15 Unforgettable TV Moments From 'American Idol'

Like the awkward last guest at a party that should have ended hours ago, American Idol is finally calling it quits after a 15-season run. The show famously sputtered in its later seasons as drama from a revolving panel of judges stole attention away from mostly bland finalists, and competitors like The Voice siphoned ratings. But AI became a cultural touchstone, changing the music industry and creating a path for TV shows like Glee and even Empire. And it remains the only U.S. reality program that produced global music superstars. So allow us to look back at 15 incredible moments from FOX's American Idol.

 

The (Bad) Auditions

William Hung

Of course the point of the show was to find superstar performers (and we'll get to them in a bit), but what drew so many to the early episodes of American Idol were the horrible auditions from delusional fame-seekers. Arguably the most endearing of the tone-deaf wannabes was William Hung, who banged his way into our hearts with his remarkably awkward cover of Ricky Martin's already-suspect "She Bangs" during Season 3.

James Lewis

James Lewis' performance of "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)" was too much for judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, who covered their faces and turned their chairs to hide their teary laughter during this Season 7 audition. It was bad for Lewis' self-esteem, but it made great TV.

Larry Platt

Someone named Lee DeWyze apparently won Season 9, but has he ever crafted a song as memorable as General Larry Platt's "Pants on the Ground"? Even Simon Cowell knew the truth: "I have a horrible feeling that song could be a hit," he said. Alas, that didn't turn out to be true, and at 62, Platt wasn't even within the show's age range, but his song is a legit earworm.

 

The Judges

Kara DioGuardi vs. Bikini Girl

No one really needed to hear Katrina Darrell sing again, nor was there viewer demand for DioGuardi to disrobe. But that's where Idol was during Season 8.

Ellen vs. Common Sense

Remember when Ellen DeGeneres was an Idol judge for a minute? LOL.

Mariah vs. Nicki

Overshadowing all other judging drama, of course, is the rollercoaster ride that was Season 12. What seemed like a dream — a legendary, record-breaking vocalist and a hip-hop superstar adding a from-the-trenches perspective to the mix — quickly became a nightmare. Not because of the constant clashes, but because they never translated into ratings.

 

The Performances

Carrie Underwood, "Alone"

It's easy to forget how green and small-town she was during her early Idol days, but country's reigning queen quickly learned how to perform. And this inspired song choice proved that she was out for the win.

Fantasia Barrino, "Summertime"

It was obvious that this lady had a story to tell (seriously, it eventually became a Lifetime movie), in part because of the emotion she was able to put into her performances. This one immediately became one of the series' most magical moments.

Adam Lambert, "Mad World"

With a seemingly limitless vocal range, Lambert was a surprise runner-up during Season 8. But he delivered the year's most memorable performance. And not just because he didn't miss a note. This was a masterclass in how to own an audience.

Kelly Clarkson, "Stuff Like That There"

After weeks of singing dated Burt Bacharach and Motown songs, a big band theme seemed like a step in the wrong direction for Idol. But then Clarkson took the stage. She already had proven that she could not just sing, but saaang. But this was proof that Clarkson was a performer. From her look to her delivery, she was flawless. She was natural, playful, and charming as hell as she nailed the big notes and stole America's heart.

Katharine McPhee, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"

Maybe it's her recent focus on TV work, but for some reason people seem to forget that McPhee is a powerhouse singer. She inexplicably fell short to Taylor Freaking Hicks during Season 5 (Idol's highest-rated), but McPhee guaranteed herself a career with this star-making song.

 

The (Shocking) Eliminations

Tamyra Gray

Everyone expected a battle of big voices in the first season's finale, pitting early favorite Gray against the increasingly attention-grabbing Clarkson. So it would have been shocking enough if Gray had placed third behind Clarkson and Justin Guarini. But fourth? The fact that America voted Nikki McKibbin into the top three was a serious warning that no one was safe and confirmation that Americans make terrible decisions.

Jennifer Hudson

When it comes to J-Hud, two questions keep me awake at night: She really has an Oscar? And more relevant to this piece, she only finished seventh on Idol?! I don't think very highly of her acting skills, but no one can deny her supernatural vocal ability. Except the lunatics who voted (or didn't) during Season 3.

Chris Daughtry

The white dude with a guitar became a whole crazy thing on American Idol, but during Season 5 Chris Daughtry was kind of refreshing. He was one of those rare rock singers who could really, as Randy Jackson said, blow. Fellow judge Paula Abdul actually said, "See you in the finals" after one of his performances the week he was booted. Of course, he went on to fill arenas around the country and is behind only Clarkson and Underwood on the list of AI's best-selling contestants.

Honorable mention to Pia Toscano, who also was robbed.

 

The Coronations

Season 1

Face it, there's only one that matters. Yes, there were nail-biters (Ruben Studdard beat Clay Aiken by a crazy-slim margin) and shock victories (Kris Allen over Adam Lambert?). But If Kelly Clarkson hadn't won the inaugural season of American Idol, not only would pop music have missed out on one of this generation's defining voices, but the show never would have reached the same heights. From the teary Clarkson's squeaky delivery to the other shrieky finalists' misguided-yet-hysterical attempts to help fill in the gaps, that final "Moment" was the perfect way to end the season and set a cultural phenomenon in motion.

The very last episode of American Idol airs Thursday at 8 p.m. Idol out!

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Apr 8, 2016 12:11PM EDT

All of this is perfect.

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