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American Idol - Reality TV

Updated on December 25, 2012
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American Idol claims to seek a superstar each year, but how often do they find one?

Ryan Seacrest comes out onto the stage and speaks the immortal words that begin each episode of the now-iconic annual talent show: "This is American Idol!" The graphics pop as the outline of a singer strides across the screen. It may be a man, or it may be a woman, but surely, it is a new superstar being found right here on this stage, thanks to the votes of you, the viewer. In the background we see flashes of faces - pictures of the 11 different men and women who have won this competition since it began back in 2002. The show claims each year to seek a superstar. But what is the reality? Does winning American Idol equal a ticket to superstardom? Is it necessary to win to become a star? How often has American Idol succeeded in finding an artist of any enduring merit? Is the winner of the contest always the biggest star of the year?

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Season One - Kelly Clarkson

In 2002, American Idol first came on the air as a summer show based on the British talent show, "Pop Idol." Its object: to find a superstar. That superstar, according to the rules then in place, had to be between 18 and 24 years old, and could not have any current recording contracts. The judges for that inaugural year were acid tongued British judge Simon Cowell, sweetly ditsy dancer and pop star Paula Abdul, and music producer Randy Jackson. Ryan Seacrest shared hosting duties with Brian Dunkleman, and in their search for a star they found Kelly Clarkson, a waitress from Burleson, Texas.


Kelly Clarkson made her mark on the show with a huge, rich voice which belted out memorable versions of such songs as "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," "Stuff Like That There," and her coronation hit, "A Moment Like This." In the years that have passed since her triumph on the show, Kelly has won four American Music Awards and two Grammys. She has had ten platinum and fourteen gold records. The most recent was "Stronger" in 2011; she is still a strong presence on the pop charts more than a decade after her win on American Idol. Kelly Clarkson is the second-highest selling American Idol alumnus of all time according to Wikipiedia.

Did they find a superstar in 2002? Verdict: Yes. Clarkson's success set the expectations for every idol that followed her.

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Season Two - Ruben Studdard

Season Two brought a controversial winner in Ruben Studdard, the "Velvet Teddy Bear" from Birmingham, Alabama. The 2003 American Idol champion defeated Clay Aiken in a very close, hotly contested finale in which the final vote tally differed by less than 130,000 votes. After the finale ended, producer Simon Fuller admitted that Clay Aiken had led Ruben in the voting every week - until the final one.

The twosome continued to "duke it out on the charts" with Aiken outperforming Studdard in record sales for 2003. In the passing years, sales and media exposure for both men have cooled. While Studdard's first album, Soulful, sold 1.8 million copies, sales for subsequent releases fell sharply; his most recent album, Letters From Birmingham, sold less than 9,000 copies since its release in March of 2012. (Aiken sold 2,785,000 copies of his debut album; his latest, Steadfast, only sold 4,000 copies.) Aiken also appeared on the fifth season of Celebrity Apprentice where he was, once again, the runner-up.

Did they find a superstar in 2003? Verdict: Yes, two of them - but only temporarily. The bigger star did not win, and neither of them had lasting success as pop stars. Aiken has made some lasting contributions as a philanthropist. Ruben is the sixth-highest selling American Idol contestant of all time; Clay comes in ahead of him at #4.

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Season Three - Fantasia Barrino

Fantasia Barrino came onto American Idol in 2004 with a bold statement. "My mouth is big, but my talent is bigger." She then proceeded to show America what she meant. Barrino's version of "Summertime" is considered by some to be the best performance in American Idol history.

After her American Idol victory, Barrino's personal life was held up to intense public scrutiny. She revealed that she was illiterate, and her name splashed across the tabloids when she became pregnant after an affair with a married man. Barrino (with the help of ghostwriter Kim Green) published her best-selling autobiography, Life is Not a Fairy Tale, in 2005. She then starred in a televised version of the book in 2006. Barrino also performed on Broadway as Celie in the musical version of The Color Purple. Barrino's debut album, Free Yourself, sold 1,821,000 copies. She has not released any new music since Back to Me sold almost 500,000 copies in 2010.

One of Barrino's most notable competitors that year was Jennifer Hudson, who went on to win a Grammy Award for her own debut album and an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for the motion picture version of Dreamgirls. Barrino is the fifth-highest selling American Idol contestant of all time.

Did they find a superstar in 2004? Verdict: Yes, but it's Hudson. Barrino's success is good for an AI alum. She's a star, but she's not a superstar.


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Season Four - Carrie Underwood

When America first saw Carrie Underwood in 2005, she was a shy, pretty country girl who looked like she'd just been plucked off the farm. She came in to the show as the country singer competing against two "rockers", Bo Bice and Constantine Maroulis. After blowing the roof off the place with an electrifying cover of "Alone" by Heart, Simon Cowell declared that she would not only win the competition, but become the highest-selling American Idol of all time.

Simon Cowell was right. Since her victory over Bice in the 2005 finale, Underwood has sold over 13 million albums. She has won six American Music Awards, five Grammy Awards, and eleven Country Music Awards. All four of her albums have been certified Platinum.

Did they find a superstar in 2005? Verdict: Yes, the biggest in their franchise. Somewhere, Cowell is still gloating about that.

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Season Five - Taylor Hicks

Taylor Hicks made a odd impression from the moment he first showed up on the American Idol stage in 2006. Although only 28 when he became a contestant on the show, (age restrictions had relaxed the previous year,) Hicks sported a full head of hair that was already completely grey. Hicks dominated his season with spirited versions of Elton John's "Leavon" and "Takin' It to the Streets" by the Doobie Brothers.

However, his album sales were disappointing after the winner's results from previous years. Hicks sold less than 800,000 copies of his debut album. Meanwhile, fellow season four contestant Chris Daughtry, who came in fourth, sold almost 5 million copies of his debut album. Daughtry's third album, Break the Spell, was released in December of 2011 and has currently sold a half million copies. Daughtry is the third-highest selling American Idol alumnus of all time. Hicks went on to perform as "Teen Angel" in a Broadway revival of Grease, and he is currently performing regularly at Bailey's in Las Vegas.

Did they find a superstar in 2006? Verdict: Yes. Chris Daughtry.

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Season Six - Jordan Sparks

Jordan Sparks, a bubbly, big voiced girl who was only sixteen at the time of her victory over beatboxer Blake Lewis, has two unfortunate distinctions. She is the winner of arguably one of the weakest seasons in American Idol history, a miserable competition dominated, not by her own talent, but the infamous rise of one of American Idol's most unlikely stars - the notorious Sanjaya Malakar. Sparks is also both the last female American Idol and the last person of color to hold that distinction. Ever since Sparks, America has stubbornly voted for white guys with guitars, whether they deserved the title or not.

Sparks is the tenth-highest selling American Idol contestant. While her debut album sold a respectable 1,222,000 copies, her second album sold less than 200,000 copies. She did have one notable single, "No Air", which earned her a Grammy nomination in 2009.

Did they find a superstar in 2007? Verdict: Does Sanjaya count?

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Season Seven - David Cook

Ah, the Season of the Davids! This was the year in which the judges declared the competition to be entirely between two guys named David: 17-year-old prodigy David Archuleta, and 26-year-old David Cook. While Archuleta appeared to be an early front-runner, Cook consistently outperformed him with mature arrangements of classic songs that revealed his superior experience and ability to innovate. One of Cook's most unusual and effective performances was a remake of the Michael Jackson classic "Billie Jean", slowed down dramatically to the speed of a ballad. Cook's first album sold well, going platinum in 2008, and it produced two hit singles. His second album fared much more poorly. Cook is the seventh highest-selling American Idol contestant.

Did they find a superstar in 2008? Verdict: He had a good year, but the future does not look promising. At least Cook was probably the best contestant of his season.

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Season Eight - Kris Allen

Every once in awhile, American Idol ends the season with a result that is a real head-scratcher, and this was one of them. To his eternal credit, Season Eight champ Kris Allen realized this was probably the wrong decision even as he was accepting his trophy. "This feels great, but Adam deserved this," said Allen.

The "Adam" Allen was referring to was season standout Adam Lambert - a charismatic wailer with a distinctive, powerful voice and an electrifying stage presence. However, photos of Lambert kissing another man materialized early in the competition, and factions of the religious right began to campaign against him as the finale against Allen approached.

To be fair, Allen had some fine performances that year, most notably covers of "Falling Slowly" from the motion picture Once and "Apologize" by One Republic. After Idol, however, Allen's performance was exceptionally disappointing. He sold fewer than 500,000 copies of his debut album, the first winner not to have a platinum album. Lambert, in the meantime, sold almost a million copies of his first album, For Your Entertainment.

Did they find a superstar in 2009? Verdict: Lambert is a minor star. Allen benefited from a homophobic audience - and a little personal resilience. The judges tried just a little too hard to throw him under the bus in order to promote Lambert, and it backfired. Allen performed well under pressure, despite the judges' desire to see a Lambert/Gokey finale.

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Season Nine - Lee DeWyze

Season Nine brought in a new low to American Idol. Not only is it widely believed to be the worst season in American Idol history, but it produced easily the worst winner: Lee DeWyze. DeWyze had pronounced difficulty staying on pitch, a problem so severe that many fans referred to him as "Off-Key Lee." Vote for the Worst, a parody site dedicated to organizing voting campaigns in favor of the worst possible contestants, picked DeWyze as their champion.

The first sign that this season was going to turn out poorly came in the semifinals, as several lackluster, boring cookie-cutter competitors advanced over more musically adept and innovative singers. Crystal Bowersox provided stiff competition as the season's only truly outstanding performer, but the American people had developed a new paradigm in voting: Only white guys with guitars need apply to be the American Idol - even if they can't sing. DeWyze sold a miserable 150,000 copies of his only album, making him the 29th most successful contestant in American Idol history. Bowersox, unfortunately, didn't do that much better. She sold about 200,000 copies.

Did they find a superstar in 2010? Verdict: Uh...no. They are lucky this didn't get them canceled. Simon Cowell left Idol after this doomed season.

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Season Ten - Scotty McCreery

2011 was a year of changes for American Idol, as Stephen Tyler and Jennifer Lopez joined the judges panel alongside the only remaining original judge, Randy Jackson. The winner this year was Scotty McCreery, a country singer with a deep, resonant voice. Scotty impressed with such performances as "Letters From Home" by John Michael Montgomery and "That's All RIght" by Elvis Presley. McCreery impressed off the show as well, as winner. His debut album, Clear as Day, sold over one million copies. It is still too early to tell if his success will be lasting.

Did they find a superstar in 2011? Verdict: It's too early to tell, but he's done well so far.

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Season Eleven - Phillip Phillips

The most recent winner of American Idol, Philip Philips, had an unusual burden to bear during the season that catapulted him to fame: he suffered throughout the competition from complications due to a congenital kidney condition. The normal physical stresses made his health issues much worse, and he had to undergo surgery soon after the competition to fix the problem. Phillip missed several promotional duties due to health matters. However, he did also give some distinctive performances with his raspy, unusual voice. Many audience members felt that he was consistently outsung by his runner-up, Jessica Sanchez. Once again, for the fifth consecutive time, the title went to the white guy with a guitar, regardless of how well he actually sang.

As of October 2012 Phillips has not yet released his debut album, The World From the Side of the Moon. However, his first single, "Home", was certified platinum.

Did they find a superstar in 2012? Verdict: Ask again in two years.

Ryan Seacrest is the host of American Idol.
Ryan Seacrest is the host of American Idol. | Source

So: How often do they find a superstar?

Eleven seasons of American Idol, eleven winners. Only two are proven long-term superstars. (I'll give Scotty and Phillip a little time to prove themselves before I pass final judgement on them.) It does appear that while American Idol gives young performers a platform to launch their careers, it is not guarantee of success. It's startling to see how often the most successful contestant of the season was not the winner: Clay, Jennifer, Chris, Adam and Crystal. That's five of eleven!

The most humorous thing may be this: American Idol has unquestionably found one superstar who is likely to have a long and prosperous career because of the opportunities Idol gave him, but he's not a contestant. Ryan Seacrest was a complete unknown in 2002, but how he's one of the hottest hosts in the business, anchoring such notable annual events as New Year's Rockin' Eve. That used to be Dick Clark's job. It's likely that Seacrest will remain in the public eye long after most of the champions he introduced each week have gone back to their day jobs.

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