(American Idol circa Season 1, 2002. Photo: Fox)
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, aspiring singers auditioned for Star Search. Nowadays, they just flock to YouTube and Vine. But no other entertainment outlet ever nurtured the American dream of instant pop-music stardom like American Idol did. And as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, or Chris Daughtry would tell you, sometimes the show actually made good on that promise.
As Idol comes to an end this week, it leaves behind not only a trail of superstars and would-be superstars, but also a trail of copycat shows that attempted to replicate Idol’s starmaker formula. Some of them (The Voice, Nashville Star) succeeded. Others became cult hits (The Glee Project, Rock Star: Supernova). Some really should not have bothered (I’m looking at you, Duets, Rising Star). But it’s unlikely that any of the shows ranked below, from least to most watchable, would have ever gotten the network-executive greenlight if it hadn’t been for American Idol.
20. American Juniors (2003)
It didn’t take long for Fox execs to realize they had a hit on their hands with Idol, so a year later they got greedy and launched this kiddie spinoff competition. But at that time, Idol’s main attractions were the joke contestants and Simon Cowell’s barbed remarks – a formula that could NOT be easily applied to Juniors. (Only the most coal-hearted of sadists would enjoy seeing a bunch of 12-year-olds being told they sound like cats in blenders or cruise-ship singers.) So Juniors tanked. (Frankly, I fear the child-centric So You Think You Can Dance reboot, airing this summer, will suffer a similar fate.) Eventually, Idol lowered its age limit to 15 and packed its semifinals with youngsters, so the show ended up being a “juniors” program anyway.
19. The Next (2012)
Does anyone even remember this CW summer series? Its randomly thrown-together coaches were Gloria Estefan, Nelly, John Rich, and a post-JoBros, pre-DNCE Joe Jonas. The gimmick was these coaches would “show up” on contestants’ doorsteps and “surprise” them with mentoring sessions. The show was fairly unwatchable, but the good news is, it did spawn a legitimate, if minor, success story: John Rich-mentored winner Michael Ray is now signed to Warner Music Nashville and scored a #1 Country Airplay hit last year with “Kiss You in the Morning.” He also co-wrote Big & Rich’s 2015 single, "Run Away With You.” So there’s that. But I can’t recall a minute of his airtime on this show.
18. Duets (2012)
How could a show with judges like John Legend, Jennifer Nettles, pre-scandal Robin Thicke, and KELLY CLARKSON fail? Oh, but it did fail – spectacularly so. It’s no wonder that original judge Lionel Richie bailed in the 11th hour (he was replaced by a seemingly reluctant Legend). Many factors contributed to this show’s demise: the lack of on-camera audition process, Thicke’s instantly irritating personality, an unexplainable algorithmic point system. But annoying coaches and confusing scoring never stopped anyone from watching The Voice, so there was more to it than that! Duets’ main problem was that it starred a pack of hapless, nervous amateur contestants who simply could not keep up with professional partners like Clarkson and Nettles. Every single duet was anticlimactic – as was the series finale, which scored the lowest ratings for the entire season.
17. Rising Star (2014)
Kudos to this ABC show, helmed by ex-Idol producer Ken Warwick, for at least trying to put a modern spin on the talent-show format – with live in-app voting that was even rejiggered during the West Coast broadcasts so that the entire country could, hypothetically, participate. I say “hypothetically” because no one really watched this. You could blame the lack of interest on overall singing-show fatigue/saturation, on host’s Josh Groban’s wooden demeanor, or on Kesha’s disappointing conservatism. (I’d had high hopes for her being frankest, mouthiest, and wisest judge, but it turned out Ludacris filled that role instead.) But really, the talent just was not up to par. Winner Jesse Kinch – an extremely gifted rock ‘n’ blues belter who probably should have gone on The Voice instead (he probably would have won that show too) – was the only memorable contestant of the bunch. ABC should’ve just given the Capitol Records contract to Jesse after episode one and called it a day. (Side note: I still haven’t deleted the Rising Star voting app on my phone, for some reason. Maybe’s it’s my lingering fondness for Jesse.)
16. CMT’s Next Superstar (2011)
Filling the hole in CMT programming left by Nashville Star (more on that hit show in a bit), this program had promise, as it was executive-produced by Idol’s own Nigel Lythgoe. It wasn’t a bad show, and it even featured guest judges like Trace Adkins, Kristin Chenoweth, and Colbie Caillat, along with regular judge Matt Serletic, a Grammy-winning producer. It also had a twist, with its behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Music Row business scene. But, well, it failed to find a Nashville star. Forget about judges, coaches, mentors, and "twists”: Talent is everything on these shows.
15. P. Diddy’s Starmaker (2009)
Making the Band was a hit, but Puffy’s other MTV talent show made more of a splash with its high-profile guest judges – like Lady Gaga just as she was blowing up – than with its contestants. Winner Liz Davis, a country singer, didn’t quite fit in on the Bad Boy Records roster, and three years later, she resurfaced on another show: The Voice, which, like Starmaker, was executive-produced by Mark Burnett. She was eliminated in the first live vote of that series’ third season. (Side note: Season 3 American Idol contestant Kimberly Caldwell was Starmarker’s host. These shows are all connected.)
14. Superstar USA (2004)
This cruel Idol spoof was a WB Network search for the nation’s worst singer, aka the next William Hung. The only problem was… none of the deluded contestants were in on the joke! They thought this was a legitimate talent show! Thanks to poker-faced judges Tone Loc and Colleen Fitzpatrick (aka Vitamin C, aka the ex-frontwoman of Eve’s Plumb, aka Amber Von Tussle from Hairspray), this was a pretty amusing experiment, although it would never fly in today’s ultra-PC, social-media-driven age of instant outrage. (I still feel guilty for watching and enjoying this show, actually.) Interestingly, when the top two faced off the finale in a cringeworthy duet, that was supposed to be their tipoff that this show had been one elaborate prank; however, the contestants were too self-absorbed to listen and realize how terrible the other sounded. Then, when the true premise of the show was revealed to “winner” Jamie Foss, she didn’t even seem upset. I’m still wondering if she grasped the fact that she’d been punk’d on national TV. I also wonder if she still thinks she can actually sing.
13. Can You Duet? (2008-2009)
This two-season CMT show never became a massive hit, but it can take credit for launching the legitimate country careers of Steel Magnolia (featuring future Voice runner-up Meghan Lindsey), Kate & Kacey, and, most notably, Joey + Rory. Yes, it was on Can You Duet? that America first fell in love with the recently departed Joey Feek.
12. Nashville Star (2003-2008)
This four-season country competition featured some impressive judges (Phil Vassar, Alabama singer Randy Owen, John Rich, Jewel, Bret Michaels, a pre-Voice Blake Shelton) and hosts like LeAnn Rimes, Sara Evans, and Billy Ray Cyrus (and, um, Cledus T. Judd). The show’s first winner, Buddy Jewell, scored a massive country hit with “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song),” and Season 4 winner Chris Young is a huge success to this day. But Nashville Star will and should always be remembered as the show that put Miranda Lambert on the map. Miranda was barely 20 years old when she placed third on Season 1, and that landed her a deal with Epic Records. And look at her now! Don’t ever discount the power of shows like these.
11. The Sing-Off (2009-2014)
The Sing-Off was never a runaway hit for NBC; it was canceled, brought back a couple years later, and then turned into a one-night-only special the last time it aired in 2014. But besides featuring probably the best judge in singing-show history (Ben Folds) and some amazing a cappella vocal talent, and predating the whole Pitch Perfect phenomenon, The Sing-Off launched the career of one of the most successful talent show acts in recent memory: Pentatonix. Five years after their Season 3 win, Pentatonix – who formed just to compete on the show – have won two Grammys, are the only a cappella group to score a #1 album, and are YouTube sensations, with more than 10 million subscribers. And it all started on The Sing-Off!
9-10. (tie) The White Rapper Show/Miss Rap Supreme (2007-2008)
The White Rapper Show, VH1’s search for the next Eminem, or at least the next Vanilla Ice, was surreal, subversive genius. 3rd Bass’s MC Serch and Yo Yo were judges (to lend some cred), and on one episode the contestants visited the “Mecca of White Rap,” Detroit – where they received sage advice about cultural appropriation from Kid Rock and Insane Clown Posse. (I guess Eminem was unavailable?)
A year later, the same production company, Ego Trip, launched Miss Rap Supreme, a search for the next big femcee. That series even featured Khia, best known for her naughty single “My Neck, My Back,” as a contestant (she was disqualified in episode 1 for cheating). The White Rapper Show was mostly just pure comedy (it also starred a giant furry cockroach), but the ladies of Miss Rap Supreme, particularly winner Rece Steele and runner-up Byata, could really rock the mic. Whatever happened to them?
8. Platinum Hit (2011)
Ex-Idol judge Kara DioGuardi’s songwriting talent search tanked in a major way (it was Bravo’s lowest-rated show in years, and it got bumped to the Friday-night ratings graveyard mid-season). But it was actually a fascinating look at the creative process, something at which Bravo has always excelled. I continued to watch Platinum Hit even after it shifted to Fridays, and I am so glad I did, because the show featured quite a few stellar contestants, and some of them wrote truly great songs. Jes Hudak, a former Idol contestant and this show’s eventual runner-up, penned the best song of all: the gorgeous, goosebumpy ballad “Home for Me (Free).” It’s a shame that more people didn’t get to hear it.
7. Redemption Song (2008)
Imagine a season of American Idol starring only Suicide Girls pinups and Bad Girls Club alums. That gives you a pretty good idea of what this Fuse series was like. A bunch of tatted-up rocker chicks with checkered pasts and bad attitudes competed for a Geffen Records contract, and the cobalt-haired Amy Winehouse doppelganger who won, Mixi, was actually genuinely talented. (She’s blonde now, fronting a punk-metal band called Stitched Up Heart. I guess she’s not totally redeemed.) The best part of every episode was the elimination ceremony, when a vinyl record emblazoned with the name of that week’s ousted contestant would be snapped in two by the show’s host – professional wrestler and part-time metal belter Chris Jericho. No, I am not making this up.
6. The X Factor USA (2011-2013)
In Britain, when Simon Cowell left Pop Idol (the original Idol show) to launch rival The X Factor, Pop Idol died a quick death. The X Factor is still around over there. But when Simon tried to pull a similar stunt on this side of the pond, he didn’t experience the same success. So, so many things went wrong for The X Factor USA: terrible casting decisions (Nicole Scherzinger, Steve Jones, Khloe Kardashian, Britney Spears, Paulina Rubio), the unceremonious firing of Cheryl Cole, Simon’s embarrassing comment about anything less than 20 million viewers being a disappointment, the commercial failure of first two winners Melanie Amaro and Tate Stevens… and, most ickily, an ill-advised (and, oddly, Fox-co-signed) smear campaign against Idol. But the series was chock-full of fantastic talent. I’m still a big fan of Josh Krajcik, Astro, Lyric Da Queen, Bea Miller, James Kenney, Christa Collins, and Season 3 winners Alex & Sierra, for instance, and there’s no denying the massive success of Season 2 finalists Fifth Harmony. Simon did get some things right.
5. Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project (2014)
Like Platinum Hit, super-producer/songwriter Linda Perry’s show provided an intriguing peek at the creative process. So of course no one watched it, just like no one watched Platinum Hit. (More people probably watched Superstar USA.) That’s too bad. The Linda Perry Project was the rawest and realest talent competition on television, as a handful of under-the-radar musicians entered the famous Kung Fu Gardens studio to hone their craft and learn from Linda’s decades of experience. The talent on the show – handpicked through personal introductions, not via a casting call – was impressive. Co-winner Hemming (aka Candice Martello) is now signed to Perry’s rebooted Custard Records (the label that started James Blunt’s enormous career), and she recently opened for Chris Cornell’s acoustic tour.
4. The Next Great American Band (2007)
Back when the then-unstoppable Idol was still in its prime, Fox execs tried to apply the same formula to rock bands. It didn’t work, which might have had something to do with this show’s unfortunate Friday timeslot, but The Next Great American Band had tons of potential. It had a Cowell-knockoff meanie judge nicknamed “Dicko,” Goo Goo Doll Johnny Rzeznik and his unmoving waxen face, and voice-of-reason judge Sheila E (who was actually great, and had a tendency to spontaneously jam with the contestants on the drums). Among the contestants were a cute mod band with Strokes haircuts called Tres Bien and a troupe of inappropriately shirtless 12-year-old metalheads named Light of Doom who could really shred. The winners, the Clark Brothers, eventually changed their name to Sons of Sylvia and started backing up Carrie Underwood. I met them once and they seemed genuinely shocked that I remembered this show. But seriously, I not only remember it – I miss it.
3. Rock Star Supernova (2006)
No, not Rock Star: INXS. Even a reality junkie like myself draws the line at replacing an iconic dead frontman like Michael Hutchence via a TV talent search. That’s just in bad taste. But finding a lead singer for a supergroup formed by Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee, GNR’s Gilby Clarke, and Metallica’s Jason Newsted? On a show co-hosted by Dave Navarro? Well, that’s so bad, it’s good. Actually, this show had tons of credibility. It was probably the only time that phenomenal singer-songwriter/producer Butch Walker, who served as a recurring guest judge, ever got any major network prime-time screentime (other than his cameo this year playing guitar for Harry Connick Jr. on American Idol). And I genuinely believe that this show paved the way for future Idol rockers like David Cook and Adam Lambert, since it regularly featured contestants covering the Killers, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, David Bowie, and Hole. The one album released by the resulting band Rock Star Supernova (fronted by panda-eyed, faux-hawked winner Lukas Rossi) was actually pretty decent, too – even if it sold about 11 copies.
2. The Glee Project (2011-2012)
This groundbreaking series – an Oxygen network talent show created by Ryan Murphy to scout new Glee cast members – elevated the reality-TV singing show genre to an entirely artier level and even discovered some talent that put hopefuls on bigger singing shows to shame. (Fun fact: Alex Newell, the Season 1 top four finalist who went on to play Glee transgender character Unique, is now signed to Atlantic Records, lending guest vocals to tracks by the Knocks and Clean Bandit, and touring with Idol’s Adam Lambert.) I used to watch the YouTube music videos by the cast members on repeat. Sometimes I still do.
1. The Voice (2011-present)
As I noted many paragraphs ago, a show like The Voice would not exist without American Idol. Idol did it first. But did Idol do it better? Sometimes. But at some point, The Voice was the show that became ratings-dominating, Emmy-winning, must-see TV, thanks to the fun spinning chairs, chemistry between the (A-list) coaches, and top-notch (often scouted, often very professional/veteran) contestants. There’s no question that The Voice is excellent television, and now it’s really the only singing show left in a once-oversaturated market. But… it’s still not what American Idol was in its prime.