"American Idol" saw one of its biggest shockers of the season on Thursday's results show, when front-runner and online fan-favorite Jessica Sanchez was revealed to have earned the fewest votes, prompting judges Steven Tyler, Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez to storm the stage to utilize a one-time move to save her from elimination.
The tactic, which overturns nationwide vote results, can be used once per season before the top 5 contestants are chosen. "American Idol," which remains the top-rated primetime series, is down to its top 7 for its 11th season.
Sanchez, a 16-year-old resident of San Diego, California, earned praise the day before for her rendition of Jazmine Sullivan's "Stuttering." On Thursday, she was placed in the bottom 3 with Elise Testone and Joshua Ledet, who earned a standing ovation for his cover of Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby."
Tyler, who had mentioned Sanchez in a recent interview with OnTheRedCarpet.com when talking about the show's top singers, said that judges would use their "save" on one of the bottom 3 contestants, which eliminated some suspense.
When host Ryan Seacrest revealed that it was Sanchez who received the fewest votes, the audience exploded and the judges and finalists appeared shocked. Despite Tyler's promise to use the "save," she was still brought out to sing to try and earn one, as contestants have done in the past. About 15 seconds later, Lopez, Jackson and Tyler marched onstage.
"Give me that mic!" Lopez yelled. "This is crazy! Yes we are using that save! This is crazy! Go sit down. Go sit down!"
"We are saving Jessica without any doubt," Jackson said. "This girl is one of the best singers in America. Ever! Are you kidding me? Please, everybody, please vote for the best."
Sanchez said she was not surprised by the potential elimination, adding: "I just want people to know that I've been working hard my whole life."
Earlier in the episode, Jennifer Hudson performed with R&B star Ne-Yo. Hudson, a Grammy and Oscar winner, competed on the show in 2004 and made it as far as the top 7, just like Sanchez, but could not be saved by the judges. Her departure marked one the program's most shocking eliminations.
Two other black contestants, La Toya London and Fantasia Barrino, who ended up winning the competition, were also in jeopardy. All three were often praised for their vocals. Guest mentor Elton John famously said: "The fact that they're constantly in the bottom 3 ... I find it incredibly racist."
Scores of viewers expressed similar sentiments on Twitter in reaction to Thursday's shocker. Sanchez, whose father is Mexican-American and whose mother is from the Philippines, has for weeks wowed the judges with her powerful vocals. Online polls showed viewers thought she had the biggest chance to win "American Idol."
The four contestants not placed in the bottom 3 were female singers Hollie Cavanagh, who did not appear to impress the judges on Wednesday, and Skylar Laine, and male performers Colton Dixon and Phillip Phillips. All four are white.
In the past four years, "American Idol" winners have been young white men, aside from last year's champion, country singer Scotty McCreery, who is part Puerto Rican. "American Idol" has never had a winner of Asian heritage.
"Will there ever be a female AI winner again?" and "STILL THINK A GIRL CAN WIN THIS COMPETITION?" two viewers asked in messages posted on the official "American Idol" forum.
"Middle America is weird," Tyler had told OnTheRedCarpet.com, when talked about the viewers. "The talent is so good that you almost can't - I can't judge it at this stage. You know, I can tell them they picked the wrong song but at this stage now, they're all good. It's up to America."