NEW YORK – "American Idol" slimmed down the competition Thursday night, leaving 12 finalists to compete for the ultimate prize — a record contract.
Antonella Barba, Sabrina Sloan, Jared Cotter and Jason "Sundance" Head were cast off by the viewer voting, which drew about 37 million calls and text messages.
The performers who made the cut were Blake Lewis, LaKisha Jones, Chris Sligh, Jordin Sparks, Phil Stacey, Melinda Doolittle, Brandon Rogers, Gina Glocksen, Chris Richardson, Stephanie Edwards, Haley Scarnato and Sanjaya Malakar.
The show's tense final moments belonged to Malakar and Head, who were waiting to find out who would take the competition's 12th spot — and who would go home. Judge Paula Abdul was stunned to hear that Malakar, who is not exactly a judge favorite, was staying.
"I'm speechless," Abdul said. "This is a singing competition, and Sundance, you've been one of our finest."
How'd this happen? "The volume was turned down," quipped Simon Cowell, who has criticized Malakar, 17, of Federal Way, Wash., for his "weird" stage presence.
"Somebody give me a job," the 28-year-old Head, from Porter, Texas, said before leaving the stage. "I need a job."
The elimination of the talented Sloan, 27, from Los Angeles, was another letdown for the judges. "Sabrina should be in that top 12, dawg," lamented Randy Jackson, who said "America got that one wrong."
None of the judges was complaining when Barba, the focus of recent attention over some racy Internet photos, was shown the door. Each week, Cowell could be counted on to tell the 20-year-old Jersey girl that she wasn't good enough to be in the talent contest.
Cotter, a strapping 25-year-old from Kew Gardens, N.Y., told Ryan Seacrest he was "very" surprised to be leaving the show. Cowell had another opinion: "You're a good-looking guy, you've got to work on your vocals," he said.
After the show, the finalists made their debut before a bank of TV cameras and reporters, walking a mini-red carpet at an event in West Hollywood, Calif.
Among the women, some of the highest praise from judges and observers has gone to Jones. Asked how it feels to be dubbed a front-runner, the former bank employee replied with a modest smile.
"Have I? I haven't been paying attention," Jones said.
Many have said the female contestants have been stronger vocally than the men this season. "I think it's a girl's one to lose this year," Jackson said. "May the best girl win."
But the men had mixed reactions to comments about the opposing gender's talent.
"I'm a little tired of it, actually," Rogers said.
"Yeah," Lewis chimed in. "The girls have got powerful voices but I think the guys have been holding it down."
Stacey, however, conceded "the women are smoking us," but added he expected the men to step it up.
Thursday's show also featured a performance by "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood, who recently snagged a Grammy for best new artist. She sang "Wasted," a song from her hit country music album "Some Hearts."
So far this season, the show's sixth, men and women have been competing separately, with viewers voting off two of each sex weekly. When the dozen finalists return Tuesday, the sexes will be blended, with one singer voted off each week. The winner will be chosen in May.
"American Idol" continues to dominate the ratings, attracting between 27 million and 37 million viewers per telecast this season.