10 Unforgettable ‘American Idol’ Performances

Kelly Clarkson American Idol finale

American Idol has been rolling out the stars for over two decades, shooting to superstardom notable names in pop, country, rock, and everything from Broadway to movie stars.

As American Idol gears up for its 21st season premiere tonight on ABC, let’s look back at some of the show’s most unforgettable performances.

10. “You Really Got Me” – Sanjaya Malakar – Season 6

While he may not have been the best singer of Season 6, Sanjaya Malakar remains one of the most notable names in Idol history. Best remembered for his ever-changing hairstyles throughout the competition, the then-17-year-old contestant was considered unworthy of being safe week after week until he was finally eliminated during the Top 7 week.

While his hair may be far more unforgettable than his performances, it’s hard to forget his Top 11 week rendition of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks, which shot to fame the fan known as “crying girl,” a teen in the audience who memorably sobbed during Malakar’s performance.

9. “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right” – Michael Johns – Season 7

Despite being one of the talents to beat during Season 7, the late Michael Johns – who shockingly passed away in 2014 – was eliminated seemingly early on during the Top 8 week after host Ryan Seacrest teased the possibility of no elimination that week due to the long-forgotten Idol Gives Back event.

Johns’ Top 9 week performance of “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right” by Dolly Parton, who mentored the contestants, earned him praise from both the judges and Parton, and just enough votes to remain in the competition for one more week.

8. “My Funny Valentine” – Melinda Doolittle – Season 6

Melinda Doolittle wowed America for the majority of Season 6, finishing in third place just one week shy of the finale between Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis. But it was one of her performances early on that sticks out to this day.

It was during the Top 20 week that Doolittle belted out her rendition of “My Funny Valentine” by Mitzi Green, a song she dedicated to her friends that would unknowingly set the bar for her performances to come on the show.

7. “Summertime” – Fantasia Barrino – Season 3

After a competitive season between powerhouses like Diana DeGarmo, Jennnifer Hudson and Fantasia Barrino, it was Barrino who ultimately came out on top and won Season 3, beginning the singer’s decades-long career in music and theater.

If you ask any long-time Idol fan what the best performances from the show were, most often than not they’ll include Barrino’s rendition of “Summertime” by Abbie Mitchell, which she sang during both the Top 8 week and the finale.

6. “Circle of Life” – Jennifer Hudson – Season 3

One of the biggest upsets in Idol history has to be the moment Jennifer Hudson – a future Oscar winner, Broadway star and talk show host – was eliminated far too early during Season 3 when she was sent home in seventh place.

After performing the song for mentor Elton John, Hudson’s Top 9 week performance of “Circle of Life” became one of the most memorable of not only the season, but of the entire show.

5. “A House Is Not A Home” – Tamyra Gray – Season 1

Tamyra Gray seems to be one of the forgotten talents of American Idol after placing fourth on the show’s first season, outshined by winner Kelly Clarkson and memorable runner-up Justin Guarini.

It was Gray’s powerhouse performance of “A House Is Not A Home” by Dionne Warwick during the Top 5 week that was dubbed by judge Simon Cowell as “one of the best performances on television,” and went on to inspire future Idol hopefuls for decades.

4. “Mad World” – Adam Lambert – Season 8

Although a member of the runners-up-who-should-have-won club, Adam Lambert left Season 8 as arguably one of the biggest Idols in history, going on to have a successful career with solo music and as the frontman for Queen.

While Lambert had plenty of memorable performances on the show, it was when he sat in the middle of the dark, Idol stage and performed “Mad World” by Tears For Fears that is forever engrained in the minds of fans everywhere, even becoming the theme song for James Franco’s villainous character on General Hospital later that year.

3. “Imagine” – David Archuleta – Season 7

As Season 7’s signature balladeer, David Archuleta belted out vote-worthy performances week after week that ultimately led him to the finale, landing him as one of the youngest runners-up in the show’s history just behind Diana DeGarmo, Lauren Alaina and Jessica Sanchez.

The performance judge Paula Abdul called “one of the most moving performances” she ever heard was Archuleta’s rendition of “Imagine” by John Lennon, which took on a slow, acoustic sound against the teen’s soulful voice.

2. “Chandelier” – Trent Harmon – Season 15

Despite Season 15 being pretty unforgettable in itself, it did include one of the best performances in the show’s history thanks to winner Trent Harmon and his memorable Top 4 week rendition of “Chandelier” by Sia.

The popular 2014 hit went from a pop song to a chilling ballad where Harmon’s vocals shined, becoming one of the most recognized performances in Idol history and ultimately securing the singer’s win.

1. “A Moment Like This” – Kelly Clarkson – Season 1

As unforgettable as Season 1 of the show may be, it can be hard to remember all of the iconic moments that led to Kelly Clarkson becoming the first American Idol, having aired over two decades ago in the summer of 2002.

While fans may remember the singer’s audition of “At Last” by Etta James and Top 8 week performance of “A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin, it’s Clarkson’s winning performance of “A Moment Like This” that remains a standout for the show, marking the moment America got its very first Idol.

About Ashley Amber 84 Articles
Ashley Amber is a 29-year-old writer, author and dancer. When Ashley isn't live-blogging shows like The Voice and Dancing With The Stars for MJ's Big Blog, she works as a writer for Happy Productions and a contributor at The DIS, and previously published over 300 articles for Collider. Ashley has also authored a self-published fantasy/romance series of novelettes, and made her poetry debut in 2021's LGBTQIA+ anthology Deviant: Chronicles of Pride by InkFeathers Publishing. As a former pro ballroom dancer, when she's not writing, you can find Ashley on Youtube and TikTok where she posts dance videos featuring her own choreography and tutorials.