Viewers will get their final chance on Tuesday (March 3) to pick the "American Idol" top 12 before judges round out the top contenders during the wild-card round on Thursday.
This final audience-approved batch is a mix of hot contenders, virtual unknowns and singers whose backstories have so far outstripped their promise or proven singing chops. Leading the list of virtual locks is Memphis, Tennessee, customer-service representative and married mother of three Lil Rounds, 23, who immediately blew the judges away with her soulful rendition of Steve Wonder's "All I Do" in Kansas City.
With her dramatic swoop of tinted bangs and humble-yet-sassy attitude — not to mention a booming voice from a petite body — Rounds, who has already inspired several fan sites, is almost guaranteed a place in the top 12, thanks to what judge Randy Jackson described as her Fantasia-meets-Mary J. style.
Also in the mix is falsetto wonder Von Lee Smith, 22, who placed second on Ed McMahon's "Next Big Star" at age 13 and was spotted by Rosie O'Donnell on YouTube in 2007 — singing late, lamented jokeman Nick "Normund Gentle" Mitchell's signature "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls" — which landed him an invitation to sing on "The View."
Utah's Taylor Vaifanua, 16, often compared to season-six winner Jordin Sparks, also has a shot and, like an increasing number of "Idol" contestants these days, has already released a CD. As a bonus, she also appeared on a Utah-rific reality show as a member of the made-for-TV girl group, 4 Real.
Another contestant who has gotten plenty of TV time and some love from the judges is the show's first blind contender, Scott MacIntyre. The 23-year-old Fulbright Scholar and Rhodes Scholar finalist graduated summa cum laude from Arizona State University at 19, teaches salsa, swing and ballroom dancing, has appeared on a number of Christian TV shows such as the "Crystal Cathedral Hour of Power" and released, yes, his own CD. Make that CDs, like, five of them.
Speaking of people with some previous experience, Napa Valley, California's Kristen McNamara, 23, like former contestant Brent Keith, once appeared on the "Nashville Star" reality show. But what K-Mac really plans to do is "change the world through my music and drive to help those in need."
Some of the other top 36 finishers have gotten screen time, but aren't necessarily hot contenders. Spunky dyslexic Texas blonde Kendall Beard, 24, has been trying to get a music career going in Hollywood since graduating from the University of Texas several years ago. And, according to the Lufkin Daily News, she might already have an in with one of the biggest pop stars in the world: Britney Spears. The paper reported that Beard's dad is college buddies with Britney's pop, Jamie Spears.
And then there are a few others who've gotten some face time, but who shouldn't start prepping for their close-ups just yet, including über-nerd Alex Wagner-Trugman, 19. While his high school band did have a killer name, the Killer Boots, his Facebook page says it all. Then there's Felicia Barton, who wasn't originally in the top 36, but got a lifeline when Joanna Pacitti was disqualified. The 27-year-old Virginia Beach, Virginia, singer has hustle for sure, as evidenced by this boardwalk singing-booth video. But not as much as "adopt-a-grandfriend" founder Arianna Afsar, the 16-year-old do-gooder who has sung the national anthem for the San Diego Padres four times and won $25,000 from the Miss America Outstanding Teen competition.
And then there's this year's crying boy, Nathaniel Marshall. The emo-tastic 19-year-old man-diva whose mother was incarcerated and who has tried out for "Idol" three times and has many talents, among them freestyling sassypants tunes about popping blisters, wearing headbands and performing Blaine Larsen covers in front of overstuffed bookcases, but he's best known for his drama-queen tendencies and super-tight pants.
Rounding out the list is 26-year-old Bowie, Maryland, native Ju'Not Joyner, who made it through the first round last season before being dumped. Joyner, who traded a promising basketball career for singing when he blew out his knee, has written more than 100 songs, some of which are pretty promising. And then there's funky bilingual Puerto Rico native Jorge Nuñez, who made it by singing Frank Sinatra's "My Way" in Spanish and "What a Wonderful World" in English during his audition, but who has been way off the radar since.
The winners, who will be announced on Wednesday night, will join semifinalists Allison Iraheta, Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, Danny Gokey, Alexis Grace and Michael Sarver. On Thursday, the revamped wild-card round will bring back 12 booted contestants vying for the final three spots in the top 12 as determined by the judges' votes.
Get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.