'American Idol' Special Looks Back at Past 15 Years

American Idol XV - Finale Part 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of FOX

Tonight, the farewell season of American Idol celebrated the end of an era with a special honoring past Idol moments and stars.

The special brought back original judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Jackson said of the first season. Cowell’s mean spirit defined the early seasons of the show, but present-day Cowell defended his attitude, saying he thought he was doing people a service by telling them that singing wasn’t right for them. His cynicism was balanced by Abdul, who said she really wanted to believe in and encourage the people who came out to audition in that first season. “She was really, really good at spotting talent,” Cowell said of Abdul. The special revisited Kelly Clarkson’s original audition, and Abdul, Cowell and Jackson all recalled how impressed they were in that moment. As Idol’s first winner, she remains one of the series’ most influential artists.

“If you can’t handle Simon Cowell, you can’t make it in this industry,” Clarkson said. She noted that he was harsh but honest in all of his critiques. Former producers acknowledged how Clarkson wasn’t necessarily the best from the beginning, but she improved over time, finally winning Cowell — and America — over. According to season one’s runner-up Justin Guarini, the first season of Idol was put together “with prayers and chewing gum.” The show and format were so new, but viewership grew rapidly. “When it came down to the final pregnant pause, it just became so evident that this was her moment,” Guarini said, reflecting on how Clarkson won in  the season-one finale. “The first season of American Idol really set the standard,” said current judge Harry Connick Jr., who was in the audience for the first finale.

Then it was time for season two. “We were totally unprepared,” said executive in charge of production Wylleen May. The show had to keep expanding its audition venues as time went on. The special revisited Jennifer Hudson’s original audition. Hudson finished seventh during season three, and she eventually went on to win an Academy Award for her performance in Dreamgirls.

Cowell said that the closest final that the show ever had was in season two when it came down to Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken. As many as 37 million votes were cast for that finale, and according to producers, the difference came down to about only 130,000 votes. Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe noted that there are times when host Ryan Seacrest knows the results ahead of time and other occasions when the results are just as surprising to him as they are to America.

The special also revisited one of the most iconic and controversial moments of the series, when LaToya London, Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia Barrino were in the bottom three in season seven. Hudson was eliminated during that iconic episode, which prompted Elton John to describe Idol as “incredibly racist.”

The special explored some of the technological advancements throughout the series, like when the show started incorporating text-message votes. Former Idol producer David Goffin remarked how live-blogging became such a strong facet of Idol culture in the early seasons. Several artists reflected on the impact of the show on their fanbase. “It was surreal,” season-eight runner-up Adam Lambert said about his Idol performance of “Mad World” being a top-downloaded song on iTunes. Hudson explained that viewers have been watching their journeys since the beginning. “They’ve been a part of it,” she said.

“When we started, there was a lot of resistance in the music industry,” said May. Jackson added that labels did not necessarily agree with the process. According to Connick, one of the critiques of the show has been that the contestants are on the fast track to fame. But he highlighted the intensity and seriousness of the competition. Idol is the real deal. Carrie Underwood referred to it as boot camp, acknowledging how much the show taught her about the industry. “I used you guys as an audition for record labels,” Chris Daughtry added. Lambert acknowledged that the show allowed him to go straight to the people instead of having to just go through business channels. “Being on the show was a great way to sort of trial-and-error what being an artist was,” Lambert said. Competing on the show was just the first phase for most of these artists. “You don’t become the star by just being on a reality show,” industry mogul Clive Davis said. Idol gave a lot of the contestants the tools to succeed, but they still had to work to define and establish themselves as artists after the competition.

“The show became No. 1 every single year,” Seacrest said of Idol’s high ratings in the past. Underwood added how flattered she is by the fact that her awards and record sales have been used so frequently as a measure for the show’s success. Lambert added that he recorded with Lady Gaga shortly after coming from Idol. Lythgoe said that the social impact of the show has continued to amaze him. Once upon a time, the show’s ratings were truly unbelievable.

The special also touched on some of the series’ temporary judges, like Ellen DeGeneres, who served as a judge during season nine after Abdul left at the end of season eight. DeGeneres maintained some of Abdul’s heart and compassion, but she wasn’t as invested in the competition. 

Cowell left the series shortly after, which marked a major transformation for Idol. “When Simon decided to go, all of us weren’t quite sure what that meant for the show,” said Seacrest. Jennifer Lopez joined the show with the perspective of an artist and performer instead of an A&R person. Steven Tyler then brought something new to the series, adding an uncensored and open perspective. “Simon left and our ratings barely changed,” creator Simon Fuller said of some of the judge shake-ups.

But then Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey joined the show, and their tension never quite clicked with viewers. “Working with Nicki and Mariah was exceptionally challenging,” said Lythgoe. Recently, the series has shifted toward judging that has less conflict. Current judges Connick, Lopez and Keith Urban are overall very nice in the critiques they give to contestants. 

“It is a trendsetter,” Connick said of Idol. At the end of the special, Studdard, Hudson, Lambert and Guarini all reiterated just how important the show was to their personal journeys, with Guarini emphasizing the power of Clarkson’s presence. The program revisited her moving performance of “Piece by Piece.” “It’s the story that everyone wants to have when they come on American Idol,” said Guarini.

The two-part finale kicks off Wednesday night with an elimination based on last week’s voting and performances from the top two contestants. What did you think of tonight’s emotional and revealing special? Sound off in the comments, below.