In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
American Idol was always counter-programming. The show became a dominant TV-ratings force around the same time that club-friendly rap and R&B came to dominate the pop charts. Idol was at least nominally dedicated to discovering and building new pop stars, and it did manage to establish a few of them, but the show’s central idea of pop music was not the one that was actually selling records in the 21st century. This was not a failure on the part of the show’s producers. Idol didn’t care about finding an Usher or a Beyoncé, and it didn’t pitch its winners to the Americans who bought Usher and Beyoncé records. Instead, the show sold itself, not its singers. For a while, it was hugely successful at its mission.
Like pretty much every other TV show in existence, American Idol is all about narrative. The show built shiny, manipulative video packages out of its contestants’ struggles and journeys. Those video packages ultimately mattered at least as much as the actual performances. The show’s judges were all music-business professionals who helped nudge the contestants toward a version of pop music that could, at least theoretically, be sold to the people of America. But the American public is an unpredictable beast.
Sometimes, we the people don’t do what the professionals want us to do. Sometimes, we don’t even act in our own best interests. Sometimes, we prize some imagined narrative over anything and everything else. That tendency has manifested in all sorts of strange ways over the past few decades. In 2006, the people of America broke the American Idol machine. It’s far from the worst thing we’ve ever done, but we really jacked that whole thing up. Taylor Hicks was our instrument of destruction.
Maybe the American Idol producers saw it coming. If they didn’t, they should’ve figured it out. After all, this had already happened. In 2003, a Scottish belter named Michelle McManus won the second season of Pop Idol, the British predecessor to American Idol. She did not look like a pop star, which is to say that she was not thin. For Pete Waterman, this was a problem. Waterman, a producer whose work has been in this column a few times, was a judge on Pop Idol, and he railed against even allowing McManus on the show: “How many people like that in the last 40 years have you seen sell a million records?” When McManus was announced as the show’s winner, Waterman disgustedly ripped off his microphone and stormed out of the studio. Pop Idol never returned for a third season.
Michelle McManus did not become a pop star — even in the UK, where reality TV utterly dominated the pop charts for years. McManus got to #1 with her victory single “All This Time,” but her music career didn’t last, and she became a TV presenter. This column is essentially my version of Popular, the long-running column from the great British writer Tom Ewing, and Ewing recently wrote about what happened with the whole Michelle McManus situation: “Michelle McManus wasn’t the kind of person who won reality pop shows, which meant she had to win it.” The same was true of Taylor Hicks.
Michelle McManus’ underdog status made her an appealing TV character. That didn’t translate to pop music, but TV is bigger business than pop music anyway. TV, much like public will, does what it wants. When he was a Pop Idol judge, Simon Cowell actually championed Michelle McManus. When Cowell moved on to American Idol, he did not do the same for Taylor Hicks, the grey-haired Alabama wailer who ultimately won the show’s fifth season.
Michelle McManus and Taylor Hicks are actually comparable figures. They’re both the kind of barroom entertainers who don’t often appear on television, and that not-ready-for-prime-time quality is exactly what captured the hearts of voters. In McManus’ case, Cowell took the side of the people. In America, where Cowell was already a kind of pop-culture villain, Cowell turned into Pete Waterman. Maybe he knew what he was doing. Maybe he was simply playing his role in the obvious narrative.
Taylor Hicks first showed up on TV screens in his audition video, viscerally warbling Sam Cooke’s Civil Rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” and the minstrel song “Old Folks At Home” — wild choices for a white guy. Simon Cowell’s immediate response: “This is a guy who should be singing backgrounds, not in the spotlight… They will not put you in the final group to be judged by the public.” Hicks’ defense was that Simon Cowell doesn’t know anything about soul, and he turned that into a branding exercise, labelling his fans the “Soul Patrol” and shouting them out at every opportunity. Hicks sailed through the competition, never even finding himself in the bottom three, while Cowell fumed.
Funny thing: The fifth season of American Idol was actually loaded with potentially viable pop singers. Many of them ended up with major-label contracts even though they didn’t win the season. Elliott Yamin, the smooth balladeer who finished the season in third place, made it to #13 with his 2007 debut single “Wait For You.” Long-haired cutie-pie Bucky Covington had a decent run as a Nashville country artist, and he made it to #58 with his 2007 debut single “A Different World.” Another country singer hung around the Nashville star system for a while. Kellie Pickler, probably my favorite season-five singer, scored a serious number of country hits. Her biggest song, 2008’s “Best Days Of Your Life,” peaked at #46 on the Hot 100. Pickler co-wrote that one with her friend Taylor Swift, an artist who will appear in this column a bunch of times. Good song.
The obvious pop-star prospect in season five was Katharine McPhee, a pretty young adult-contempo singer who grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a TV producer and a vocal coach. Pop stardom never really happened for McPhee. As soon as her Idol season ended, McPhee’s version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” peaked at #12. A couple of McPhee’s other singles made the Hot 100, but she never got near the top again. Instead, McPhee carved out a pretty good career as a TV actress. A few years ago, McPhee also married David Foster, a producer who appeared on that Idol season as a guest coach and whose work has been in this column a great many times.
Instead of Katharine McPhee, the big star from season five turned out to be Chris Daughtry, the post-grunge yowler whose band Daughtry hit the radio-rock zone and became an absolute fucking phenomenon for a little while. Daughtry’s self-titled 2006 debut sold an absurd six million copies in the US alone, and “It’s Not Over,” their biggest hit, peaked at #4. (It’s a 3.) Daughtry’s whole thing is extremely not for me, but the man did became a bona fide no-shit rock star in an era when rock stars were an endangered species.
Up against all that talent, Taylor Hicks was nobody’s idea of the obvious winner, and that was exactly what made him the obvious winner. Hicks was an underdog who became an overdog. He saw the whole field, and he played reality TV tropes to his own advantage. Hicks was probably under no illusion that he was about to become a pop star, but he used American Idol as a vehicle to secure himself a sustainable singing career. It sure seems like that’s all he ever wanted. Along the way, Taylor Hicks became the last American Idol winner to land a #1 hit with his instantly forgotten coronation song.
Taylor Hicks was 29, the exact cutoff age for eligibility, when he auditioned for American Idol. Hicks came from Birmingham, Alabama — the same city that birthed Ruben Studdard, the singer who won the second Idol season and the only winner of the first five seasons who never scored a #1 hit. (Studdard lost out to Clay Aiken in the singles-sales marketplace even though he beat Aiken in voting.) When Taylor Hicks was born, the #1 song in America was Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” so maybe Hicks was destined for a life as a blue-eyed soul belter. During his run on American Idol, Taylor Hicks actually covered that song — the one time I can remember when an artist I’ve covered in this column actually interacted with his birth song in some significant way. The Taylor Hicks version sucked.
Taylor Hicks had a difficult home life, and his hair went grey when he was a kid. As a teenager, Hicks bought himself a flea-market harmonica and taught himself to play. Hicks went to Auburn, and he’s probably the only person with a #1 Hot 100 hit who ever sang in a Widespread Panic cover band. Hicks was determined to make it as a singer, and he worked for years as a regional entertainer, forming bands and singing in any bar that would have him. He self-released a couple of albums and even briefly moved to Nashville, recording a demo with the assistance of former Number Ones artist Percy Sledge. But Hicks couldn’t get signed, so he just kept singing in bars. Then, American Idol.
One tenet of American Idol is that a singer is supposed to be well-rounded. If contestants make it far enough, they have to sing songs in different idioms — disco, Broadway, standards, whatever. Taylor Hicks circumvented all that. He found songs in all those idioms that fit his whole Blues Brothers routine. When Hicks was supposed to sing a current song, for instance, he did Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble” — current in fact but not in spirit. When he had to do a country song, he did “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which really only counts as a country song because it has the word “country” in the title. Even when he had to sing a Queen song, Hicks did “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” the one Queen song that could possibly fit his skillset.
Early in Taylor Hicks’ Idol run, Simon Cowell admitted that he’d been wrong and that Hicks belonged on the show. Cowell still harrumphed whenever Hicks gave a massively schticky bar-band performance, which was often. Years later, Hicks explained that he strategized his Idol run, making friends with the production crew and with the person in charge of clearing songs. Hicks also said that he essentially crafted the character that he played on the show:
Sometimes, I do have a little regret about cultivating that jovial, silly persona, which isn’t totally me – in real life, I’m a bit more reserved. I’d even dare say I’m cooler than how I appeared on the show. But it’s television, and people want to see happiness and positivity. And if you did bar gigs your whole life and you got on a hit show where millions of people were watching you, you’d be pretty jovial, too.
Taylor Hicks did this whole clown act on American Idol when it was easily the biggest show on TV. At one point, Jason Sudeikis impersonated Hicks on SNL. But Taylor Hicks put in more work than Sudeikis; Hicks impersonated Taylor Hicks on TV every week until the season was over. By making it to the end, Hicks was given his very own coronation song. “Do I Make You Proud” came from Paul Wilson and Andy Watkins, the British production team known as Absolute, and from their songwriting collaborator Tracy Ackerman.
Absolute were probably best known for their work with former Number Ones artists the Spice Girls. They produced a bunch of Spice Girls tracks, including the group’s second single “Say You’ll Be There,” which peaked at #3 in the US. (It’s a 6.) Absolute also co-wrote and produced “Too Much,” a #9 hit for the Spice Girls. (That’s another 6.) Plenty of the Spice Girls’ other Absolute-produced tracks didn’t make the American top 10, but at least a few of them are absolute bangers, including the #16 hit “Stop.”
After the Spice Girls broke up, Absolute worked with former member Geri Halliwell. In the ’00s, Absolute and Tracy Ackerman mostly wrote and produced for British pop groups who fit the post-Spice Girls mold — Atomic Kitten, Girls Aloud, S Club 7 — as well as some of the British reality-show singers. That’s not exactly the kind of resume that would necessarily lead one to work with an Alabama bar-band singer who wants to be Joe Cocker, but Absolute did their absolute best.
“Do I Make You Proud” fits the vague mold of the reality-show victory song. It’s big and hammy and unchallenging, and the lyrics are all about the singer’s undying gratitude for the honor of entertaining the television viewers of America: “This is what we dream about/ But the only question with me now is do I make you proud?” Still, “Do I Make You Proud” is the rare coronation song that sounds like it was actually concocted with a particular singer in mind, or maybe Taylor Hicks is just the kind of singer who’s ideally suited to a cheesy ballad like “Do I Make You Proud.” It might the only kind of song that Taylor Hicks is suited to sing; I’ll take it over his corny-ass attempts at old-school soul rave-ups.
To be clear: “Do I Make You Proud” is not a good song. There’s nothing memorable about the production or the arrangement. (Absolute co-produced the track with Dave Way, who, randomly enough, has already been in this column for co-writing and co-producing Hi-Five’s “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game).”) But “Do I Make You Proud” is, at the very least, solidly generic, and it gives Hicks a chance to do some gravelly emoting, especially at the end. That gravelly emoting, in turn, gives “Do I Make You Proud” a tiny bit of personality, which the song otherwise would’ve never had. “Do I Make You Proud” isn’t built to last, but the song does its job. That’s not much of a commendation, but it’s more than I can say about most of these godforsaken coronation songs.
On the American Idol finale, Taylor Hicks sang “Do I Make You Proud” with enough verve and passion that Simon Cowell immediately pronounced him the winner of the season. (I’m guessing that Cowell had some idea how the voting was trending.) Arista immediately released “Do I Make You Proud” as a single, pairing it with Hicks’ cover of the Doobie Brothers’ 1976 single “Takin’ It To The Streets.” (The original “Takin’ It To The Streets” peaked at #13 in 1976.) In its first week, “Do I Make You Proud” sold a couple hundred thousand copies — mostly physical copies, not digital downloads. But “Do I Make You Proud” didn’t get any radio love, and the song plummeted down the Hot 100. In two weeks, it was out of the top 10. In eight weeks, it had left the chart entirely.
Taylor Hicks’ Doobie Brothers cover peaked at #69, and he never made the Hot 100 again. Hicks released his self-titled debut album later in 2006, and “Do I Make You Proud” wasn’t on the LP — not even as a bonus track. The album consisted of rush-recorded cheesed-out retro-soul, and it recycled a few songs from Hicks’ early self-released records. It left no impact whatsoever. Taylor Hicks technically went platinum, but it sold less than the debuts of any previous American Idol winners. A year and a half after Hicks won Idol, Arista dropped him. A year after Hicks’ album came out, Simon Cowell said, “I couldn’t stand him. I didn’t get it. At the end of the day, you have to find a bona fide recording artist. Just because you win the show doesn’t mean you will sell a lot of records. Chris [Daughtry] is the one who sold the albums, not Taylor.”
Taylor Hicks wrote a quickie memoir in 2007, and then he joined the cast of Grease on Broadway. Hicks played the Teen Angel, the role that former Number Ones artist Frankie Avalon had filled in the Grease movie. That’s a one-scene character, and Hicks kept playing that character in touring Grease productions for years.
Taylor Hicks self-released another album in 2009, and it didn’t go anywhere. He opened a restaurant in Birmingham. He sang at the Republican National Convention in 2012, but the Soul Patrol vote wasn’t enough to win the election for Mitt Romney. As I write this, the Taylor Hicks website lists no upcoming shows. I bet Taylor Hicks is doing just fine for himself, but there is absolutely zero chance that we’ll ever see him in this column again.
We won’t see American Idol in the column again, either. The year after Taylor Hicks’ victory, Jordin Sparks, the charming teenage daughter of a former New York Giant, won the show. The show’s ratings slid downward during that 2007 season, and Sparks’ victory song “This Is My Now” peaked at #15. Unlike Taylor Hicks, though, Jordin Sparks actually was built for pop stardom, and she had a nice little run, notching a handful of top-10 hits. The biggest of those hits was the 2008 Chris Brown duet “No Air,” which peaked at #3. (It’s an 8.)
Like all things, American Idol eventually faded. After the Jordin Sparks season, the show started letting contestants play instruments while singing, which led to a succession of bland white boys with guitars winning. The original judges all left — first Paula Abdul, then Simon Cowell, and finally Randy Jackson, who hung around until 2013. The show introduced splashy new judges — Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj. Most of them lasted a season or two and then bounced.
Eventually, Idol found a new home at ABC, and it currently has a relatively solid judging panel: Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, Luke Bryan. (Richie has been in this column a bunch of times, and Perry will be in this column a bunch of times.) The show continues, but it’s just background noise now. It no longer captivates the American public. Other singing shows came out, and some were hits, but they didn’t launch anyone into the realm where we might discuss them in this column. We’ve moved on.
I liked American Idol. I had fun watching it, even into some of its wilderness years, and I got paid to blog about it. But I don’t miss it, and I won’t miss writing about these goofy-ass coronation songs.
BONUS BEATS: Taylor Hicks had the good fortune to win American Idol during a year when “Weird Al” Yankovic released an album, which means that “Do I Make You Proud” has a bit more of a cultural footprint than most other Idol coronation songs. Here’s Yankovic’s animated video for his parody “Do I Creep You Out”:
(Say it with me now: “Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. This is what we dream about, but the only question with me now is will you buy the book?