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Revisiting Every Season of ‘American Idol’

Three Ringer staffers look back on the good (Kelly Clarkson!), the bad (Sanjaya!), and the viral (“Pants on the Ground,” anyone?) from the show’s first 15 seasons

Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The moment you’ve been waiting for is finally here: American Idol is coming back! It’s gonna be just like it was in the good ol’ days! OK, well, none of the original judges, or even the replacement judges, are returning: the new trio is Katy Perry (interesting!), Luke Bryan (not interesting!), and Lionel Richie (wow, they got him?). No one is saying “dawg” too much or wearing disconcertedly deep V-neck T-shirts. Also, the show’s not on Fox anymore; it’s on ABC. Admittedly, many things have changed.

What’s yet to be determined is whether this new version of American Idol will have the cultural importance and star-making ability that the old version had at its height. The prognosis is probably not great. In the early-to-mid-2000s, Idol was arguably the most important show on television. Between 2004 and 2011, it had an unprecedented streak as the most-watched program on TV. And in those years (and before them), it produced singers who would go on to be genuine, legitimate figures in the music industry: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson. Most reality competition shows struggle to keep the promises that lie at their centers—The Bachelor is a show about finding everlasting love that in actuality has a success rate of 5 percent—but for a while, Idol did produce idols. That’s remarkable.

But what we’re here to ask today is: Did American Idol—and by extension, the American voting public—always make the right choice? Was the winner each season the true star and/or fully representative of the respective moment in music? To revisit each season of Idol, I enlisted Ringer staff writer Miles Surrey. He provided a valuable perspective different from mine because he was not an avid viewer of the show in its heyday. When Ruben Studdard won Season 2, he was still teething (more or less). Miles and I talked out each season and then made our own selections for who should have been the winner; sometimes, when necessary, we looked outside of the contestant pool to make our selections. We then brought our findings to Ringer staff writer and all-around music smart person–historian, Rob Harvilla, so that he could review them and make a final determination.

Grab yourself a giant glass of Coca-Cola, and let’s begin. —Andrew Gruttadaro

Season 1

Who Won: Kelly Clarkson
Runner-up: Justin Guarini

Gruttadaro: First of all, not enough people have seen the classic film From Justin to Kelly; I have no idea why the Extended American Idol Universe never took off.

Anyway, while I do think Kelly Clarkson has taken full advantage of winning the inaugural Idol season—this woman has had hits forever and she once inspired this person I know to make a Kelly Clarkson appreciation website for their senior year HTML class (OK, fine, it was me)—there’s someone we all forgot about from that first season: Brian Dunkleman. The Dunk was the other host; the one who was not Ryan Seacrest; the one would not go on to have his own radio show, executive-produce Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and beg celebrities to talk to him on the Oscars red carpet. Dunk left the show after this first season, before Idol took off as a phenomenon, and as a result he’s been erased from our memories.

If I had the power to go back to 2002—which I do in this hypothetical exercise—I would make Brian Dunkleman the winner of American Idol Season 1. That way, maybe he’d stay on as a cohost and Ryan Seacrest wouldn’t have become so … Ryan Seacrest–y. Also? It would have been an extremely baller move for a singing competition show to, in its first season ever, pull off a twist in which one of its hosts wins without ever singing.

Miles Surrey: Come on, it was thrilling to watch Kelly Clarkson in that first season. She passed whatever the singing version of an eye test (ear test?) is and gave the impression of a star from the onset. It’s a much deserved win, and, Andrew, I’d like to see that Kelly Clarkson website you made.

Gruttadaro: Let me call up Mr. Maxwell.

The Critic’s Corner Starring Rob Harvilla: LMAO at the notion that you guys are gonna trick me into speaking against Kelly Clarkson in a public forum. Her career arc (viral-for-her-time sensation > legit pop superstar > embattled seeker of independence > respected veteran with fearsome range) is much richer than the show’s, and her appeal in 2018 is far broader and more … human. Few other winners of this show have produced a song half as good as even, like, “My Life Would Suck Without You.”

Meanwhile, Justin Guarini is now doing surrealist Diet Dr Pepper commercials that unpleasantly recontextualized my recent FXNOW binge-watch of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. So let’s get it in writing that without Clarkson, this show would’ve been hosed and probably canceled within two years, which perhaps would’ve saved us all a lot of grief, long-term.

As for Brian Dunkleman, I’ve never heard that name in my life, and all I have to say is that I’ve had this tab open for half an hour, and I still can’t decide who to look at.

Season 2

Who Won: Ruben Studdard
Runner-up: Clay Aiken

Surrey: Even though Season 1 was the year that might’ve produced Idol’s biggest ever star, Season 2 felt like the show’s first step toward embedding itself in the pop culture lexicon. And by that metric, as good as Ruben Studdard was, the winner should’ve been Clay Aiken. He’s the name from Season 2 we remember most, and he has the numbers—a multiplatinum debut album!—to back it up. Forget about that time on The Celebrity Apprentice for a second. Aiken’s done great humanitarian work with his exposure. Might as well make him a winner, too.

Gruttadaro: Miles, Miles, Miles. A vote for Clay Aiken is a vote for a man who in 2016 said of now-President Donald Trump, “I like him as a person. I always say, he’s kind of like the uncle who gets drunk at the wedding and embarrasses you.” Sure, he later apologized for that and called himself “a fucking dumbass,” but the damage had been done. The good people of North Carolina had been led astray by their once-prospective U.S. representative. I shudder to think about what he would have done as an Idol champion.

Ruben Studdard said, “Sorry for / 2004.” The man apologized to his woman for an entire year. He named almost every month of the year and was like, “Sorry for all of ’em, baby.”

What a respectably irrational thing to do. Clay Aiken could never.

The Critic’s Corner: As a professional Guy Who Needs a Haircut, I feel a certain kinship with Clay Aiken, who housed “Unchained Melody” that one time and certainly would’ve done a better job representing North Carolina than most of the clowns currently representing North Carolina. Save a failed House bid here or a satisfactory Biggest Loser appearance there, both of these guys have settled into comfortable roles as low-impact, interpreter-of-old-standards types. And while I find Ruben’s version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” to be quite goopy, it seems as though career-wise, both these dudes got what they wanted, while the show, which wanted another legit pop star, did not. Who won is less important than the fact that Idol, in what quickly became a theme, lost. Also, the only people who ever needed to apologize for 2004 are Kobe Bryant, Ashlee Simpson, and George W. Bush.

Season 3

Who Won: Fantasia Barrino
Runner-up: Diana DeGarmo

Gruttadaro: Ummmm, Jennifer Hudson was on this season; she finished seventh. Now she’s halfway to EGOTing. America messed this one up.

Surrey: I’m sorry, Jennifer Hudson finished seventh?! This is just embarrassing. Do you think Jennifer Hudson knows the name of every person who finished ahead of her that season and is perpetually salty about it, like Draymond Green and Aaron Rodgers?

On second thought, having an Oscar and two Grammys probably means you don’t care as much about the journey than the destination. Everyone knows who Jennifer Hudson is. Actual winner Fantasia isn’t bad either, but I still associate that name more with the Disney movie, which should tell you everything.

The Critic’s Corner: Did you know that Jennifer Hudson was eliminated on Barry Manilow Night? Sheesh. In retrospect, this call is obvious to the point of insulting, and any time Elton John is describing the voting process as “incredibly racist,” I think it’s safe to say your show has lost its way. But spare some sympathy for Fantasia, who did not ask to be remembered as the “Karl Malone for MVP” of Idol winners, and who did a fine job howling through “Summertime” for a grand finale while not even bothering to get to her feet. At that point I think America as a whole needed to lie down.

Season 4

Who Won: Carrie Underwood
Runner-up: Bo Bice

Surrey: If Carrie Underwood didn’t win American Idol Season 4, would anybody let us know that we’ve been waiting all day for Sunday Night Football? Let’s not mess up a good thing.

Gruttadaro: [Yells] “ON NBC!!!” Going back over these seasons of American Idol, it really is amazing to see how much power the show had as a star-maker. The Voice has not produced any Carrie Underwoods or Kelly Clarksons, or even any Phillip Phillipses for that matter. Underwood was a star when she was a contestant on Idol, and she hasn’t disappointed since winning. To say the right choice was made in Season 4 is an understatement.

But can we hold a moment of silence for runner-up Bo Bice and his “gnarly” Season 4 counterpart, Constantine Maroulis? What a time, 2005, when America fell in love with two shaggy-haired, modern-day Bret Michaels clones who did bad covers of “Free Bird” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Surrey: [Silence.]

Gruttadaro: Thank you. … That was nice.

The Critic’s Corner: True fact no. 1: Carrie’s version of Heart’s “Alone” is the single greatest performance in Idol history:

(Stick with that video for the judges’ comments; Simon pegs her as a superstar immediately.)

True fact no. 2: My wife once announced her pregnancy on Facebook via a Carrie Underwood meet-and-greet photo. True fact no. 3: I saw Constantine Maroulis in the nascent, off-Broadway version of the hair-metal jukebox musical Rock of Ages, in the role that Tom Cruise played in the movie.

Constantine was wayyyyy more believable. Even the losers won that year; they should’ve blown this show up for good five seconds after the finale aired.

Season 5

Who Won: Taylor Hicks
Runner-up: Katharine McPhee

Gruttadaro: How. How did a 29-year-old man who looked 55 win American Idol? (Also, you can’t convince me that Taylor Hicks didn’t grow up to be Paul Hollywood from The Great British Bake Off.) Hicks is situated right in between the aforementioned Bo Bice–Constantine Maroulis tag team and the soon-to-be-mentioned Sanjaya Malakar. His victory in Season 5 is the result of the trend in which Idol voters began making their choices not based on who has the potential to be the biggest star, but who is the most charming and affable, or who is the quirkiest, or which vote is the funniest to cast. Hicks won specifically because he wasn’t the cookie-cutter star material that Carrie Underwood was—and what do ya know, he also had the opposite amount of success as Underwood did.

But I can’t in good conscience say that Katharine McPhee should’ve won either. Have you seen Smash? So, and this pains me to say it, I think Chris Daughtry, of the band Daughtry, should have won. The guy had a respectable voice, was far more convincing as a rock star than Bo Bice, and had the charisma and presence necessary to at least in theory become an “idol.”

I can’t support his soul patch or choice to sing only Fuel (basically), but I think he deserved the Season 5 crown more than anyone else did.

Surrey: Andrew, I have two words for you.

Gruttadaro: What’s that?

Surrey: SOUL PATROL!!!!!

Gruttadaro: You’re fired.

The Critic’s Corner: As a Browns fan, I find the parallels between Taylor Hicks and Brandon Weeden (the QB we drafted in 2012 despite him plainly being 45 years old) a little discomfiting. Simon Cowell’s total contempt for Hicks (from the beginning!) is this season’s sole redeeming quality, and reasserts that Simon was always the only remotely intelligent person on this show. All I can tell you about Katharine McPhee is that, in a continuation of this year’s old-guy theme, she is younger than several of her current boyfriend’s daughters. So I will grudgingly concur that Daughtry, a.k.a. Nickelback Incarnate, is the move here. Butt-rockers can be idols, too.

Season 6

Who Won: Jordin Sparks
Runner-up: Blake Lewis

Surrey: There are myriad scenarios where the advent of Twitter would’ve made something of the past way more entertaining. What if Michael Jordan had Twitter? What if we had live-tweeted O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase? What if Nicolaus Copernicus was like “Smh, these narcissists actually think the sun revolves around us?!” Add Idol Season 6 to the list, because Sanjaya Malakar.

I love Sanjaya. He was an objectively bad-to-mediocre singer who somehow made it to the Top 7 from fan voting, mostly because he was adorable and it became funnier and funnier every time he outlasted a more talented contestant. He irritated the hell out of Simon Cowell. In another era, he’d have become primo meme fodder and spawned thousands of Sanjaya Twitter fan accounts. Sanjaya was everything an Idol winner should be, minus the talent. And shouldn’t that come secondary to meme potential, anyway?

Gruttadaro: In case you don’t know, it was Howard Stern who popularized the movement to ironically back Sanjaya. “We’re corrupting the entire thing,” Stern said on his radio show in 2007. “It’s so great. The No. 1 show in television and it’s getting ruined.” The whole Sanjaya fiasco is Twitter in a nutshell, this cynical instinct to corrupt something successful and genuine and well-meaning just because it’s successful and genuine and well-meaning. If Twitter had existed when this season was going on, Sanjaya would have won, hands down, and Idol would have been forced to dismantle its voting system.

But I agree with you, Miles. He’s the right pick for this season. He is the one who predicted the state we find ourselves in in 2018; he is the one who showed us that because we are all terrible people, the most we deserve in return is something or someone that is also terrible.

Miles: Well then, that got dark.

The Critic’s Corner: The truth is that every year I’d try to get really into this show—there was a time when Idol recaps were the only profitable form of rock criticism—and every year I’d bail somewhere in the midst of the early episodes, when the focus was entirely on mocking the lousiest contestants, à la William Hung. So I can appreciate the Sanjaya-as-saboteur approach in theory, but after revisiting his woeful version of “Something to Talk About,” I find it unwatchable in practice. (I am obviously very protective of Bonnie Raitt.) The point that the show’s viral embarrassments came to overwhelm its ostensible victors is well taken. But I will say that I really liked this Blake Lewis song for like 20 minutes somewhere in the dog days of 2007. I have many regrets, but this show oughta have way more.

Season 7

Who Won: David Cook
Runner-up: David Archuleta

Gruttadaro: After the Sanjaya season, you can feel Idol losing its place in the cultural zeitgeist. It no longer carried that palpable sense that winning meant something important—it was just another singing competition. Case in point, the talent pool in Season 7 was remarkably weak. The David who won was a guy with a Gossip Girl haircut and a Scott Stapp–y voice who did soft rock covers of “Billie Jean”; the David who lost was a mopey teen. Some also-rans include a bro with dreadlocks, a scream-singing woman who looked like Elvira, and a lesser Carrie Underwood who frequently made funny faces:

Photo of a blond woman with her eyes bugged out singing into a microphone Fox

No one from this group was going to become a star, and I think everyone knew it.

Surrey: You have to pick someone!

Gruttadaro: FINE. I will pick Danny Noriega, the kid from Azusa, California, who had an amazing amount of attitude. Watch this performance of “Tainted Love”:

So. Much. Sass. Danny—who has since appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race and released music under the name Adore Delano—had more charisma than the rest of the Season 7 cast combined. Watch Noriega, who identifies as nonbinary, roll their eyes at Simon Cowell:

GIF of Danny Noriega rolling their eyes Fox

Watch them do this weird hand gesture when Simon tries to shit on them:

GIF of Danny Noriega reacting to Simon Cowell’s criticism with a bored look and a circular hand motion Fox

This kid was the Adam Rippon of American Idol. They should have won for that reason alone.

Surrey: Correct on both fronts: Idol was losing its cultural impact, and the competition was weak. This was also the last year we got the trio of Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell together (in Season 8, Kara DioGuardi joined the panel and never really jelled, and Cowell was out after Season 9), so why don’t we make them the amorphous winner of this season.

It was their dynamic—mostly, Abdul and Cowell arguing while Jackson was like “Dawg, you guys need to chill”—that helped turn Idol into a reality TV touchstone. “You’re so obnoxious today,” Abdul once said to Cowell, which applies to nearly a decade onscreen together.

The Critic’s Corner: Ah yes, Danny Noriega. The real Noriega. Jason Castro was really something: He looked like an Olsen twin going through a Bob Marley phase. I must admit that I really dug David Cook’s version of “Billie Jean,” and felt totally betrayed when I realized it was just a version of Chris Cornell’s version; the show’s copy-of-a-copy vibe was a little too pronounced by this point. But he’s the best-case scenario amid this worst-case scenario: In real time, all the rock critics grudgingly recapping Idol for a living were totally fed up with David Archuleta, who seemed to be the odds-on favorite despite doing things like visiting great violence upon “Imagine,” which IIRC is notably antiviolence. Hard agree that overall, this is where the wheels come off and stay off.

Season 8

Who Won: Kris Allen
Runner-up: Adam Lambert

Surrey: New rule: Anyone who can go on tour with Queen, as Adam Lambert did, should probably win their Idol season over [squints] the guy who continued a prevailing narrative that male Idol winners are cursed. (Imagine the Madden curse, but for singers. It makes no sense yet it makes all the sense.) Maybe they are cursed, and only male runner-ups (Clay Aiken, Bo Bice, Lambert) can flourish! But if we were to redo Idol and make sure the proper singers got recognized, maybe the curse wouldn’t exist in the first place.

I’m not overthinking this, right, Andrew?

Gruttadaro: You, sir, are not. Adam Lambert was a great performer with undeniable star power. But I’d just like to point out: Danny Noriega died so that Adam Lambert could live.

The Critic’s Corner: Yeah, Lambert is another offensively easy call at a point when the show overall had grown hard to love and impossible to enjoy. Notably, this season brought us the great Kara DioGuardi vs. Bikini Girl debacle, arguably American Idol’s all-universe nadir in terms of quasi-viral trashiness and thirstiness. The only bright spots I can find at this point are valiant also-rans who at least threatened to broaden this show’s horizons: Jorge Nuñez nailed his audition in two languages but botched Michael Jackson Week the year Michael Jackson died, while Anoop Desai attempted “My Prerogative” and survived. Nobody, however, would survive for much longer.

Season 9

Who Won: Lee DeWyze
Runner-up: Crystal Bowersox

Gruttadaro: I refuse to believe that someone actually had the last name “Bowersox.” I would also like to condemn the trend started by Season 8’s Kris Allen and perpetuated by Season 9’s Lee DeWyze (also a fake last name) in which Idol winners played instruments. This is a singing competition, you pretend Billy Joels! Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood did this shit with their pipes alone—stop trying to show off. Idol should have instituted a zero-tolerance “no instruments” rule.

Rant over—my winner for Season 9 is the man who had more cultural relevance than any other contestant; the man whose work still resonates today. Of course I’m talking about the “Pants on the Ground” man:

“General” Larry Platt (who was 62 at the time, a full 34 years past Idol’s age cutoff) has his own Wikipedia page. Jimmy Fallon performed “Pants on the Ground” as Neil Young on The Tonight Show (the most Jimmy Fallon sentence ever written). Brett Favre sang the song in the Minnesota Vikings’ locker room. It was performed during WWE’s Royal Rumble in 2010. “Pants on the Ground” is a veritable classic. Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox wish they had the reach of “General” Larry Platt.

Surrey: Wait a minute, are you telling me he’s not a real general?!

Gruttadaro: I’m sorry you had to find out this way.

Surrey: Just give me a moment to collect myself.

Gruttadaro:

Surrey: OK. Yeah, “General” Platt was an all-time-great regional audition, but Season 9 provided maybe my favorite bad audition ever, from Vanessa Johnston. She came to the Dallas auditions that year clad in pink, and her whole vibe was basically Joy from Inside Out going through a car wash. Despite totally obliterating a rendition of Etta James’s “At Last,” and being described by Cowell as his worst nightmare, she saw the bright side of things.

“It’s OK if you say I’m your worst nightmare. But at least you’re dreaming about me, huh?” Let us all live our lives like Vanessa Johnston, and let her be the true winner of Season 9.

The Critic’s Corner: There is no way I’m watching that Vanessa Johnston thing, which probably explains why I never clicked with this show and why even the people who loved it gradually grew to hate it. Humiliation started out as 50 percent of AI’s appeal, but by this point, that figure was closer to 95 percent. Fallon’s “Pants on the Ground” is the only salvageable aspect of any of this; otherwise we were all stuck with such violent delights as watching this lady beat “Against All Odds” half to death. Pin a Purple Heart on “General” Pratt and fire the rest of this season into the sun.

Season 10

Who Won: Scotty McCreery
Runner-up: Lauren Alaina

Surrey: Sure, Lauren Alaina has sold country albums, but this Idol season was historic because of the changes to the panel of judges. This was the first of just two seasons that Steven Tyler, uh, judged singers on their performances—at least when he wasn’t creepily leering at the female contestants.

Tyler’s behavior—like responding to a contestant who said she was 15 with “nice”—probably put him on an FBI watchlist, but it was compulsively watchable. As Idol careened toward irrelevance, Tyler tried to keep the show afloat. I think he deserved to win over any contestant in his inaugural season.

Gruttadaro: Probably true. I completely forgot the Steven Tyler years of American Idol—I think I had a procedure to erase them from my mind—but I now believe they should be entered into the Library of Congress.

While we’re here, though, can we briefly talk about Scotty McCreery? This goober had a perfect country singer voice. Watch the beginning of this video:

Why yes, that is BEYONCÉ FREAKING KNOWLES saying that Scotty McCreery “has range.” And I fully agree. But Scotty’s problem was that he looked like a 14-year-old who was afraid to go to gym class. His face never—and would never—match his voice. If he looked like Alan Jackson, or even Chris Stapleton, he would’ve been a huge star. Genes are mean sometimes.

The Critic’s Corner: Don’t forget that J.Lo also joined the judges’ table this year, though I imagine J.Lo herself would prefer you forget—contestants hit on her almost as often as Steven Tyler hit on contestants. Shout-out to hard-rockin’ also-ran James Durbin, who managed to smuggle Judas Priest onstage; I concur with Beyoncé on Scotty McCreery, who’s got some jams, though many of them make him sound like a cringing, lovelorn junior high kid. “The Doug of Country” is not the worst title in the world, I suppose, though “Person Not Watching This Show Anymore” was definitely a better title.

Season 11

Who Won: Phillip Phillips
Runner-up: Jessica Sanchez

Gruttadaro: I know I railed against instruments just a second ago, but Phillip Phillips was the champion this era of American Idol deserved. This fake Dave Matthews was so committed to his Dave Matthews schtick that in the Top 6 episode he performed “The Stone,” an extremely Dave Matthews–y deep cut flush with complex acoustic guitar riffs, shrill violins, and throat-bellowing. This dude had a woman jiving on stage with a baritone sax around her neck:

GIF of a woman enthusiastically playing a baritone saxophone on the ‘American Idol’ stage Fox

I respect it so thoroughly.

Phillips’s song “Home,” which he debuted at the end of Season 11, still plays in movie trailers and doctor’s offices, and spawned a genre of faux-indie singer-songwriters who make songs with choruses filled exclusively by oohs and aahs. The Lumineers owe this man a great deal.

I’m not saying Phillip Phillips is good, but he was a star nonetheless.

Surrey: This dude’s full name is Phillip LaDon Phillips Jr. On that basis alone, he’s a winner in my heart. Also, if Phillip Phillips didn’t win Idol, I don’t think we’d have never gotten his cameo in Hawaii Five-0 as a diamond thief, which is some of the worst celebrity acting I’ve ever seen.

I don’t want this taken away from any of us.

The Critic’s Corner: I also respect that Dave Matthews Band cover thoroughly, given that “The Stone” is Top Five DMB all time. (Full ranking goes [5] “Satellite,” [4] “Typical Situation,” [3] “The Stone,” [2] “Two Step,” [1] “Crash Into Me.”) I’m stalling, and so’s the show, which by this point had been reduced to such snake-eating-its-own-tail antics as a Season 5 finalist proposing onstage to the Season 3 runner-up. It is legitimately impressive that this show spawned a hit as big as “Home” so late in its run, but for stirring spectacle I’m gonna stick with South Korea–via-Queens contestant Heejun Han’s killer audition rendition of Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You.”

It makes very little sense to me, and by now the less sense I make of this show, the better.

Season 12

Who Won: Candice Glover
Runner-up: Kree Harrison

Surrey: If Tyler’s unforgettable, meme-worthy leering was a temporary salve, this is when Idol’s demise was truly felt. The bright spots of Season 12 were its new judges, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, who stuck around for only this season, and just two contestants—Candice Glover and Angie Miller—were initially signed to record deals. By virtue of actually having some semblance of a music career, might as well stick with Glover as the winner?

Side note: Thank god for Nicki’s nicknames. (How many women were called “Ladybug”?!)

Gruttadaro: Let’s just fast-forward through my pick—Angie Miller, a Miley Cyrus clone who was very good at singing despite being partially deaf—because I need to ask Rob: What happens to Nicki Minaj’s career if she decides to continue being an Idol for multiple seasons?

The Critic’s Corner: Nicki Minaj’s only post-Idol album is 2014’s The Pinkprint, which most of the world remembers for “Anaconda,” though I remember it for “Trini Dem Girls.” From there, she entered her Meek Mill–Remy Ma period, which has not been devoid of high points (loved her on “Motorsport” and in Barbershop: The Next Cut), but still, you can’t say she emerged from Idol with a renewed sense of focus and cohesion. She got out at the right time, which was still too late, if that makes any sense. At one point Kree Harrison did the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” which is a dope song, though Nicki wasn’t into it: “Whoever picked that for you should be stoned.” We’ll agree to disagree.

Season 13

Who Won: Caleb Johnson
Runner-up: Jena Irene

Gruttadaro: Is it weird that I remember these more recent seasons way less than the ones that aired in the early 2000s? What is a Caleb Johnson? Who is this Jena Irene you speak of?

Surrey: Jena Irene was a girl from Michigan who did covers of Radiohead covers, and Caleb Johnson was a guy from Asheville, North Carolina, who kinda looked like Scotty from Boogie Nights.

Caleb Johnson Fox

Gruttadaro: Sounds pretty boss.

Surrey: He was. He did a lot of classic rock songs that require a lot of yelling—“Dream On,” “Dazed and Confused,” et cetera—and his performances were actually really good.

Gruttadaro: Was Keith Urban into it?

Surrey: You tell me:

GIF of Keith Urban holding up his phone, bobbing his head, and smiling Fox

Gruttadaro: And what about J.Lo?

Surrey: J.Lo loved him:

GIF of J.Lo dancing in her chair Fox

Gruttadaro: This guy’s clearly a star—no wonder he won. He’s doing really well now, right?

Surrey: He, uh, got dropped from his label in 2015.

The Critic’s Corner: Randy Jackson wasn’t a judge this year and bailed on the show entirely soon thereafter, so your expert panel was J.Lo, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr., who did not exactly exude ¡Three Amigos! levels of chemistry. Even the people on the show were thoroughly sick of this show by now, is my point. I genuinely look forward to Caleb Johnson starring in the Meat Loaf biopic 15 years from now; as for Jena Irene, she played a lot of grand piano and effectively collapsed the sonic and emotional distance between “Creep” and “Can’t Help Falling in Loving,” which is more effective as music criticism than entertainment.

Speaking of ¡Three Amigos!, it’s a bummer that no one on this show ever attempted “Blue Shadows.”

Season 14

Who Won: Nick Fradiani
Runner-up: Clark Beckham

Surrey: Can we reward the guy who accurately referred to Idol as “whack” multiple times and pissed off Harry Connick Jr.? I’m a Quentin Alexander stan now and forever, even if he’s still working at French Connection instead of singing somewhere.

The fact that Idol was still on the air at this point was, indeed, whack.

Gruttadaro: Season 14 has the grand honor of airing the least watched, worst rated episode in the history of American Idol. At this point, the show was being moved around Fox’s schedule to make room for Empire. The Voice had taken over as the premiere singing reality show. Idol was dying and everyone was jumping ship.

I gotta shout out this season’s winner, Nick Fradiani, though. He was maybe more committed to winning a reality competition than anyone before. His band Beach Avenue appeared on America’s Got Talent six months before the premiere of Season 14 of Idol. They were eliminated very early on—losing to a child card-throwing group and a shadow-dancing act, among others—but Nick, ever determined, kept his head up and moved on to the next show. And then he won! Sure, whatever, by that point winning Idol meant less than winning AGT or getting a compliment from Blake Shelton on The Voice, but it’s still something. And you have to respect the guy’s hustle.

The Critic’s Corner: Obviously my first order of business here was to Google the child card-throwing group, which, holy moly. The celery bit alone! Damn! It’s hanging right out of that kid’s mouth! Carrie Underwood herself can’t compete with that!

This season had an entire Kelly Clarkson Week, which closed the Idol loop in as dire a manner as possible: Dig Rayvon Owen turning “Since U Been Gone” into a turgid strings-and-harp mega-ballad, and not even getting eliminated. But of all the absences a die-hard fan might’ve been feeling at this point, only one proved truly fatal to the show’s long-term prospects. I speak, of course, of Coca-Cola.

Season 15

Who Won: Trent Harmon
Runner-up: La’Porsha Renae

Gruttadaro: Let me tell you a little bit about a boy named Dalton Rapattoni, a theater-kid-Yellowcard mashup with bleach blond hair and eyeliner from outside Dallas. He auditioned with an acoustic cover of the theme song from The Phantom of the Opera; he busted out a punk rock cover of “Hey There Delilah;” he did “It’s Gonna Be Me” better than Justin Timberlake; in the Top 5, he performed “Numb” by Linkin Park; he also did Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.”

I love this kid; he was just born too late. I’m convinced he would have been huge if he had been on Idol in seasons 4 or 5, back when bands like Hoobastank could hit no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Surrey: You know who won Season 15, the last season of Idol? The American public, since we no longer had to watch a show well past its prime limp along while its ratings and glory were stolen by a singing competition in which people sang to People’s Sexiest Man Alive of 2017 while anxiously hoping he presses a button.

Idol needed to be put to rest after giving us the best of both worlds for over a decade. It brought us some memorable stars whose careers are still flourishing (Clarkson, Hudson, Lambert), and also watchable train wrecks like Sanjaya and “Pants on the Ground, I’m Actually Not a Real General” guy. Really, it’s the last thing that needed a reboot less than three years after it went off the air … which is exactly what ABC is doing.

God, I need a nap.

Gruttadaro: OK fair, but you gotta admit that Dalton Rapattoni is a god. He’s pop culture’s second greatest Dalton, behind Patrick Swayze’s Road House character but way ahead of Andy from the Cincinnati Bengals.

Surrey: Are you done?

Gruttadaro: Yes.

The Critic’s Corner: Don’t forget Timothy Dalton, who, based on this tribute video I just watched, might actually be the best James Bond ever. OK—I, too, am done.

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