Tuesday, December 1, 2009

True or False Idols

Note: Argue all you like, but we celebrated the end of the last decade (and millennium) in 1999, so 2009 is the end of this decade.

Here we are at the end of the first decade of American Idol. A look back seems in order. Who were the most deserving winners, in my opinion? I've ranked them in hybrid fashion, so that their rank reflects not only how deserving they are in relation to the other winners but also in relation to the contestants of their respective seasons.

Let me assure you that this is completely subjective. Even though I use some objective criteria to present my case, my iPod playlists really matter most.
And just to be clear, I'm ranking them from worst to first, but if you know me at all you know there is absolutely no suspense building to my inevitable number one.

N.R. Kris Allen -- If I were simply basing the ratings based on how I feel about the winners at this moment in time, Kris would be hovering around three. But if I've learned anything over eight seasons of AI, it's that my enjoyment level of a contestant on the show has little bearing on my enjoyment of him or her afterward (the top two on this list were not my favorites of their respective seasons).

I had originally written that "his first single is somewhere in the midrange of first singles by AI winners (think Miss Independent)." But, the more I hear it, the catchier it becomes. Definitely becoming a favorite quickly. On a similar note, I just got done listening to his debut album for the first time. I'm hoping either I will like it more after a couple more listens, or that it's his Thankful and there will be a Breakaway in his future.

7. Taylor Hicks -- This guy is only about fifth best from his own season. Far and away the least deserving Idol winner. Spare me the comments about his personality and "soul". He was an arrogant jerk that couldn't take criticism on the show and he apparently wasn't much better afterward because 19 didn't waste too much time dropping him from the label.

If you are looking for contestants more deserving of victory that year, you've got a few to choose from. Katharine McPhee's career hasn't shot out into space, but it's almost a given that she will hit the top 40 more times in her career than Hicks will. Kelly Pickler, who many people thought was a big joke, has already had two albums go to number one on the Billboard Country Chart (both were top ten on Billboard's Hot 200). But the big winner from season five is definitely Chris Daughtry, who this year became the first (but not the only) Idol contestant to have back-to-back albums hit number one on Billboard's Hot 200.

Hicks seemed to find his way in 2008/09, landing the role of the Teen Angel in Grease on Broadway. According to a Forbes article in May 2009, he was number ten on the list of top AI earners for the previous 12 months. Just to underline the point I made in my first sentence, Pickler and Daughtry finished numbers seven and five.

6. Ruben Studdard -- Anyone who knew Ruben has released four albums, raise your hand? I didn't think so. He's only had one single even reach the top 100 on the pop chart since 2004. Certainly you can carve out a nice little career without ever hitting the pop charts, but he did win American Idol so I think it's fair to assess his career by those standards.

I have to be honest. I thought there would be a market for his sound when he won Idol in 2003. But, there is not one song from his post-Idol career on my iPod. He and Taylor Hicks were, in my opinion, reality show winners rather than American Idol winners. His underdog teddy bear image was irresistible for 90 minutes a week on television, but it didn't translate to people opening up their wallets at all. The album he released in May of this year has sold only 27,000 copies according to Wikipedia, but I can't tell when that was last updated so it may not be a valid number.

5. Fantasia -- I'm sure this will be the most controversial ranking. Reread that disclaimer at the top of the page. I was on the J-Hud bandwagon from day one (maybe day 25, but you get the idea). Even after Jennifer was eliminated, I still wasn't big on Fantasia.

I will admit that when she won, I swore there would never be a Fantasia song on my iPod. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It's trapped on a broken computer right now, but I wrote an entire blog post about her song Baby Mama. In fact, it was just this week that Baby Mama was finally knocked out of my top ten most played songs in iTunes. That's not fully accurate because iTunes' play count mechanism doesn't always record every play, but obviously I liked the song. Truth Is was also in heavy rotation for a while in 2004/05.

Still, all you need to do is look at the "awards" sections of their (hers and Jennifer Hudson's) Wikipedia pages to see who the real winner of season 3 was. I don't know how many artists have won an Oscar, a Grammy and a Golden Globe award, but I have to think Hudson is one of only a handful.

After Idol, Fantasia got very good reviews for her role in The Color Purple on Broadway, but she missed more than 50 performances during her run. Turns out she had a tumor on her vocal chords. Surgery seems to have fixed that and she will be releasing her third album next year. A Reuters article lists her as the fifth highest selling Idol (number three if you only count the winners).

4. Jordin Sparks -- I will always have a soft spot for Jordin because she is the first Idol I was rooting for that actually won. That said, she's the Rodney Dangerfield of Idol winners. Of all the people on this list (not counting Taylor Hicks because I never, ever mention him), Jordin elicits the most "who's that" responses when I talk about her.

In fact, season six might as well have been American Idol: The Lost Year. My guess is that if you showed most people a group photo of the top ten from that year, the first one (maybe the only one) they'd recognize would be Sanjaya.

One of the things that put Jordin as high as number four is that she has definitely been the most successful of her group. Blake Lewis' first album was great, but it never got off the ground commercially. Melinda Doolittle -- the one everyone swore was robbed when she didn't win -- released an album in February and I didn't even know it had already been released until I was writing this post. I can't find any information about any singles being released from it. And that about covers the actual talent portion of season six.

Anonymity aside, she has been pretty successful by most standards. She's had three top-ten hits, two others that were top 20. She's toured with the Jonas Brothers and Britney Spears. She even performed at the 2009 Divas Live (although I watched that show and I don't remember her ... zoinks). She's also not even 20 years old yet. Still plenty of time for her to improve on this ranking.

3. David Cook -- By whatever criteria being used here, Jordin Sparks should probably be ranked above David Cook. Whether we're talking about records sold, money made, top ten hits, or even whose post-Idol music appears more often on my iPod playlists.

But here's my crazy truth. I love the IDEA of David Cook. Just recently, a friend said to me that Kelly Clarkson could never win American Idol today; that the show and the audience have changed too much since the beginning to allow someone like Kelly to win. I think I was starting to believe that myself after season six. And that definitely was starting to erode my enjoyment of the show.

And then season seven happened. There was Carly Smithson, the girl the media crowned the winner before the audition episodes were even over; Michael Johns, who was so amazing during Hollywood week that he seemed destined for the finale; and David Archuleta, the boy who would be king -- at least if Simon Cowell had anything to say about it. When David Cook won, he convinced me that someone still could come on this show without all the polish and shine and perform their way to the title.

David Cook was just this nerdy guy that liked word games. He was supposed to be cannon fodder, the guy who gets to the top 12 and goes home the first night (that part was actually played by stripper David Hernandez). But every week, Cook came up with something great. The first time was in the semi-finals, with his original arrangement of Lionel Richie's Hello. The two performances that got talked about the most were Eleanor Rigby and Billie Jean, but my favorite (it's still on my favorite iPod playlist) was his arrangement of Mariah Carey's Always Be My Baby. Every week he gained more confidence and more momentum. With all of the judges convinced that Archuleta was a slam dunk, the finale seemed like a waste of time. Simon declared "Little David" the winner before the phone lines even opened for voting, but when the votes were counted David Cook not only won, he won by 12 million votes. That was the night that rekindled my AI mania.

2. Carrie Underwood -- By almost every objective metric, Carrie Underwood is the most successful Idol ever. According to Forbes, she was the number one top earning Idol last year, making 14 million dollars. Jennifer Hudson was number two, at $5 million. But here's what really astounded me. According to that article, Carrie has made $52 million from the 300 concerts she's given since she won AI. She hasn't sold as many albums as Kelly Clarkson yet, but she's one album behind and less than a million records short of catching her. It's kind of like Kelly's slightly in the lead, but she's already bowled her tenth frame and Carrie hasn't.

On this list, the chasm between number two and number three is so great that it makes the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk. Or, to steal Mariah Carey's fabulous analogy (from the song Obsessed), Carrie Underwood is a press conference, David Cook is a conversation. Even using my "rule of iPod playlist", there is very little separating her from Kelly. But my loyalty is fierce. If I were as committed to any of my boyfriends as I am to my pop stars, I'd be married and living in the suburbs right now. So Carrie remains number two.

As for her credentials, according to Wikipedia, one Idol producer claimed that not only did Carrie never finish in the bottom three (she was the first Idol other than Kelly to do that -- three others have done it since), she actually finished first in the voting by a large margin every week.

Four Grammys, five AMAs, five Country Music Association awards and 14 Billboard Music Awards (which puts her in the same neighborhood as Madonna). And oh yeah, she's 26 years old. She could easily pass both Jacksons (Janet has 33 BMAs, Michael has 30) by the time she's done. She even won a Gospel Music Association award for Jesus, Take the Wheel.

There have been occasional crossover songs from country artists that I've liked. Leann Rimes has had a couple (although they have mostly been dance remixes). Carrie is one of only three women (Olivia Newton-John and Patsy Cline) to get me to listen to non-crossover country music. There is a song -- from her latest album -- called Quitter that holds the record for most times being the first thing in my head upon waking. Annoying and impressive at the same time.

1. Kelly Clarkson -- Like I said, no big shock here. Where do I even begin extolling KC's virtues. I suppose I should start with an admission. Not only was I not rooting for her to win AI (I barely watched that first season and when I did I was rooting for Tamyra Gray), I refused to hop aboard the bandwagon even with the release of her first album, Thankful.

In fact, I remember in 2004 there was a rumor that Beyonce would be performing at the Roxy in NYC. I LOVE Beyonce. When someone asked me about it in an email, I replied something to the effect of "It had better be Beyonce, because if they trot out that hag (I may not have said hag) Kelly Clarkson, heads will roll." There, I said it. You're only as sick as your secrets, and I've been carrying that one around waaayyy too long. I'm sorry Kelly! In my defense, I'm sure I was high.

Here's the funny thing about my early Kelliphobia. There is a song from Thankful -- a duet between her and Tamyra called You Thought Wrong -- that to this day I think is her very best song. I just never listened to it until after Breakaway was released.

I had forgotten this next stat until I reread it today. According to Wikipedia, Breakaway, which was released on November 30, 2004, was the tenth highest selling album of 2006. And only one single from the album was actually released in 2006. Are you kidding me? It was certified 6x platinum in the US. Five singles were released from the album; four of them landed in the Billboard top ten. It also won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album in 2006. And it spawned four separate concert tours. (Of course, those four separate tours spawned an open letter from me on the old blog suggesting that she momentarily put down the microphone and record some new music -- it may have been worded slightly more strongly than that.)

Kelly has sold 10.3 million albums in the US and 20 million worldwide, keeping her -- for the moment -- the top-selling Idol (winner or otherwise). Plus, and I'm aware that this is sour grapes, if Clive Davis hadn't sabotaged her third album, My December, she would easily have sold another million. She's also had eight top ten hits (as a point of comparison, Mariah Carey had 12 from her first four albums; Carrie Underwood has three on the Billboard Hot 100 -- far more on the Country chart.). Two of her four albums have been number one and the other two both were top five. Strangely, Breakaway is the lowest charting album she's released, peaking at number three.

Plus, it seems like she wins over someone new every day. After never mentioning her before (that I recall), Esquire magazine this year named her one of their "75 Best People in the World." Then last week, NPR's All Things Considered included Breakaway on the list of the 50 Most Important Recordings of the Decade . These aren't media outlets that generally heap praise on American Idol and its progeny. And it's these kinds of intangibles that put her atop this list.

Finally, here is my Kelly Clarkson thesis. Whatever fame and opportunity American Idol afforded Kelly Clarkson, she has returned the favor exponentially. By making good, she legitimized American Idol. I think it's more than a coincidence that her success with Breakaway immediately preceded Carrie Underwood's huge debut (I believe the phrase is "paved the way"). In fact, without her, it's unlikely we would be getting ready to watch season nine in January.

What do all the Idol fans think? Did I get it right? Way wrong? Let's hear it.


  1. For someone who has seen a total of 3 episodes of AI (maybe 4), I could not stop reading. Kelly Clarkson is a secret pleasure of mine as well. Although I have not purchased any of her music, I do get a little tingle in my belly when she comes on the radio. After reading this post, I will break down and buy her first album. My interest in the other artists listed here will get me to itunes, curious to see what I have been missing. Thank you for the education in pop culture.

  2. I don't watch AI, and I couldn't stop reading this blog. Why aren't you writing professionally?

  3. I have never watched an actual episode of Idol... but will this January. That being said, I do love music and follow all the winners, post-show. Personally I think Jordin Sparks has consistently cut interesting albums :-)

  4. Well, I've said it before and will say it again. You need to return to journalism.

  5. My fave reference: "It's kind of like Kelly's slightly in the lead, but she's already bowled her tenth frame and Carrie hasn't." Keep writing Petr, you're quite entertaining. :P) -Billy U.