The "American Idol" judges have changed their tunes since I was on the show.

While there have been some insults tossed at finalists this season, for the most part the judges have gone overboard trying to be constructive. They've said, "That was hideous, and here's why. ..."

People often ask me, "What was the most negative comment you received from the judges?"

Constructive criticism was rare when I was on the show. But I actually gained a lot of insight from hearing, "That was pitchy, dog."

In Season 2, the criticism seemed to be about the shock value. "American Idol" was still fairly new, and a lot of people tuned in just to hear Simon Cowell's mean comments.

Comments like, "That was ghastly," and "Absolutely dreadful" were directed at me. But I also heard him say, "You justified my pick," "You could replace the lead singer in the Dixie Chicks" and "You're unique."

But it was the negative comments I really remembered. They really affected my self-esteem for several years, but they helped me develop a "fighter" attitude.

This season, some finalists have been criticized simply for their song choice. Amanda Overymyer tried to rock out with "Wayward Son" but had a hard time staying on tune. "There were too many instrumental breaks, too much melody," Randy Jackson said. "Keep it bluesy rock. That's your bag!"

When Alaina Whitaker sang "Hopelessly Devoted to You" (a song I sang on "Idol"), Simon said, "It was as if your grandmother prepared you for this audition! It was old-fashioned."

In Season 2, Simon would've stopped right there. But this week, he went on to compliment her. "I think you're one of the dark horses in this competition. You've got to sort yourself out and become relevant."

For the most part, I've agreed with the judges' criticism. But on Wednesday, I thought Syesha Mercado nailed it with an awesome rendition of "Me and Mr. (Mrs.) Jones." But the judges weren't on the same page.

Paula Abdul at least liked how Mercado styled it (although Paula likes how everyone styles his or her songs), but it was Simon's comment that baffled me: "It was a bit indulgent. I thought it was a silly choice (of song) because it wasn't written for a girl."

But sometimes the judges say things just to see how you — and the audience — will react. They want to see if they can break your composure.

One week, Simon told me I "couldn't win the competition." (I was voted off the following night!)

But when host Ryan Seacrest asked if I thought I could win, I replied, "Absolutely! It's about coming back and being better each week, and that's exactly what I've just done."

I saw Simon and Randy nodding. At the commercial break, Ryan complimented me for quick thinking. "The judges wanted to see how you'd react, if you'd let the criticism get to you. Good job!" he said.

After I was voted off, Simon came backstage and said, "Carmen, you've got tough skin. I really respect you for that."

David Hernandez rose to the challenge this week. When Simon told him he didn't belong in the top 24, David developed tough skin and won over the judge.

"This may surprise you," Simon said, "but it was the best vocal of the night so far. ... I like the fact that when you're given criticism, you treat it as a challenge."

But others fought fire with fire. When Simon told David Cook he "didn't have a lot of charisma," Cook replied, "Fortunately, I don't have to win you over with my charisma. I've got to win over (the audience)."

Simon said he was "slightly irritated" with that reply and suggested that Cook listen to "criticism that is actually meant to be constructive."

There were, however, a select few who earned perfect scores. With a beautiful acoustic version of "Imagine" that gave me goose bumps, David Archuleta of Murray basically guaranteed himself a spot in the top 12. (I predict top five.)

Randy gushed that Archuleta was "born to do this."

"Right now, you're the one to beat," Simon said. "And there are 19 very miserable contestants here tonight."

Whether they're miserable because of the criticism they received or because of the competition, one thing's for sure: You've got to have tough skin to compete.

· · · · ·

The dreams of four more "American Idols" hopefuls ended Thursday night in what turned out to be one of the most emotional send-offs in "Idol" history.

Jason Yeager was booted first. Try as he might, he couldn't differentiate himself enough during the past few weeks. "Your problem is, quite simply, you don't stand out from the crowd," Simon Crowell said.

She sang, "Ooo no, baby please don't go..." but unfortunately for Alexandrea Lushington, it was her turn to leave. "It's never the end on this show," Paula said encouragingly after the results. "It's the beginning of your career. So go rock it."

A noticeably shocked Alaina Whitaker broke down after host Ryan Seacrest told her she would be leaving the competition. Kady Malloy, who was also in the bottom three, seemed every bit as surprised as Alaina and did her best to comfort her.

But it was Ryan who gave her the boost she needed. "I can't sing!" she exclaimed through her tears. "I'm so embarrassed!"

"This is not embarrassing at all," Ryan said. "You should be very proud of yourself."

Ryan then gave Alaina the choice to either sing or sit out this last one. She sang and was cheered enthusiastically by the audience.

As tough as it is for the contestants to leave, Paula was right when she said, "This was one of the greatest gifts you could have received, being on this show."

Last to leave was Robbie Carrico. True to style, Simon gave Robbie the brutally honest truth about his early departure: "I think the public saw what we saw — it just never felt real, Robbie. Sorry."

No matter what the contestants choose to do with their lives in the future, they now have had an amazing experience and they can look back and be proud, Ryan said.

Utah recording artist and actress Carmen Rasmusen-Herbert came in sixth place during the second season of "American Idol." She wrote about her experiences in her book, "Staying in Tune." Her first full album is "Nothin' Like the Summer," featuring the single of the same name. E-mail: [email protected]