Paula Abdul somehow compared Jim to an Olympian after his gasping rendition of a Commodores hit. Thankfully, Simon Cowell was able to put things in perspective with this brutal retort: “Dear, dear, dear, dear. Olympics…well, the two people who came on before you ran the 100 meters in 10 seconds. You ran it in five minutes. That’s the difference.”
14. Carmen Rasmusen, “Call Me” (Season 2)
Carmen’s uncontrolled bleat made her a punching bag for the judges and viewers in Season 2, but “Call Me” represented her personal nadir: The combination of the teenager contestant’s wide-eyed innocence and Blondie’s come-hither lyrics was akin to watching a butterfly get pulled into the engine of a 747.
13. Lee DeWyze, “Beautiful Day” (Season 9)
Lee’s butchering of U2’s anthemic ditty was all the more shocking because it happened in the midst of the Season 9 performance finale. The only thing more tragic than his strained, off-pitch delivery was the fact that the performance didn’t prevent him from taking home the crown over the fabulous Crystal Bowersox.
12. Kevin Covais, “Part-Time Lover” (Season 5)
A 16-year-old nicknamed “Chicken Little” gasping his way through a song about on-the-downlow lovemaking? The only lyric that landed was “knowing it’s so wrong” — but that didn’t even explain the half of it.
11. Kristy Lee Cook, “Eight Days a Week” (Season 7)
Kristy Lee’s “countrification” of a Beatles classic sounded bad on paper, but was even worse in practice thanks to overwrought vibrato, a cavalcade of botched notes and a prevailing sense of panic that it was all about to end in a brutal takedown from Simon Cowell. (Naturally, that last part came true.)
10. Josh Gracin, “Jive Talkin” (Season 2)
The pure country of Josh’s delivery + the ’70s disco of the Bee Gees blended about as pleasantly as a glass of milk and a cup of horseradish. Points also deducted for staggering “dance” moves and “all up in the camera” face-pulling.
9. Lazaro Arbos, “In My Life” (Season 12)
Lazaro’s borderline atonal delivery and emotional listlessness rendered “In My Life” nearly unrecognizable, the musical equivalent of putting a paper bag over Jake Gyllenhaal’s dreamy visage. “Judge” Mariah Carey, desperately trying to stay positive, could only offer that merely “making it through the song" was "a big deal." Seriously, woman, this was Season 12 Top 9 Week, not a pit stop on Idol‘s “small-city bus tour”!
8. Tim Urban, “Under My Thumb” (Season 9)
It was uncomfortable enough hearing fresh-scrubbed underperformer Urban drop misogynistic lyrics like “Under my thumb/ The squirming dog who’s just had her day.” To make matter worse, though, he gave the Stones’ track a reggae beat, then delivered it with all the sting and menace of a second-grader telling his friends what was in his lunchbox.
7. John Stevens, “Music of My Heart” (Season 3)
Simon Cowell noted that the redheaded teenager and Latin music went together like an onion and chocolate ice cream, but come on, Gloria Estefan and ‘N Sync’s soundtrack ballad doesn’t exactly conjure up images of hips swaying beneath the palm trees. Ultimately, it was John’s meek, tuneless delivery that sank the ship — a maddening occurrence considering future Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson had been booted one week prior.
6. Haley Scarnato, “Turn the Beat Around” (Season 6)
This wasn’t so much a case of turning the beat around as it was Haley falling halfway out of the saddle and flailing haplessly while the beat stampeded around the stage like an angry stallion. If disco had any life left in it going into Season 6 of Idol, this performance marked a definitive time of death.
5. Sanjaya Malakar, “Bathwater” (Season 6)
Oh, if only America had thrown out the Season 6 baby with his putrid rendition of “Bathwater.” But somehow his breathy delivery, botched lyrics and grotesque “ponyhawk” carried him all the way to seventh place — and his own infamous chapter in Idol history.
4. Paige Miles, “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” (Season 9)
No one was particularly stoked when Paige chose one of the most frequently performed ballads in show history, but girlfriend sure did perk up the audience’s ears with a rendition that sounded like nuts and bolts in a blender set to “puree.” Alas, the refrain “take a look at me now, there’s just an empty space” proved prescient when Paige was eliminated the very next night.
3. Danny Gokey, “Dream On” (Season Eight)
Danny, who’s about as hardcore as Susan Boyle’s cafeteria-lady hairstyle, cluelessly took a pair of pliers to the teeth of Aerosmith’s arena anthem during Top 4 “Rock Week,” resulting in some of the most agonizing screams and yelps in the history of television. To add battery acid to the wound, Danny’s abject failure still garnered him enough votes to bump Allison Iraheta from the competition (a piece of Idol history that many fans still refuse to acknowledge).
2. Jacob Lusk: Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown's "No Air" (Season 10)
Clad in his Dalton Academy "away game" blazer, Jacob punctuated his off-pitch shriek-fest by grabbing at his crotch area and punching at the air like a malfunctioning robot attempting to recreate portions of Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" choreography. (He also clutched his mic in a way that one of his fingers was intermittently/uncomfortably pointed straight at his nostril — not that you probably wanted reminding.) When Randy Jackson critiqued that Jacob shouldn’t attempt to swim in Chris Brown and Usher's musical lane, the contestant himself responded with a typically self-important, "I think I'm an artist who appeals to everybody." Well, he appealed to my desire to point out the worst calamities that have ever happened on Idol, at least!
It was near comedy, the way Camile coughed and gasped her way through one last Season 3 number, like a ye-olde-timey movie heroine succumbing to consumption. And yet on the sci-fi tip, her slurry delivery made half the song sound like it was being delivered in a new and alien language (call it Velascoese). Ultimately though, we’ll categorize this one under “horror” because, by the time she’d finished eviscerating every second note, said yellow-brick road was stained crimson with the blood of Elton John’s beloved ballad.