By John Young
Updated April 08, 2011 at 11:19 AM EDT

Was that Pia’s name I heard? Did America really just send home this season’s most consistently impressive singer? And where was Source Code‘s time-traveling Jake Gyllenhaal when we needed him? Yup, it was all happening, and it was all so wrong.

A number of theories will circulate. Maybe Pia appeared to be such a solid frontrunner that viewers thought she didn’t need their help. Maybe Jennifer Lopez’s positive-but-constructive critique of Pia’s “River Deep — Mountain High” performance sent the wrong message to Americans. And, most likely, maybe it’s because a significant bulk of Idol voters are teenage girls who vote again and again and again for their nonthreatening Kris Allen/Lee DeWyze crushes, thereby eliminating five female singers in a row. Of course, a simple way to even the playing field would be to limit every phone number to one vote, but then Idol couldn’t boast about receiving a gazillion votes each week. Whatever the cause of Pia’s downfall, my fellow audience members were dumbfounded and, more so than I’ve ever seen, angry. Here’s how those final minutes played out in the Idoldome.

During the final commercial break, before Seacrest announced the result that had been determined by Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night puppies, Jacob, Stefano, and Pia made their trek to center stage. Along the way, Jacob and Casey embraced one another in a bear hug that lasted at least 10 seconds. And then it was the moment of truth. The six safe singers leaned forward on the blue couch, with Scotty displaying the focus of a baseball pitcher reading his catcher’s signs. Seacrest psyched Jacob out by saying, “You will be leaving us … and going to safety on the couches.” By Season 20, I imagine Seacrest will be informing contestants that they’re “safe” by saying things like “You will be leaving us … 70 years from now due to natural causes … but as for tonight … you will be joining your fellow contestants … who have already been eliminated … from the not-going-home-tonight list … you’re safe!”

Pia and Stefano were left. Everyone in the Idoldome thought they knew what would happen next. Stefano likely thought the same thing. But Seacrest read off Pia’s name instead, and the audience started booing. This wasn’t “Randy said something mildly critical” booing. This was “we’re furious” booing. Steven Tyler, likewise perturbed, raised his arms and encouraged us to yell even louder. As Pia’s farewell video started playing, the singer clutched Seacrest’s hand. Randy consoled a devastated J.Lo by rubbing her shoulder. And then Seacrest left Pia, walked over to the blue couch, and encouraged the Top 8 to join her onstage. Yet the Top 8 were hesitant. They walked toward Pia but stopped halfway. I think they understood that Pia needed a moment to herself while she tried to comprehend what had just happened.

Pia performed her swan song, the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You,” which ironically begins: “Oh, why you look so sad? / Tears are in your eyes.” And for the very first time, Pia sounded mediocre, but what would you expect from someone who had just gotten the emotional wind knocked out of her? “I couldn’t even breathe at that moment,” Pia later told me in a backstage interview, “so the fact that I could get anything out was a miracle.” Once Pia finished singing, the judges promptly marched onstage, and Haley signaled to the audience to start cheering. The crowd began chanting “Pia! Pia! Pia!” A row of young women screamed, “We love you, Pia!” And one guy shouted, “I’ll buy your record!”

The most noticeable thing, though, was that the audience didn’t budge. Normally, people vacate the Idoldome at the earliest possible second in order to avoid the remote chance of a surprise Rebecca Black concert. But tonight, everyone stood standing in their seats, watching as the various judges and contestants attempted to comfort the season’s best vocalist. J.Lo had an extended conversation with Pia, as did Nigel Lythgoe. And then Pia, the Top 8, and an assortment of stagehands left the stage as one big group, while J.Lo exited the studio via what’s known as the elephant doors (because an elephant could pass through them). On the other side, husband Marc Anthony was waiting for her. But the dejected J.Lo hardly noticed him at first, so Anthony had to settle for a hug from Lythgoe instead.

A few other highlights from the rest of the show:

Marc Anthony won’t be inviting Iggy Pop over: As Iggy — with his suggestive dance moves and three-percent body fat — approached the judges’ table (and specifically Jennifer Lopez), I made sure to keep an eye on Marc Anthony, who was sitting in the audience for the entire show. I could be reading too much into Anthony’s facial expressions, but there were some serious eyebrow twitching going on there. And when the show went to commercial, Cory the Warmup Host asked the audience to “make some noise for Iggy Pop.” The vast majority of the audience applauded, but Anthony most definitely did not.

American Idol won’t be inviting Iggy Pop back: During his “Real Wild Child” performance, the Iggster unleashed the s-word. Debbie the Stage Manager covered her mouth in disbelief, while another Idol production team member simply shook his head.

“We have a Pia in the building.” That’s how Cory introduced Pia as the Top 9 took their places for the opening rock medley. And while waiting for the show to start, Lauren and Lythgoe joined hands for a little ballroom dancing.

Booing practice: One guy in the audience voiced his disapproval when Seacrest introduced the TMZ clip. Seacrest stumbled backward, acting all shocked that someone could find the very existence of TMZ to be appalling.

Hairspray: Casey requested it from the makeup artists even though he promptly put his beanie back on afterward.

Seacrest-Stefano lives on: Stefano was the first contestant sent to the stools of shame, and during the next commercial break, Seacrest walked by and gave him a fist bump. A kind but meaningless gesture, right? However, after Jacob took the last stool, Seacrest walked by once again and this time patted Stefano’s shoulder (while completely ignoring Jacob and Pia). A fist bump AND a shoulder pat? By next week, we may be entering Tim Urban territory.

PopWatchers, why do you think Pia was sent home? Let’s hear your theory. And does Pia’s elimination now virtually guarantee a Scotty McCreery victory?

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