Jacob Lusk Jacob Lusk

When the cameras stopped rolling on Thursday night's American Idol, eliminated contestant Jacob Lusk was just getting started. He took the audience to church, belting out nothing but a joyful chorus. Still singing, he locked arms with Steven Tyler, who joined him on stage in an impromptu dance. Then he switched partners and did a jig with Randy Jackson. Jennifer Lopez gave him a big hug. The other four idols, Ryan Seacrest and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe clapped along, tickled that the elimination had produced such a rollicking party.

For Lusk, it was as if he was free — free from critiques, free from decision-making, free from beating himself up over song choices. He knew he was in trouble after Wednesday night's performance show. "I wanted to pick songs that were different, that maybe people hadn't heard before," he says. "Maybe it backfired."

On stage before the elimination, his dejection was palpable: He looked like a puppy who'd been kicked one too many times. Watching his face as record producer Jimmy Iovine told the world that Jacob had had an "off night" and had "lost confidence" was painful. There's a widespread feeling that Lusk never fulfilled the potential he showed when he wowed the judges with "God Bless the Child" during auditions. The truth is, he shares that feeling.

"I sang that song from a place so real and raw," he says. "I haven't been able to do that in the live show yet, just simply because there's so much other stuff we're trying to do, and we're so focused on the competition. Back then, it wasn't about the competition. It was just, 'I'm here!' It was just me, singing."

And then it became more strategic, and everyone had an opinion. Adds Jacob, "Sometimes, being strategic is good, and sometimes it backfires, because we lose our... authenticity."

On Thursday night, dancing and smiling — that was the real Jacob Lusk.

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