Okay, so we’ve made it to the top eight, soon to be the final seven, and I’m fully committed now. Up until this point, I don’t think I’d made that emotional investment in the Idols. Ramiele, Chikezie, David Hernandez… these are names — and performances — that, in six months, I’ll have a hard time remembering. But season seven’s last ones standing, for better (hello, Michael Johns!) or worse, have definitely made an impression, and it’s a lasting one. So with good will from Sunday’s Idol Gives Back bonanza still tugging at the heart, I came into the Idol studio full of positive thoughts and anticipation. How fitting that it was inspiration night.

But before we get into that, a survey of the room: Taylor Swift had a seat near the judges, not too far from Sinbad and Lacey from So You Think You Can Dance. And speaking of dancing, standing off by the side door was Julianne Hough in full make-up but still wearing her pre-show robe. It was elimination night next door on Dancing with the Stars, but Julianne looked surprisingly relaxed. Maybe she had a hunch it was her time to go.

As for me, I was settling into the D section, but within five minutes of sitting down, inadvertently dropped the f-bomb twice, oblivious to the fact that I was surrounded on all sides by tween-age girls. Needless to say, I felt terrible and kept the cursing in check for the rest of the show. (Sorry, moms.)

With 10 minutes to go, Corey the warm-up guy gets his crowd on and we learn, by cheer volume, that a good half of the audience is made up of first-timers. Which may explain the proliferation of signs — MJ’s The Wonder From Down Under, Hallelujah For Jason, Sing It David! (which one? It didn’t specify) — that didn’t look like they were drawn outside in the parking lot.

Corey’s instructions tonight were a bit more emphatic. “You don’thave to be polite,” he tells the audience when it comes to disagreeingwith the judges. “And when you clap, try to do it above your head. Itlooks great from the back.” And just to remind us all that this is,after all, television, Corey’s last directive is to give “a hugestanding ovation after each performance.”

Enter the judges. Randy blows kisses to the crowd, Simon makes nicewith the fans, Ryan walks out to the stage and shakes hands with thegirls in the mosh pit. “Welcome to the front,” he tells them. And withthree minutes to go, out come the Idols. On the applause meter, MichaelJohns, looking foxy even with the unnecessary scarf, certainlyregisters, but it’s David Archuleta (pictured) who sends it into the red. Thecrowd just loves that kid!

addCredit(“David Archuleta: Frank Micelotta”)

With all the hoopla on stage, Paula sneaks in with no introductionand quickly slinks into her seat. There’s one minute to go and everyonetakes their places. Michael Johns double-checks the exit direction, butit’s Syesha who screws it up and walks the opposite way. Oops.

Since Michael Johns is up first, he stays put at the side of thestage, taking his time getting there and savoring every moment in thespotlight. The red light and the Jim Morrison vibe suits him, and thecrowd goes wild as soon as the chorus to “Dream On” kicks in. Paula’sfeeling some MJ love too, and once he hits the falsetto, quickly hopsto her feet with a “you the man” finger pointed in his direction.Randy, on the other hand? Not so much, so he gets the loudest boos ofthe night. As for Simon? Between all the Chihuahua comments, he justlooked confused. Or maybe he was having a start-of-show nic fit becausehe bolted before Ryan could finish saying his famous mantra, “after thebreak.” It was during the commercial that we first got a glance atPaula’s boobs, which looked like they could use a breather. Her look ingeneral was a bit off tonight, even if her critiques were slightly moreastute.

Corey returns to entertain us for three minutes and launches rightback into TV101. This time, it’s about clapping along to the songs.Don’t do it, especially during ballads. (Apparently, keeping properrhythm is not the Idol audience’s forté and, subsequently,looks bad on TV). Syesha, meanwhile, takes her position on the stool,chatting with Ryan and downing water. We had a sneaky suspicion therewould be another power ballad in our near future and, sure enough, thegospel choir was brought out in no time. But for Syesha, this actuallytook away from the performance by overpowering her vocals, which wasn’tthe case when Fantasia belted “I Believe.” You could barely hear Syeshaover a total of 11 background singers. And when you did, more often itwas an off note that you noticed. So I generally agreed with Randy’sassessment, but not everybody did. “What’s up with Randy tonight?” onegirl remarked.

Next up: Jason Castro, whose entrance on stage prompted severalpeople around me to note that he could be on the brink of elimination,so he really had to bring it tonight. And judging by his somberappearance, it seems Jason sensed that, too. Fortunately, hisluau-styled lullaby did not disappoint. Far from it, he impressed justabout everybody, especially Simon. I’ve never seen Cowell so focused,but the way he stared intently as Jason handled the ukulele like an oldpro reaffirmed my faith in the doe-eyed and dreadlocked wonder. JCpulled it off, put a smile on peoples’ faces and even shed a tearhimself. Awww…

The next commercial break was a welcome respite from aroller-coaster of emotions. Randy checked his blackberry while Ryanpaced and Simon glad-handed. Little did we know that another majorswell was on the horizon: Miss Kristy Lee Cook. She took the samecenter-stage balladeer mark that the rest of the Idols favor (makes iteasy for the camera guys), dressed in, what one of my EW colleaguescalled, a Forever 21 ensemble. Expectations in my corner of the studiowere decidedly low, but what transpired was a complete 180. KLC was theonly Idol to get a mid-song applause, and even Nigel Lythgoe tooknotice. Seems our little country girl still has some kick left in herboots, and Paula, for one, stood up to pump her fists in solidarity.Was it sappy and somewhat predictable? Sure. Strategic? Absolutely. Butit was also sung well. Still, I loved Randy’s backhanded compliment:”It was good… for you.” Ouch!

KLC looked elated following the judges’ comments, and CarlySmithson, ever the cheerleader, ran over to hug her, screaming “yay!”There was little time for rejoicing though, and she quickly took herplace beside David Cook, who was up next.

So here’s where anticipation was exceptionally high and the resultsdevastatingly disappointing. With David C’s choice of song, I couldn’thelp but think of Chris Daughtry’s obsession with Live, a huge band fora brief period, but currently residing deep in the “where are theynow?” file. Does David Cook have the same unapologetic love for OurLady Peace? If it’s an obscure Canadian band he’s looking for, I couldsuggest about a dozen awesome Sloan songs that would rock your socks off.

Truthfully, David looked a little out of it tonight. During hispre-performance shot, he seemed spacey (the outfit wasn’t helping hiscomfort level, I imagine). And unlike Jason Castro’s performance whereall eyes were on him, Simon looked distracted and borderline offendedby David’s descent on the judges’ table. Theatrics, it seems, doesn’tcompensate for a weak song or a shaky delivery.

Needless to say, David’s post-performance demeanor was one of defeatand disappointment, though maybe he wasn’t entirely surprised. Aseveryone knows, what works for the Idol producers, the studioaudience and people voting at home are recognizable, super-popularsongs. Deep album cuts by marginally successful modern rock bands don’texactly cut it on this kind of competition.

It’s a tough night indeed as Carly gives David C. an empathy hug.She’s got a challenge ahead as well, and ambition may have finallygotten the best of her. In the studio, Carly’s take on Queen’s “TheShow Must Go On” sounded downright screechy. The vocal gymnastics,which I’ve been critical of in the past, did nothing for her… onceagain. I wonder: there’s no doubt Carly’s probably the most competentof the girl singers, but why isn’t it coming through week after week?She seems to be slipping to the bottom, and it’s a shame.

Carly claims she was distracted by Simon, but the crowd was alsothrown by the presence of one David Archuleta. The poor kid held astatic smile for a good three minutes straight while positioneddirectly in front of his dad and legions of psycho fans (oneeight-year-old held a sign that read “lick those lips, David A.”) Bythe time the camera rolled, it looked like his jaw was about to break.

Struggling with his nerves, David A. took to the piano, breatheddeep and suddenly seemed at peace again. And if he was aiming to scorepoints with Simon, going with a British superstar’s smash single was asmart call. Robbie Williams’ “Angels” in the UK was like WhitneyHouston’s “I Will Always Love You” here in the US — you couldn’tescape it for a very long time. Plus, David did it justice with acrowd-pleasing performance that had Paula, Nigel and the rest of theroom swaying. Like Simon said, there’s no question he’s coastingthrough to the next round.

David waves goodbye as Brooke, looking more like a Brady with eachpassing week, says hello… to every single person in the front row.Choosing a singer-songwriter powerhouse like Carole King is certainlynot unexpected for Brooke, who has that Carly Simon, ’70s-artifact vibeabout her, but did it resonate? It was hard to tell. Paula sang along,plenty of parents seemed pleased, but the response was kind of tepid.It’s strange — I find Brooke to have great stage manners and a reallystrong presence, but I’ve met some haters, too and I don’t really getit.

No matter, once all was said and done, it was hugs all around on the Idolstage. The eight finalists faced the video screen to watch theirrecaps, Kristy doing a little jig to Jason’s “Over theRainbow” snippet, David Cook clapping for Carly, Syesha fussing withher hair, and David A. blushing through his moment. Ryan, ever thegracious host, shakes hands with all the contestants and calls it anight. With two more days of Idol responsibilities ahead of him, he needs his beauty sleep.

An inspiring night or did your eyes hurt from excessive rolling? Andmore importantly, who’s going home? Speak your piece, PopWatchers…