Season 1 Retrospective

Can’t wait for Idol to start next week? Watch my 40 minute retrospective of American Idol season 1!

Transcript after the jump.

When watching the first season of American Idol back now, it seems as though the Fox network didn’t know what they had at first. It debuted in the off-peak summer months of 2002, and the beginning episodes were made on the scale and budget that seems puny compared to the modern show. This is nowhere more apparent than in the auditions and Hollywood rounds. Where an audition round is now somewhere around 7-8 hours of TV, the first season had only one 90 minute show, and almost 10 minutes of that was explaining what the show was and who the judges were. Hollywood week was wrapped up in 1 hour (last year it was 9 hours).

The semi-finals, similarly, were extremely small affairs, with a closed sound-stage and no audience except the judges and the contestants themselves. As the season progressed, the show morphed in scale to something more like what we’re now familiar with: a large stage and audience. From the Top 4 on, the performance shows were the highest rated shows on television each week.

The first season did establish a number of familiar traditions. The auditions relied mainly on comically bad singers. We got our first sob-story in Jim Verraros and his deaf parents . There was no shortage of gorgeous women who were put through. And the perennial major attitude problems were kicked off by the irascible Tamika. And, of course, Kristin Holt was shown flying under a table, a clip which has been replayed dozens of times since.

But the events of the first season also tell a remarkable story about how America overruled the judges and saw, in Kelly Clarkson, something that Randy, Paula, and Simon didn’t. Kelly was and is the ultimate Idol contestant: she was a world class singer who had tried and failed in the music business. During the show, she chose songs better than anyone, executed great arrangements, and as a result was catapulted to stardom.


The initial audition round served mainly as fodder for promotional commercials, even more than it is today. Fox painted it as a show where you could tune in and hear terrible singers getting lambasted by a mean British guy. But the auditions are also a venue to promote the singers who will eventually compete for your vote. And at 90 minutes including commercials, it didn’t do that very well. Of the 30 contestants who made the semifinals, only 16 were featured, a rate lower than every other season except seasons 2 11. Notably absent? Kelly Clarkson, who had her image on screen during the first episode for literally a tenth of a second.

Beautiful women made up a considerable portion of the good singers, including semi-finalists Ryan Starr, Alexis Lopez, and Tamyra Gray. The show attempted to head off complaints about being totally about looks by putting through Jaquette Williams, only to eliminate her immediately in Hollywood.

The entirety of Hollywood was encompassed in one hour including commercials. Many of those whose auditions had been seen returned here. Clarkson, again, was largely passed over, and we see her only for a few brief moments where she isn’t named and doesn’t sing. Justin Guarini, by contrast, got more than one uninterrupted minute showing off his version of Get Here. This show was also notable for its first glimse of 2nd runner up Nikki McKibbon and an awesomely long on-stage diatribe by Jules Sanchez.


The 30 semi-finalists featured 14 men and 16 women. They were split into 3 groups of 10 and sang over 3 consecutive weeks. In recent seasons, the semi-finals are giant events before a large audience, but here, all the songs were sung on a dinky stage on a small closed set. The only applause came from the other contestants clapping for their fellows. Watching it today, it’s a little surreal.

What’s also clear from these rounds is that the number of songs cleared for the show must have been pretty small. In addition to three repeats (And I am Telling You, I’ll Be, and Ribbon in the Sky) the song list was a bizarre mix of showtunes, standards, oldies, and adult contemporary hits. The judges at times criticized the picks, but to me it appears these people didn’t have much choice.

Still, the good contestants made the most of it. The first performance ever on Idol was Tamyra Gray doing the song from Dream Girls. Also in the first semifinal round, Ryan Starr sang the 1945 novelty song “Frim Fram Sauce”. They were both big hits with the judges.

Now not in control of the contest, the judges were still working out how they could steer the public’s voting. Simon’s reviews got particularly harsh, while Paula was almost always complimentary, and Randy somewhere in the middle, a dynamic which we would see throughout the series until Simon and Paula departed. In the first episode, they tried to dissuade the public from voting for Jim Verraros for his awful rendition of “When I fall in Love”. But it didn’t work, and Jim joined Tamyra and Ryan in the Top 10. Simon’s antipathy was palpable.

The second group sported the likely already-popular Justin Guarini, who duplicated another contestant’s choice (Gil Sinuet) and pleased all the judges with “Ribbon in the sky”. But the stand-out moment was from a previously-unheard-from Texas girl named Kelly Clarkson. Seemingly out of nowhere, there was a girl belting out as good a version of Aretha Franklin’s arrangement of “Respect” as had ever been heard. Somehow the judges, and especially Simon, didn’t quite process what had happened. During the results show, the three judges were again asked who they thought would go through. Their guesses were Justin, naturally, but also Angela Peel, Alexis Lopez, and Gil Sinuet. None of them chose Kelly Clarkson, but the viewers did. Simon walked back his indifference: “I had a lot of calls about this girl this morning”.

Kelly’s advancement raised nary a complaint from anyone, but the same can’t be said of the milquetoast AJ Gil, whose version of All or Nothing got lukewarm to bad reviews. But the public put AJ through, and again, Simon voiced his displeasure: “I think like last week the voters have made a mistake. Sorry AJ, I think there were better people”. During the third semi-final round, he reiterated in this extended comment during his review of RJ Helton: “in the last two episodes two losers have been voted through for one reason, and one reason only, it is the sympathy vote”. This provoked a pugnacious and very unprofessional response from Randy Jackson.

The third semi-final group was perhaps the weakest of all. EJay Day, brought in to replace the disqualified Delano, edged out his lackluster competitors, as did Nikki McKibbon and Christina Christian. During a quick Wild Card round, the judges declined to add early favorites Alexis Lopez or Kelli Glover, instead rounding out the Top 10 with RJ Helton.

Top 10 (Motown)

The first week of regular shows was a double-elimination round featuring the songs of Motown. The available songs seemed to cramp the style of the two rock-oriented singers, Ryan and Nikki. Ryan’s song kicked off a new tradition, singers getting lost in the sound mix. Nikki’s bizarre choice of The Jackson 5’s Ben could hardly have been anything but an imposition, as a ballad to a childhood rat friend seemed somewhat out of place. Justin continued to be the center of the Idol hype machine, with Simon telling Guarini that Justin “Timberlake, watch out for you”, an assertion which was about to cease being very credible, if it ever was.

And then, nearing the wrap up of a fairly boring night, out came Kelly. Singing the great but lesser-known Motown song “You’re all I need to get by”, Clarkson wowed just about everyone. Kelly didn’t just sing well, she made an incredibly shrewd song choice, one of several she would make on her path to winning the season. At this point, one can see the judges, and especially Simon, starting to realize that he missed something big.

One shouldn’t be too hard on Simon, though, as his candor throughout these rounds clearly buoyed the contest. In the first 3 rounds, the widely-recognized weakest singers, Jim, Ejay, and AJ, were all eliminated. Simon made it clear that Jim, in this particular round, was unacceptable, and the voters went along with it. That was a good thing. Too bad it will never happen again.

Top 8 (1960s)

The Top 8 sang songs from the 1960s. Nikki bounced back from the bottom 3 and smartly chose Janis Joplin’s “Piece of my heart”, while Tamyra Gray got raves for her version of Tina Turner’s “Fool in love”. Justin coasted by with a boring version of the Cher song “Sunny”, which, when lightly criticized by Simon, he boorishly defended by appealing to his throngs of screaming girls.

But, once again, it was Kelly who dazzled. Going back to Aretha Franklin’s repertoire, Clarkson’s version of “A Natural Woman” smoked her competition. The judges still didn’t quite give it the credit it deserved.

AJ Gil, however, was the man on the spot. Even though Ryan Starr had a similarly terrible night with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me Now”, AJ’s “How Sweet It Is” cover got lukewarm to bad reviews from the judges, and got him booted.

With obvious cannon fodder AJ, Jim, and Ejay gone, the contest could finally get going. The clear frontrunners were Justin, Tamyra, and Kelly. Or at least that’s how it appeared …

Top 7 (1970s)

With no female midriff totally covered, the Top 7 sang songs from the horrible 1970s. Nikki squeezed in 1979’s Pat Benatar rocker “Heartbreaker”, while the others stuck with soul songs of the early 70s. All, that is, except for Ryan Starr, who strangely decided to revert to a Donna Summer disco song. It’s strange because until then Ryan had been trying to establish herself as hard edged. It could be that she just couldn’t find a good song to sing from the available list, something that the other people also clearly had trouble with. Whatever the reason, the performance didn’t work, and Ryan was sent packing.

But the eliminated contestant wasn’t the whole story. Nikki was in the bottom 3, and would appear in every single bottom group for every coming week until her elimination. But so, this night, was Justin Guarini. And, in fact, we are told that Nikki got more votes than he did. So, Justin, the supposed frontrunner who was a challenge to Justin Timberlake was beaten not by just Nikki, Kelly, and Tamyra, but also beaten by RJ Helton and Christina Christian.

Why did it happen? Seemingly not due to Justin’s hubris the previous week, which he apologized to Simon for directly on the show. Not because of judges comments either, which were decent though not great for his song “Someday We’ll All Be Free”. One is forced to believe that it was either song choice, since it was not a familiar hit, or actual execution. The song ranked fairly low on the WhatNotToSing performance approval rating, scoring a 28/100. Whatever the reason, the idea that Justin was going to sail to the top on a wave of his huge fanbase had just been discredited.

Top 6 (Big Band)

In a rather big departure from previous weeks (one that would sadly not be repeated in subsequent years), Idol took a turn into the Big Band era in the Top 6. The song choices were all from the 1930s and 40s, backed by a real jazz big band, with the contestants sporting smart period outfits.

Tamyra Gray busted out of the gate with a season highlight, Cab Calloway’s 1931 tune Minnie The Moocher, complete with audience echo of her scatting. Kelly closed the show with the highest rated performance ever on Idol, according to WhatNotToSing, Betty Hutton’s “Stuff like that there”, a goofy song with a high level of difficulty. Justin played it safe and smug, singing Nat King Cole’s Route 66. But the others faltered, and Nikki, RJ, and Christina made up the bottom 3. Christina, whose vibrato had been widely criticized during the season, was eliminated in absentia while she was across town in a hospital.

Nikki was safe again. Simon said Nikki “had to pull off the performance of a lifetime to last another week”, and that she didn’t. That statement would turn out to be very wrong.

Top 5 (Burt Bacharach)

The first artist theme week, and the first featuring a celebrity coach, was Burt Bacharach week in the Top 5. Presumably the contestants could choose anything from the Bacharach/Hal David songbook, though this was never explained.

Kelly did Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By”, and it wasn’t very good. She shouts the song and makes a mistake in the lyrics. Nevertheless, the judges praise her, with Simon admitting something he should have done weeks ago: that he didn’t recognize her potential, and thank god she had entered. Tamyra does another Warwick tune, A House is Not a Home, which Simon called one of the best performances he’d ever seen on TV. Paula wept.

Justin Guarini turned on the lounge act and sang Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love”, which got lukewarm reviews. But it was Nikki and RJ who incurred the wrath of judges and voters alike. Nikki did what ought to have been an easy lift, a cover of the Naked Eyes version of Always Something There to Remind Me. It was terrible. RJ Helton did Arthur’s Theme, a song you hear most often in grocery stores. The judges were not amused.

The bottom 2 was predictably RJ and Nikki, but why was it RJ who was eliminated instead of Nikki? The producers set Nikki up with a very cute moment the night before, with her young son giving her a flower after her song. Maybe it made a difference, maybe not. Nikki had something that appealed to some subset of voters, but I’m puzzled as to what. Only one round, the Top 8, was she not in the bottom group. And yet she kept hanging on. Amazing.

Top 4 (1980s and 1990s?)

The Top 4 was supposed to be a cruise where the four remaining singers were narrowed to the three frontrunners, Kelly, Justin, and Tamyra. It didn’t work out that way.

The officially theme was 1980s and 1990s, though a few choices don’t follow the rule. Kelly did a song from 2002, and Nikki did two songs from the 1990s, so I guess I’m not sure what the theme really was.

Tamyra faltered in a big way on her first tune, a horrible version of Patti Labelle’s “New Attitude”. On her second song, Peabo Bryson’s very unfamiliar tune “Feel the Fire”, Tamyra runs out of steam, her voice exhausted. The judges praise her second, while giving her a pass on the first.

The other contestants made somewhat better song choices. Justin reprised “Get Here” as well as showing off his dance moves on Michael Jackson’s “PYT”. Kelly Clarkson’s choice of “It’s Raining Men” for her first song was bizarre, but she absolutely smoldered in her second tune, Celine Dion’s “I surrender”; that prompted both Randy and Simon to say she was in the same league as Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, and left her with little voice left.

But the most interesting turn was Nikki McKibbon. Sure that she was already done for, Nikki chose two songs from the 1990s that suited her: an Alanis Morrisette tune “Mary Jane” and Melissa Etheridge’s huge hit “I’m the Only One”.

Then, a results shocker, the first of many on Idol. The bottom two was revealed to be Nikki and Tamyra. Paula becomes visibly worried. And in the end, it was Tamyra who was eliminated.

How the hell did this happen? Indulge me while I walk through a little arithmetic.

Here’s what we know about the vote totals during the season

Vote totals:
Semis 1 : 3 million votes
Semis 2 : 6.9 million votes
Semis 3 : ??? (x)
Top 10 : 8 million votes
Top 8 : 8 million votes
Top 7 : 9.2 million votes
Top 6 : 10.5 million votes
Top 5 : 14.5 million votes
Top 4 : ??? (y)
Top 3 : 85 million votes since the show has been on (total was 85 = 60.1 + x + y + z => z = 24.9 – x – y)
Top 2 : 15 million

Let’s say that the third semifinal round had a low number of votes (2 million). Then, even if the Top 3 had only 10 million votes, there would still only have been a maximum of 12.9 million votes in the Top 4, a big drop from the previous week. In subsequent years the idols are all assigned two or more phone numbers in the Top 4, but they didn’t do that in the first year.

It could be that America genuinely preferred Nikki. But I’d leave open some small possibility that there was an irregularity or glitch that led to Tamyra’s early elimination.

Top 3 (Idol’s and Judges’ choice)

Despite this victory, the writing was on the wall for Nikki McKibbon in the Top 3. Singing Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of 17” and Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet”, Nikki gave it a good go, but the judges refused to give a thumbs up. Simon says explicitly “America will have gotten it right if Kelly and Justin are in the finale”.

And they proved he was right. Justin did a very decent version of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together followed by a good rendition of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”.

Kelly chose a relatively unknown Celine Dion tune for her first song, which got good but not great reviews. However, Clarkson’s closer of Badfinger and Mariah Carey’s “Without You” was another season highlight. Simon declared it the next night: “that was the performance of the competition.”


As always, the Idol season ended with a whimper. Both Kelly and Justin sang the execrable official Idol songs and reprised their favorite song of the season. But it was all perfunctory. The judges all agree multiple times: Kelly should win. And one gets the feeling that Justin felt the same.

In the end, was it in doubt that Kelly would win? Justin was popular, but not so popular as to keep him from being in sixth place just a month earlier. Kelly never showed any signs of her support flagging. She soared through the semi-finals even without much praise from the judges. Kelly ended up winning the finale by 2.4 million votes, a 58/42 split.

Kelly went on to be a huge singing star, and Idol went on to be a ratings juggernaut. But the show did change a bit after this season.

First, there were the hosts. Brian Dunkleman, well, they never had much for the second host to do did they? Not as though Seacrest had his hands full the whole time.

The show would balloon in size, from 21.5 hours to 35 hours in the second season and eventually 59 hours of television in season 11, almost tripling in length. With it, the number of available songs increased dramatically, making repeats and weird choices less common. The show would become a little more sanitized, as moments like this ventriloquism act becoming rarer.

The talent in season 1 wasn’t great, but it did have two major contenders in Tamyra and Kelly. That kind of talent would become more rare, especially as the years went by. And, of course, as men became much more willing to enter, they began, for better or worse, to dominate the show.

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  • Matthew Richards

    This was great to watch! 🙂 Hope you do more of these.