In a shocker that rocked the "American Idol" stage, presumed front-runner Colton Dixon was booted from the show Thursday night, as 53 million votes were cast -- the most so far this season.
Rocker Dixon's unique take on Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" and Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" this week failed to dazzle the trio of "Idol" judges, while music producer Jimmy Iovine, who has been his champion all season, expressed his concern. Dixon, who also auditioned for "Idol" last season had yet place in the bottom three during the competition.
As last week proved, no one has a lock on the top prize. Also considered the front-runner by many, young Jessica Sanchez was nearly eliminated after receiving the lowest number of votes. Judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler charged the stage and announced they were using their one save of the season on her.
Lopez actually snatched the microphone from Sanchez and said, "Give me that mic. This is crazy. Yes, we're using the save." Added Randy,"This girl is one of the best singers in America ever." He then urged everyone to vote for the best on the show this season.
After Sanchez' two performances this week -- each contestant sang two songs -- the judges again urged the audience to vote for her. And they made it clear that Joshua Ledet was another of their favorites, when they gave him standing ovations after both his performances of "I Believe" and "A Change Is Gonna Come."
But, in the end, the audience decides who will win and, as USA Today writer Brian Mansfield points out, the contest is no longer just about who's the best singer.
"If you harbor the illusion that 'American Idol' is still just a singing competition, then Jessica has to be the favorite, but these days winners have more to do with the voting habits of the audience than the quality of the singers," he told ABCNews.com
"I think you don't really see a bad singer make it this far anymore now that 'Idol' is such a mature show," he added. "The last two seasons, there have been really good singers from top to bottom."
Click through to see who's got a shot of going all the way.
|Front-Runner: Jessica Sanchez|
It has been a long time since a woman claimed the "American Idol" crown, but 16-year-old singing prodigy Jessica Sanchez has the best shot this year. The San Diego native, who is Filipina and Mexican-American, could become the first Asian and Hispanic 'Idol.'
"I think Jessica Sanchez stole the show from day one," Haley Reinhart, who placed third last season, told Ryan Seacrest Wednesday. "So, I really don't think anything is going to be able to stop her now. She's fantastic."
Since performing Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and receiving a standing ovation from the judges, Sanchez has consistently delivered. From the start, "Idol" mentor Jimmy Iovine declared Sanchez "has talent from A to Z" and called her "the one to beat."
Having front-runner status, though, does not guarantee a trip to the finals, as last year's Pia Toscano learned when she was eliminated in the ninth round and Sanchez, herself, learned last week when she had to be saved from elimination by the judges.
|The Spoiler: Colton Dixon|
For Mansfield, the true front-runner from day one was 20-year-old Colton Dixon from Murfreesboro, Tenn. "He hits on every demographic marker with the audience," Mansfield said. "Like the last four winners, he's a cute young white guy who plays an instrument. He's from the South, which always helps. And he's a known quantity in Christian circles. He's been working the church circuit, which is very strong voting bloc if you can tap into it."
It was Dixon's first time in the bottom three this week, and after a disappointing performance in which he dismissed the judges' criticism, he found himself going home. But first he had to apologize, saying he wasn't himself Wednesday night but would take their advice with him when he embarks on his recording career.
Dixon, who has the most Twitter followers and "likes" on Facebook, was unafraid to invoke God or sing an obscure song, Mansfield believes, because he knows already who he is and what kind of artist he'll be. And like Paramour, Switchfoot and Daughtry, to some extent, he'll be able to move between the Christian and the secular markets. "He's ready to launch his career," Mansfield said.
|Tossup: Phillip Phillips|
"American Idol" has not always awarded originality, but this year Phillip Phillips, a 21-year-old pawnshop employee from Leesburg, Ga., has scored high marks with the judges and the audience precisely because he's unique. Before he made the top 13, Iovine said, "We desperately need originality on this show. I would sign this guy on the spot." But Phillips' "I gotta be me" routine could be wearing thin. Iovine called his Phil Collins cover of "That's All" two weeks ago the "worst performance of the season."
"Phillip doesn't listen to anybody and he's shown he's willing to die on the battlefield over a gray shirt," Mansfield said, referring to Phillips decision to wear not one, but two, gray shirts against designer Tommy Hilfiger's advice. "Eventually someone with an attitude like that is going to make a fatal mistake and there's going to be no one there to help him."
Mansfield thinks Phillips could finish as high as second place or flame out sooner if his stubbornness overshadows his talent.
|The Dark Horse: Skylar Laine|
When she made the Top 13, Iovine declared 18-year-old Skylar Laine from Brandon, Miss., "the country singer for season 11." Laine, who has been compared to a young Reba McEntire, has proven she's more than just a country girl, however. The turning point for her might have been two weeks ago when she chose Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" over Dolly Parton's "9 to 5." Iovine compared her to powerhouse Sanchez. "She went from the bottom to the top," he said. "If she continues this, she can win the whole thing." Laine was still on a roll this week, with her country-flavored Lady Gaga hit "Born This Way."
Mansfield said he's not sure Laine can win, but he could see her going far for "most improved" and, with some seasoning, become a big country star. "It's a little like watching Miranda Lambert in the first season of 'Nashville Star,'" he said. "She's got tons of potential, but it make take her a little longer to realize it."
|Return of Soul: Joshua Ledet|
Iovine has called Joshua Ledet, the 19-year-old gospel singer from Westlake, La., "the real deal." Mansfield agrees that Ledet is one of the best singers in the competition, but his style isn't for everyone. Ledet doesn't fit into the smooth R&B crooner mold of past winner Ruben Studdard. He's more of a shouter like Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson. "Joshua is a very polarizing person," he said. "You either like the gospel shouting thing that he does or you don't." Just like voters were split over Deandre Brackensick's falsetto, Ledet's spirited singing might not take him all the way.