In eight seasons, “American Idol” has become synonymous with middle-of-the-road music, renowned for pumping out an inoffensive, flavorless slurry engineered to appeal to as many demographics of pop-music listeners as possible. In order to be the most popular show on television, it aims to be the blandest.
But it's not all just an endless parade of Whitney Houston, Jason Mraz, Martina McBride and Stevie Wonder. Every now and then, something a bit more unexpected slips through the cracks. And so, with season 9 just around the corner, it's helpful to remember some of the most peculiar song choices ever to grace “Idol.”
Digable Planets, ‘Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)’ (season 4 Ford commercial)Despite its jazz underpinnings, Digable Planets was a hip-hop group. That left viewers scratching their heads as they watched a singing show force its contestants to rap. Considering that said contestants ran the stylistic gamut from R&B to milquetoast pop to pure country (in the case of eventual winner Carrie Underwood), the results were about what you'd expect. It wasn't the only time “Idol” dabbled in rap (see also season 7's take on Run-DMC's “It's Tricky”), but “Rebirth Of Cool” was certainly the most bafflingly obscure pick from a genre that runs counter to the stated aim of the show.
As a bonus, the Ford commercial in question featured life-sized puppets of the top 10 cavorting around the car, making it entirely plausible that the actual contestants weren't even involved in the shoot.
Badlands, ‘In A Dream’ (season 4 performance)You'll notice that there aren't any other competition songs on this list. That's because the contestants themselves are just too much of a wildcard, with their independent minds and individual musical sensibilities. (Well, in theory.) It's just more fun to raise an eyebrow at songs selected by “Idol” itself than to rib a singer for trying to jump through the show's hoops.
Season four runner-up Bo Bice is fair game for this one, though. The theme was the wide-open “Idol's choice,” and he stepped up to the plate with an a cappella arrangement of early-'90s metal failure Badlands, who probably received more in royalties from that one broadcast than their entire career up to that point. Even more improbably, Bice turned it into his signature “Idol” moment. And then promptly lost a week later.
‘Shout To The Lord’ (season 7 group performance). "Idol" has never been especially subtle with political and religious messages: season two's top ten released "God Bless The U.S.A." less than a month after the start of the Iraq War, and there has long been a special place on the show for pastors, choir leaders and church singers. But despite its leanings, the show never overtly advocated for any particular belief system.
That all changed on the second "Idol Gives Back" charity special, where the top eight were made to perform a worship song specifically in praise of Jesus Christ. The intention was undoubtedly noble (and mercenary, tapping as it did into the previously-unexploited Contemporary Christian market), but the explicitly evangelistic fervor of "Shout To The Lord" was a weird, weird choice for a show that wants to be all things to all people all the time.
Lykke Li, ‘I'm Good, I'm Gone” (season 8 Ford commercial)There's nothing wrong with “Idol” trying to take on more modern, edgy tunes, as it did by using Li's twitchy and catchy “I'm Good, I'm Gone” for one of its in-show ads.
But it's one thing to assign the contestants songs by Modest Mouse, OK Go and Pink. It's another to give them a song by an unknown Swedish singer who had yet to establish any kind of American presence. If “Idol” was hoping to do for Li what it did for KT Tunstall, who was languishing at the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 until Katharine McPhee performed “Black Horse And The Cherry Tree,” it didn't work. “I'm Good, I'm Gone” never even dinged the charts.
Maxine Nightingale, ‘Right Back Where We Started From’ (season 7 group performance) On the other side of the "modern and edgy" spectrum, there's this. Yes, "Right Back" was a #2 hit ... 32 years earlier. The three decades since hadn't revealed it as a classic, simply a pleasant, lightweight pop song worthy of very light rotation on oldies stations.
It was a choice so random that it almost seemed like one of the "Idol" producers was a friend of Nightingale's and owed her a favor. Either that or they simply picked the last thing playing on the radio on the way to the rehearsal.
Paula Abdul/Randy Jackson, "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow" (season 7 music video)Abdul sang, Jackson co-produced. The odd video featured Abdul in numerous costume changes with Jackson accompanying her on bass, enormous red ribbons flapping around, old black-and-white cheerleading footage, and dancers pretending to swim in fake waves.
This song marked the first time that the show went ahead and gave its stars the opportunity to plug one of their own projects on the broadcast itself.
First time, but not the last. Abdul later performed "I'm Just Here for the Music" and Kara DioGuardi wrote the season-eight coronation song "No Boundaries," which was so notoriously terrible that Kris Allen eventually refused to sing it on tour.
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.