American Idol's Top 10 Contributions to Pop Culture

Kelly Clarkson: just one of at least 10 reasons why we'll miss American Idol
Kelly Clarkson: just one of at least 10 reasons why we'll miss American Idol
Photo by Harper Smith

Yesterday came the surprising news that, after 15 seasons, Fox's mega-hit American Idol would be coming to an end. Premiering in 2002, Idol not only re-popularized the televised talent contest format, but introduced us to such cultural touchstones as curmudgeonly judge Simon Cowell, unforgettable names like Sanjaya and Bo Bice, and the hippest way to leave a room ("Seacrest out!").

Sad as we are to see Idol go, we're excited that instead of an unceremoniously abrupt end, we're getting a bombastic final season set to be something of a musical victory lap.

It is with bittersweet fingers once used to vote by dialing that we type out this list of Idol's 10 greatest contributions to popular culture.

10. Beatboxing in Prime Time
In 2007, hip-hop fans were pleasantly surprised by beatboxing contestant Blake Lewis’ performance with beatboxing pioneer and hip-hop legend Doug E. Fresh. Their performance of Fresh’s '80s signature hit “The Show” was a surprisingly tasteful, authentic moment of classic hip-hop during prime time national television.

9. "Sorry 2004"
When Ruben Studdard narrowly defeated Clay Aiken in 2003 to become the second American Idol, it solidified the show's status as must-see television. But overlooked is Studdard’s absurd post-Idol single, “Sorry 2004.” In the track’s video, Ruben shows up at his lady's work with back-up dancing children and apologizes for an entire year's worth of misdeeds. Most absurd is that this came out at the end of 2003 — so his entire career hinged upon a musical apology for all the stuff he was about to do. By just existing, Studdard’s also partially responsible for one of the most scathing rap battle lines of all time.

8. Clay Aiken (D)
Though he was the runner-up to Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken managed to carve an impressive career all his own. He performed on Broadway, placed second in The Celebrity Apprentice, released a New York Times bestselling book and won the Democratic nomination when running for congress in North Carolina in 2014 (though he lost to Republican Renee Ellmers in the general election).

7. Justin Guarini as "Lil Sweet"
After the first blockbuster season of American Idol, its two biggest names nearly ended their careers prematurely with the critically derided film From Justin to Kelly, a theatrically released cash-grab starring season one winner Kelly Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini. Clarkson's career, as we all know, turned out just fine. But Guarini's done all right for himself, too, mainly as a stage actor and television host. Our favorite of his endeavors, however, has to be his role as Diet Dr. Pepper spokesman “Lil Sweet.”

6. Fantasia and Adult Illiteracy Awareness
A bit of controversy surrounded American Idol’s third winner Fantasia when she revealed in her 2005 memoir that she was “functionally illiterate.” While she recanted this to People magazine a few years later, her faux-admittance did raise awareness of the very real existence of adult illiteracy.

5. William Hung
For many, the highlights of the past 15 seasons of American Idol have fallen not on the final episodes, but on the first ones. Seeing young hopefuls belt their hearts out, all at varying degrees of skill and experience, resonates with us like few other things television. But nothing prepared us for the lifetime of joy we’ve received from William Hung. Charismatic, with a sheer zeal for singing and bringing smiles to faces, Hung was the right person at the right time to sing his way into our hearts. To this day, we’re more than happy to be Hung for the Holidays.

4. Jennifer Hudson
Jennifer Hudson didn’t win American Idol. She wasn’t even a runner-up. Finishing seventh in season three, Hudson went on to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Dreamgirls, as well as a Grammy and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. To date, she’s the most successful seventh-place finisher in the show’s history, and an inspiration to anyone who's ever suffered a setback on the path to pursuing their dreams.

3. Carrie Underwood
American Idol’s second bestselling artist of all time (to date she’s sold approximately 15 million albums, second only to Kelly Clarkson), Carrie Underwood won the show’s fourth season and then dominated Nashville with the seven-times platinum Some Hearts. What’s even more impressive is that Underwood has continued to sell millions as music industry sales have plummeted overall.

2. Kelly Clarkson
Not just a humorous expletive from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Kelly Clarkson has maintained a strong career ever since Idol, including "Since U Been Gone," one of the biggest songs of the '00s. Her constant presence on the charts (with over 36 million singles sold worldwide) is a reminder that Idol’s initial 2002 impact never really went away.

1. Revitalizing the Audience-Artist Relationship
What Idol truly doesn't get enough credit for is how, at a time when the music industry was beginning its utter freefall, it managed to make a show about music into one of the biggest hits on television. No matter how big piracy got, Idol made music truly feel like an event, acting like a giant A&R scout for new talent. You can't download live television, and an argument could be made that Idol had a serious hand in keeping the music industry afloat in the 2000s and even into this decade.


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