Top American Idol Moments: Songs And Scandals

by Amanda Flinner

Love it or hate it, American Idol has been a part of the pop culture landscape for 15 years, starting with Kelly Clarkson's landmark 2002 win. With the series coming to an end on April 7, we look back at some of the show's most memorable moments, including career-making performances, shocking eliminations, and juicy scandals. Don't forget to share your favorite Idol moment with us in the comments.

Vote For The Worst Favorite Sanjaya Gets Voted Off
Season 6

Jordin Sparks may have won Season 6 of American Idol, but Sanjaya Malakar was an idol in his own right, if only for a little while. The Seattle-born teen with Indian roots auditioned with his sister, but proved to be the better singer with his performance of Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." But it didn't take Simon Cowell long to regret his decision to send Sanjaya to Hollywood. His lackluster performances and penchant for crazy hairstyles like the "ponyhawk" infuriated the judge, who threatened to quit the show if Sanjaya actually won.

It seemed like the audience disagreed with Simon, as voters kept bringing Sanjaya back week after week. But many of these votes were motivated by irony or mischief, prompted by the popular (but now defunct) website Vote For the Worst. When Howard Stern joined the fun and endorsed the website on his radio show, Sanjaya and his ponyhawk were a shoo-in for the crown. But Sanjaya sealed his fate with his Top 7 performance of Bonnie Raitt's "Something To Talk About" that Simon called "utterly horrendous." During his farewell performance, Cowell ad-libbed, "Let's give them something to talk about - other than hair."

Did Clay Read the Card?
Season 2

It was a close race between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard during Season 2 of American Idol, with a mere 130,000 votes out of 24 million casting Ruben as the winner. Clay's journey to the top was a transformative one, beginning with his audition when he convinced the judges to look past his nerdy exterior to an inner pop idol ready to burst free with a rendition of Heatwave's "Always and Forever." By elimination night, he had been cut and brought back as a wildcard, underwent a makeover that swapped his wire-rimmed glasses for contacts, and churned out top-notch performances like "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Only host Ryan Seacrest, with his special winner's card emblazoned with the American Idol logo, could tell us if his hard work paid off... unless somebody took a peek at said card and just pretended to be nervous before the reveal as an unwitting Seacrest played up the moment.

Is it just an Idol urban legend or did Clay really read the card? "I knew he won before Ryan made the announcement," Clay told Larry King in 2004. "I had seen the card backstage... It wasn't completely hidden. And I looked over and saw it."

Jennifer Hudson Gets Voted Off
Season 3

Before she was an Oscar-winning actress and Grammy-winning singer, Jennifer Hudson was a cruise-ship performer making her way to the top of American Idol in its third season - the same season Elton John called Idol voters racist after Hudson's elimination. Hudson wasn't always a fan favorite, but her elimination became one of the most shocking moments in Idol history.

After spending two weeks in the bottom three – with fellow African American females Fantasia Barrino and LaToya London – Hudson rose from the ashes with a rendition of Elton John's "Circle Of Life" and blew everyone away with Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing." But Barry Manilow week proved to be her undoing. At the Top 7 results show, she was voted off after singing Manilow's "Weekend In New England," and the title eventually went to Fantasia. Hudson assumed a power outage in her native Chicago had blocked potential hometown votes, because "if it was based on talent, I was robbed."

Nicki Minaj Versus Mariah Carey
Season 12

Poor Keith Urban. For an entire season, he was stuck between two feuding divas trading jabs on everything from shoes to hit singles to Mean Girls (Mariah knows the movie better, apparently). It all started during auditions for Season 12 in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a spat over a contestant's comments about country music. Mariah accused Minaj of threatening, "If I had a gun, I would shoot that bitch." The rapper denies any such threat, but the cameras did catch her saying "I told them, I'm not f--king putting up with her f--king highness over there."

When fan favorite Angie Miller performed a rendition of "Someone To Watch Over Me," Minaj likened her to a Disney princess and encouraged her to concentrate on her high notes. When Mariah disagreed, Minaj fished a Q-tip out of her purse and told her to clean her ears out.

Both singers left American Idol for good after their tumultuous season, with Mariah recalling, "It was like going to work every day in hell with Satan."

Chris Daughtry Is Voted Off
Season 5

Everyone was surprised when Idol darling Chris Daughtry was ousted in Season 5, including fellow contestant Katharine McPhee, who seemed resigned to her fate when she was up against Daughtry, only to see the bald-headed rocker get the boot. Billed as the "Rocker Dad" from North Carolina, Daughtry made a splash with songs like Fuel's "Hemorrhage (In My Hands)," which even got him an offer as the band's new lead singer, but Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" plummeted him to the bottom two on Top 4 finale night.

Ryan Seacrest, always up for toying with a contestant's emotions, told the singer, "A lot of people predicted Chris, that you could be the next American Idol." Nah, you're going home. Die-hard Daughtry fans claimed that many of their votes were rerouted to McPhee, and started a fruitless campaign to bring him back. Daughtry instead had to watch silver-haired Taylor Hicks win the title, while he had to settle for a chart-topping debut rock album and a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song for "It's Not Over."

Simon Gives Adam Lambert A Standing Ovation
Season 8

Maybe there is a heart under all those layers of sarcasm after all. For what would be the first and only time during his decade-long tenure on American Idol, Simon Cowell gave a contestant a standing ovation. Adam Lambert was pretty much the star of Season 8, thanks to his dramatic flair in performances like "Black Or White" and "If I Can't Have You." After advancing to the Top 8, Lambert performed "Mad World" – an arrangement by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules of the 1982 Tears for Fears hit – that brought the surly judge out of his chair.

Pressed for time to give a thorough critique at the end of the night, Simon said, "The good news is, I'm the only one that's going to be talking, and I think words are unnecessary but I want to give you a standing ovation."

Simon's zeal didn't help on finale night, though, when Lambert lost the Idol crown to Kris Allen.

Paula Judges Song Before It's Sung
Season 7

Paula Abdul was usually a fan of Season 7's dreadlocked favorite Jason Castro, whose laidback acoustic stylings of songs like "Over The Rainbow," accompanied by a ukulele, landed him in the Top 4. But on Top 5 night, Paula wasn't feeling his second song choice, which supposedly lacked his usual charm. "It was missing for me. It kind of left me a little empty," she said. Something's missing, alright. Castro only sang one song, Neil Diamond's "Forever In Blue Jeans," and Paula was judging him for an imaginary second one. "The two songs made me feel like you're not fighting hard enough to get into the top four."

A flustered Castro fulfilled Paula's prophecy with a lukewarm take on Diamond's "September Morn." Paula's gaffe, however, made everyone question whether or not Idol was rigged. She explained away the accusation by saying she heard Castro performing "September Morn" during rehearsal, and her critique was floating around in her head during the night's fast-paced judging.

Haley Reinhart Bows Out With "Bennie And The Jets"
Season 10

Season 10's Haley Reinhart said goodbye to Idol with the very song that saved her weeks before. The Chicago-born rocker chick gained popularity with her interpretations of "God Bless The Child," "House Of The Rising Sun," and "I (Who Have Nothing)," along with her no-nonsense attitude in front of the judges. During the Top 11 Elton John-themed week, Reinhart wowed judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler with a growling, sultry version of "Bennie And The Jets," partly performed atop a red piano. It would also be her swan song after falling out of the Top 3, leaving Lauren Alaina and soon-to-be winner Scotty McCreery in the running.

The Elton John cover is often remembered as one of the best performances in the show's history, but Reinhart would earn even greater notoriety in 2015 for a different cover: Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love."

Carrie Underwood Sings Heart's "Alone"
Season 4

Farmgirl-turned-Idol hopeful Carrie Underwood would not only become a successful country star after her Season 4 American Idol win, but she would also become one of the most successful female performers of any genre. This wasn't a surprise to fans who followed her trajectory during the competition, where she continually impressed the un-impressable Simon Cowell with stellar country performances before tackling Heart's "Alone."

The power ballad was a #1 hit for the band in 1987 and became a fixture on the American Idol stage for a revolving door of contestants. But the first was Underwood's full-on rock rendition, without a hint of her country flair, during Top 11 week (Billboard Number Ones). "I wanted to take a risk and break out of my shell a little bit, so I thought I'd sing an '80s rock song," she explained. After the performance, Simon predicted that Underwood would not only take the crown, but would outsell any other Idol winner. She did win the title, and is one of the most successful contestants to ever grace the Idol stage.

Kelly Clarkson Is The First American Idol
Season 1

Kelly Clarkson never wants to sing "A Moment Like This" again – ever. She first sang the uplifting (or as the more churlish among us would describe it, cloying) tune way back on Season 1 of American Idol, at the very moment she transitioned from being a Texas cocktail waitress with an "unmarketable" voice to a pop superstar.

After beating runner-up Justin Guarini with 58 percent of the votes, Clarkson barely held it together through her coronation song, which would soon become her first #1 hit (paired with "Before Your Love"). The single's meteoric rise to the top of the chart smashed the Beatles' 38-year-old record for the biggest leap to number one with "Can't Buy Me Love." Not only did her success prove that Clarkson could make it off the Idol stage, but it also signaled the music industry that a TV talent show could provide its next big star.

Still, Clarkson's "moment like this" is in the past, where she wants to keep it. She told Entertainment Weekly in 2011: "Here's the thing: I get it. It was a moment thing for whoever won [American Idol], but that song wasn't written for me. I loved singing it for the finale. That's what it was for, but you ain't going to catch me anytime soon or ever singing that song again. Someone would have to be dying in front of me, saying, 'My last wish is for you to sing that song!' for me to sing that song."

March 30, 2016
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Comments: 1

  • Yanick Etienne from Belleview, FloridaKeep up the good work Amanda Flinner. Great site. Blessings from the voice of "Avalon".
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