finals and a rags-to-riches story unprecedented on Idol, since it’s questionable whether there are enough country fans out there to get both Scotty and Lauren through to the end. Lauren’s best shot will be channeling some of the spunk that she and Haley displayed on their performance Thursday of Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead.” Lauren might not want to call herself “evil,” but the teen was awfully convincing singing about taking revenge on an abusive lover. As for Scotty? He hasn’t betrayed an ounce of tension all season long, and there’s no reason he should worry now.

Next week: Three songs each for the final three, with the judges and Jimmy Iovine making two of the picks.