The Best of the Best of American Idol
A careful fact-check analysis on FOX’s talent-seeking smash hit show reveals the real champion of the show…and it’s a close one
When American Idol made its debut, no one really expected much from the show. Critics quickly lampooned its glossy Star Search-esque idea in “searching for the next superstar.” It also looked completely cheap and sounded like MIDI-sprinkled karaoke done on a low budget. But show producers Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe put in the time to bring the imported TV hit Pop Idol from the UK, where Will Young — a handsome young lad with a crush on American R&B — stole the inaugural win, to the American shores. They also wanted to make it bigger. And with every passing season, it did.
It’s no surprise that most of the winners came from the South: Ruben Studdard of season two and Taylor Hicks of season five both came from Birmingham, Alabama. Other finalists with ties to Birmingham made their way to the finals (Bo Bice, Diana DiGarmo). There was also Fantasia, a dynamite R&B singer from North Carolina who received comparisons to Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle, who took home the title in season three. And the list of Southern singers continues on with David Cook, Kris Allen, Scotty McCreery, Phillip Phillips and Candice Glover. But those names aren’t usually associated with the best of the best that Idol has produced. Yes, all of those names have had their moments on TV and have produced a few good tunes from time to time, but after fifteen seasons of being on the air and now deciding to call it a wrap due to crumbling show stats and its lackluster appeal on modern-day pop culture, only two winners deserve to be called Idol’s finest.
Out of the gate comes Kelly Clarkson, a Fort Worth, Texas country girl with soulful pipes strong enough to win an Aretha karaoke contest. And she proved to be the perfect finalist, knocking her runner-up Justin Guarini out of the running and taking her coronation song, the adult-contemporary power ballad “A Moment Like This,” all the way to the very top of the pop charts. Certainly not everything was easy for Clarkson: A double-header motion picture featuring Guarini flopped disastrously (From Justin to Kelly); her third album, My December, broke away from her hit-making assembly line pop and ventured into more of dark rock, ended up getting crucified by Clive Davis in the media for not having his blessing. Despite those mishaps, it’s clear to say that Clarkson has benefited the most from Idol, becoming the show’s mightiest pop superstar. In an era where records sold by the millions, Clarkson walked away with a number one debut album (Thankful) and once again with All I Ever Wanted in 2009. At the Grammys, she won Best Pop Vocal Album for 2006’s Breakaway and 2011’s Stronger, making her the only Idol act to receive the award twice. She also took home two top-tier Grammy wins for “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” in the categories of Record of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance.
Clarkson delved also into country, producing phenomenal results there. 2011’s “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her gorgeous duet with Jason Aldean became a crowd favorite, selling over 2 million copies and hitting number one on the Hot Country Songs chart. It also made traction on other charts, including the Hot 100 (#31) and in adult contemporary (#3). Duets with Reba McEntire and Vince Gill also registered on country charts and were nominated at the CMAs and the CMTs.
Overall, Clarkson has amassed fourteen Top 20 U.S. hits (three of them hitting number one). Her finest single to date remains “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” which became Clarkson’s most commercially successful single in her career by selling over five million copies worldwide. The success continues overseas and abroad: “Mr. Know It All” hit number one in Australia; “A Moment Like This” and “My Life Would Suck Without You” hit number one in Canada. In the UK, “My Life” also hit number one. Seventeen of her songs have all gold or platinum or gold, more than any other Idol contestant. Even her 2012 greatest hits album, also producing a hit single with the newer “Catch My Breath,” managed to be certified gold.
Off her latest record Piece By Piece, the title track shows perfect signs that Clarkson remains at the top of her game. The emotional love ballad has already climbed to number eight on the Hot 100.
And then there was…
Carrie Underwood strutted herself through Idol’s fourth season, beating out her competition flawlessly. Simon Cowell prophesied to Underwood on the air that “not only will you win this show, you will see more records than any previous Idol winner.” Technically, he was right. Her coronation song hit number one (“Inside Your Heaven”), becoming the first song by a solo country artist in the 2000s to take the top spot. Underwood has amassed a flurry of top-selling singles and albums, hitting it big with “Jesus Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” taken from her best-selling debut LP Some Hearts. That album has sold over seven million copies in the US and nine million worldwide. Underwood would also nab coveted Grammy wins for Best New Artist and for her work on Some Hearts (Best Female Country Vocal Performance twice for “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats”).
WATCH | SIMON COWELL’S COMMENTARY ON CARRIE UNDERWOOD
Although she’s often relegated to being a country pop star, her stuff has crossed over unlike most country acts. Of the five albums she’s released, three of them have hit number on the Billboard 200; two of them have hit number 2. Her lone greatest hits compilation, Greatest Hits: Decade #1, has gone platinum. As to be expected, each release from this country titan have all gone to number one on the country charts. So far, she’s dominated the country charts with thirteen US No. 1 country hits. Where she loses to Clarkson is on the pop chart field, where Nielsen SoundScan look at overall sales and radio airplay. Only four of her songs have zoomed into the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 (an Idol charity song, “I’ll Stand By You,” “Inside Your Heaven,” “Before He Cheats” and a duet with Randy Travis on “I Told You So”).
Comparing Kelly Clarkson, a country-meets-R&B/pop diva, and Carrie Underwood, a legit country singer with contemporary pop leanings, and trying to determine who is more successful is a tough deal. The numbers look like they favor Underwood, just because her success seems to be all over the place. But it’s obvious that Clarkson’s reign on the Hot 100, as a singles’ monster, and for boasting a reputation for pure longevity as being the first Idol winner, is no laughing matter. The story of Clarkson’s success is what Idol really wanted, what it really was designed for. And that is, to replicate the streamlined assembly line pop of Madonna and Michael Jackson in a new century. Clarkson stands out as the best of the best. What Underwood did was change the game. She proved that something outside of pop could rewrite the rules of America’s most-watched talent contest and to make country artists more relevant in the pop world. Other winners and finalists in a number of genres have tried to do the same. Ruben Studdard and Fantasia conquered R&B and soul, but languished in replicating that success on the pop side. David Daughtry, the frontman in the band Daughtry, showed what the show could do for rock. He pulled out best-selling songs like “It’s Not Over” and “Home,” but their Hot 100 hits have since dried up. But no one conquered the traditional Idol motif like Carrie Underwood. It’s because of Underwood’s achievements, a Taylor Swift or a Luke Bryan wouldn’t be able to do what they do now. Heck, it probably was the whole idea of rewriting Idol and being able to trump its familiar mold on the fly that probably inspired Swift to jump ship as a longtime country-pop act into the synthpop and rhythmic odysseys of her 1989 LP.
It’s also a stunning revelation to point out that American Idol has rolled out more male winners than women, but the “best of the best” are actually two women. One of those women, Kelly, made it crystal clear after her Idol post how she felt about feminism in a “man, man’s world.” “Miss almost grown/Miss never let a man help her off her throne,” she sings on her 2003 co-penned hit “Miss Independent.” In the song, the character finally lets her guard down in order to find love, but Clarkson and Underwood have never let their guards down as recording artists. They continue to dominate. And remain on their thrones as music superstars.
Season 15, the last one on the books, will see an epic showdown of Southern-bred singers. They both are from Mississippi — the sultry, jazzy, Afro-pumping La’Porsha Renae and Trent Harmon, the farmboy heartthrob with R&B crooner status. Both deserve to win, although they will probably never reach the success of Clarkson or Underwood, but it’s abundantly clear that Renae will take the title. She summed it up properly in her coronation song’s introduction of “Battles” on Wednesday night. “I want that title really back. A woman [Kelly] started it and a woman’s gonna finish it.”
I guess Beyoncé is right. In the case of American Idol, we see who runs the world. It’s girls.
UPDATE: The Season 15 finale revealed Trent Harmon to be the crowned winner. It was later announced that both Harmon and Renae will receive recording contract deals. Harmon is expected to record a country album with Big Machine, while Renae will put out an album on Universal Music and Motown Records. The deals were orchestrated by 19 Entertainment executive vp/worldwide head of music Jason Morey. “American Idol has always been about the search for a superstar,” Morey told Billboard. “This season, America helped us find two. We’re ecstatic to welcome these world-class artists to the 19 Entertainment family.”
J Matthew Cobb is the managing editor of HiFi Magazine