Jessica Sanchez took on the great Whitney Houston with a...

Jessica Sanchez took on the great Whitney Houston with a rousing rendition of "How Will I Know." (April 4, 2012) Credit: Fox

“American Idol” manipulation kicked into high gear last night.

All sorts of arguments can be made for why – from the show's falling ratings (down 22 percent from last season) to producers' desires for a mainstream winner to worries about “The Voice.” Maybe they do it just because they can.

In any case, they did.

Last night, mentor Jimmy Iovine set up a false rivalry between Colton Dixon and Phillip Phillips, because they are, apparently, two cute guys who are fighting for the tween girl vote. He told Colton that Phillip's ahead of him with the females. He told Phillip that Colton's ahead of him. (“Well, Colton's a good-looking guy,” Phillip said.)

Never mind that their styles of music are completely different or that their rivalry shouldn't be any different from their rivalries with the rest of the Top 7. Iovine set it out as a problem for each of them – which Phillip, to his credit, shrugged off with a “Colton's a really awesome guy.” (Phillip shrugs a lot of things off, which I sense will soon become a sore point with the “Idol” powers who tend to like their contestants to be super-focused and cutthroatty.)

Look, tween girls, don't fall for this. It doesn't have to be either/or for quite some time. You can support both Colton and Phillip against all the girls and Joshua Ledet. Then you can have a dreamy Colton vs. Phillip finale, which would actually make for quite an interesting battle considering how well they both did last night. Colton made “Love the Way You Lie” sound emotional and Phillip made a Maroon 5 throwaway sound rocking.

(BTW, tween girls, don't fall for the other manipulation of producers trying to make it seem like Colton and Skylar Laine are dating when they aren't. Colton-loving conspiracy theorists may say that's a way to make it seem like he's unavailable to decrease his votes, though maybe it's just because 'Idol' producers like to manufacture relationships because they think it's good TV.)

The night's other big manipulation was set into motion by Jennifer Lopez. She critiqued Jessica Sanchez's lovely version of Jazmine Sullivan's “Stuttering” by saying the performance wasn't as exciting as one from Joshua. Never mind that not everyone likes Joshua's over-the-top style or that Jessica was actually trying to act her age and act like herself -- things they usually applaud. Lopez planted the seed that voters looking for the best of the big-voiced divas, it's Joshua, not Jessica. The judges then backed it up by offering Joshua the night's only standing ovation for his overblown, pitchy take on Bruno Mars' “Runaway Baby.”

That kind of support isn't doing anyone any favors. Joshua has a great voice, but he needs to be reined in, not encouraged to over-sing every note. Even if that works for the judges, it's not going to work for the American people in the long run. If it did, we'd all be celebrating multiplatinum artist Sam Harris today. (Tween girls, if you're still with me, you can Google him. He's the '80s “Star Search” version of Joshua. He's also a much better singer than him.)

All the manipulation last night overshadowed the fact that it was a pretty good performance night overall.

The only real clunker was Hollie Cavanagh's kind-of-leaden version of Pink's “Perfect.” She hit most of the notes, but couldn't tap into the feeling. That was a problem for the crazed diva-off that was Kelly Clarkson's “Stronger” too, but between Hollie, Jessica and Joshua – who was the best, Randy Jackson had to interject again – they held it together better.

That said, I think it may be the end of the road for Elise Testone, who somehow made Lady Gaga's “You and I” sound boring. She was better on her duet with Phillip on Gotye's “Someone That I Used to Know,” though, honestly Phillip was actually better than her (yes, I know what the judges said and, yes, Darren Criss and Matt Bomer did it better on “Glee”) because they seemed to actually understand what the song was about and injected the right amount of creepiness into it.

If voters continue their one-week lag in support, Elise will leave this week for last week's dismal “I Want to Know What Love Is” and Hollie will go next week for this week's misstep.

And that will set the stage for what? A VERY SHOCKING ELIMINATION the week after. Or, you know, more manipulation.


Jessica Sanchez, “Stuttering”
Colton Dixon, “Love the Way You Lie”
Phillip Phillips, “Give a Little More”
Skylar Laine, “Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You”
Phillip Phillips and Elise Testone, “Somebody That I Used to Know”
Colton Dixon and Skylar Laine, “Don't You Wanna Stay”
Joshua Ledet, “Runaway Baby”
Elise Testone, “You and I”
Hollie Cavanagh, “Perfect”
Joshua Ledet, Jessica Sanchez and Hollie Cavanagh, “Stronger”

BOTTOM THREE: Hollie, Elise, Colton
ACTUALLY ELIMINATED: Jessica (!) -- Saved by judges.

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