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'American Idol' Season 12: Charlie Askew leads Top 20 power rankings

"American Idol" contestant Charlie Askew's beautiful, crazy version

"American Idol" contestant Charlie Askew's beautiful, crazy version of “Rocket Man" wasn't just memorable, it was moving. (Feb. 21, 2013) (Credit: Fox)

After weeks of grueling preliminary rounds (more for the audience than the contestants), Season 12 of “American Idol” begins in earnest Tuesday, as the Top 20 perform live for audience votes.

Now, there are a few things “Idol” producers clearly want us to know from the preseason: 1) They want a girl to win, y'all; 2) This is a singing competition, but the judges' comments are almost as important as the performances; 3) Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj don't get along, something easily discernible from the way each of them make faces when the other one is talking.

It's been almost painful to watch the preseason. Maybe that's why the ratings keep dropping. (Last week, “Modern Family” beat “Idol” in the ratings for the first time.) In their quest to remake the show into something that still generates buzz, they have started losing sight of what has kept “Idol” a ratings juggernaut all these years. Most people like to see talented unknowns shine.

PHOTOS: Finals Semifinals | Auditions | "Idol" judges past and present | Winners and finalists | Where are they now?

This season, it seems more about marketing than talent. Last week, the judges sent home Josh Holiday, a likable singer-songwriter who sang an OK original song. It was quite possible that, if the “Idol” voting pool remained similar to what it has been in past seasons, he could have won the entire show thanks to his Phillip Phillipsy charms and the text-happy tween voters. But “Idol” clearly didn't want to take that chance, putting through the average soul singer Burnell Taylor instead. The show seemed bent on not giving voters anyone that fit into the same mold as Phillips, Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen and Scotty McCreery.

However, the voters still rule this show, don't they?

Well, sorta. Among the rules changes producers have made this season, they want to guarantee that five girls and five guys make it into the Top 10 this year, regardless of the number of votes they get this week, a move to stack the deck for the girls at least until the Top 10. They are also trying to balance out the repeat callers and texters with a new “SuperVote” that allows fans to cast 50 votes at once – for one contestant or several – using their Facebook accounts on AmericanIdol.com, the “Idol” mobile app, or Facebook.

Will that be enough to get the first female “Idol” crowned since Jordin Sparks in 2007?

We'll find out starting tonight with the gals' performances.

Here's how this year's Top 20 stack up:

THE GIRLS

1. ADRIANA LATONIO. The 17-year-old from Alaska has a strong voice and a fun personality. She also show some artistic ingenuity in her masterful version of Aretha Franklin's “Ain't No Way” in the sudden death round. She's a definite contender.

2. KREE HARRISON. The 22-year-old from Nashville is such a delight to watch. She has an effortless, pretty voice and she is destined to be a favorite among “Idol”'s country fans and ready to go far in the competition.

3. AMBER HOLCOMB. The 18-year-old from Houston got cut in Las Vegas last year, but she is blossomed into a completely different singer this time out. Her take on “My Funny Valentine” showed off both power and finesse that should take her deep in the competition.

4. ANGELA MILLER. The 18-year-old from Beverly, Mass., stunned everyone when she performed her own original “You Set Me Free” in Hollywood week, turning her from a possible also-ran to a front-runner with one song. Her sudden death round choice wasn't quite as good, but she's certainly got potential.

5. ZOANETTE JOHNSON. Is she the best singer here? No. However, I would rather watch the 20-year-old from Liberia by way of Tulsa, Okla., than nearly anyone else in the competition. Her version of “Circle of Life” was unique and entertaining, made possible by her strong voice and great personality.

6. BREANNA STEER. Having survived Hurricane Isaac last year, the 18-year-old from LaPlace, La., has a great personal tale of survival, which matched her potent take on Jazmine Sullivan's “Bust Your Windows” anthem. She's got a great vibe as well as what Nicki Minaj calls “sexy on a stick.”

7. CANDICE GLOVER. Another returnee from last year's auditions, the 23-year-old from St. Helena Island, S.C., has a huge voice, which she showcased well on an Aretha-sized version of “Natural Woman” in the sudden death round. Whether she is inventive enough to keep up with everyone else is the main question left about her.

8. AUBREY CLELAND. Nicki Minaj went bananas over the 19-year-old from West Linn, Ore., who sang a slowed-down version of Beyonce's “Sweet Dreams” in the sudden death round. She does look and sound the part of what “Idol” producers like, though she doesn't quite have the artistic depth that some of her competitors have just yet.

9. TENNA TORRES. The 28-year-old from Jamaica, Queens, is a graduate from Camp Mariah, literally and figuratively. She was a little too Mariah on her take on Natasha Bedingfield's “Soulmate” and then went off the rails toward the end. She has potential, but may get squeezed out by the other girls.

10. JANELLE ARTHUR. The 23-year-old from Oliver Springs, Tenn., barely made it into the Top 10, after making a bad song choice with Lady Antebellum's “Just a Kiss.” As one of only two country females left in the running, she has a chance to go deep if she can outmaneuver Kree Harrison, though that seems unlikely.

SHOULD ADVANCE: Adriana, Kree, Amber, Angela, Zoanette
WILL ADVANCE: Adriana, Angela, Kree, Zoanette, Breanna
ACTUALLY ADVANCED: Angela, Kree, Amber, Candice, Janelle

THE GUYS

1. CHARLIE ASKEW. The adorkable 17-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., who says, “I glorify weirdness,” is a bona fide star right now. His beautiful, crazy version of “Rocket Man” wasn't just memorable, it was moving. He has lived that song and he is clearly enjoying his time in the spotlight. He'll be there for a while and, try as the producers might to stop him, he may win the whole thing. “Barbz, love Charlie!” Nicki Minaj commanded her fans. Oh, they will.

2. VINCENT POWELL. The 29-year-old from Austin, Texas, showed himself to be a real-life soul man, taking Lenny Williams' “Cause I Love You” to D'Angelo-esque heights. Can the former Whitney Houston backing singer keep it up? Sounds like it.

3. CORTEZ SHAW. The 21-year-old from Dallas could have a hit today with his slowed-down, emotional version of the David Guetta dance hit “Titanium,” which shows that he has the brains to target today's pop audience and the chops to pull it off.

4. CURTIS FINCH JR. The 24-year-old from St. Louis has a rich, soulful voice and he knows how to use it. His main drawback, though, is that he sounds more like he's 44 than 24 and that he doesn't quite know when to hold back.

5. DEVIN VELEZ. The 18-year-old from Chicago has a good voice and a nice personality, but his version of Beyonce's “Listen” was a bit forced and showed that he doesn't quite know what songs suit him yet.

6. ELIJAH LIU. The 18-year-old from Rowland Heights, Calif., could be the half-Mexican, half-Chinese Justin Bieber, especially if he keeps tackling sweet pop like Bruno Mars' “Talking to the Moon.” He doesn't have the strongest voice, but he has won of the strongest likable personalities. “I wanna have your babies,” says Nicki Minaj. She's not the only one who will feel that way.

7. PAUL JOLLEY. The 22-year-old from Palmersville, Tenn., took a big risk singing Keith Urban's “Tonight I Wanna Cry” in front of him and it paid off. He has a good voice and will appeal to the country crowd, but unless he breaks out of his own esteem issues, his “Idol” stay won't last long.

8. LAZARO ARBOS. The likable 21-year-old from Naples, Fla., has a nice singing voice, though he likely made it to the Top 20 because of his inspiring personal story of struggling with intense stuttering when he talks, but doesn't struggle when he sings. Unfortunately, that probably won't be enough to get him to the Top 10.

9. NICK BODDINGTON. The 27-year-old from Memphis, Tenn., says “Life in New York City can be tough.” Yes, it can be. “Idol” is even tougher and his nice, but bland performance of James Morrison's “Say Something Now” showed possibility, but never quite made a connection.

10. BURNELL TAYLOR. The 19-year-old has survived Hurricane Katrina, but he may not survive in “Idol” for very long. He has a nice, soulful voice, but it's a little too plain to stick around here.

SHOULD ADVANCE: Charlie, Vincent, Cortez, Curtis, Devin
WILL ADVANCE: Charlie, Curtis, Devin, Paul, Lazaro
ACTUALLY ADVANCED: Curtis, Devin, Paul, Lazaro, Burnell

BONUS! (VERY) EARLY FINALE PREDICTION: Charlie vs. Adriana, with Charlie coming out on top.

Here's the possible Season 12 winner doing “Rocket Man.”

Tags: American Idol , Nicki Minaj , Mariah Carey , Randy Jackson , Keith Urban , Charlie Askew , Adriana Latonio

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