And then there were nine. Only nine! We have miraculously reached the single-digits phase of America's longest and most punishing singing competition, and that is something to celebrate. But we've still miles to go before we can completely forget about who won this season, so let's not get ourselves too worked up. Who should be getting excited is the show's producers, because their master plan is unfolding quite nicely.

Last night was an elimination episode so there's really not that much to talk about beyond the results. Rather than have the kids come blasting out from backstage singing some hideous group number at the top of the show, they had the singtestants perform a bit later. And it was a song from the upcoming Fox movie The Croods, scenes of which played on the screen behind them while they sang. Talk about crude. American Idol has never been nuanced about all of its product placement and brand pimping, but this felt particularly egregious, didn't it? Why don't they just start a damn Kickstarter for The Croods, amirite?? (Apparently I am not right, not right at all. But we're done talking about the damn Veronica Mars movie. At least I am.) So that was lame and embarrassing for everyone involved, but then again we're talking about Idol so everyone's pretty much operating on that level anyway. Can't really make a turd smell worse, can ya.

Moving on! There were two musical guests this week. The first was Bon Jovi, a band led an old woman from New Jersey who won a contest or something. She has beautiful silky hair and likes to sing songs about being a wave in the ocean and taking a stand or something. I dunno, it was muddled. The performance was pre-recorded and you could tell, everything about it seemed canned. Look, Bon Jovi is perfectly fine, completely harmless, but it was blah. Perfect for this season I guess! At the end of the performance a title card informed us that, sadly, the old woman had passed away since the performance was recorded. But she went peacefully in her sleep and at least got to tape her big rock concert. RIP, old lady.

The next performance was from last year's winner Taylor Hicks. That was last year, right? No, no, I kid. It was Phillip Phillips, everyone's younger brother's cute friend. He was as flannelly and scratchy as always, strumming out a tune on his banjamagig called "Gone Gone Gone." But really it should have been called "Home 2: More Home" because it sounded just like "Home." It was "Home." These are the tunes that Phillip Phillips wants to sing, songs that teens listen to while driving home after saying goodbye to their best friend who is leaving for college the next morning. That's all this music is. Music for having hugged, having said some inside joke in a teary way, having gotten in the car and huffed a big bit of breath, and then having driven home, the late-summer sky rich and dark, leaves thick and green and rustling, the night whispering that you are next. You know? That's Phillip's music. And that's just fine! That music is lovely and means something to people. To teens. To kids who just said goodbye for the first time in any real way. It's first goodbye music, all strums and hums and whispery promises of closeness through distance. Anyway, after Phillip performed, Randy came up and gave him a framed thing that marked the multiplatinum status of "Home" and Phillip was as aw shucks about it as he is about everything and then that was that. Nice seeing you, Phil.

OK, let's get to the real business. The weirdest thing about last night is that apparently there is some kind of side-competition going on between Aubrey and Charlie Askew to see who will get to join the real contestants on the tour. Yeah! A strange thing. So they each got to come out and sing a song last night to try to win over America, which is a bit unfair, because I don't know that there could be two different people in America than Aubrey the Pretty and Charlie Askew. They don't just not sit at the same lunch table, they're not in the same cafeteria. So it's weird to ask America to pick. "Do you want cheesecake or do you want to go to a laser show?" "I dunno... both? I don't understand the question." But yes, that was the choice presented to us. Aubrey sang some slow song that was pretty boring, so normally I'd say that she's probably not going to make it, but Charlie is pretty strange, so maybe people will not like that? He sang an original composition called "Sky Blue Diamond" that was about a girl to some extent and sounded very much like what Judy Collins would have written were she a strange teenage boy in 2013. There Charlie was, sitting at a white piano, warbling about "the sun is bleeding out into the sea" with his Mackenzie Phillips hair and his single feather earring. I'm just not sure how much America will dig that. Maybe they will! Maybe America is into the emotional mysteries of a strange teenage boy, but I'm not all that convinced. We'll find out next week. Then we'll know the heart of America.

As for the real players in this game, the producers' strategy is working beautifully. The girls are winning. They did a really interesting thing last night and gave us the full rankings, and the bottom four people were boys. And the top three were girls. So if they wanted a girl to win this season, it looks like they may have done it. Lazaro was in fourth place, but he's the novelty pity vote (sorry, but that's a common Idol trope and he is that this season) and those people always tend to fade out before the top five or so. The big surprise for me was that Paul Jolley was third-to-last, when I was pretty sure he'd be at least in the top five. I guess the girls aren't crushing on him enough. I wonder why that could be... Can anyone think of a reason why girls wouldn't be dreaming of a life dating Paul Jolley? It's a mystery! We will probably never, ever know why girls might look at Paul Jolley and say "Hmm... He's cute, but I'm not sure he's the one for me." Oh well.

Joining Paul as a in the bottom were Curtis Finch and Devin Velez. Which, yup, fine by me. Both were terminally boring on Wednesday night and showed no signs of growth or development. Really either of these two could have gone home and I'd be OK with it. When it was announced that it was Curtis who was on the block I felt bad for him of course, but oh well. The judges deliberated about using their save and though Nicki pretended to act like she wanted to use it, I don't buy that for a second. You don't use the save this early and she knows that. It was all for show. After that strange act, Ryan was just like "Welp, sorry, guess that's it." And then it was done. All over for Curtis Finch until the tour. At least he gets the tour! That's something, being driven around, in a hot unairconditioned van all summer, gigging at shitty venues in second-tier cities. (I went to one, in Worcester.) An experience to remember forever.

So we press on, our nine finalists more nervous now for having seen so much blood up close. They truly know the grim stakes now, that one by one by one they will all get picked off until only the champion remains. Will it be them? Statistically speaking, no. But who needs statistics. Let's think about dreams. And miracles. About bright, good, vague and elusive things. About whispered consolations and encouragements, about having Ryan's mouth pressed hotly on your ear while he tells you you can do better. There in his office, cramped as it is with its knickknacks and boxes full of Idol merch. You sitting on the edge of the desk to better meet his height. Him standing, leaning in, whispering whispering whispering. "You can do it, Paul," he says. "I know you can." And then the whispering stops and other things start. The rustle of clothing almost like those leaves in the trees the night you said goodbye to Tyler back home. As you drove and drove and drove, wondering where any of this life was leading.