And now, the show finally begins. "American Idol" has bid farewell to dudes in bikinis and chicks with whips, to rocker moms and warring groups of singers caught in bad romances. This week brings the start of the semifinals, when the manufactured reality-show drama gives way to 24 singers taking their turn alone on the stage in the hope they'll live to sing another week on TV.
On Tuesday night (February 23), the women kick off this next phase of "Idol" season nine. Who's sure to be voted through and who might be going home? Let's take a look at how these 12 ladies stack up.
This 22-year-old Berklee College of Music student is perhaps the most polished of all the female contestants, from her confident presence onstage to her warm, genuine personality off it. Thus far, we've heard her belt out fierce takes on Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You" and Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable." It's far too early to suggest she might follow in the "Idol"-winning footsteps of the singer she channeled during Hollywood Week, but that performance of Jordin Sparks' "Battlefield" made clear Rodriguez is a serious season-nine contender.
Resist the urge to call her the female Jason Castro or this year's Megan Joy, because "Idol" has never seen someone like Bowersox, a dreadlocked single mom with a voice that's part Aretha and part Janis. One thing she'll likely have in common with those two vets, though, is that she'll stick around the competition for a long time.
Stevens arrived in Hollywood Week with perhaps the most recognizable face of all her fellow competitors, thanks to an audition-episode focus on how she cares for her ailing grandmother. She followed up that exposure with an impressive group performance of Alicia Keys' "No One." Stevens has vocal skills far beyond those of your average 16-year-old, and America will be rooting for her. She's not going home for a while.
Wheeler counts Fleetwood Mac, Shania Twain and the Spice Girls among her biggest musical influences, and it is that odd-yet-endearing eclecticism that has made the singer someone to watch. We'll have to see whether she veers more toward her rock and soul comfort zone (as she did with "House of the Rising Sun" and Estelle's "American Boy") instead of the more poppy territory of Taylor Swift (as happened with her shaky version of "Love Story"). We have a feeling she'll make the right choice.
Some might say Benami has milked the memory of her deceased best friend to propel her forward in the competition. Others would argue the girl's raw vocal talents are what has thrust her into the top 24. Whatever the case, America has definitely responded to her: she currently has the second most Twitter followers of anyone of the show.
From Vaughn's very first appearance onscreen, the judges have gone gaga over the musical territory the 16-year-old explores in her quest to become "the first black pop-country mainstream singer." Yet Vaughn isn't a novelty act or a one-trick pony, as made clear by her renditions of songs from both Carrie Underwood and Jason Mraz. She should sail through the next couple of weeks.
Brown didn't make the Hollywood Week cut last season, and while her remixed version of "Over the Rainbow" at the Orlando audition was one of that city's most memorable, she hasn't had nearly as much camera time as some of the other women. High on the quirk factor and with a rooster-like red 'do, though, she's a tough one to forget, and shouldn't have a problem sticking around.
After a series of middling Hollywood performances, Epperly found her groove with Colbie Caillat's "Bubbly," which followed up on the promise of her Chicago rendition of Duffy's "Syrup and Honey." If Epperly can tone down on the heavy-handed references to her parents' divorce and ramp up that connection to the words she's singing, she just might surprise a few folks by staying in the competition for more than a few episodes.
Is her hair see-through blonde? Gray? Who cares. The sandwich artist-turned-jazz impresario's voice communicates an old-world soulfulness and her goofy personality should make viewers smile. But will they vote for her? And will she still have that gray/blond hair after the "Idol" stylists have their way with her?
It was certainly a surprise when the 19-year-old Massachusetts native — criticized early and often for singing like a woman four times her age — made the top 24. Magnus apparently had impressed the judges during her final performance when she ditched the party dress and delivered a suitably youthful take on Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City." It's gonna take more than a jean jacket and a Ramones patch, though, to keep it up.
Who? Of all the top 12 women, Delamor might have received the least exposure thus far. And that lack of name recognition shows: She's currently the second least-followed "Idol" contestant on Twitter. Can she overcome that handicap? If people are talking about her tomorrow, we'll know that she has. If there's Web silence about Delamor, it might be the end of the road for her.
The same can be said for Miles. "Idol" producers didn't even show any of her final performances before they sent her through to the top 24. Miles needs to deliver a water cooler-worthy turn onstage if she expects to keep her "Idol" dream alive.
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