This season of American Idol really does feel like the End of Times. The singers are dull, half the judges hate each other, and now the show has been hijacked by Lazaro Arbos, the inspirational crooner who was selected by producers for overcoming his stutter. He can't sing on key or remember his lyrics, but Lazaro still outshines all the other divas. He's become the best worst contestant in American Idol history. Even Sanjaya Malakar didn't make it this far.
On Wednesday's episode, the contestants each performed two songs. The judges gave everyone vague praise—including mediocre singers like Janelle Arthur—until it was Lazarro's turn. And then they turned into Mean Girls. After Lazarro's first song, Close to You, Randy Jackson seemed to wake from a long nap. "Yo. Wow. I'm actually kind of speechless," he said. "I think that's the worst performance you've ever had." Mariah Carey broke into a long, incoherent critique—"I say, what's the word, darling? Help me out! Lord in Heaven! Um..."—about key change that was far more painful to watch than the singing. While this was happening, poor Lazarro was wearing a suit that looked like pajamas from The Brady Bunch.
By the time he performed his second song, Angels, the judges had given up. They basically begged America to send the last guy standing home. "The way the girls are singing, it's so crazy good," said nice judge Keith Urban. And even after all that, Lazaro probably won't be leaving the show on Thursday night. Dial Idol has him running in second place. Last week, after rounds of critical drubbing, Lazaro landed in the top three. He has more Twitter followers than all the other contestants except for Angie Miller.
His popularity is complicated. As Idol has faltered badly this season—with some of its lowest ratings ever—Lazaro has been catapulted to the top of the wreck. Many people are voting for him as a way to rebel against the disastrous judging and outdated theme nights that are no match for The Voice, the hipper singing competition on TV. Some fans are also angry at producers for intentionally picking weak male singers as a way to ensure a woman wins Idol this year, which hasn't happened since 2007.
"It's interesting," says Dave Della Terza of Vote for the Worst, which is endorsing Lazaro. "If you look at the people who watch American Idol, who are they going to vote for? It's usually the white guy with the guitar. There isn't one this year. They have to latch on to something, and since Lazaro is the only male contestant, I guess they're latching on to him."
A new online voting feature, which allows fans to cast 50 ballots at once, may also work to Lazaro's advantage. Unlike the other bad contestants of seasons past, Lazaro has turned into a symbol of overcoming adversity.
"He's really invigorated a number of people who stutter," says Jane Fraser, the president of the Stuttering Foundation in Memphis. "Every time we put up a new post, anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people respond. We had a lot of response with The King's Speech and Colin Firth, but I would say this is more."