The 8 Most Baffling Runs in Idol history

Warning: The following post is very mean-spirited.

Roughly 5 times per year, the worst singer in a given day makes it through. From the Top 12 to Top 5 it has happened 57 times, to be exact, where quality is defined by WhatNotToSing score. This isn’t too bad, when you consider that some contestants build up a fan base that saves them if they have one bad night.

But what about those perennially bad singers? The ones you know should go home, sing badly day in and day out—but someone, somewhere is pulling for them. Here I present the worst winning streaks in Idol history.

To find out who to include, I analyzed Finalists in Seasons 1-9 according to their average WNTS approval rating and did a linear regression analysis of the number of episodes a contestant made it to versus their overall quality. The deviation from the regression line (also called the residual) will tell how far away each point is from the trend. Roughly speaking, the residual says how many episodes they made it to that they shouldn’t have. (The residual is calculated from finals rounds only.)

Here are the 8 contestants who made it way farther than they ever should have.

8. Camile Velasco

Season: 3 Average Score: 23.2
Crappy streak: 5 Episodes Residual: 0.943
Vote For the Worst Pick?: No

Although the analysis would suggest Camile Velasco lasted only one more episode than she should have, this doesn’t tell the story. Ms. Velasco turned in an average performance of One More Cry during her semi-final round of Season 3–not the best of the night, but pretty good compared to the other semi-finalists in Season 3. However, she then followed that up in the finals with 3 extremely low-rated performances, including this rendition of Desperado in the Top 11 round:

That’s really rough. Moreover, she pulled that song during Country week, and the Eagles aren’t even country musicians (Matt Rogers was sent packing that week). Ms. Velasco made it through four final rounds with nothing above a 30 approval rating (the average for all seasons is about 50). That is, until she performed a truly atrocious version of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, scoring a whopping 6 on WNTS, one of the worst in the entire database. And so, in the Top 9, Camile was finally sent home.

What accounts for this? Well, Velasco, like a certain contested listed lower down on this list, was from Hawaii, so it could very well be that she pulled a disproportionate vote from there. Beyond that, I can’t really say. In a field of talented women, Velasco didn’t stand out at all. But move on she did, 4 times.

7. Haley Scarnato

Season: 6 Average Score: 29.1
Crappy streak: 8 Episodes Residual: 1.22
Vote For the Worst Pick?: No

Though I always though Haley Scarnato was underrated, given that the opinion of her in the public was that she was all about T & A, she lasted a very long time in Season 6. Her performance of True Colors was rated extremely poorly by the public (though I thought it was fine):

Nevertheless, she was safe. Ms. Scarnato, I agree, showed more skin every week, and I certainly wouldn’t complain. She followed this up with a pretty good version of Ain’t Misbehavin’,  but this too was poorly received. Finally, during Latin week, she was eliminated for her version of Turn the Beat Around.

I think Haley was one of the smartest contestants in Idol history. She played the game well, pulling out decent performances every so often to give people a reason to vote during her unpopular weeks, and playing to the male crowd by raising her hemline every week.

6. Tim Urban

Season: 9 Average Score: 32.7
Crappy streak: 9 Episodes Residual: 1.78
Vote For the Worst Pick?: Yes

Tim Urban, in last year’s competition, is the reason why people cry that teen girls are ruining American Idol. It’s hard not to concede the point to them when it comes to Mr Urban, who made it through the first semi-final on the strength of Apologize, scoring a 4 (four) out of 100. Young woman power-voting for the handsome Urban almost certainly saved Urban at the  beginning. What’s really baffling is that the following performance of Crazy Little Thing Called Love got Urban through a final round

Mr. Urban is a marvel, statistically speaking. He made it through 6 final rounds, beating out contestants like Michael Lynche and Katie Stevens before finally getting the boot for his version of Better Days during the Idol Gives back week. Plus: he owned it. Tim looked America straight in the eye, every week, and told them he knew he wasn’t top caliber, and it didn’t matter. He was going through, and there was nothing you could do about it.

5. John Stevens

Season: 3 Average Score: 30.3
Crappy streak: 8 Episodes Residual: 3.08
Vote For the Worst Pick?: Yup

Where do I begin with John Stevens? In the lackluster field of Season 3, Stevens was a memorable standout, but not in a good way. Stevens was a “throwback”, in that he was supposed to appeal to an older crowd (nobody talks about this sub-demographic, who could easily save as many people as the teeny bopper crowd) He was a crooner supposedly in the tradition of Mel Torme. The difference: Mel Torme could sing:

How bad was John Stevens? I can’t even find his performances on Youtube. Not one person has thought it was worth it to upload his egregious version of Crocodile Rock, or Mandy, or… you get the picture. Maybe the old women who were voting for him just can’t operate a capture card.

Stevens was seemingly immortal. He sailed through the semifinal round and lasted 6 (SIX) final rounds before finally getting the boot for the above performance. But the thing about it is that this performance isn’t an outlier: it is somewhat indicative of what his average performances were like. Whom did Stevens outlast? The list is long, but it includes, yes, Jennifer Hudson.

What was America thinking?

4. Carmen Rasmusen

Season: 2 Average Score: 29.1
Crappy streak: 8  Episodes Residual: 3.22
Vote For the Worst Pick?: N/A

Probably the most baffling Wild Card pick in Idol history, Carmen Rasmusen was actually eliminated from the Top 100 in Season 2. But in a surprise move, that year the judges tapped the people eliminated from that round to fill out a Wild Card night, and Rasmusen was among them. She was subsequently selected by Simon Cowell to advance to the Top 12, even though he said her performance was “not good enough.”

Rasmusen lasted 6 Final rounds, bleating out questionable song picks with awful vibrato. She was pretty, and played well to the camera. She stands as a counterpoint to the idea that Idol viewers don’t like women–she was terrible and lasted far longer than she should have. Here, let’s suffer together through her version of Billy Joel’s And So It Goes:

Rasmusen even beat out Kimberly Caldwell, a better singer by far, and if I may opine, a prettier one. What can I say? The judges made the right choice in the Top 100 stage. I can’t imagine what they were thinking advancing Rasmusen to the Top 12, but America confusingly kept her on until she did Love Will Lead You Back, when they finally told her to hit the tarmac.

3. Sanjaya Malakar

Season: 6 Average Score: 17.6
Crappy streak: 9 Episodes Residual: 3.63
Vote For the Worst Pick?: Ho yes

The poster-child for Vote For the Worst, Sanjaya Malakar had the support of them and the full force of Howard Stern. Whether or not these made a significant difference (I tend to think not), Malakar had an amazing run. He sailed through 3 semifinal rounds with no score better than a 20/100, and then proceeded to make it through 5 final rounds with performances like this version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough:

Did it matter? No way. With an ability to make little girls cry, not to mention pulling off a dazzling faux-hawk, Sanjaya was in a class all his own. As he put it himself, America was in the world of Sanjaya–it was his to begin with, we were just living in it.

Whom did Sanjaya beat out? Brandon Rogers, Chris Sligh, and Gina Glocksen, to name but a few. Only when it came to the Top 7 did the reign end, with truly horrible version of Something to Talk About. Idol fans breathed a sigh of relief, but the whole thing was very demoralizing. More than any other contestant, Sanjaya represents the “popularity contest” theory of Idol: that singing just doesn’t matter that much.

2. Scott Savol

Season: 4 Average Score: 32.6
Crappy streak: 11 Episodes Residual: 3.80
Vote For the Worst Pick?: You better believe it

Scott Savol is an odd story. His overall singing ability was comparable to Tim Urban, but somehow he made it all the way to the Top 5 of Season 4. He was kind of creepy looking, enormously self-satisfied, and, as was revealed during the show, a violent offender. He had committed domestic abuse by throwing a phone at his then-girlfriend. He proceeded to commit abuse on the American people with his version of The Impossible Dream:

To put this in a little perspective, many if not most fan sites began running Savol’s mugshot as their graphic to represent him on their sites (somehow, I resisted). Yet the man defeated the popular and talented Constantine Maroulis to reach the Top 5.

So what accounts for Savol’s success? For the first time, I simply cannot say. A mediocre singer with a bad image, bad styling, an extremely annoying demeanor during the interview videos… who was voting for him?! I just don’t know. There’s no sub-demographic that would plausibly have been power-dialing.

I just don’t get this one.

1. Jasmine Trias

Season: 3 Average Score: 38.2
Crappy streak: 11 Episodes Residual: 5.10
Vote For the Worst Pick?: Damn straight

Jasmine Trias is the worst singer to ever make the Top 3. She hailed from Hawaii, and leveraged that connection to lock up an entire state. Week upon week, votes from Hawaii were dispositive, keeping Trias in the contest when, based on the rest of the nation’s vote, she would have been long gone. Indeed, in a rare revelation about the voting, the Associated Press reported that Hawaii, with its only 1.2 million people, placed more votes than any other state except for California and New York during the week that Latoya London was eliminated. No question: Hawaii, the only state in its time zone, severely screwed up the voting in Season 3.

Was Trias a terrible singer? No, but neither was she even within 10 points of the average finalist’s score. With performances like this cover of It’s Raining Men, nobody would have thought she could make it to the Top 3:

The above performance had Trias safe. That one. Yes, really. “You better hope that every household in Hawaii has 5 telephones”, said Simon Cowell.

And Latoya London wasn’t the only contestant robbed due to Hawaii’s pernicious influence. So was Jennifer Hudson and George Huff, two of the people I noted were among the few contestants to have great performances and not make the Top 4.

So, Jasmine Trias’ run was not inexplicable. But the ability to explain, sometimes, doesn’t imply the ability to understand. Trias in particular shows the deep faults in the voting scheme of Idol, more than any contestant in the last 10 years.

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