Every year, a slew of hopefuls get introduced to the world via the American Idol machine, and every year, all but one of those singers get picked off, the victims of not being text-message-worthy enough for viewers at home. Among the castoffs and runners-up are some singers who might not have gone all the way, but who turned in memorable moments and killer performances that defined their seasons. Popdust asked eight writer super-fans to talk about their favorite unsung contestants from years past. (You, meanwhile, can vote for Reality TV's Greatest Music Star and read the ultimate, 11-season, 100-moment Idol recap!)
CHRISTINA CHRISTIAN (Season 1)
It's time to take a trip to the Dunkleman era of American Idol. Season one. Summer 2002. The set recalled a theme park amphitheater. The music tracks sounded like they were being pumped in from a LaserDisc player backstage. Simon Cowell sat on the right.
I had just finished my junior year in college, and Fox's reality slate spoke to me, what with Temptation Island and The Chamber, a game show where people were, like, tortured and stuff. Initially, I watched Idol through the same lens. I pointed and laughed when Rhodesia Eaves crashed and burned. I gobbled popcorn as "the fat judge" threatened to beat up "the British a-hole" on live TV. I changed my AIM status to include especially laughable quotes from Ryan Seacrest.
But on July 30, something crazy happened as the Top 7 warbled songs from the 1970s.
The soft-spoken Christina Christian purred Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" with the sex appeal and confidence of a seasoned performer who belonged on the radio. "Where has she been all season long?" I said aloud to my Zenith TV/VCR combo as I frantically pushed the rewind button to re-witness a star being born. Could it be that a show I hate-watched (I'd nicknamed it Satan's Karaoke) produced an actual musical moment that I wanted to burn to a CD-R?! (Which, thanks to an RCA cable, a Gateway laptop and a pirated version of CoolEdit, I accomplished.)
Next week, Christina couldn't come close to matching "Ain't No Sunshine's" magic and got the boot. Turns out America preferred Tamyra Gray's polish, Kelly Clarkson's whistle tones, Justin Guarini's eye-flirting and Nikki McKibbin's underdog scrap. But I'll always have those action-packed 90 seconds when I first witnessed the transcendent power of an amateur picking a perfect song, sticking the landing, and pleasantly surprising me in the process. That exact high keeps me coming back to the show year after year. Christina Christian will forever be my Idol heroine for making Idol my heroin.
MATT GIRAUD (Season 8)
I've had a soft spot for Matt Giraud since I met him at his Idol sendoff show at his hometown piano bar in Kalamazoo, Mich. The Michael Bublé-alike had already made the semifinal rounds, thanks in part to his smoky, soulful take on "Georgia on My Mind" during Hollywood Week, but the live shows had not yet started. At the packed bar that night he conveyed a mixture of excitement, fear, nerves and confidence while the whole room swirled around him.
Giraud was a contestant in the show's eighth season; while Adam Lambert was putting on showstopping performances every week, Giraud was a steady, affable presence in the background. He was never going to win, but he had a genuine likability that made you root for him. When he was voted off in seventh place, the judges employed the show's first "save" to overrule his elimination, and that still ranks as one of Idol's best, most purely joy-filled moments. Giraud was done for good two weeks later, but that save was about keeping a dream alive, which at its core is the essence of American Idol.
Adam Graham covers pop music and pop culture for The Detroit News.
JACOB LUSK (Season 10)
Scotty "Babylockdemdoors" McCreery's inexorable march to the victory circle during season 10 might have robbed that year's narrative arc of drama, but the year did have its memorable moments: Lady Gaga re-enacting Dirty Dancing with James Durbin, Steven Tyler's adventures with the seven dirty words, Casey Abrams nearly tossing his cookies on live TV, Haley Reinhart sassing back at the judges after one dismissive critique too many. But for my money, no moment was more indelible than when Jacob Lusk, during Motown Week, moseyed on up to the microphone and slayed "You're All I Need To Get By," tempering his formidable voice and building his performance exquisitely, slowly, perfectly. He employed diva moves; he displayed a bit of stankface; he turned the Idoldome into church, if only for 90 seconds. Most of his other performances on the show didn't match that one, alas, but blame it on the one-genre-fits-all nature of the show; last fall he performed the songs of R. Kelly in Montreal, and according to friends of mine who went, it was a transcendent experience. I'm not surprised, and I hope he comes to my neck of the woods to play a show soon. He can sing whatever he wants.
Maura Johnston is the editor of Maura Magazine and an instructor at NYU's Clive Davis Institute.
LATOYA LONDON (Season 3)
The first season of American Idol that I truly watched, cover to cover as it were, was season three, the one best known now as America's first glimpse of someday superstar Jennifer Hudson. But for me, the mesmerizing standout that season was LaToya London, an upright and proper lady of Oakland who maybe didn't have the scratchy flair of eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, or even the heaving bombast of Ms. Hudson, but was so poised and professional and clear in tone that I immediately fell in love. Few Idol contestants could be described as elegant, but LaToya was just that. She sang big belters like "All By Myself" and (most memorably) "Don't Rain On My Parade" witb the crystal polish of a performer paid lots of money to sing at fancy galas for rich people. She exuded class and sophistication on a show that is usually anything but.
I might also love LaToya most of all because that season was maybe the most fun I've ever had watching the show. (I've religiously watched every season but one since.) It was my junior year of college and some of my best friends had graduated the year before, but were living in a house not far from campus. I would go over there two nights a week after play rehearsal and, emboldened by noxiously sweet Carlo Rossi jug wine, wildly cheer on our favorites. My friend Kyle loved Hudson, with all her silly faces and underdog rabble-rousing. Chris, the dark skinny kid on whom I developed a serious crush that year, was a fan of Fantasia's grit. And Adam, the wildest and weirdest and funniest of us, liked Diana DeGarmo, just to be a jerk I think. Those nights were some of the most fun I had in college, watching something with the rest of the country but also bonding with these three particular friends; all of us gay and OK with it, there at a school that often was not. And LaToya was my girl, cleansing a blurry and confusing week (are there any other kinds in college?) with her smooth, competent, and comforting vocals. Perhaps a victim of her own make-it-look-easy competence, she only placed fourth, cruelly bested by DeGarmo and Hawaii's favorite Jasmine Trias, and has done only some minor recording and stage work since. But I still remember her as my favorite of all time—there in the chaos of 20 years old was a clear voice to follow through some otherwise tricky months. Thanks, LaToya. And sorry I didn't vote for you more.
Richard Lawson is the senior arts and entertainment writer for the Atlantic Wire.
For memories of Rachel Zevita, Melinda Doolittle, and Jon Peter Lewis, and some righteous anger over Carly Smithson, click "Next"...
JON PETER LEWIS (Season 3)
Back in Season 3, before Idol had a live band on stage, Jon Peter Lewis auditioned with a quirky performance of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." He didn't advance to the finals that week. But when he was called back as a wild card, an audacious performance of Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" propelled him into the Top 12.
JPL—as Ryan Seacrest dubbed him—was the first of the White Guys With Guitars who would come to dominate Idol's winners' circle in later seasons (Kris Allen, David Cook, Lee DeWyze), and his Elvis antics anticipated the crowd-pleasing style of Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks. In 2004, Idol singers were still of the big-belty variety, and JPL's singer/songwriter vibe was compelling; for the first time, an Idol finalist played the type of music I actually listened to in the real world.
But he was unable to compete effectively—singing soul and country to backing tracks is tough—and wound up that season's eighth-place finisher. I'd like to think that if JPL had been able to whip out his guitar and sing a Beatles tune that season, he could have been the first of the WGWG winners.
MJ Santilli loves singing and dancing and is the editor and owner of mjsbigblog.com.
CARLY SMITHSON (Season 7)
You think Elise Testone and Haley Reinhart had it rough on American Idol? Their experience is nothing compared to what Carly Smithson went through.
Carly first came into the American Idol consciousness in the press interviews leading to Season 5, when Simon Cowell said that an "Irish girl" who auditioned in Las Vegas reminded him so much of Kelly Clarkson.
Carly didn't make it that year because of visa issues, but she did reach the Top 24 two years later. Idol fans, however, were not happy with the news. They figured out that she had been Simon's New Kelly Mach II and had a deal with MCA, which spent more than $2 million to promote a low-selling 2001 album. She was a plant, screamed the blogs (including mine).
The show was in damage-control mode before Carly's audition aired. Nigel Lythgoe and Paula Abdul threw Kelly Clarkson under the bus for having a record deal before she joined Idol—a seven-seasons-late revelation. (So Kelly was a plant, too?) "Elvis Presley can join American Idol if he was out of contract," said Nigel in a conference call.
Simon Cowell, however, was having none of it. Carly was damaged goods, and he was determined not to give her any praise. She could do nothing right, even if she did do right many times, and it started to seem like Carly's only purpose on the show was to be insulted.
The unkindest cut came during Dolly Parton week, when she sang "Here You Come Again." Dolly said that the song was perfect for Carly's voice—and she was right. It was one of the best performances on the show ever, and it remains one of my personal favorites. Simon was not impressed, though, and opted to criticize her outfit for its lack of starriness. "You've got to have a word with whoever's dressing you at the moment," the chronically t-shirt-clad Brit said of her black vest and red pants, after proclaiming that he "didn't think it was great ... just one of those nights."
Things seemed to be looking up the a few weeks later, which was devoted to Andrew Lloyd Webber's music: Simon's favorite performance was Carly's fiery version of "Superstar." That week, Brooke White stopped singing at the beginning of her song (a first in Idol history) and Jason Castro butchered "Memory" from Cats. But who got the boot? Carly.
American Idol has been mean to many people, but no one has been treated as badly.
Rickey Yaneza runs rickey.org.
RACHEL ZEVITA (Season 10)
My favorite Idol auditions often come courtesy of the kids who look nuts but can actually sing, just because I enjoy watching the judges compose and recompose their faces as they realize the cover doesn't fit the book. The first time we saw Rachel Zevita, in Season 6, the self-described "singer-songwriter and rock star" was wearing rainbow-tinted wraparound sunglasses and a dreamcatcher in her hair while sporting an ego the size of the Chrysler Building. "I can sing anything," she proclaimed, and I loved her completely, despite being very concerned about her psychological safety. Oh, I didn't think she was wacko; rather, I recognized in her that specific brand of individuality and creativity that can only come from big dreams, supportive parents, and too much time around other art-school types, ideally in Manhattan. Rachel Zevita was the kind of person shows like American Idol are destined to crush.
She didn't escape Hollywood that first year, but she made enough of a mark that when she came back in Season 10, even J.Lo remembered her. Sadly, despite all the polish and poise in her updated personal presentation, it was clear Zevita still believed she was in an environment where eccentricity would be valued. By the time she hit the Top 24, I'd fallen for her husky, Janis-meets-Garland lower register—eternally more compelling than her comparatively weak (and odd) head voice—and I very much enjoyed her strange collection of little hats. Mostly, though, on a show designed to deify generic karaoke dress-up dolls, I craved her dramatic excess. Go back and watch her barrel through "Speechless." She's all over the place. The only thing she doesn't throw into that performance is a dance break. Gaga would be proud. As for the jaw-droppingly bizarre and brilliant Bob Fosse cabaret version of Fiona Apple's "Criminal" that sent her home? Maybe it was too Broadway. Maybe it came across a bit like a toddler wearing her mother's heels. Maybe she was simply before her time. (After all, Juliet Simms from The Voice + Carly Rose Sonenclar from X Factor basically = Rachel Zevita, right?) Honestly, it doesn't matter. But if Idol is looking to rescue our passionate love/hate affair from the doldrums of indifference, I'd start by spotlighting a few more kids with metaphorical dreamcatchers in their hair, then letting them stick around as long as possible. And I hope that wherever Ms. Zevita is now is suitably kooky, and that when people ask her who she wants to be, she still answers, "I'd like to be me."
Whitney Pastorek was a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly before she ran off with the circus.
MELINDA DOOLITTLE (Season 6)
True to her famously down-to-earth character, Season 6 third-place finisher Melinda Doolitle was a pioneer of small but crucial things. She perfected the "astonished face" before Taylor Swift ever started trotting it out at awards shows, responding with adorable modesto to the weekly heaps of praise she received from the judges. More importantly, this seasoned background singer proved that a versatile and wonderfully grown-up female artist (she was 30 when she made her splash) could compete with the ingenues and firecrackers who usually dominated. This set a pattern for the older stars we see on The Voice and X Factor; Mindy Doo's greater nuance and ability to really read a song reminded viewers that there's more to singing than just hitting the biggest notes. She released a fine solo album in 2009 and remains one of the most charming presences in the Idol universe, popping up on podcasts and Twitter with telling insights about Idol and its rival shows. And she's still out there killing it with classic soul performances—check her out in a Nashville-area production of Smoky Joe's Cafe.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent.
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