This week, in the 15th and final search for an American Idol, the competition's hopefuls will sacrifice sleep and sanity in an effort to survive Hollywood Week. If history is any indication, it's going to be an unmitigated disaster.
Since the show's first season in 2002, Hollywood Week has served as an equalizer of the show's initially-passable talent. Between 100 and 200 contestants fly to Los Angeles, coop up in crowded hotel rooms and perform by themselves and as groups in rapid-fire rounds. Sometimes, vocalists are eliminated on the spot. Other times, they're forced to wait hours to learn their fate — but either way, they've got no idea of what's coming down the pike, or when. It's glorified emotional warfare, and that's on top of the fact that the round-robin has proudly shot dozens of contenders' voices to hell.
Over the years, the sink-or-swim pressure applied by Idol's own rush week has yielded some unusually beautiful moments (no-names Didi Benami and Andrew Garcia delivered two of its most memorable performances), and dealt some unexpected disappointments (Simon Cowell wanted to eliminate Kelly Clarkson after one of her solo sets, Candice Glover was sent packing the year before she won the whole competition). There's no telling who will fly high and who will fall flat, but when this leg of the competition is over, Idol has its semi-finalists.
Tomorrow night (January 27), history will repeat itself as one final Hollywood Week makes heroes out of the meek, reduces arrogant egoists to tears and likely causes arguments next to the hotel's breakfast buffet or inside its fitness room. Check it out at 8 PM EST on FOX, but first, look back at our picks for the 10 best Hollywood Week performances ever.
David Archuleta, "Heaven"
The judges praised Season 7's eventual second-place finisher for his pure voice, something he demonstrated with the Bryan Adams hit. Plus, either it was real, real dusty in the theater or the performance moved one of the background singers to tears.
Jena Irene, "Unbreakable Me"
The 17-year-old's mellow disposition didn't do her any favors during the frantic Season 13 Hollywood Week. Thankfully, her voice compensated. Jena's original song, which she later recorded as her first post-Idol single, demonstrated her unique tone and power, making her one of the judges' immediate favorites...though it took the voting public a minute to catch on.
Andrew Garcia, "Straight Up"
The down-on-his luck dad didn't last too long among Season 9's finalists, but his Hollywood Week rendition of the Paula Abdul hit is still burned into the brains of longtime Idol fans. Had Paula not already quit the show, Garcia's acoustic guitar-backed performance would have likely sent her into signature meltdown-mode.
Pia Toscano, "Doesn't Mean Anything"
The makeup artist and wedding singer from New Jersey never hit a bum note, which made her premature ousting from Season 10's Top 9 the most shocking in Idol history. Still, the elimination didn't discount her consistently strong performances, and Pia's brilliant take on the unremarkable Alicia Keys single was proof of how talented she really was.
Casey Abrams, "Georgia On My Mind"
No one will ever outdo Ray Charles' rendition, but Abrams, armed with a double bass, did his best. With a scratchy voice and jazzier arrangement, the 19-year-old essentially rewrote the enduring soul classic. He'd eventually fade away, but the memory of this performance lived on through Season 10.
Carrie Underwood's rendition of the Heart single is one of Idol's most revered performances, but not even Carrie could belt the way Carly did. The Irish standout was on a mission to win in 2007 after issues with her visa prevented her from competing in a previous season, and "Alone" got her through to the semi-finals like a charm.
Crystal Bowersox, "Natural Woman"
One of Idol's most notable should-have-won contestants managed the unlikely task of appealing to voters and judges, alike, without snipping off her dreadlocks, unscrewing her piercings or lasering off her many tattoos. And it was clear as soon as Season 9's Hollywood Week, during which the single mom showed off the stark clarity of her powerful voice, that she unofficially secured herself a spot in the final round. Her peers turned to runs and gimmicky tricks to stand out, but Crystal never did, and she never had to.
Deandre Brackensick, Candice Glover and Jessica Sanchez, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore"
Did the three-piece group over-sing the song? Absolutely, but by Season 11, the show's new judges sought fireworks over nuance, and this trio gave them an Independence Day barbecue's worth. Strangely, though the three-piece group received a standing ovation, Candice was immediately cut. Justice was ultimately served when she went on to win the subsequent season.
Frenchie Davis and Kimberley Locke, "Band of Gold"
The ladies of Season 2 weren't an especially friendly bunch, and left Kimberley and Frenchie high and dry by refusing to join their group. Still, appearing as a forced duo wound up working to the contestants' benefit, and their take on the Freda Payne hit outdid anything their peers offered — including performances by eventual Top 2 Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard.
Angie Miller, "You Set Me Free"
That the Season 12 third-place finisher was able to stun the couldn't-be-more-different Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Keith Urban in one fell swoop was a testament to her skill. And the fact that she catapulted to the top of the crowd with a single performance underscored the real thrill of Hollywood Week: Sure, it made fools out of some, but it's also generated striking, unexpected moments over the years.
Nicki put it best: This performance saved Angie, who probably would have been sent home otherwise. There have been better vocals across this stage of the show, but never a performance more immediately stirring.