American Idol isn’t the top talent show in the world any more, and that’s not entirely due to the saturation of similar shows in the market (The Voice’s success is proof of this). It's also partly due to a lack of appealing champions to continue the show’s legacy.
Now that Season 17 has ended, it’s time to look back at the former champions the show has crowned. For this list, we’ve considered the commercial success following the winners’ victorious moment on the show, the relevance they still hold for the mainstream audience, and if they deserved to win more than the other contestants in the season they were featured.
10 Not-So-Deserving: Kris Allen
By the time Kris Allen won the competition, American Idol had begun its descent from popularity. The only contestant in this season who seemed to hold any interest from the public was Adam Lambert, who somehow came in as runner-up.
As soon as the series ended, it was Lambert who shot up in popularity, while Allen remained so-so in the public eye. His debut album was the lowest-charting release for an American Idol winner, and in 2019, people just don’t know what he’s up to these days. It would’ve made more sense had Lambert walked away as the winner.
9 Deserving: Kelly Clarkson
Well, obviously she was going to feature in this list – Kelly Clarkson is the person you always associate American Idol with. The first season of the show had to absolutely nail the concept, and for this to work there needed to be a winner fans were genuinely interested in.
Fast-forward almost two decades later, and Kelly’s an A-list celebrity whose every musical effort has reached the top of the charts. She defined American Idol for what it is, and if you want to see a journey of a person who went from nowhere to the top in music, you just need to look at Kelly Clarkson to learn how to “Breakaway”.
8 Not-So-Deserving: Nick Fradiani
The show was dead by its (formerly) last season, and it didn’t matter who won it, as that singer wasn’t going to reach the heights that earlier winners had. Still, Nick feels less deserving than La’Porshia.
Nick’s only album so far debuted at an absymal Number 121 on the Billboard 200, selling a mere 5,000 units. La’Porshia only fared slightly better in her own effort, debuting at Number 113; however, she could’ve done better had she had the exposure and record deals Nick got as the winner. American Idol had developed a tendency to make a young, attractive man the winner, which just made Nick seem like one of the many former winners; La’Porshia could’ve at least stood out a bit.
7 Deserving: Carrie Underwood
Just like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie has been setting everything on fire with her streak of commercial successes since leaving the show. Her albums always debut at the top of the Billboard 200, and her presence bolsters just about everything she works on. She even increased viewing numbers with her guest role on How I Met Your Mother.
Not only has her music always been popular, she’s also credited with keeping the country genre relevant, bringing more awareness to her Christian beliefs, and is a role model for followers of the vegan lifestyle.
6 Not-So-Deserving: Taylor Hicks
His debut album opened with 298,000 sales at the Billboard 200, but Taylor’s popularity always had a bit of an expiration date. He hasn’t released an album since 2009, and no-one can claim to know more about Taylor than the likes of Chris Daughtry and Katherine McPhee.
While he did deserve to beat McPhee, there’s no doubt that the consensus is that Daughtry should’ve been the winner for the fifth season. Chris has become a worldwide star due to his band’s success, and this season of American Idol is better known for his loss than Taylor's win.
5 Deserving: Phillip Phillips
When people are just so genuinely “nice”, you just want them to succeed, and Phillip was one guy we all wanted to win. Coming from such a humble background, Phillip never made it seem as if he wanted to win American Idol for the fame, it was just to follow his passion of music.
His releases since winning the show have been ingrained with the spirit of appreciation he has had for the life he grew up with, and the success he has now. His albums have been rare commercial successes from a winner of a later season of American Idol, and he thoroughly deserves it.
4 Not-So-Deserving: Candice Glover
She definitely did deserve to win the competition, as Candice auditioned unsuccessfully in Season 9 and Season 11 (the former occasion being termed as a “lounge singer” by Simon Cowell), but as far as carrying the legacy of a champion is considered, Candice doesn’t stand tall.
Her album (although debuting at a respectable Number 14) released, but it has been five years since and Candice is now without a label to release her next one. Unfortunately for her, she falls under the curse of being in the later seasons of the show, and was unable to really grasp the interest of the public.
3 Deserving: Jordin Sparks
Her musical popularity diminished (with her last album bombing at Number 161), but Jordin Sparks continues to remain relevant in the public eye. Plus, it was the time between album releases that caused the dive in success, rather than any lack of musical talent.
Jordin was only 17-years-old when she won, and is still not even 30! She’s achieved incredible success already, and the season featuring her win was one of American Idol’s biggest viewership record-holders. Mostly, Jordin deserved to win to send a message to young singers everywhere: they too can be taken seriously and walk away with the win. There’s also the matter of Jordin selling over 10 million albums world, making her one of the most commercially successful American Idol winners overall.
2 Not-So-Deserving: Caleb Johnson
After yet another season where a young man who can play the guitar won, American Idol had lost its shine and Caleb is hardly even named when listing the former winners off the top of one’s head. The guy has the distinction of having the lowest-selling album on debut for an American Idol winner, and his 'signature' song failed to debut on the Billboard 100 – a first for a former champion.
With his solo career not taking off, Caleb has now joined the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to gain some notoriety. It's likely that no-one from his season could’ve been successful; but who knows? Someone else might have fared better than he has.
1 Deserving: David Cook
As far as winning the competition is concerned, no one has deserved it more than David Cook. The then-25-year-old represented the “believe in yourself” mentality, as he put stock in his own talent and personality rather than pandering to an audience.
This season of American Idol was easily the best that’s ever been seen, and even runner-up David Archuleta deserved to win. David’s impassioned winning performance of “Time of my Life” is a moment fans still see on repeat, as we witness someone whose dream of finding success in music is realized. Cook’s follow-up albums have all charted in the Billboard 200, but he’s exclusively seen as the winner that won when American Idol was at its absolute best.