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Last Night's Idol: Jordin Leads the Pack

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PEOPLE critic Tom Gliatto thinks the teenager triumphed with her emotional song …

Episode 32

Tuesday night was the first of two nights called Idol Gives Back and devoted to raising money to fight poverty both in Africa and in America. The only mentor guiding the singers, really, was human kindness, with the finalists choosing inspiring songs. Actually, there’s a small lack of synchronicity here: the singer who’s eliminated on Wednesday likely may suffer some odd twinge at being sent home for a good cause. But there are worse problems, no? Like poverty.

Chris Richardson began the night singing Eric Clapton’s “Change the World.” I found myself thinking, “Oh, I wonder what inspiring song Sanjaya will pick tonight,” and then had a brief letdown remembering that he was gone. I don’t think the guy’s name came up once. Chris was no better than usual, but Simon was pleased, and announced with great satisfaction: “The competition starts properly tonight.”

I think it may actually have ended by the close of the hour: That’s when 17-year-old Jordin Sparks triumphed with the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” She sang with a soulful, melting emotionalism. Melinda Doolittle was also in good, fiery form, but no one else was in the same league. Blake Lewis, LaKisha Jones, Phil Stacey and Chris all were, in a word, unspired. Those first two will probably be Wednesday’s bottom two.

The results show will be expanded into a star-studded, two-hour event featuring Kelly Clarkson, Jack Black, Celine Dion and guest mentor Bono and cohosted by Ellen DeGeneres.

For more from last night, see AOL’s Idol coverage.