The Story of the Season One Review Crew
When we first published the WhatNotToSing.com database in February of 2008, all of the performances from Season One were unrated. Why? Because we couldn't find enough surviving reviews on the Web from that long ago summer of 2002, when Randy was still rotund, Paula was still (more or less) lucid, and Simon was as merciless and crabby as ever. At least some things never change. We were particularly short on data for the four pre-finals episodes, which aired long before the show's popularity exploded. What to do?
Ask the Idolsphere for help, that's what. To complete the job, we convened the Season One Review Crew, an elite task force of WNTS.com readers and dyed-in-the-wool AI fans. Our hardy recruits volunteered to sit through and rate clips of all 91 performances from the first season, from Tamyra Gray's semifinals-starting And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going through Kelly Clarkson's Finale-finishing Before Your Love. We sent each of them a ballot and directions to YouTube, and wished them all the luck in the world. They'd need it.
In all, 36 people were accepted for the job and 22 returned completed ballots by the deadline. Three people wrote us to say they wouldn't be able to finish, and we're not sure what happened to the other 11. (If you should encounter some poor soul walking aimlessly down the street with a glazed, vacant expression and muttering to themselves, "How could anyone sing Daydream Believer as a melismatic soul ballad?!?", kindly let us know.) But when they were done, bless their souls, we at last had all of the supplementary data we needed to bring the AI1 ratings in line with other seasons. In all seriousness, we can't thank them enough.
The Ground Rules
The S1RC project necessitated a few waivers and exceptions to our usual policies. For example, we typically calculate approval ratings based on Internet reviews posted between a performance episode and its results show. Here, we'd be including non-public reviews written six years after the fact. We instructed the Crew to be fair and objective, and to try to view each performance as though he or she were seeing it live for the first time.
We were particularly concerned about the reaction to Gray's two songs the week she was shockingly eliminated. Our experience is that ever-emotional Idol fans tend to elevate such performances to mythical levels after the fact as an avenue for venting their outrage. Based on our preliminary ratings from contemporary (2002) reviewers, one of Gray's offerings that night was mired in the 1-star range, and we wondered what we'd do if our 2008 reviewers adjudged it substantially higher. Turns out, we fretted for nothing: the ever-awesome Crew had no compunctions about stating that a great singer had turned in a lousy performance. The rating in question didn't budge a point.
The Crew's most invaluable contribution were the multitude of comparison points to future performances. Obviously, the 2002 reviewers couldn't tell us how Gray's "And I'm Telling You" stacked up to LaKisha Jones's showstopping version in Season Six, for example. Only Paula Abdul has the ability to judge performances before they're actually given.
Most of the Season One ratings fell neatly into place once we had enough comparison points to work with. To ensure that the 2002 reviewers' opinions were given proper respect, we put a limit on how many points up or down a rating could move after we folded the new data in. The cap was based upon how many "contemporary" reviews were in the database for each performance. Again, we fretted mostly for nothing: only a few performances reached their cap, and all but two were from the semifinals. For the most part, the 2002 and 2008 reviewers were on the same page.
Stuff Like That (Way Up) There
Here are a few of the highlights from AI1, the most schizophrenic, top-heavy, and back-loaded season in Idol history. All statistics and rankings are through the first seven seasons.
- Season One was the lowest-rated season, both in the original reviewers' eyes and ears as well as in the Crew's. It's the only season thus far to finish with an overall rating below 49. Just eight of its 30 contestants (including four of 10 finalists) averaged over 50...
- ...But, Season One also boasted two of the five highest-rated contestants ever to grace the Idol stage, Clarkson (#3, 76.8) and Gray (#5, 72.9). Consistency was each woman's hallmark: of the 22 performances to rate at 69 or higher, they combined to author an astounding 18 of them. (Justin Guarini delivered three, and Nikki McKibbin, one.) The dynamic duo each barely missed pitching a "perfect game": they fell below 50 (in fact, below 60) on one performance apiece – Clarkson's It's Raining Men by just two points, Gray's New Attitude by a billion.
- Season One's semifinals were the least-liked thus far, and it's not even close. The Group Three show averaged a dismal 36.3, second only to the untouchable AI3 Group Two. The first three episodes are comfortably among the ten lowest-rated ever, and only the relatively strong Wild Card Show managed to pull the pre-Finals average above 40. The Finals didn't start out well either: The Final 10 and Final 8 shows averaged well below 50, and it wasn't until the Final 7 that the series had its first above-average episode, a scant 50.4. (There was no Final 9 show in the first season.) In that light, it's amazing that American Idol survived until August, much less to a second season....
- ...But, once the weakest finalists were eliminated and the producers and contestants found their footing, the show's approval ratings soared. AI1, the lowest-rated season ever, delivered the #1 episode of all time (Big Band Night at 65.0), the highest-rated Season Finale by miles (61.3), and for good measure, a Final 3 episode that also finished among the Top 10 (59.5). And if that's not jolting enough, note that two of those three red-hot shows took place after Gray was eliminated.
- Fifteen of the 91 AI1 performances finished in the 1-star range, the highest Clunker Rate of any season. Three alone were turned in by AJ Gil, making him the only Finalist thus far to complete his Idol run without ever reaching the 20s. (Two Semifinalists have also gone 0-for-3: Janay Castine and Antonella Barba.) Four performances earned a spot in the WNTS.com Bottom 40, led by Jim Verraros's uneasy rendition of Easy at 5. The big winner of Project S1RC, we'd venture to say, was none other than Sanjaya Malakar. Not only is he no longer the lowest-rated Finalist ever (Gil and Verraros both got below him), but in the head-to-head battle for the best performance of You Really Got Me on American Idol, he blew away Ryan Starr, 21 to 8. We should send him a bottle of champagne to celebrate, even if he's not old enough to drink it yet.
- ...But, at the other end of the spectrum, Clarkson and Gray were rewriting the record books. The biggest S1RC news of all: Clarkson's legendary Stuff Like That There knocked Bo Bice's equally-legendary In A Dream from the top of the Idol food chain. At 97, it's the highest-rated performance of all time. (And no, it wasn't all that close: "Stuff" was at 98 until the final ballot we received from the Review Crew dropped it a point.) Also earning a spot in the WNTS.com Top 10 was Gray's A House Is Not A Home, which joined the five-way logjam for fourth place at 94. Two more hit the all-time Top 40: Clarkson's A Natural Woman, (#23, 90) and American Idol's kickoff performance, Gray's And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going (#35, 88). The two ladies combined for nine entries in the Season One Top 10 as well, with the only interloper being Guarini's Get Here at 83.
Other random notes from Season One: if the statute of limitations hasn't run out, Kelli Glover and Adriel Herrera might want to sue the voters for non-support. Their approval ratings ranked them third and fourth respectively among all AI1 contestants, but neither made it out of the semifinals. His misadventures as a recording artist have tarnished his image across the Idolsphere, but Guarini did post a respectable 52.5 rating, and his and Clarkson's strong showing in the widely-watched, highly-rated Finale is undoubtedly a big reason the show has enjoyed such lasting success. The only other finalist to average above 50 was Christina Christian. Was R.J. Helton the most consistent performer in AI history? Save for his Wild Card performance at 66, his other six appearances all rated between 34 and 42. Finally, many Idol fans will never forgive McKibbin for advancing further than Gray (as if it were her fault), but note that if only the Final Four performances mattered, then America, believe it or not, got it right. Gray was the lowest that fateful evening by a substantial margin.
Credits and Acknowledgements
At the risk of sounding all maudlin, the publication of the AI1 ratings marks the end of a long and rewarding journey for we WhatNotToSing.com founders. When we first started our modest database project in Season Four, we didn't anticipate how much effort would be involved to catalog and rate every Idol performance. There were plenty of times we thought that Season One would remain forever lost in a sea of "n/a"'s. The Review Crew did a tremendous job bringing completeness, confidence, and order to our world. All seven seasons, 110 episodes, 194 contestants, 440 artists, 687 songs, and 968 performances through the AI7 Final Four now have consistent, numeric approval ratings.
So, our eternal gratitude and thanks to the experts who made up the Season One Review Crew (first names and initials only, at the request of the majority of members): Adam, Allison, Celeste, Chrissy, Dajza, Danielle, Donny, Felipe, Geoffrey, Jim, Julianne, Justin, Katie, Ken, Kevin G., Kevin T., Nicole, Stefan, Sumi, Suzanne, Tim, and Wende. Hmm, there was a Justin, a Christina, and a Jim in that group. You don't suppose....? Nah.
-- The staff of WNTS.com