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10 Top 'American Idol' Game Changers of All Time: Adam Lambert, David Cook, Clay Aiken

With season 11 of Fox's singing competition series upon us, THR picks the defining moments that have stood the test of time.

David Cook
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With American Idol season 11 (!) kicking off tonight, it feels fitting to take a look back at how we got here: to a show anchored by superstar judges and a tireless host, a dream maker and taker and a platform like no other.

Indeed, it’s been a long road that launched with meager beginnings – a makeshift judges’ table and the Texas-sized voice that could: Kelly Clarkson. She set the bar high but plenty have moved it along the way. From the first time a runner-up outsold a winner to the first eye-popping moment when Adam Lambert turned up the heat to 11, Idol has seen many game-changing contestants and performances in its decade on the air. Here, our picks for 10 that stand the test of time:

1. Runner-up Clay Aiken Outsells Winner Ruben Studdard

Season two was all about surprises, but who could have predicted that the fashion-challenged Clay Aiken would not only survive elimination but rise all the way to the top two? On finale night, 24 million votes were cast, but Studdard squeaked through, besting Aiken by just 134,000. Soon after, Idol fans started voting with their wallets, and Aiken’s Measure of a Man CD debuted at no. 1 with 613,000 copies sold in its first week out, easily outselling Studdard’s debut, Soulful, which tallied 400,000. Aiken’s retail victory immediately set a goal and standard for future Idol contestants that didn’t get the celebratory shower of confetti, and it put in place the oft-repeated consolation, “You don’t have to win to be a winner." (Michele Amabile Angermiller)

2. Jennifer Hudson’s Shocking Elimination

If Aiken proved that a runner-up could have bigger post-Idol success than the winner, then Hudson -- a soul belter from Chicago -- showed that coming in seventh place opens doors, too. In Hudson’s case, her short-lived run during season three led to a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as Effie in the 2006 film adaptation of Dreamgirls, and stretched her celebrity status far past the 15 minutes usually designated for fleetingly famous reality stars. While on the show, she wowed with with renditions of Elton John’s “Circle of Life” and Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England.” But in the end, the judge favorite in the “battle of the divas” failed to catch on with viewers back home and would lose to LaToya London and Fantasia Barrino, who eventually took home the title. (Erin Carlson)

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3. Bo Bice and Constantine Maroulis Rock the Competition

Season Four was a landmark season for many reasons, not the least of which involved spawning a true superstar: Carrie Underwood, but it also introduced rockers into the Idol arena, and the show would never be the same. Finally, women everywhere had yummy, gritty contestants they could sink their teeth into -- Bo Bice, with his stringy hippie-like locks and Southern charm and the ever-smoldering Constantine Maroulis. It was those two men who opened up the doors for future Idols like Chris Daughtry and David Cook, making a competition that could have only attracted boy band types into something more three-dimensional. Seriously, who would have predicted Bice’s rendition of The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” or Maroulis’ abridged “Bohemian Rhapsody” would become legendary Idol performances all these years later? Viva Le Rock! (MA)

4. Taylor Hicks Breaks the Instrument Barrier… With a Harmonica

He was perhaps the most unlikely contestant to take the Idol stage. At 29 years old, Taylor Hicks, a prematurely grey-haired decade-long struggling musician, didn’t have much to lose and everything to gain when he hopped on a plane to Las Vegas and got in line for season 5. Some six months later, he was a national sensation with his own legion of loyal followers (the “Soul Patrol”) and victory within his grasp. But rather than play it safe, Hicks went bonkers, offering audiences soul in the way of Ray Lamontagne’s “Trouble” and the blues, via the first ever instrument played on Idol: Hicks’ harmonica. (Shirley Halperin)

5. Blake Lewis Beat-boxes to Second Place

You have to hand it to Seattle’s Blake Lewis, he was an original. The season six runner-up had an uncanny ability to play with a song and truly make it his own, long before the Idol catch-all phrase overstayed its welcome. Look back at his version of The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” with a beat-boxing twist and it remains one of the most memorable performances to date. He took chances, like when he chose 311’s “All Mixed Up,” a song most people, including the judges, didn’t know, or when he decided to “mess with” the Bon Jovi classic “You Give Love A Bad Name.” It turns out Lewis had killer instinct back then, and thanks to his success on the show, contestants no longer had to fear experimentation. (MA)

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6. Vote for the Worst Asserts Its Idol Influence

If you’ve ever wondered (or cursed) how Sanjaya Malakar, the so-so singer with the wacky hair and hot sister, made it to Idol’s top 10, you might want to point the finger at then fledgling website Vote for the Worst. Their campaign to reward the least qualified candidate was never-ending -- even until today -- but it worked especially well on season six, when performances like Sanjaya’s “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About” left viewers pining for more.  There to feed their fix: VFTW, the endlessly sarcastic, loyalty-free bastion of Idol haterade. (SH)

7. David Cook Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes It Up

Plenty of rockers had graced the Idol stage by the time season 7 came around, but few had the magic formula of being relatable, having vocal confidence and sex appeal. Enter: David Cook, who brought with him a Midwestern sensibility to the biggest singing competition in the world, which is to say, he charmed the pants off America. He also kept viewers guessing. Case in point: what could have been a disastrous stab at Mariah Carey when Cook chose “Always Be My Baby” during the early weeks of the competition -- instead, he slowed it down and gave it a power rock twist. Ditto for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” as inspired by Chris Cornell’s version. Indeed, Cook was an expert at “changing it up” and ever since, scores of contestants have tried to repeat his winning formula, but few have succeeded. (SH)

8. Adam Lambert Turns Idol Up to 11

He was unlike any contestant Idol audiences had ever seen: a makeup-wearing, octave-defying, glam-rocking showman who could wail with the best of them (and did he ever) and hold back when need be, to deliver a nuanced, pitch-perfect performance. Each of Adam Lambert’s season 8 numbers told a story, from the anguish of “Tracks of My Tears” to the cautious optimism of “Black and White,” the haunting “Mad World” and the dramatic “Ring Of Fire,” but more importantly: they entertained. In a truly game-changing act, the show had to learn to keep up with Lambert’s theatricality and in turn introduced more adventurous lighting and effects. It’s a benefit future Idols, like season 10’s James Durbin who was allowed fire for one of his performances, would reap for years to come and just another reason to bow down to Lambert’s Idol throne. (SH)

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9. The End of the Simon Era

Season nine marked a milestone in Idol history: it was Simon Cowell’s swan song on the series he helped build into a ratings powerhouse, and which transformed him from an opinionated British record exec into a wildly popular TV troublemaker in America. (His acid-tongued, unsentimental commentary was arguably the most trusted on the judges’ panel.) But after rumored friction with show creator Simon Fuller, Cowell – who appeared increasingly apathetic and checked out -- decided to jump ship and bring The X Factor, his Idol-esque show that began in England, to the U.S. with Abdul on board. By the 2010 finale, Lee DeWyze’s victory over Crystal Bowersox proved unremarkable as watchers wondered what would happen to the franchise once the charismatic Cowell had left the building for good. (EC)

10. New Judges in Season 10

The 2010 exits of Cowell, Kara DioGuardi (whose contract was not renewed) and Ellen DeGeneres (whose much-hyped debut as a judge fell flat) left openings on the panel, and with that, much conjecture on who would fill the coveted judges’ positions. At one point, Jessica Simpson’s name was mentioned as one of the candidates, a possible substitute for ditzy sweetheart Paula Abdul’s persona. But last year, Idol used its pull to lure in A-list talent, Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, to join Randy Jackson, the last original judge sitting. Lopez’s industry experience, emotional side and glamorous getups made her reality-TV ready, while viewers never knew what bawdy Tyler was going to do -- or say --next. If the revamped panel missed Cowell’s bite, it certainly made up for it in watercooler gossip. (Sample Tyler contestant feedback: “Shit fire and save matches, f--k a duck and see what hatches.”) (EC)

Twitter: @Idol_Worship