by Aprille Hanson
When “American Idol: The Search for a Superstar” premiered on TV screens across America in 2002, it was the beginning of a revolution. It changed the reality show landscape, the music industry and it gave renewed hope to dreamers out there gifted with a good voice … and even those that sounded horrible to at least take a shot at becoming famous.
It was the place to go if you wanted to take your talents to a nationwide audience before the days of posting a video on YouTube to get discovered were popular. It originated in Britain as “Pop Idol,” and Simon Fuller’s call to do an American version was spot on.
It did not only find “a” superstar, as it originally set out to do. It found several talented people throughout its 15 season run, oftentimes not even the actual winners.
Over the last two nights, America said goodbye to a show that’s made us laugh, cry and watch stars being born. It’s appropriate that the 15th season is its last, as it has really overstayed its welcome. Other shows, including “The Voice,” have become more entertaining, but none are doing what they set out to do anymore -- find actual superstars that can make it in the music business. Fans should be thrilled for the times the show nailed it with winners and contestants and should be more than ready to bid it farewell.
Here are the top 5 idols (not just winners) that have changed the music industry for the better.
Simon Cowell made a bold statement after one of Carrie Underwood’s performances within the top 12 during season 4 -- he told her she’d not only win, but she’d become the most popular/successful “American Idol” winner. Say what you will about Cowell, who really was the show for the first part of its TV run, but he was right. Underwood has become one of the top female vocalists ever in the history of country music and really any genre. Her list of accolades is endless: Grand Ole Opry member, 17 Billboard Music awards, nine American Music Awards, 14 Academy of Country Music awards and seven Grammy Awards, the most of any “American Idol” contestant. If the show’s only achievement was discovering Underwood, it would have been a success. The fact that she was even on ‘Idol’ is really a distant memory to fans, which is how the show should work.
Right out of the gate, the season one winner Kelly Clarkson made the show a hit. If it wasn’t for Clarkson, the show likely would have been a season-one-and-done victim. But when viewers saw this young, ordinary looking girl come in, stand in front of the judges and sing a cappella and just blow them away with her powerhouse vocals, they fell in love. Clarkson, who ultimately broke away from “American Idol” to reinvent her image on her own terms, is the most successful ‘Idol’ contestant on a worldwide scale, selling more than 23 million albums. Her winner’s single “A Moment Like This,” beat a 38-year-old Billboard Hot 100 record set by The Beatles for the biggest jump to No. 1. She continues to make pop, now infused with country, records.
Jennifer Hudson made it to the final top 12 contestants, but only placed seventh on season 3. Fantasia Barrino was crowned the winner, but the world would soon find out who the real superstar was from that season. The show is very much focused on not only voices but stand-outs in personality and looks. Though Hudson had it all, she was contending with Barrino and LaToya London, all dubbed the “Three Divas.” In a show like that, if too many people fit one mold, some will be eliminated. However, losing could have been the best thing for her. She was free to do what she wanted with her career and has become one of the best vocalists in any genre. She is the only ‘Idol’ contestant to win a Grammy and an Academy Award, for her role in the 2006 musical “Dreamgirls.” She has continued to act and sing, selling more than a million albums and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Now, Clay Aiken is not what you’d call a successful ‘Idol’ in 2016. Hardly. His most recent time in the spotlight was in politics, running as a Democrat in the North Carolina 2nd congressional district election and losing. However, turn back the clock to 2003 and he was attracting scores of “Claymates” who just went nuts for his nerdy looks and spectacular voice. He was the runner-up to winner Ruben Studdard, by just 134,000 votes out of 24 million total. Both went on to have successful careers at the get-go, with Aiken’s RCA Records debut album Measure of a Man, going multi-platinum. He’s released several other albums, acted and authored books including the New York Times bestseller Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life, with executive producer Allison Glock. The reason he’s so important to the history of the show and pop culture is he became the ultimate spokesperson for the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover.” During his first audition, the judges took one look at him and you can tell they’re bracing for the worst, as this lanky, dorky dude belts out “Always and Forever” by Heatwave and in fact, caused a heat wave. It proved that you didn’t have to be gorgeous to have a good voice -- something the show has and continues to struggle with. It also showed that just because you aren’t crowned the “American Idol,” doesn’t mean you cannot have a good career in music.
Jordin Sparks’ win in season six may not be a big deal to many, but it changed the landscape of the show. She was just 17 years old, becoming the youngest to win the title. Up until then, viewers had seen those in their mid- to late-20s take it all, those that had been more established and mature artists. It was Sparks who showed that even at a young age if the talent is there, it doesn’t matter. Her album went platinum and has sold more than two million copies. One of her two Billboard Hot 100 singles, “No Air” was nominated for a Grammy and was the third-highest selling single for an “American Idol” contestant. She paved the way for other young ones, including season 10 winner Scotty McCreery, then 17, and the runner-up Lauren Alaina, 16. In McCreery’s season, the age limit was lowered to 15 from 16.