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Michael Sarver, Alexis Grace, Danny Gokey, American Idol Season 8

Frank Micelotta/FOX

The tears! The joy! The laughter!

When Fox President Mike Darnell promised reporters in December that the new season of American Idol would be more "raw," "intimate" and "emotional," he so was not kidding. 

We sat down today with the first three finalists to make it into the coveted Top 12, Danny Gokey, Alexis Grace and Michael Sarver, and the emotions were running high…

For 28-year-old Danny Gokey of Milwaukee, who wowed the audience with his rendition of Mariah Carey's "Hero," the feeling is most certainly bittersweet. His wife passed away just seven months ago.

He told us today in an interview, "She was a huge fan of American Idol, and it's bittersweet. I think people need to know it's OK to move on, because you know you can really dig yourself into a pit of despair...So coming to American Idol has been very, very sweet, because it's brought hope. When there's hope on the horizon, you're ready to live again. I'm still healing, but I feel like this process is bringing healing to my life."

On a happier note, 21-year-old Memphis native Alexis Grace (the one with the cute pink-and-blond hair!) is still reeling after Simon Cowell told her: "You remind me of Kelly Clarkson, same point [in the show], eight years ago. We suddenly went, ‘Wow. This girl is one to watch.' And I think you're the same."

Grace told us she was floored by Simon's comment. "It just motivates me to do better in the competition and be myself and really connect with songs that I choose."

Meanwhile, fellow Top 12-er Michael Sarver, the 27-year-old oil rigger from Jasper, Texas, admitted he's digging the limelight already. "I have been in public places and been noticed. They either know my name or call me the roughneck guy, so whatever works! I love it," he told us.

Added Grace, "I really think we are living the dream right now."

The next three Top 12 contenders will be revealed next Wednesday.

Do you think the right three got in this week? How happy are you that Puerto Rico's Tatiana Nicole Del Toro finally got the boot?! Do you think Idol will help Danny get over his loss? Sound off below.