As we’ve conclusively proved, American Idol is great TV (though not good enough to avoid being eliminated from our Reality Rumble bracket today by America’s Next Top Model). But it hasn’t been a bed of roses; there have been some highly questionable moments, themes, and people who have turned up on the show through the seasons. Grab your earplugs, pop them in, and join me, your trusted American Idol recapper, as I look back at the worst of the worst.
1. Gay Weirdness
If you’re looking for television’s most insulting, childish, and retrograde attitudes toward homosexuality, somehow you will find it on the fancy singing competition. In seemingly every episode during Simon Cowell’s time on the show, he and Ryan Seacrest found a way to tease each other that boiled down to “You’re gay!” “No, you’re gay.” At any hint of male skin, Randy Jackson would all but wrestle the microphone out of Ryan’s hands to remind us: “I don’t wanna see that!” They encouraged human Pride Parade Adam Lambert to remain closeted during his run as a contestant. And just this season, which I will remind you is happening in 2014 and is not a period piece, when young Keith London did some gender-bending with his rendition of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” Harry and Jennifer acted like Margaret DuMont in a Marx Brothers movie. This year, almost by accident, they have their first openly gay contestant in shaky, tentative MK Nobillette, and if you’re wondering whether they’re acting like they’re doing the world a favor, the answer is a firm yes.
2. That Whole Kara DioGuardi–in-a-Bikini Situation
In case you’d blocked this memory out, season eight auditioner Katrina Darrell showed up in a bikini and sang “Vision of Love” … badly. When judge Kara DioGuardi offered an example of how to sing the song in tune, Darrell sassed back, “Your version wasn’t much better.” The story should have ended there, but Idol being Idol, they stretched it to its breaking point and then kept on pulling: The rest of the judges sent Katrina through to Hollywood, where she would fail, roll her eyes, and become known as Bikini Girl. And at that season’s finale, they trotted her out yet again to bleat her way through a reprise of “Vision of Love,” yet again in a bikini. Then came Kara, out for revenge despite displaying little interest in seeking it; she seemed to have something on her mind, and then at the song’s climax she ripped her dress open to reveal her own bikini body, with all the enthusiasm of Coco in Fame. Check it out:
It was a deeply uncomfortable moment, an intersection of hack comedy, dead-horse-beating, and rank sexism that is pure American Idol. Kara has since gone on record to say that the stunt was the producers’ idea, and that it was deeply stressful to her both before and after, and that since her Idol future was not yet secure, there was little she could do to get out of it. And that, kids, is how you take the most accomplished, savvy, and music-credible female judge in American Idol history and make her most famous for having a rockin’ beach bod at age 38.
3. Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo Get Engaged
Boy, these finale shows are gross. At the end of season 11, former Idols Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo were called up out of the audience, in a moment for which Diana was not at all prepared, you guys! And then ol’ Ace got down on one knee and asked the question every gal dreams of being asked in front of a group of strangers and Ryan Seacrest: “With the help of David Webb Jewelry … will you … marry … me?” It was the most theater-people-y moment in television history, and if you have a child in your life whom you’re trying to steer away from a life on the stage, you really should show it to them.
4. Randy Jackson
Kara’s tenure on Idol was short, but she left a good impression and she got out while the getting was good. Not so for original judge Randy Jackson, who strutted and sweated his hour upon the stage for 13 seasons and counting. The guy has never had much to say, but it has never stopped him from talking. Bellowing, really. Endlessly bellowing and guffawing and saying the word dawg. This year, he’s largely silent and Harry Connick Jr. is mocking him to his face, yet he’s still working my nerves.
5. Chris Wylde in the Audition Room
Season 13 has blessedly cut the audition process short, but man oh man, that shit used to go on forever. And while there were plenty of genuine weirdos and malcontents in the audition room, plenty of local improv talent got through as well. And then there were people with legitimate careers; take Chris Wylde, who by this time had hosted his own Comedy Central late-night talk show with his name in the title. Chris Clark Kent–ed himself with a pair of glasses and auditioned as Chris Noll, a rapping manny. And although he didn’t get far, he did reveal a security flaw in the Idol system: Nobody is doing even the simplest kind of background research.
6. The WB’s Superstar
If not for Idol’s ritual audition-room humiliations, we would never have had to endure its evil twin. 2004’s Superstar was billed as a spoof of Idol, but instead of taking down Simon Cowell or Ryan Seacrest or Fox, the show punched down. The joke was on the worst of the tone-deaf young auditioners, who were told they were the best and paraded in front of blood-thirsty viewers and a live audience who themselves had been deceived into thinking that the singers were terminally ill. It was actually much grosser than I’m making it sound. (Still, at least it was honest about its intentions.)
7. Ford Music Videos
Shows like Idol have to fill their time, especially on results night, when there is an hour to conduct two seconds of business. I get it. But that’s still no excuse to make us endure the dreaded Ford Music Video, wherein the poor finalists would have to mug and shill and earn Fox a massive payday that would never trickle down to them. A couple of years ago, in Idol’s wheel-spinningest seasons, there would even be bonus videos about the making of the Ford Music Videos. It was torture, and if ratings were even a little bit stronger nowadays, they’d still be doing them.
8. Paula Says No to Singing
In a first season results night, the top four performed a medley of Paula Abdul’s hits, compelling Ms. Abdul to join them onstage and dance along. And then Nikki McKibbin put a microphone in Paula’s face in an attempt to get her to sing, and Paula Heismann-ed her so hard I bet there’s still a bruise. Look at the flash of panic on Paula’s face! It’s the only genuine emotional moment we ever got from her, and it lends credibility to the theory that Paula Abdul never sang a note of her own songs. This isn’t a bad moment per se; it’s actually pretty tasty, I just wanted you to see it.