For four weeks the "American Idol" judges dissed Jon Peter Lewis, yet he escaped the bottom three. Then, after everyone but Simon Cowell praised his "Jailhouse Rock" performance, he was voted off.

John Stevens has been even less popular with Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. Once he finally delivered a performance they actually liked, he was nearly eliminated.

La Toya London and Jennifer Hudson, on the other hand, have consistently earned rave reviews, but both have been sent to the bottom three.

On "The Apprentice," Donald Trump made all the decisions, but on "America Idol," once it gets to the final 12, Cowell and the crew are basically powerless.

"It would be wrong to say that the judges' opinions on the show, when it's right in front of peoples' noses, don't have an effect, because they do," "American Idol" executive producer Ken Warwick said. "But generally speaking, I don't think overall it has that much of an effect."

So what then is the purpose for the judges, who are often the most mocked element of the show, whether it's Jackson's "yo, dawg" lingo or Abdul's clapping?

It seems that while America might not listen to the judges, at least the contestants do.

"The first week of the top 12, they said, 'Have a little bit more fun, show your personality a bit more and don't choose things that are so safe,' " recalled Amy Adams, the third finalist eliminated this season. "The following week I went out with [the Dixie Chicks' upbeat] 'Sin Wagon' and it was one of my best performances. I really did take that advice."

After Matthew Rogers, the second ousted singer, tried to show his sensitive side with Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do for Love," Jackson told him he needed to pick a tough-guy song.

"He was like, 'Dude, that's not you,' " Rogers said. "So I came out and sang 'Hard to Handle,' which was pretty much a tough-guy song, and I wasn't in the bottom three."

After winning "American Idol," both Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard said the judges were invaluable. And Tamyra Gray, a first-season finalist who is releasing her debut album this summer, said she continues to follow their advice.

"If you want to be in the industry, you should take the constructive criticism they give you, because that's it," she explained. "After that, you're not going to have too many people say, 'You sucked,' to help you."

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Saying someone sucked isn't exactly constructive, which has been one of the criticisms of "American Idol" since the show began.

Some think the judges are too mean, but the producers of the show and even the contestants are supportive of the brutal critiques.

"I don't think it's too harsh," Leah LaBelle, the first eliminated finalist, said. "I think they're all really honest and real. ... Sometimes I think Simon says things just for TV and to be conflicting with what the other judges say, but it does help a lot if you listen to what they have to say. Like the 'rip in the designer dress' thing was helpful, because when I was practicing with the vocal coach, sometimes I'd do something and she'd say, 'That's the rip in your designer dress,' and she'd help me fix it."

Nigel Lythgoe, the other "American Idol" executive producer, even goes so far as to say Cowell has helped Americans to be more honest.

"It's very difficult in this country to tell someone they suck, but I'm starting to watch that change," the British native said. "When we first started, everyone was shocked at the honesty, although the majority agreed with it, they were still shocked. Now they cheer with it when he says something nasty."

"I think it's part of human nature," added host Ryan Seacrest. "It's not always the most tactful thing to do by professing it, but part of what is 'American Idol' and what is success in the entertainment business is being able to take the heat and take the criticism. And being able to develop thick skin early, I will tell you from experience, is a good thing."

While Cowell's criticisms are met with surprisingly open ears and Paula's support has been widely appreciated, this season's eliminated contestants consider Jackson the most helpful judge.

"He brings things to your attention," Adams said.

"[His advice] got me through to the next round," Rogers said. "I wish I would have followed it again."

"They should really listen to us, man," Jackson said. "We're trying to keep it real with them. We're trying to help them. But not everyone listens."

As for his popularity, Jackson is quick to explain.

"First of all, I'm a musician and a producer and Simon's not," he said. "The main difference is that if people really listen, and I'm not sure they listen that intently, but if you listen really closely, I usually make really interesting comments about the vocal style, the pitch, the range, all of this, because at the same time I'm telling them what they did wrong, I'm trying to pinpoint what can help them the next time, if there is a next time. ... My thing is always like a two-hand kind of a thing. It's a diss, but it's also, 'Hey, here are the mistakes you made.' Not just, 'You were horrible.' "

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