'American Idol' Report Card
Recap of Winners
Season 1 - Kelly Clarkson (winner), Justin Guarini (runner-up)
Season 2 - Ruben Studdard (winner), Clay Aiken (runner-up)
Season 3 - Fantasia Barrino (winner), Diana DeGarmo (runner-up)
Season 4 - Carrie Underwood (winner), Bo Bice (runner-up)
Season 5 - Taylor Hicks (winner), Katharine McPhee (runner-up)
Season 6 - Jordin Sparks (winner), Blake Lewis (runner-up)
Season 7 - David Cook (winner), David Archuleta (runner-up)
Making the Grade
In the first season, everything was so new that the contestants were essentially guinea pigs. Handling the pressure beautifully was Kelly Clarkson, who quickly took her rightful place at the head of the class by consistently turning in stellar performances.
Once contestants in subsequent seasons understood how the show worked, they should have outshined Kelly. But while many other contestants have had impressive runs on the show, no one has ever quite measured up to the bar that she set.
Two Idols who come close are last season's winner, David Cook, and Season 4's Carrie Underwood. What they have in common with Kelly is that they were consistent performers who stayed true to their individual styles, but were able to really wow the judges when they were forced to step out of their comfort zones. While most contestants choked on Season 1's Big Band Night (a theme that we'll probably never see again), Kelly proved herself to be the most versatile of the group by effortlessly embracing the genre.
Similarly, Carrie Underwood's most memorable performance was when she strayed from her country roots to rock out to Heart's "Alone," and David Cook amazed everyone when he chose NOT to rock "Music of the Night," but focused instead on delivering powerful, Broadway-worthy vocals that proved he was the one to beat.
Although there has never been a huge public outcry about any Idol winner, every season has had its fill of "should haves."
The closest thing to an uproar came in Season 6, when early favorite Melinda Doolittle was ousted a week before the finale, leaving ultimate winner Jordin Sparks to battle it out with 2nd runner-up Blake Lewis. No one was more shocked than Simon Cowell, who was vocal about his belief that Melinda should have won.
Even though Kelly faced Justin Guarini in the Season 1 finale, most fans agreed that she should have been up against 4th place finisher Tamyra Gray. Likewise, Season 3's finale with Fantasia Barrino and Diana DeGarmo seemed odd, considering that much of the season had been a "battle of the divas," between Fantasia, LaToya London (4th place), and Jennifer Hudson (7th place). Not only should those women have been the final three, but it could be argued that, based on vocals alone, LaToya deserved the win. However, personality plays a big role on AI, and Fantasia's vibrant persona won over the judges and fans alike.
Seasons 5 and 7 both featured fan favorites who were eliminated early. In Season 5, it was 4th place finisher Chris Daughtry, and last year, it was Michael Johns, whose shocking 8th place finish caused a media frenzy. While David Cook certainly earned his win, Johns should have easily finished in the Top 4.
In contrast, the finales of Season 2 and Season 4 were evenly matched. It was pretty evident from day one of their respective seasons that the final match-ups would be Ruben Studdard/Clay Aiken and Carrie Underwood/Bo Bice. Kimberley Locke was the only one who had even the slimmest chance of breaking up The Ruben & Clay Show. But even though she was technically a better singer than Ruben, she couldn't compete with his "Velvet Teddy Bear" image.
If you take a look at the post-AI careers of some of those "should haves," you might start to reconsider your opinions. We've not heard a peep from LaToya London nor Melinda Doolittle, although Melinda is set to release her first album in early February. Probably the biggest disappointment has been Tamyra Gray, who has yet to live up to her amazing potential. Even worse is that she wrote the Idol single for Season 3. Yes, she is the one to blame for inflicting "I Believe" on the world!
Still, some "should haves" managed to make it after the show. Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson have been the most successful runners up in AI history. Daughtry's debut album just went quadruple platinum in spring of 2008, and Hudson has been successful in both music and film, most notably winning a 2007 Oscar win for her role in "Dreamgirls."
As for the Idol winners, we think the first is still the best. Kelly Clarkson has won multiple awards including 2 Grammys, and has sold the most records of all the Idols. In 2nd place is Carrie Underwood, who is right on Kelly's heels in the sales department. And considering Carrie has only released two albums to Kelly's three, she's actually done more with less.
However, Kelly's newest album, "All I Ever Wanted," set for release in March, is already shaping up to be a smash, judging by the first single, "My Life Would Suck Without You." The song recently broke the Billboard record for largest leap to #1, hitting the top spot after debuting all the way down at #97.
After Kelly and Carrie, the top-selling Idol alumni are Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, and Jordin Sparks. Although Clay has Daughtry beat in units sold, Daughtry's lone album has made more money (and will probably continue to) than Clay's first three records put together. Daughtry's success makes a case for those who say he should have won his season instead of Taylor Hicks. Although Hicks has very loyal fans (Soul Patrol!), he obviously has yet to find a wider audience, as he is in 12th place for overall record sales, putting him below also-rans Kellie Pickler (S5), Josh Gracin (S2), and Bo Bice, as well as the current American Idol, David Cook.
Cook's first major label effort debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 upon its November release, and was just certified platinum this month. He is already 9th overall in sales among former AI contestants - achieving greater success in just a few months than some alumni have in years.
So, who is your favorite Idol? Your least favorite? Which ones do you think will still be around making music 10 years from now, and which ones will fade into obscurity? Which ones will follow in Jessica Sierra's and Nikki McKibbin's footsteps down the path to "Celebrity Rehab?" And, do you think the Idol talent has gotten better or worse over the years?
Story by Becky Broderick
Starpulse contributing writer
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