The 15th and final bittersweet season of American Idol is underway, and all season long, Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks is inviting alumni from the series to share their stories. And who better to participate in this special essay series than champion Kris Allen, whose victory after being a supposed underdog throughout Season 8 was one of the most exciting and unexpected moments in the competition’s history? Here, Kris writes about what was going through his mind when he made the risky song choices that ultimately sealed his Idol fate.
Kris Allen says he never expected to win Season 8. (Photo: Getty Images)
I hear all the time how some people just KNEW I was going to win American Idol from the very beginning. Huh? How they could foresee me still standing on that stage in the Nokia Theatre the night of the finale? They tell me that my audition caught their eyes and ears and really stuck with them. Um, what? Really? They either have some crystal ball that they stole from the devil, or they have to be lying.
The first time anyone saw me on TV was for a grand total of two seconds. Barely heard me sing. You couldn’t really see me, either, because I was hiding behind some hat that I got at Old Navy before the audition. I thought it would make me look cool. (BTW… it didn’t.) I didn’t have some huge voice, big personality, or compelling backstory that made you want to watch. I’m pretty sure they call that in the biz “NOT GOOD FOR TV.” I honestly could not see myself still standing by the end of the competition. Not once did I think that. I had nothing to lose, though. So I decided I was just going to do me. And they let me. They let me get in my zone.
When I look back at Season 8 compared to all of the 14 seasons that Idol has had, I really do think we had the most talent. I’m not just saying that because these people are my friends; I really believe this. Adam Lambert was the best performer the show has ever seen, coupled with one of the most amazing voices. Danny Gokey had a range that never stopped, even when you thought it would. Allison Iraheta had one of the best tones I’ve ever heard – so mature at only 16. (You might be wondering right now if I’m going to talk about the whole top 10. Yep!) I’ve never heard anyone do with their voice what Matt Giraud can do – and then you hear him play the piano? Dumb. Lil Rounds, with that powerhouse voice. I don’t think there was anyone on our show as well versed in music as Scott MacIntyre. Anoop Desai had the most underrated velvety voice. Megan Joy had such a great sound and has made some of the coolest music after the show of any Idol I’ve heard so far. Michael Sarver, with his perfect country soul voice. Even Alexis Grace, who missed the top 10 – but how amazing was she?
So when I put myself up against the competition, I thought my role on the show was to stay in for a couple of weeks, and then I was sure to head home soon.
But then Country Week happened.
Coming from Arkansas, I grew up liking country music, but I always knew I wasn’t a country singer. So this week was interesting for me. I didn’t want to do something that made me sound country, so I had to be smart. I loved “To Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan and I knew Adele had done a version of the song, but I also knew that Garth Brooks had a version on the Hope Floats soundtrack. (Don’t ask me how I knew this.) So I went to the producers with the Garth version, hoping that they would say it was cool. It wasn’t without pushback. They said, “This is a Bob Dylan song.” I said “But, but Garth sang it as well, so it’s kind of like a country song, right?” So they let it slide.
OK, not that much pushback.
This was the first performance that I really felt incredibly confident in. I knew that by song choice alone I could probably make it through to the next week. And then they kept letting me make choices like “To Make You Feel My Love.”
I knew the masses didn’t know the movie Once, but I really enjoyed the film and loved the soundtrack. “Falling Slowly” from that film was my first and only choice for Movie Week, and to my surprise, there was no pushback. None. Singing a song that hardly anyone knew on the show? This was frowned upon, but I didn’t hear a word from anyone about it. I knew if I could sing “Falling Slowly” in front of not only Quentin Tarantino but millions of people, they would fall in love with it.
And they did.
Fast-forward to top three, and we were supposed to do something from the top of the iTunes charts, or something like that. (What a vague category. Even better for me!) We were in a hotel room by this time, and I was thinking and researching what song to do. This was to go to the finale! It had to be good. It had to be cool. After hours and hours of listening to music and searching, I knew I had the perfect song.
Me: “Hey, I’m gonna sing this song by a rapper on a singing competition show. Is that OK?”
Them: “Uh, sure, Kris.”
What?! You’re gonna let me do it again?! As Kanye would say… DONT LET ME GET IN MY ZONE.
All of these songs mentioned above are the ones that people remember me for. I hear all the time: “I didn’t even know that song until you sang it.” I owe all of that to the producers for letting me pick them every week, except for one. (In Rock Week, I wanted to do “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It wasn’t “rock” enough, I guess.) Not only was I taking a risk by choosing these songs, but the producers took a big risk by letting me choose them.
So while you crazy people who supposedly thought I was going to win from the very beginning were sitting at home eating dinner and feeling so confident in me, I was probably locked in a room, racking my brain every week, trying to think of a song that would set me apart – because I knew it had to. (Excluding “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” of course. That’s another story for another time.) I knew that the song choice would always be my saving grace. The song always is and always will be.
What a great experience the show was for us contestants. We all gained so much from it, and that cannot be denied. I will forever be grateful for my time on American Idol for giving me the opportunity to do what I knew I always wanted to do but just didn’t know how.
PS: Thanks Robin for getting all those songs cleared. I know it wasn’t easy sometimes. And thanks to Michael Orland and Dorian Holley for helping me arrange and put together my performances.