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Which Songs Are Performed Most Often by Reality-Competition Contestants?

Anyone who’s watched even five minutes of a reality singing competition since American Idol first became a phenomenon in 2002 knows that song choice is everything. The right take on a well-known tune can win over with the judges — and the viewers — while a wrong note will send your reality-TV dreams home in a Ford-sponsored body bag. So with American Idol kicking off its thirteenth season tonight, it had us wondering: Which songs have become go-to choices for the contestants competing on these programs over the years?

After a trip down a deep rabbit hole to research the song selections on twelve different American reality singing competitions (see our helpful note on how we compiled our data below), we discovered a lot of our previous theories about song choice were wrong. The biggest revelation: The number of times any one song has been performed on a television competition is much lower than we anticipated, with the top tune appearing only seventeen times. And while the artist whose songs are chosen most often isn't too surprising (Stevie Wonder by a wide margin), the most commonly performed songs by some of the names on the list aren't always what we expected (Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” for example) and only one musician's songs appear twice in the top twenty (and it's not Whitney Houston). Other fun facts: The most contemporary song on our list is British singer Duffy’s Grammy-winning 2008 single “Mercy,” and the song most commonly sung by the different shows’ overall winners is Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” So perhaps after a dozen years of watching, studying, and analyzing these singing competitions we don’t, in fact, have them figured out after all?

Research note: Results were tabulated using data from twelve different American reality singing competitions: American Idol, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, The X Factor, The Sing-Off, The Glee Project, Rock Star, P. Diddy’s Starmaker, The Next Great American Band, The Winner Is, High School Musical: Get in the Picture, The Pussycat Dolls present: Girlicious, and American Juniors, with the wrinkle that not all musical performances from America’s Got Talent could be tracked down. Also, group numbers aren't included in our tally; furthermore, if the song was part of a medley, we counted each song in the medley as an individual performance. In the case of The Voice’s “Battle Rounds,” where two contestants alternate singing the same number, songs were only counted once, and on behalf of the winner. Data was not available for Nashville Star, CMT Star, The One, Born to Diva, and any other show not listed here; finally, Grease Is the Word was not used owing to its limited musical focus.

And without further preamble, here are the top twenty songs most frequently performed on reality singing competition shows:

17 TIMES
“I Have Nothing,” Whitney Houston
Appearances
: 8 American Idol; 5 The Voice; 2 The X Factor; 1 The Winner Is; 1 America’s Got Talent
Performances by eventual winner: 2 (Melanie Amaro, The X Factor Season 1; Tessanne Chin, The Voice season five) 
Contestants eliminated after performance: 1 (Cáthia, The Voice season four) 
Most memorable performance:
Jennifer Hudson, American Idol season three
Need just one reason as to why Hudson’s early exit from season three was one of Idol’s most shocking upsets? Make it this rendition of Whitney Houston's epic, which she sung during week eight.

15 TIMES
“Feeling Good,” Nina Simone

Appearances: 6 American Idol; 4 The Voice; 3 The X Factor; 1 The Winner Is; 1 America’s Got Talent 
Performances by eventual winner: 1 (Melanie Amaro, The X Factor season one) 
Contestants eliminated after performance: 4 (Big Barry, America’s Got Talent season seven; AJ Tabaldo, American Idol season six; Leslie Hunt, American Idol season six; Hallie Day, American Idol season eleven) 
Most memorable performance: Carly Rose Sonenclar, The X Factor season two
Sonenclar managed to wake Britney out of her codeine coma when she auditioned with this astonishing vocal performance. Though the 13-year-old prodigy reprised the song during the second season finale, her talent was no match for the rabid fan base of country bumpkin Tate Stevens. (See also: Big Barry's rendition on America's Got Talent, for the sheer ridiculousness of it.)

13 TIMES
“Piece of My Heart,” Janis Joplin (by way of: Big Brother and the Holding Company)

Appearances: 6 American Idol; 2 The Voice; 2 Rock Star; 1 The X Factor; 1 The Glee Project; 1 The Sing-Off 
Performances by eventual winner: 2 (Carrie Underwood, American Idol season four; Pentatonix, The Sing-Off season three)
Contestants eliminated after performance: 2 (Candice Coleman, American Idol season two; the American Bombshells, The Winner Is)
Most memorable performance: Jill Gioia, Rock Star: Supernova.
Though this failed rock-only version of Idol looks straight out of nineties MTV, it managed to last for two seasons and featured some talented rasps — like that of Gioia, who charmed judge Tommy Lee with a belly-dancing take on the Joplin classic.

12 TIMES
“Alone,” Heart
Appearances:
6 American Idol; 2 The Voice; 1 The X Factor; 1 The Winner Is; 1 America’s Got Talent; 1 Rock Star 
Performances by eventual winner: 1 (Carrie Underwood, American Idol season four) 
Contestants eliminated after performance: 1 (Vanessa Echevarria, The Winner Is) 
Most memorable performance: Carrie Underwood, American Idol season four
Underwood was the perfect reality-singing-competition contestant: She was All-American adorable; she had the right balance of country and pop; and she possessed the stage presence of a pageant queen. She channels all three traits in this memorable performance from the top eleven.

12 TIMES
“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down Me,” Elton John

Appearances: 7 American Idol; 3 The Voice; 1 The Next Great American Band; 1 The Sing-Off 
Performances by eventual winner:
Contestants eliminated after performance: 3 (On the Rocks, The Sing-Off season two; Shane Simon, The Voice season four; Mycle Wastman, The Voice season three)
Most memorable performance: Clay Aiken, American Idol season two
Make all the jokes about Aiken you like (Okay! What do you call a gay Ginger? Flaming!), but there is no denying he is a stellar performer. Watch him make love to them camera and save himself from wild-card obscurity in this clip from Idol season two.

12 TIMES
“If I Ain’t Got You,” Alicia Keys

Appearances: 4 The Voice; 4 American Idol; 2 America’s Got Talent; The Sing-Off; 1 P. Diddy's Starmaker 
Performances by eventual winner:
Contestants eliminated after performance: 5 (Kinnik Sky, American Idol season five; Southern Girl, America’s Got Talent season two; Syesha Mercado, American Idol season seven; Taylor Vaifanua, American Idol season eight, Nicole Nelson, The Voice season three)
Most memorable performance: Jesse Campbell, The Voice season two
The Voice managed to differentiate itself from years of same-look singing competitions with its Battle Rounds, a vocal fight for survival that pitted contestants against each other on the same song. It often delivered unearthly results, like this diva-off between Campbell and challenger Anthony Evans that managed to take the audience’s attention away from of Christina’s hat — if only for a moment.


12 TIMES
“Imagine,” John Lennon
Appearances:
6 American Idol; 3 The Voice; 1 Rock Star; 1 America’s Got Talent; 1 The X Factor 
Performances by eventual winner: 1 (Ruben Studdard, American Idol season two) 
Contestants eliminated after performance: 1 (Tim Hockenberry, America’s Got Talent season seven) 
Most memorable performance: David Archuleta, American Idol season seven
Baby-faced teletubby David Archuleta was so adorable. How he didn’t manage to win season seven of Idol, especially after this stripped-down performance of the John Lennon classic, remains a mystery. I mean, come on!

12 TIMES
“Let’s Stay Together,” Al Green

Appearances: 5 American Idol; 3 The Voice; 2 America’s Got Talent; 1 The Sing-Off; 1 The X Factor 
Performances by eventual winner: 2 (Committed, The Sing-Off season two; Michael Grimm, America’s Got Talent season five)
Contestants eliminated after performance: 4 (Karina Iglesias, The Voice season four; Malford Milligan, The Voice season five; Joseph Murena, American Idol season four; Robert Hatcher, America's Got Talent season two) 
Most memorable performance:
Michael Grimm, America’s Got Talent season five
America’s Got Talent has long been a singing competition masquerading as a circus side show. But season-five winner Michael Grimm proved the NBC show does discover its fair share of talent, bringing the audience to its feet with this top ten performance.

12 TIMES
"Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)," Phil Collins

Appearances: 7 American Idol; 3 The Voice; 1 The X Factor; 1 The Sing-Off 
Performances by eventual winner: 1 (Jermaine Paul, The Voice season two) 
Contestants eliminated after performance: 1 (Paige Miles, American Idol season nine) 
Most memorable performance: Vocal Rush, The Sing-Off season four
The Sing-Off might have started as a half-assed attempt to capitalize on Glee’s success, but the show found its footing last season with help from talented high school group Vocal Rush. This number seems like it was ripped from one of Glee’s pivotal, make-it-or-break-it Sectionals episodes, down to the prom-esque costumes.

12 TIMES
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” Aerosmith
Appearances:
7 American Idol; 2 The Voice; 1 The Sing-Off; 1 America’s Got Talent 
Performances by eventual winner: 3 (David Cook, American Idol season seven; Kevin Skinner, America’s Got Talent season four; Stan, High School Musical: Get in the Picture
Contestants eliminated after performance: 1 (Gracia Harrison, The Voice season three) 
Most memorable performance: Jessica Sanchez American Idol season eleven
It takes a lot of cojones to perform a hit song in front of its originator, but somehow Sanchez managed to impress season-eleven judge Steven Tyler with her rendition of the Armageddon theme song.

11 TIMES
“When a Man Loves a Woman,” Percy Sledge
Appearances:
6 American Idol; 2 The Voice; 2 The X Factor; 1 America's Got Talent 
Performances by eventual winner: 1 (Michael Grimm, America’s Got Talent season five) 
Contestants eliminated after performance: 3 (Matthew Schuler, The Voice season five; Justinn Waddell American Idol season one; Gedeon McKinney, American Idol season five) 
Most memorable performance: Joshua Ledet, American Idol season eleven
Season-eleven finalist Joshua Ledet really put his own mark on this soft rock standard, even singing it in front of President Obama at the White House. It’s amazing what Ryan Seacrest can accomplish with a big ol’ bucket of catfish.

10 TIMES
“And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," Dreamgirls

Appearances: 6 American Idol; 2 The Voice; 1 The Glee Project; 1 America’s Got Talent 
Performances by eventual winner:
Contestants eliminated after performance: 2 (Melanie Sanders, American Idol season one; Nick Mitchell, American Idol season eight)
Most memorable performance: Nick Mitchell, American Idol season eight
American Idol has held onto some bizarre contestants all in the name of a good laugh — William Hung, Sanjaya Malakar — but we doubt they were prepared for Nick Mitchell, who broke out his alter ego Norman Gentle for this strange rendition of the Jennifer Holliday epic. It might not have made judge Simon Cowell happy, but the viral bit did get Mitchell back on the show for an equally absurd reprise during the season finale.

10 TIMES
“I Believe I Can Fly,” R. Kelly
Appearances:
5 American Idol; 3 The X Factor; 1 The Voice; 1 The Sing-Off 
Performances by eventual winner: 2 (Jermaine Paul, The Voice season two; Melanie Amaro, The X Factor season one) 
Contestants eliminated after performance: 1 (Afro-Blue, The Sing-Off season three) 
Most memorable performance: Melanie Amaro, The X Factor season one
Good thing season-one winner Melanie Amaro, then 19, was just a little too old for R. Kelly’s tastes, otherwise we’re guessing producers wouldn’t have been too keen on this top three duet.

10 TIMES
“Superstition,” Stevie Wonder
Appearances:
6 American Idol; 1 The Voice; 1 P. Diddy’s Starmaker; 1 Rock Star; 1 America’s Got Talent 
Performances by eventual winner: 1 (Phillip Phillips, American Idol season eleven) 
Contestants eliminated after performance: 4 (Mosaic, America’s Got Talent season four; Clint Jun Gamboa, American Idol season ten; Ricky Braddy, American Idol season eight; Danny Hunter Jones, The Voice season three) 
Most memorable performance: Philips Philips, American Idol season eleven
We don’t know what we enjoy more about Philips Philips in this clip from his Idol audition: his rock-and-roll rasp or his seizurelike dancing. Idol fans seemed to like both as Philips managed to take the season-eleven crown.


10 TIMES
“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Bonnie Raitt
Appearances:
(5 American Idol; 3 The Voice; 2 Rock Star)
Performances by eventual winner: 0
Contestants eliminated after performance: 3 (Hollie Cavanagh, American Idol season eleven; Karla Davis, The Voice season two; Amy Krebs, American Idol season six) 
Most memorable performance: Constantine Maroulis, American Idol season four
The theatrical way Maroulis seduces the camera in this top tenperformance, it’s as if he’s saying: “Welcome to my private boudoir. Shall we have a sherry before we make love?”


10 TIMES
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye
Appearances:
7 American Idol; 1 The Voice; 1 The X Factor; 1 The Sing-Off 
Performances by eventual winner: 3 (Candice Glover, American Idol season twelve; Alex and Sierra, The X Factor season three; Fantasia Barrino, American Idol season three)
Contestants eliminated after performance: 1 (Neal Middleton, The Voice season two) 
Most memorable performance: Alex and Sierra, The X Factor season three
The lovebirds from season three of The X Factor were odds-on favorites to win thanks to the charm of their subdued hippie-chic style, which worked wonders during Motown Week.


10 TIMES
“I’m the Only One,” Melissa Etheridge
Appearances:
4 American Idol; 2 The Voice; 1 The Winner Is; 1 The Glee Project; 2 Rock Star
Performances by eventual winner:
Contestants eliminated after performance: 1 (Nellie, The Glee Project season two) 
Most memorable performance: Beverly McClellan, The Voice season one
We’re not sure who styled the season-one finalist as a kilt-wearing-Nazi, but McClellan sure does bring the appropriate amount of butch energy to the Melissa Etheridge anthem.


10 TIMES
“Mercy,” Duffy
Appearances:
5 The Voice; 2 The Glee Project; 1 The X Factor; 1 The Sing-Off; 1 P. Diddy’s Starmaker; 1 America’s Got Talent
Performances by eventual winner: 0
Contestants eliminated after performance: 4 (Marcus Terell and the Serenades, America’s Got Talent season four; Hunter Elizabeth, The Voice season four; Jasmine Rose, The Voice season three; Elley Duhe, The Voice season two)
Most memorable performance: Marcus Terell and the Serenades, America’s Got Talent season four
It’s hard to pick a performance that represents the most butchered song on this list. But this odd affair from season four of America’s Got Talent seems to take the cake, both for Terrell’s choice of notes and for judge Sharon Osbourne's barking.

10 TIMES
“No One,” Alicia Keys
Appearances:
3 American Idol; 2 The Voice; 2 The X Factor; 1 The Winner Is; 1 The Sing-Off; 1 P. Diddy’s Starmaker 
Performances by eventual winner:
Contestants eliminated after performance: 4 (Felicia Barton, American Idol season eight; Legaci, The Winner Is; Ginette Claudette, The Voice season four; Cristabel Clack, American Idol season twelve)
Most memorable performance: Emblem3, The X Factor season two
Simon Cowell seems hell-bent on finding another One Direction via The X Factor. And the skater hotties in Emblem3 seemed to come close, their acoustic-into-dance-epic cover of “No One” designed to make tween girls squeal.

10 TIMES
“Proud Mary,” Creedence Clearwater Revival/Tina and Ike Turner
Appearances:
3 American Idol; 2 The Voice; 1 American Juniors; 1 The X Factor; 1 The Winner Is; 1 The Sing-Off; 1 Rock Star
Performances by eventual winner:
Contestants eliminated after performance: 2 (Trenyce, American Idol season two; the Newman Twins, The Winner Is
Most memorable performance: Taylor Thompson, American Juniors.
What Ryan Seacrest did to be banished to this American Idol spinoff, we don’t know. (We’re guessing the highlights?) But we wouldn’t wish cutesy-kid covers of classics like “Proud Mary” on our worst enemies.

Other notable songs performed regularly: "Ain’t No Mountain," "Hallelujah," "I Will Survive," "I’ll Be There," "Let it Be," "Over the Rainbow," "Bleeding Love," "Hero," "Man in the Mirror," "Rolling in the Deep," "Son of a Preacher Man," "A Little Less Conversation," "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," "Easy," "Fallin’," "Just the Way You Are," "Someone Like You," "Your Song"

Photo: Maya Robinson