At this point, Carrie Underwood’s stardom is multifaceted: She’s a force in popular country music, and a top hitmaker with a slew of No. 1 songs on the charts like “Before He Cheats” and “Cowboy Casanova.” She’s previously been involved in high-profile romances with the likes of Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo, and she even landed a starring role in a live-for-TV version of The Sound of Music that NBC will air next holiday season. Those of us who aren’t reality TV junkies can almost forget how she got her big break: winning American Idol.
But while Underwood has carved out quite the career, is she the top Idol ever? To deduce that answer, we’d have to look at the winners of all 11 seasons (as well as a few notable non-winners). And while I’ve never actually watched a minute of American Idol, I’ve felt it has inadvertently entered my brain through a never-ending string of talking heads, radio airplay, Twitter posts and annoying ads during Family Guy. For days, I’ve immersed myself in all things Idol to bring you these stray observations and truly judge whether Underwood is truly the most idyllic idol.
The reality talent show phenomenon got its start when Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini battled as the two finalists on Season 1 of American Idol. While Clarkson won and has become the bonafide pop star the show set out to make, notching more Top 40 hits than any other Idol (“Since U Been Gone,” “Stronger,” etc.), Guarini hasn’t fared as well. He’s taken gigs as a host on TV Guide network, went from Broadway to regional theater and was (allegedly) employee of the month at the Sierra Vista Mall Olive Garden in Clovis, Calif., in August 2012. Guarini and Clarkson also tried to parlay their Idol success to the big screen with the box office bomb From Justin to Kelly. Some have even compared it to Citizen Cane … in that it is technically a motion picture.
The fierce battle of contrasting finalists took another step up in Season 2 as rotund soul singer Ruben Studdard squared off with diminutive pop crooner Clay Aiken. Despite finishing in second, Aiken found more commercial success out of the gate with his debut album, Measure of a Man, and followed that up with a Broadway stint as Sir Robin in Spamalot. He then released a series of progressively worse charting albums, honing his reality show runner-up chops by finishing second on The Celebrity Apprentice in 2012 and coming out of the closet.
Fantasia Barrino captured the Season 3 crown. While her first two albums were somewhat disappointing in terms of sales, her album Back to Me debuted at No. 2 on the charts and “Bittersweet” earned her the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. I’m assuming it was her Idol finale with the dancing mops and Mickey Mouse in sorcerer’s hat that really put her over the top in the eyes of Simon, Paula and Randy.
After Carrie Underwood won the hearts of judges and fans during Season 4, the Season 5 title went to silver-coifed soul singer Taylor Hicks, American Idol’s lone senior citizen winner (or the first 29-year-old who’d gone fully gray, take your pick). But the season’s most successful album was from fourth place finisher Chris Daughtry, who started the rock band Daughtry (creative!), thereby filling the Creed-sized whole in our post-nu metal hearts. He now trails only Underwood and Clarkson in terms of record sales, because Nickleback somehow has yet to secure a monopoly on the disposable income of dumb white dudes.
R&B songstress Jordin Sparks became Idol’s youngest winner when she captured the Season 6 crown at age 17. She has dabbled in acting, cosmetics, Broadway and had two Top 10 albums on the Billboard charts since then and is still only 23.
Season 7 winner David Cook was the first rock singer to win Idol — because nothing says hard rocking quite like winning a karaoke competition. The luster seems to have worn off Cook: While his post-Idol album went platinum, its follow-up sold less than one-tenth as well.
Season 8 champ Kris Allen and all his white bread singer-songwriter charm was overshadowed by runner-up Adam Lambert. Lambert’s 2012 electropop album Trespassing hit No. 1 on the charts, while Allen’s debut album was the first Idol alumni album to not debut in the Top 10. Later Allen and Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery would combine forces for the “Nice, Non-threatening Southern Boys Who Can Sing” Tour.
Season 11 champ Phillip Phillips (gotta be a fake name) has already cemented himself as one of the most successful Idol alums with his hit single “Home” (the most successful Idol “coronation song” to date). It’s the song on the radio that sounds a lot like Mumford and Sons but isn’t Mumford and Sons.
Now in its 12th season, American Idol still doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. And after all those seasons, it seems that those early winners — Underwood and Clarkson — seem destined to be locked in a prolonged neck-and-neck battle for the top post-Idol career.
Carrie Underwood • Thur, Feb. 21 at 8:30 pm • Spokane Arena • $44-$64 • ticketswest.com • All-ages • (800) 325-SEAT