In honor of American Idol’s 20th anniversary, we’re revisiting the iconic competition’s first season. Mjsbigblog began publishing on November 15, 2005, so we did not recap the first four seasons.
So here we are, back in 2002, the era of chunky highlights, hip huggers and bare midriffs for girls. The guys were all looking to at least be a member the hottest new boy band. Smartphones were NOT a thing. Apple wasn’t even in the mobile business yet. Can you say Blackberry? In 2002, my pocketbook could contain at any time: A tiny flip phone, an HP digital assistant, a mini-disc player for music, a calculator, a disposable camera, and I wore a wrist watch. Now, my iPhone takes care of all that.
On American Idol in 2002, week 2 of the live shows featured music from 40 years prior–the 60s! More or less, the theme meant even more Motown. And it allowed Kelly Clarkson to dip back into the Aretha Franklin catalog. Judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell, plus hosts, Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman were back at it.
The Top 8 sang, America voted and by the end of the following night’s results show, ONE singer was sent home.
Before the singers took the stage to perform, a video package rolled featuring the contestants assisting Habitat for Humanity as the organization built a house for a South Central L.A. family.
The Top 8 perform songs from the 60s
R.J. Helton – Under the Boardwalk by The Drifters – I previously mentioned boy bands. And R.J would have been a perfect candidate. He was a nice looking kid with some charisma. Here, he sings with a sweet tone, but not much star power. He does some interesting things with the phrasing, but the rendition of this classic is mostly boring. Randy said, “Very nice job. You never overdo it.” Paula called his “recording voice” amazing. Simon declared that R.J. won’t measure up to “3 or 4” performances later that evening. “I don’t see that as an American Idol winning performance,” he said.
Tamyra Gray – A Fool in Love by Ike & Tina Turner – Tamyra takes the stage with SWAGGER. She picks up the mic stan and struts back and forth. She gets the crowd in the studio going from the very start of her performance. It’s like night and day between her and R.J. “You are exactly…what the American Idol competition is looking for,” said Randy. Simon said, “Now we’re back in business. You are a star.”
Nikki McKibbin – Piece of My Heart by Erma Franklin (Janis Joplin) – She starts the song in an odd place, and is a little too growly. But she’s a breath of fresh air in this competition. I’m enjoying her performances more than expected I would. The previous week she bombed singing “Ben” by Michael Jackson. But as Randy said, “You’re back.” But he didn’t think it was her best performance. After reminding her that she “completely screwed up last week,” Simon added, “I think it was so much better than you did before.”
AJ. Gil – How Sweet it Is by Marvin Gaye – It’s amazing that he survived the week before. Actually, it’s amazing that he got past the producers. AJ is terminally off-key, his timing is terrible, his performance skills amateurish. He’s like a perpetual joke contestant.
Randy asked AJ if he’s nervous. “Just anxious,” he said. “I didn’t think that was your best performance, either,” Randy said. “I think we’re going to see a lot better tonight.” Paula thought he started off “a little disconnected,” but complimented his dancing. Simon said that everyone remaining are good singers. But good isn’t good enough. “I don’t think that performance merits you being proclaimed the American Idol.” Afterward, Ryan brings AJ to a fan who wants to hug him.
Kelly Clarkson – (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin – We learn that Kelly’s dad is a contractor. “Kinda makes me miss my dad because when I go to work with him, this is what we do.” So she’s talking about her mom’s second husband, right (whom she eventually divorced)? It’s weird to hear her talk about a father figure so positively. Kelly has shared over the years how her biological father abandoned her at a young age, leaving a deep wound.
Fashion-wise, she’s doing a 70s era Diane Keaton thing, with a hat, loose tie and white shirt, but with a decidedly un-Keaton-ish bare midriff. This Aretha classic in particular, has become one of her signature covers over the years. It’s cool to hear her kill it for the very first time. This is no karaoke, as she adds creative phrasing and a whistle high note. A dude runs up on stage and hands her a rose.
“What a great song, for such a great singer,” Randy gushed. “I didn’t know you had all that.” Paula said, “Tonight, you really outdid yourself. What a phenomenal, phenomenal job.” Simon declared, “America isn’t known for nice singers, it is known for great singers. And you are one of them.” Kelly had been coming on for weeks. But this particular performance felt like a true turning point.
Christina Christian – When a Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge – Christina is not at her best here. She almost makes the singing look too easy. Her rendition is pitchy and lacks passion. She seems disconnected. What viewers saw in real time was Christina struggling with crippling anxiety.
“Vocally, you were a little missing for me tonight,” Randy said. “You were sharp at the end.” He advised her to slow down her vibrato. But I disagree. It’s part of why her tone was so unique. Paula also noted her sharpness. “I think the girls are beating the boys tonight,” said Simon. Good lord. The look on his face when he spoke to her. He was so obviously smitten with her. He called her performance “fantastic” when it most certainly was not. “Man’s got a crush!” Dunkleman teased. Ya think? It’s embarrassing to watch. And she didn’t seem entirely comfortable with all that.
Justin Guarini – Sunny by Bobby Hebb – Justin really got the hang of playing to the camera by this point. His star power far outstripped his vocal ability. He’s a good singer, but Kelly and Tamyra blow him away. I’ll offer this unpopular opinion: Nikki was better too. Randy didn’t love the song choice, but said “you did your thing with it.” Paula made a point of Justin’s “star quality” and she’s correct. “You have been outperformed by three girls in this competition,” Simon said. “That was not your best.”
Justin talked back “I really respect your opinion,” Justin said, “but what did you guys think,” he added looking out at the audience. They go wild. He’s mad. But all three judges are correct: 1. Not the best song choice. 2. STAR QUALITY in spades and 3. The girls sang better. In later seasons, talking back to Simon like that (although he LOVED IT) could send a singer home.
Ryan Starr – You Really Got Me by The Kinks – Ryan closed the show. But I’m not digging this song choice for her. It’s not a vocal showcase to say the least. She winds up sounding shouty and tuneless. It’s one of the greatest rock songs ever, but there’s no melody to grab on to. No no no for a singing competition. Unless you’re Sanjaya, of course. Heh.
Randy came right out and said, “I didn’t think that was very good tonight, dude.” Ryan looked like she had been stabbed in the heart. She obviously wasn’t expecting that. “Ouch,” she said. “You lost your track on the track….you lost your vocal,” said Paula. In other words, Ryan got so carried away, that she lost her timing. Simon piled on. “Oh God, I thought that was absolutely dreadful.” Obviously gutted by the harsh criticism, Ryan said, “I knew you wouldn’t like it…Simon isn’t a rocker. He doesn’t understand.”
American Idol Season 1 Top 8 Performances
American Idol Season 1 Top 8 RESULTS
During the cold open, the Top 8 make funny faces for the camera. Relatable! In any case, by the end of the 30 minute episode, one singer left the competition.
Once again over 8 million calls came in. After a recap, Ryan chatted with Ryan Starr about her song choice. Turned out, she was nervous about it beforehand. She admitted that the song didn’t highlight her vocal range, but felt that it expressed her personality. But if a song choice doesn’t even allow a singer to stay on pitch, or vary the notes, it’s NOT the right song. After having a day to reflect, Justin makes it clear that he meant “no disrespect” to Simon with his outburst after the grumpy judge’s negative critique.
Next, it’s a video of the Top 8 sitting around a city campfire signing The Mamas and Papas “California Dreaming.” They sing “I’d be safe and warm, if I was in LA.” Uhm. I’ve got news! It’s mostly a cappella, but with AJ on guitar.
A singer goes home
Ryan and Brian will reveal the bottom three singers. But only after calling on a contestant, and reciting their judges critiques, before revealing their fate. R.J. Helton is first. And he’s SAFE. Kelly Clarkson is next, and of course she’s safe. c’mon. Ryan Starr is next, and she’s in the bottom 3. Now, Tamyra Gray. She’s safe! Next AJ Gil. America voted and put him the bottom 3. Justin Guarini is next. America voted, and he’s SAFE. Nikki McKibbin and Christina Christian remain. But we don’t find out who is safe until after the break! Nikki is safe, Simon’s gal crush, Christina is in the Bottom 3.
Ryan Starr, AJ Gil and Christina Christian in the bottom 3
The judges agree that the bottom 3 held no surprises. Randy didn’t believe that any of them had “great performances” the night before. Paula refused to be negative. “I think they’ve done an amazing job so far.” How did Simon feel about possibly losing his crush? He complimented her performance while calling Ryan “appalling” and adding that AJ “doesn’t deserve to be in this competition.”
Next, Ryan sent Christina back to the couch. AFTER THE BREAK, Brian announces, that the singer with the fewest number of votes is…AJ Gil. Ryan is safe. It’s the correct decision. While Ryan had the worst performance of the night, she was overall, a better singer than AJ. Gotta agree with Simon that he never should have advanced.
AJ Gil eliminated
The goodbye package airs. I still can’t get over that AJ sang the National Anthem for his audition. There’s time to kill at the end, which means time to mix it up with the judges. While Paula tried to be encouraging, Simon was blunt saying that if AJ is going to make it in a tough business, he’s got to “get better.” He’s correct. Paula is furious, “This is what happens when you’re breastfed by your father.”
And of course, 20 years later, where is AJ? He received 93 views on a Youtube video performance that he released in June of an original Gospel song titled “Overwhelm Me.” By the looks of his page, he’s singing gospel music full time. He’s got 907 followers on Instagram and describes himself as a “singer and vocal coach.”
Next time: The Top 7 sing music from the 1970s!