Before ‘American Idol’ ends, here are 10 performances I loved

Senior Television Writer
04.07.16 17 Comments

American Idol season 1 debuted about a week after The Wire season 1 did. Though my TV tastes over the years trended much more towards complicated scripted dramas like the latter, I spent a long time watching the former, and enjoying it in the moments when the series wasn't busy padding its run time with inanities (like the entire judging career of Randy Jackson) and simply let the contestants sing. Often, those performances were just overpraised photocopies of the original moments, but when an Idol singer put their own stamp on a familiar tune, or dug up an obscurity and made it sound like a hit, I couldn't begrudge the series its enormous popularity.

Eventually, the show got too repetitive for me to stick with, especially as more and more scripted options rose up demanding my attention. The last time I watched an Idol season from start to finish was the 9th, in the midst of the show's White Guys With Guitars period. But I'm going to tune in to tonight's series finale (for now, anyway; I imagine FOX will reboot the show within five years or less) to see old favorites and revel in memories of when it was the Death Star of TV, destroying everything in its path.

I've never fancied myself an Idol authority on the level of Fienberg, but I wanted to take note of the finale by picking out 10 of my favorite performances (limiting myself to only one sing from any one contestant) from the period when I watched the show regularly. Some of these are by winners, or people who had long runs in their season and successful careers afterwards. Some are by people whose names you may not have thought of in years. But these performances all made me sit up, take notice, and forgive Idol its many, many excesses and irritants.

Kelly Clarkson, “Stuff Like That There” (Season 1, Top 6)

A lot of Idol fans (and Idol contestants, for that matter) hated the very specific and esoteric themes, like season 1's Big Band Night, since they seemed to fly in the face of the idea of finding the next pop star. Eventually, the show largely scrapped them, allowing every singer to stay in their cozy little box for an entire season. But forcing them out of their comfort zones could lead to incredible moments like the show's eventual first (and best) winner dazzling with her confident, note-perfect rendition of a swing song from way back in 1944. Left to her own devices, it's hard to imagine Kelly ever choosing this song on her own as an Idol number, but it's so much fun that she still performs it from time to time on her concert tours. 

George Huff, “Take Me to the Pilot” (Season 3, Top 9)

George's most important contribution to the Idol mythos was creating the trope of The Huff: the poor fool who, on Top 7 night, is placed at the center of the stage and forced to guess which of the groups of 3 on either side of him is safe and which is the bottom 3. (George guessed wrong, on the night that future Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson went home.) As a singer, George was a good but not great example of Idol's strain of church-trained contestants, but his gospel leanings found the perfect match on Elton John Night, and he briefly seemed like a worthy competitor to Fantasia and the other divas. 

Fantasia Barrino, “Summertime” (Season 3, Top 8)

If I was ranking these performances, this would be an easy top pick. Fantasia was a divisive winner, but the way she let all her emotions hang out in every performance could lead to complete magic like this seated, powerhouse rendition of the Porgy and Bess ballad. The only thing that's a bummer about it at all is that guest judge Quentin Tarantino picked a really bad moment to lament that Fantasia hadn't been funky in weeks.

Carrie Underwood, “Alone” (Season 4, Top 11)

Carrie's one of the show's two biggest success stories, and her victory was ordained pretty much from her first audition. But she's been a much more confident performer as a professional than she ever was on the Idol stage, where most weeks she was stiff, robotic, and nervous, getting by on her natural gifts rather than polish. Still, she had one great performance, and it was one of the few that pushed her out of her country comfort zone, as she put on the big '80s hair to tear through the Heart power ballad “Alone.” For a couple of minutes, you could see signs of the genuine superstar she would become after winning the show.

Bo Bice, “In a Dream” (Season 4, Top 3)

Where Carrie mostly coasted to the victory, it was Bo who was putting up most of the big highs (and occasional lows) of season 4, bringing classic rock swagger to a show where it previously would have had no business. (When Bo started to seem bored with the competition midway through the season, producers – desperate to keep a stalking horse for Carrie – arranged for one of the biggest theme cheats in the series' history, changing Disco Night to '70s Dance Night at the last minute so that Bo would be able to rip through “Vehicle” rather than look miserable trying to do a real disco song.) There never seemed a chance he was going to actually win, but this a cappella stunner at least made a persuasive argument that he was more than a great bar band singer who had wandered into the Idol theater, and inspired many copycat performances in later seasons.

Melinda Doolittle, “I'm a Woman” (Season 6, semi-finals week 3)

A veteran back-up singer, Melinda had perhaps the most powerful and versatile voice in the series' history. She also had no shot to win, since by her year, the show had embraced the idea of celebrating performers who grew over the course of their season, even if the “growth” often amounted to little more than a good makeover by the Idol stylists. Melinda arrived as a polished package, as evidenced by the way she blew the roof off the semi-final stage with this number.

Blake Lewis, “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Season 6, Top 6 part 2)

There were times when beat-boxing Blake seemed little more than a gimmick. But then there were other nights, like this performance that – to the dismay of guest mentor Jon Bon Jovi – dropped the lyrics altogether for a long stretch in favor of a drum break and more of Blake's vocal trickeration, where he was one of the more interesting contestants the show ever had. He was one of the first contestants to realize how far you could get on Idol by thinking like a music producer first, changing up arrangements so you'd be doing more than just karaoke, and a singer second.

David Cook, “Hello” (Season 7, semi-finals week 3)

These days, Cook is remembered for kicking off the show's long one of White Guy With Guitar winners, and for being the first rocker to win after Bo and Chris Daughtry (whose musical taste and stage presence was similar to Cook's, but who never seemed to enjoy his time on the show half as much) fell a bit short. But before this semi-final performance, Cook had been an afterthought in his own season. Baby-faced David Archuleta was clearly the producers' favorite, and Australian Michael Johns (one of two contestants that season, along with Carly Smithson, who generated controversy due to prior professional experience) had been presented as that year's Great Rock Hope. Then Cook – taking advantage of a new rule that allowed contestants to play instruments, and cleverly finding cover versions that simultaneously played to his strengths and each week's theme – stole the damn season out from under the frontrunners, starting with this intense rock version of the Lionel Richie ballad, which almost instantly turned the rest of the season into a long coronation.

Chikezie, “She's a Woman” (Season 7, Top 12)

Chikezie's a footnote even in his own season, going home only a couple of weeks after he shockingly brought the house down with his remixed take on the deepest of Beatles' deep cuts, which started out as leisurely bluegrass before pivoting into crowd-pleasing rock. Ultimately, Chikezie fancied himself more of an R&B balladeer, a mode in which he was unremarkable and kinda sleepy. He wasn't the first Idol finalist to misunderstand what he was best at, nor would he be the last, but that “She's a Woman” was such a delight, I've listened to it more often over the years than numbers by far more successful contestants.

Adam Lambert, “Mad World” (Season 8, Top 8)

Lambert fell victim to the White Guys With Guitars streak, finishing second to the safer Kris Allen, but he was one of the best Idol showmen of them all. The range and power of his voice alone meant he could have gotten away with the bare minimum of on-stage theatrics, but each week – and particularly this Tears For Fears cover, where he kept to the center of the stage under a spotlight and let the song build and build and build – he didn't just deliver a great vocal, but delivered an elaborate and memorable performance.

What does everybody else think? What were some of your favorite Idol performances?

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