American Idol Superfans Defend Their All-Time Favorite Underdogs

Posted on 01/16/2013 at 1:52 PM

Related To: exclusive, TV Week

The Popdust Files: american idol, carly smithson, christina christian, jacob lusk, jon peter lewis, matt giraud, melinda doolittle, rachel zevita

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!)


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.

Jim Cantiello is an Idol expert who is recapping this season on his YouTube channel.

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.



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”…

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