Before “American Idol” sucks you in with the latest crop of contestants, make sure you’re well-versed on the show’s long (and sometimes lurid) history!
From the ear-pleasing highs to the glass-shattering “no!”s, this timeline by MTV News’ “American Idol” expert Jim Cantiello will tell you everything you need to know about the first six seasons: the scandals, the shocking eliminations and the so-bad-they’re-brilliant, oh-no-they-didn’t performances.
Season Six: 2007
WINNER: Jordin Sparks
RUNNER-UP: Blake Lewis
HIGH NOTE (OF THE SEASON): The first time Jordin Sparks sings “I (Who Have Nothing)” proves that the 17-year-old is a major contender in the competition, giving older, more seasoned singers like Melinda Doolittle a run for their money. (However, the second time Jordin sings the Shirley Bassey classic proves Sparks is less an emotionally mature 17-year-old and more an easily programmed teen-bot.)
LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): During Diana Ross week, similarly follicled Chris Sligh takes “Endless Love” and Coldplay’s “Clocks,” throws them in a blender and hits the “pulverize” button. The result is a 90-second performance of whiny high notes and off-kilter melody tweaks. Appropriate enough, it feels endless.
HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: Kristen Wiig look-alike Nicole Tranquillo doesn’t survive one week of the semifinals, and you can’t really blame America, considering the wild-eyed caterwauling she displays on Chaka Khan’s “Stay.” Between the funny faces, the spastic body jerks (I don’t dare call it dancing), and the cocky persona, Nicole emerges as the looniest, most passionate contestant of the season. No surprise that Nicole is Paula’s favorite singer.
SEASON SHOCKER: A 16-year-old country crooner named Baylie Brown wows viewers with an audition that Simon calls “commercial with a capital C.” Many expect to see her in the finals, only to be floored a few weeks later when, during Hollywood Week, the judges cut Baylie for forgetting the lyrics (even though her groupmate Antonella Barba — more on her below — makes it through to the next rounds despite also drawing a blank). Later in the season, arguably the best singer in “Idol” history, Melinda Doolittle, fails to make the top two as beatboxer Blake Lewis and young whippersnapper Jordin Sparks move on to the finale. You know it’s a shock when even Simon Cowell looks sincerely flabbergasted.
SEASON SCANDALS: In the midst of the semifinals, PG-13-rated photos of Antonella Barba surface, some of which show her either cavorting around a veterans memorial in a wet T-shirt or sitting on a toilet. (Additional X-rated photos that claim to be of Barba are quickly proven to be fake .) Producers keep Antonella around, which prompts Frenchie Davis fans (Rosie O’Donnell included) to cry racism. Alas, America isn’t feeling Antonella’s vocal stylings and sends her back to New Jersey the final week of the semis. Once in the top 12, iffy contestant Sanjaya Malakar somehow avoids the dreaded “bottom three” for several weeks. Howard Stern and VoteForTheWorst.com take credit for his longevity after running public campaigns to keep the less-than-outstanding singer around as long as possible. And finally, during the finale, Clive Davis spends what feels like 45 minutes praising Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Taylor Hicks, Kellie Pickler — hell, practically every “Idol” contestant except Kelly Clarkson, with whom he’s embroiled in a very public dispute over the creative direction of her angry album “My December.” (In a delicious TV moment, after Clarkson finishes ripping through her single “Never Again,” the “Idol” director cuts to an awkward audience-reaction shot of Davis.)
CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY : Season six suffers from I.I.C., or “Idol Identity Crisis.” Rather than focusing on the one thing fans actually care about — the contestants — “Idol” instead acts like Angelina Jolie (“Idol Gives Back”); “TRL” (patience-testing appearances by Fergie, Gwen Stefani, Akon, J. Lo and Robin Thicke, to name a few); and NASCAR (even more product placement than usual). During the competition, Blake Lewis and Chris Sligh take major risks with contemporary song choices and their own modern arrangements of classic tunes, letting audiences know that they’re more than just karaoke stars. Meanwhile, Sanjaya’s outrageous hairstyles and awkward disposition make him a household name (and the punch line to countless late-night talk-show jokes). Toward the end of the season, producers hold a songwriting competition to fight off complaints from viewers that the “Idol” coronation song is always too sappy. Ironically, America chooses “This Is My Now” (perhaps the sappiest song yet) as the big finale single. The first season during which numbers are dangerously down — both in ratings and in album sales — suggests that “Idol” isn’t invincible. And lastly, a little girl named Ashley Ferl becomes an overnight celebrity after she spends the entirety of Sanjaya’s “You Really Got Me” in hysterics.
Season Five: 2006
WINNER: Taylor Hicks
RUNNER-UP: Katharine McPhee
HIGH NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Paris Bennett’s “Take Five” (from her first audition) still gives me goose bumps with every single note. It’s so genius that Paula’s sheep-like “Ya-a-a-a-a-a” reaction is poetry compared to the joyful-but-bizarre noises I made when I first heard Bennett. It’s really unfortunate that during her “Idol” run Princess P never tops this flawless first impression.
LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Ace Young squeezes Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” out of his voice box and then exposes his chest to reveal a scar … while he sings a lyric about a scar. Seriously, dude? P.S.: It looks like special-effects makeup, if you ask me.
HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: In the season’s semifinal kickoff, Manilooney (and just plain looney) Bobby Bennett proves that what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas, and fans of all things campy hit the jackpot. Between the wide-eyed mugging, the “Liza with a Z” jazz hands and the song dedication to his dead “gram,” Bennett’s performance is deranged enough for you to think that John Waters cast this round of “Idol.”
SEASON SHOCKER: The two-hour season finale is so jam-packed with surprise guests, weeping random audience members and cheesetastic group numbers that for once “Idol” airs a results show that isn’t 99 percent boring filler — and that might be the biggest “Idol” shocker ever.
SEASON SCANDALS: Any plus-size divas out there? Take note: Gay men will probably make up most of your fanbase, so don’t pull a Mandisa. The singer cites “Pray the Gay Away” preacher Beth Moore as a personal hero, and then busts out some spoken word at the top of a song that comes off as being … questionable: “Your addiction, lifestyle and situation may be big, but God is bigger!” Regardless of ’Disa’s clarification attempt — “When I said ’lifestyle’ I was talking about my food addiction” — the harm is already done and her fans flee. A week later, she goes bye-bye. On an also-ran note, flamboyant identical twins Derrell and Terrell Brittenum are “uninvited” from the competition after they’re thrown in jail for a 2005 incident in which they allegedly stole a man’s identity to buy a car. Thankfully, their arrest happens after the Hollywood Week episodes taped, so viewers are still treated to their fair share of Brittenum-related diva tantrums and hissy fits.
CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY : Considering nine out of the 12 finalists score music deals (including fourth-placer Chris Daughtry whose debut album breaks records), it goes to show you that you don’t have to win “American Idol” to have a career — and considering the fizzling sales of Katharine’s and Taylor’s records, it goes to show you that winning “American Idol” (or at least making it to the finale) doesn’t guarantee a career, either. (Both Kat and Taylor were dropped from their record labels in early 2008.)
Season Four: 2005
WINNER: Carrie Underwood
RUNNER-UP: Bo Bice
HIGH-NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Rockers Bo Bice and Constantine Maroulis each have their moment in the sun. Bice’s a cappella “In a Dream” stops everyone dead in their tracks, while Constantine’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not the train wreck it should be. Ironically, country star Carrie Underwood shines brightest when singing a rock song, Heart’s “Alone.”
LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): I’m tempted to pick Anthony Federov’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” only so I can mention Simon’s hilariously simple “hideous” assessment, but Mikalah Gordon’s “Love Will Lead You Back” is far too offensive to overlook. The hyperactive teen takes Taylor Dayne’s lush ballad and sings it like a goose warning its gaggle of imminent danger: 92 seconds of ear torture.
HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: The theme is ” ’70s Dance Music” (or, as everyone else in the world calls it, disco), and lucky for us, country fembot Carrie Underwood is not wired to handle it. During her dazed, confused and downright petrified “MacArthur Park,” someone switches the Underwood-4000’s vocal mode to “4-year-old pageant queen” and her hairstyle to “40-year-old drag queen.” Yes!
SEASON SHOCKER: Judd Harris’ elimination is a jaw-dropper — not necessarily because we expect him to advance, but because of the manner in which he is eliminated. During the semifinals, Seacrest tells the front row (Judd included) to sit pretty and relax. Then, after “safe”-ing each of the back row’s contestants, the host, without any warning, turns back to the couch and announces, “Judd, you are out.” If there’s such a thing as karma, Seacrest is in for one hell of a firing some day.
SEASON SCANDALS: Days before the top 12 are set to hit the stage, front-runner Mario Vazquez drops out of the show for personal reasons. (A lawsuit filed against Vazquez in 2007 claims he pulled a George Michael on a crew member. Whoa!) Later in the season, “Idol” is forced to hold a re-vote after a production error displays incorrect phone numbers on a performance show. Oops! The “Idol” gods save the best scandal for last, however. Season-two degenerate Corey Clark (see season-two scandals below) re-emerges with an inflammatory book to sell. In it, he claims that the real reason he was DQ’d from the show back in ’03 was because he was having an illicit affair with Abdul. On a sensational prime-time news special (called — wait for it — “Fallen Idol”) the former contestant speaks (and sings) about his “relationship” in graphic detail. (I’m still trying to track down an MP3 of the song “Paulatics,” by the way.) Abdul denies it, “Idol” hires a private-investigative team, and wouldn’t you know it? They conclude that Paula was straight-up telling the truth.
CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY: The “rockers” put a much-needed new spin on the “Idol” formula, juicing up the competition with a fresh, unexpected energy. (There are only so many times you can hear an amateur destroy “My Cherie Amour,” right?) Also, in order to prevent season three’s crazy gender gap, the show institutes the six boys/ six girls top-12 quota we all know and loathe. Plus, producers get even looser with their moral code. The show barely bats an eyelash when domestic charges against Scott Savol and past drug arrests for finalist Bo become public. (Audiences don’t seem to care, either.) And finally, the first country “Idol” is crowned and goes on to become one of the biggest names in the genre, while Bo the Rocker’s career flat-lines.
Season Three: 2004
WINNER: Fantasia Barrino
RUNNER-UP: Diana DeGarmo
HIGH NOTE (OF THE SEASON): If you look up “wow moment” in the “Idol” dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Fantasia singing her signature “Summertime.”
LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Poor John Stevens. Unless it’s standards night, there’s no way in hell the crooner can succeed. But there’s no excuse for his listless Latin-night offering, “Music of the Heart.” Simon says it best when he tells the young singer, “You and Latin music go together like chocolate ice cream and an onion.” That actually sounds appetizing compared to this painful schlock-a-thon. And this dude outlasts Jennifer Hudson?
HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: Camile Velasco is a walking disaster: The girl has such bad stage fright that every time she performs, it looks like she is one swallow away from projectile vomiting all over the judges. Maybe meeting her idol Elton John will loosen her up? Nah. She turns “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” into a whiny, cat-in-heat debacle. I break into cold sweats just thinking about it — while simultaneously wishing it were my ringtone.
SEASON SHOCKER: Is it the result of racism (Sir Elton’s theory), a random side effect of an Illinois tornado (Al Roker’s theory) or just plain vote-splitting (common-sense theory)? Whatever the case, the bottom three of Barry Manilow week end up being the best singers of the season: Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and La Toya London, dubbed “The Three Divas” by Ryan Seacrest. (The future Oscar winner is the one to say goodbye.) Three weeks later, the two remaining divas land at the bottom again, as the perennially pitchy Jasmine Trias sits pretty on the “safe” couch. Paula solemnly notes that “America got it wrong” before sobbing uncontrollably as La Toya sings her swan song.
SEASON SCANDALS: Midway through the competition, the increasingly loopy Paula Abdul begins showing up to “Idol” with her arm in a sling. The judge tells “Entertainment Tonight” that she almost lost her thumb in a freak manicure accident, but never fully explains why her entire arm has to be cradled. Two years later, in what might be the oddest celebrity cause ever, Abdul pressures California lawmakers to enforce nail-salon regulations. You can keep your African poverty, Bono. Abdul wants our cuticles protected!
CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY: Because of the gospel-influenced divas, season three is remembered as the year “Idol” went to church. (No wonder watching Fantasia’s post-win performance of “I Believe” is a religious experience!) Season three is also notorious for “discovering” William Hung, a naive Asian civil-engineering student who auditions for the show and is catapulted into the limelight thanks to a severely off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.” His fame (and record contract) births a new breed of “Idol” celebrity: the freak show.
Season Two: 2003
WINNER: Ruben Studdard
RUNNER-UP: Clay Aiken
HIGH NOTE (OF THE SEASON): During Hollywood Week, the big (voiced) girls Frenchie Davis and Kimberley Locke band together for a diva-licious duet of “Band of Gold.” It’s supposed to be a group number, but the other female contestants are too chicken to share the stage with the two best singers in the batch. They’re smart to steer clear.
LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Deciding on the worst Carmen Rasmussen performance is like choosing between death by a swarm of bees or toothpick stabbing. I’ll go with her Wild Card performance, where Simon puts the attractive-but-tone-deaf singer through to the top 12 even though he says her “Can’t Find the Moonlight” was awful. Typical!
HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: Marine Josh Gracin performs “Jive Talkin’ ” like he’s trying to pick a fight with everyone in America at once. The hand-held camera remains about 4 inches away from his face as he walks through the crowd, making “give it to me” hand gestures for a minute straight for no apparent reason. Did I mention that his facial expressions make him look like a dude in a porno? It is stunning in its wrongness.
SEASON SHOCKER: Aside from the ousted contestants (see scandals below) and the terrifying Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire being a guest judge, the biggest shock has to be that the formerly annoying Ryan Seacrest is a lot more likeable without scripted banter and an unnecessary co-host at his side. Sorry, Brian Dunkleman!
SEASON SCANDALS: Pack a lunch — it’s gonna take awhile to weed through all this. First, before the semifinals begin, front-runner Frenchie Davis is told to hit the road after it is uncovered that she has modeled topless for a skuzzy porn site. Although Frenchie says she was honest to executives about her past, the same cannot be said about Corey Clark. Nine hours after the Smoking Gun posts a mug shot of the alleged sister-beater, the blindsided producers oust Corey from “Idol.” And lastly, Trenyce is humiliated when her especially unglamorous mug shot (for a 1999 felony theft charge) pops up on the Internet. Producers let her stay because of her honesty, but America ends up doing the show’s dirty work by voting her off.
CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY : By casting Ruben, Clay, Kimberley and Frenchie, “AI 2″ broadens America’s definition of “pop-star image.” Fans eat it up. However, by voting on voice over looks, the season ends up being fairly predictable, where the singer who deserves to go home each week does. The final Ruben/Clay showdown is a tight race (one that Seacrest calls a “photo finish”), and although Studdard is the victor, Aiken ultimately wipes the floor with him in record sales. The disqualified Frenchie ends up paving a path that several “Idol” contestants (including Aiken) will follow once their pop music careers stall: Broadway. Speaking of struggling singers, in 2007, Ruben wins a new title: First “Idol” to be dropped by a record label. Ouch.
Season One: 2002
WINNER: Kelly Clarkson
RUNNER-UP: Justin Guarini
HIGH NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Simon may have called Tamyra Gray’s “A House Is Not a Home” one of the best performances on TV ever, but I’m still partial to Kelly Clarkson’s offering on big-band night. Her “Stuff Like That There” is sassy, flirty and oozes sex appeal without being over-the-top. (Haley Scarnato, take note!) Bonus points for making me finally understand a genre of music I thought only my grandparents liked. (Xtina, take note!) Christina Christian’s mesmerizing “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a close second.
LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Between the Molly Ringwald dance moves and singing that would make Ashlee Simpson wince, “rocker” Nikki McKibbin’s “Always Something There to Remind Me” is a complete and utter disaster. The arrangement certainly doesn’t help (nothing says “hard rock” like bad drum programming and an inexplicable “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”-style Vegas breakdown, right?), but the performance truly crosses the line in its final moments, when the single mom panders for votes by
pimping her son accepting a rose from her kid. Even Paula hates it.
HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: From the “I see London, I see France” miniskirt to the manic delivery, Ryan Starr’s “Frim Fram Sauce” had me clapping with catty glee. How she’s able to stay so hilariously earnest while singing a song about wanting “chafafa on the side” blows my mind.
SEASON SHOCKER: Thanks to a lame Patti LaBelle song choice, über-talented Tamyra gets ousted before the shaky-at-best Nikki McKibbin. An emotional McKibbin is propelled into the top three, the studio audience boos, and in five seconds, “Idol” becomes the most unpredictable show on TV.
SEASON SCANDALS: Some cry foul when Christina Christian’s elimination falls on the same night she happens to be recuperating in a hospital bed due to “exhaustion.” (It’s even fishier considering her solid performance that week.) For non-conspiracy theorists, the big scandal occurrs in the semifinals when contestant Delano Cagnolati is disqualified for lying about his age. (The equally forgettable Ejay Day replaces him.)
CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY : More than just “the season with two hosts,” season one lays the low-budget foundation for what will later become the “American Idol” empire. Several seasons — and “Idol” winners — later, purists still point to Kelly Clarkson as the only true “Idol.” Her record sales suggest the same, although both Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry have had impressive-so-far post-“Idol” careers as well (sales-wise, anyway). Clarkson’s first single breaks a record previously held by the Beatles (!!!) and her first two albums sell a bajillion copies. (Actually, it’s more like 12.5 million.) In the broadcast world, reality-show producers bark in unison, “GET ME A CRANKY BRITISH JUDGE!” (see “So You Think You Can Dance and/or Ice-Skate With the Stars and Have Talent?!”), while an ill-conceived (and rushed) attempt at big-screen domination results in one of the worst movies of all time. Paula Abdul enjoys fame again — this time without the help of an animated cat. And lastly, America learns a new word: pitchy.
Which season was your favorite? Do you think season seven will stand the test of time? And will this show ever end?
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