American Idol's top five: a young Kelly Clarkson, Nicki v Mariah … and Paula

Its ratings have plummeted and Fox has pulled the plug – but here are our top five moments as we prepare for Idol’s swan song

RIP, America Idol. After 15 seasons of singing, squawking, bitching, Simon Cowell’s V-necks and Ryan Seacrest’s ceaseless smarm, Fox has finally had enough. Following a ratings plummet the network has declared this will be the final season of the singing show that was once nicknamed the Death Star for its ability to wipe out competition. As we prepare for Idol’s swan song, here are our top five moments.

‘The British man didn’t make me cry’

Kelly Clarkson’s first audition

“I was so happy because the British man didn’t make me cry.” So said American Idol’s inaugural winner Kelly Clarkson of her first audition, a sentence that sums up the show’s main appeal when it first aired on Fox in 2002. To an unsuspecting America – he’d already shown his true colours on UK TV on Pop Idol – Simon Cowell was the waspish, perma roll-necked quote generator whose aim was to destroy people’s dreams one quip at a time. Everyone feared him. But there was something special about Kelly Clarkson, who has since gone on to become the show’s biggest-selling winner with 23m albums sold. This clip not only shows off her amazing vocals, but also the lack of budget for the first season , which has the feel and production values of a high school talent show. You get the feeling that at that point not even Fox were convinced they were on to a winner.

Jennifer Hudson’s shock eviction

After season two became more famous for its off-screen antics (three contestants were booted off the show, with one, Corey Clark, claiming it was because he was having an affair with judge Paula Abdul), season three’s most controversial moment involved big-voiced diva Jennifer Hudson. A favourite with the judges from the start, Hudson was shockingly voted out in week six, a move which Elton John, a mentor on the show that year, referred to as “incredibly racist”. In the end, however, Hudson had the last laugh, going on to win numerous Grammys and an Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls where she more than held her own against Beyoncé. She’s since been back on the show for her cruelly curtailed lap of honour.

Paula Abdul in general

As previously mentioned, it was Cowell’s job to be Mr Nasty for the majority of his American Idol tenure (he left in 2010), while the other original judge Randy Jackson was often the voice of reason (he also loved telling everyone they were “a bit pitchy”). In between Cowell’s pantomime villain and Jackson’s Captain Sensible was Paula Abdul, a woman prone to saying things that made you worry there was more than just Coca-Cola in her cup (she once critiqued a contestant’s performance before they’d even performed). But the chemistry between Abdul and Cowell was what made those early seasons so amusing, Simon trying manfully to try and keep the show’s semblance of seriousness going while, for example, Abdul growled at him or stepping in before Abdul makes things a little too X-rated for a family show.

Fantasia performing Summertime

As well as Kelly Clarkson, American Idol also found success with season four winner Carrie Underwood, season six winner Jordin Sparks and season eight runner-up Adam Lambert. But probably the most memorable performance comes from soul firebrand Fantasia, the winner of the third season. Sitting on the floor, she starts soft and small on her cover of Summertime, showing an understanding of dynamics that seems to pass by most other big-voiced TV talent show contestants. As the song builds her voice starts to fray with emotion – again, not another trait associated with TV talent shows – and the moment moves from straight cover to genuine performance, those final vocal runs basically winning her the entire show.

Nicki v Mariah

As the seasons dragged on, the show’s winners became less and less successful, with season 13 winner Caleb Johnson’s debut album only shifting 11,000 copies in its opening week to make it the lowest-selling winner’s album ever. To counteract the diminishing interest in the new talent, the producers tried to revamp the judging panel and in 2013 decided to employ both Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. Rumour has it that Carey didn’t know Minaj had been offered a role on the show when she signed up and from the start the two didn’t get on.

In October 2012 TMZ leaked a video of Minaj telling anyone that would listen that she wasn’t “going to put up with her fucking highness anymore”, while the early judging rounds were peppered with thinly veiled shade. To the surprise of no one, both Carey and ameriMinaj quit the show after one season, which was a shame as it was probably the last time anything interesting happened.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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