During the first "Pop Idol," the British precursor to "American Idol," executive producer Nigel Lythgoe suggested a song to one of the contestants.
"There was a young lady with a great voice and register, and I made the mistake of telling her she should do [Toni Braxton's] 'Un-Break My Heart,' " Lythgoe recalled. "She did awful, and one of the judges asked, 'Why did you choose that song?' She said, 'Nigel told me to.' "
Since then, "Pop Idol" and "American Idol" hopefuls have not been allowed to take song-selection advice from producers, making it one of the toughest elements of the contest. And since experts oversee their rehearsals and style choices (see "Fashion Faux Pas Can Cost 'American Idol' Contestants, Stylists Say"), often the song selection is the only decision the contestants make on their own.
When Ryan Seacrest asked George Huff on Monday what the hardest part of "American Idol" is, he answered, "Choosing the right song each week."
"Choosing the right song is very important," Randy Jackson said. "It means a lot of things for us, the judges. It means you know who exactly you are and what your voice fits best."
"That's the most important thing that can make you or break you," added Amy Adams, the third of the final 12 singers eliminated. "A lot of it is strategy, no matter how you look at it."
What makes this season particularly interesting is that each of the singers seems to approach the song decision differently. Fantasia Barrino, for instance, likes to take risks, such as rearranging Queen's classic rocker "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" for big band week. Diana DeGarmo, on the other hand, tends to choose safer songs that showcase the young singer's maturity, like Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."
Of course, there's no guaranteed strategy, and past contestants have differing suggestions.
"After the first Elvis song ... I didn't want to give immediately that same performance again," Jon Peter Lewis said. "I wanted to try different things and different speeds of songs, different styles of songs, different styles of singing and just to see what America would accept me as and what they would like the most."
On the other hand, Adams got her worst responses when she tried something different, slowing it down with the Stylistics hit "You Make Me Feel Brand New." "It probably wasn't the best move," she said. "When I went back with the country week's 'Sin Wagon' [by the Dixie Chicks,] I went in full-force and chose a song that I loved, and it showed. ... I love singing ballads, but my personality doesn't shine through in ballads, so when I get a chance to sing and dance and move around I look like a stronger performer."
Ballads can be especially risky, since they tend to sound safe. "You don't want to do ballad after ballad after ballad," John Stevens said. "You have to change it up occasionally."
Some of the contestants relied on friends and family to help with song selection. "Usually the songs I sang were songs that my parents really liked, and that's one of the reasons I sang them," Camile Velasco said.
"For country week," Stevens said, "I asked my brother because he's a big country music fan. I asked people who knew more about a particular genre than I did, and they helped me along the way."
Adams, however, was against asking advice from anyone. "If you choose to let people have so much say in what you do, then you say, 'Oh, if I only would have listened to myself in the end,' " she explained. "But if you just follow your heart, listen to your gut instinct, then you feel comfortable either way."
Jennifer Hudson took a similar strategy. "When I choose my songs, I like to choose songs that have a meaning or a message, like [Elton John's] 'Circle of Life' and [John Lennon's] 'Imagine,' songs like that," she said. "[The Barry Manilow hit] 'Weekend in New England,' I just had a passion for it."
However, choosing a song based on a personal connection can be problematic, according to Simon Cowell, if it's not a well-known tune.
"It's probably best not to choose an obscure song," he said. "When John Stevens sang 'Mandy' by Barry Manilow, whether or not he sang it well is redundant, point was he did actually choose a very good song that week. And there's a lot of deaf old ladies sitting in America going, 'Well, I like that song.' And I think a lot of people voted for him for that reason."
On the other hand, there's also a risk to singing a classic.
"There's some songs [the judges] don't think should be redone since they were so good in the original," Lythgoe said. " 'At Last,' [recorded by artists ranging from Glenn Miller to Cyndi Lauper,] gets on everyone's nerves. But it should have nothing to do with the songs, it should be the voice and the performance."
Maybe so, but the song is important, and to add to the difficulty of selecting them, there are other obstacles once one is selected. Because the singers are presented with the same options each theme week, sometimes two might want the same song. Singers can come with their own suggestions, but then there is the possibility that "American Idol" producers will be unable to clear the song for television.
Hudson faced that problem with Aretha Franklin's "Since You've Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)," as did Velasco with En Vogue's "Don't Let Go (Love)." "I would have loved to sing a lot of Beatle songs or anything from Van Morrison," Lewis said.
The good news is that the difficult process of selecting music is preparing the contestants who launch music careers after the show.
"The right song is what sells your album," Cowell said. "Take the two Britney Spears records she released on this new album. First one was diabolical. Second one was one of the best pop records this year [and sales of her album increased]. So it applies in real life."