Backstage at "American Idol," Hollie Cavanagh was bubbly and confident, practicing vocal riffs and giggling with fellow teenage contestant Jessica Sanchez.
By the show's end Wednesday, Cavanagh was the sole finalist to be found wanting by the judges _ and possibly by the viewers who decide which singer will exit Thursday.
"Sorry, baby," judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez both told Cavanagh, 18, of McKinney, Texas, after she delivered a version of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" that they found emotionally wanting and unsuited to her big voice.
She won praise for her performance of Journey's "Faithfully," but her three competitors all drew undiluted acclaim from Tyler, Lopez and Randy Jackson.
"Neither man nor woman has sang that good with that much compassion, ever," Tyler told gospel singer Joshua Ledet, 20, of Westlake, La., after his performance of James Brown's "It's a Man's World." Ledet's take on Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" also had the judges cheering.
Sanchez, 16, of San Diego, earned her own show of respect for versions of Etta James' "Steal Away" and Jennifer Holliday's "And I'm Telling You (I'm Not Going)."
"You're just one of the best," Lopez told her.
For soulful Phillip Phillips, 21, of Leesburg, Ga., the raves came for performances of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" and "Volcano" by Damien Rice.
"I love you because you're your own guy, said Jackson, adding: "Amazing."
Who will claim victory at the show's May 24 finale? The impressive field makes a prediction impossible, according to one judge.
"It seems like it's gonna be a real race to the finish. I don't know who's gonna win," said Lopez, who's scheduled to perform on Thursday's show, along with 2008 "Idol" winner David Cook.
If the tight race is causing a rift among the singers, it didn't show Wednesday as they clowned around with each other between performances.
But the youngest contestant, Sanchez, showed the pressure as she waited to perform "Steal Away." She sat quietly backstage, her face tense and her foot bobbing slightly. Then she went out and wowed the crowd.
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