WEST HOLLYWOOD, California — "Sanjaya to win," Simon Cowell cheered Thursday as he raced into the annual "American Idol" final 12 bash. "What an extraordinarily great singer!"
Ah, nothing like a little British sarcasm.
The "Idol" final 12 got off to a shocking start as Sanjaya Malakar, who struggled all through the semifinals, made the next round, while early favorite Sundance Head did not. Haley Scarnato — who Cowell called "horrible" Wednesday — made the cut, while contender Sabrina Sloan was sent home. Also eliminated were Jared Cotter as well as Antonella Barba, the controversial college student whose semifinals run battled Sanjaya's for the worst critiques (see "Sexy Pictures Won't Get Barba Booted From 'Idol' — But Wednesday Night's Song Could").
"Tons of surprises, but it wouldn't be 'American Idol' without it, would it?" Cowell told MTV News. "At the end of the day, I could go out and find 12 great singers, but that's kind of boring. The fact that there's people there who shouldn't be there makes it 'American Idol.' "
For the record, Cowell is actually hoping for a "battle of the divas," with Melinda Doolittle edging out Lakisha Jones and Stephanie Edwards. "I like her humility," he said of professional backup singer Doolittle. "I like the fact that she's happy to be on the show and she's giving 100 percent. She's got passion."
Doolittle, of course, accepted the compliments with her signature modesty.
"Oh my goodness!" she exclaimed. "I'm excited because it's anybody's game. People are bringing their A-games right now, and things change from week to week."
As for fellow backup singer Brandon Rogers, he was still glowing from congratulatory e-mail he received from former employer and pop star Anastacia. "She's so happy for me," said Rogers, who escorted the youngest contestant, 17-year-old Jordin Sparks, through the press line. ("I'm soaking it all in," she said. "I love every moment of it.")
Blake Lewis was excited to hear that 311 singer Nick Hexum approved of his "All Mixed Up" performance Tuesday (see "'Idol' Gets Its First Taste Of Hip-Hop — Thanks To A Rock Band"), and said he plans to push the envelope even further.
"Maybe I'll do some Björk," he said. "I was trying to get an R&B/rap song cleared, and it didn't. I'm just trying to do music that inspires me."
Lewis and Chris Richardson have been praised for bringing a modern edge to this season's "Idol," and Richardson also plans to continue down that path. Although there's one artist he won't sing: Justin Timberlake.
"It's an honor to be compared to him, but I'm trying to get as far away from the comparisons as I can get," he said.
Chris Sligh, who bandleader Ricky Minor dubbed " 'Idol' 's Jack Black," also let on about his future song selections.
"My Christian faith is obviously very important to me, but I don't see myself in the contemporary Christian world," he said. "I did the DC Talk song because I thought the message was so universal."
The singer whose song choices could be the most surprising is Phil Stacey, who has so far sang LeAnn Rimes, John Waite and Edwin McCain songs.
"With the Navy Rock Band," Stacey said, referring to the military group he sang for before "Idol," "I do My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, so we'll see."
Also praying for an emo theme week is Gina Glocksen, who shined with Evanescence on Wednesday. "The older songs are safe, but so many have already been done," she said.
As for Malakar and Scarnato, both know they need to step it up to repair the damage the judges have done.
"I just have to pick songs I can put a lot of energy and personality into," Malakar said.
"There's only so much camera time you get onstage, so it's tough," Scarnato said, addressing the remarks that she was forgettable. "When Simon makes comments to me, if I can use it I will definitely use it. If I can't, I just got to get rid of it."
Ah, nothing like a little American honesty.