'American Idol': Season 2

With its second outing, “American Idol” plumped up — more audition episodes, a longer semifinal process, a top 12 instead of a top 10 — and hit the airwaves in January 2003, a mere four months after season one ended. Brian Dunkelman was out, leaving Seacrest as sole host.

Speculation that the first season was a ratings fluke were quashed when “Idol” returned and increased its average viewership by 71%. The number of auditioners enlarged sevenfold, with over 71,000 trying out in seven cities.

The quick turnaround in readying a second season, however, had its drawbacks, namely in a handful of public casting controversies. Big-voiced early fan favorite “Frenchie” Davis had taken topless photos for an Internet site and was disqualified before she could perform in the semifinals. Top 12 finalist Trenyce was discovered to have an arrest record, but was kept on the show. Fellow finalist Corey Clark, however, didn’t tell producers about a warrant out for his arrest, and disqualified him during the show’s live run.

“One of the things the show didn’t have time to do the way they do now is run a background check,” says Richard Rushfield, author of “American Idol: The Untold Story.” “It was still new, and now this goliath, so it all happened before the eyes of the public.”

On the flip side, the show took on a patriotic tinge due to the Iraq war starting the same night as an “Idol” results show, and one of its 12 finalists was an active duty Marine named Josh Gracin.

“There was tremendous sentimental value in the idea of him doing well,” recalls Salon television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. The ensemble of finalists sang Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” a handful of times that season.

Celebrity judges were added to the mix, too — a decision spurred by the producers’ initial desire to have four permanent judges. But the choice of rotating big-name participants — Neil Sedaka, Olivia Newton-John, Lionel Richie, to name a few — threatened to brand “Idol” as old-fashioned.

Besides, Simon Cowell’s emergence as a beloved acid-tongued truth-teller was being undercut by the more coddling comments of the guest judges. “It didn’t work out well,” says Rushfield, “because they found that celebrities will never say anything critical.”

The real talent showdown that season, however, was between two Southern contestants, beefy Alabaman soul crooner Ruben Studdard and North Carolinian Clay Aiken, a scrawny kid with a booming voice.

“One of my favorite things about ‘Idol’ are the unlikely alliances it creates,” says NPR music critic Ann Powers. “Here you had this femmy white dude, and this mountain of a man. Those are interesting narratives to follow.”

Studdard’s and Aiken’s developments over the course of the season would help burnish the “Idol” brand as a place where auds could watch regular people transformed into polished performers.

“That season showed its range,” says Rushfield. “Ruben was as far from a glossy pop star as he could be, and Clay had this complete makeover from computer nerd to well-dressed, quasi-believable pop singer.”

The finale, which crowned Studdard the winner by a narrow margin, was seen by 38.1 million people, “Idol”‘s highest single-episode rating to date. Single-handedly “Idol” lifted Fox to third place for the entire season, a first. Little more proof was needed that the network had a juggernaut on its hands.

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Clay Aiken, looking distinctively smoother than his geeky audition self, belts out a soaring rendition of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” during the semi-finals.
  2. Ruben Studdard sings a velvety, Vandrossian version of “Superstar” and gets a standing ovation from Randy Jackson, a hug from Paula Abdul, and a “You are a star” from Simon Cowell.
  3. A week after the Iraq War begins, the remaining “Idol” contestants sing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
  4. Cowell and Paula shot a tongue-in-cheek video for the finale in which the pair romantically kiss, only to have it be a dream of Cowell’s, who is seen waking up in bed next to Jackson.
  5. Though it was assumed Clay Aiken had the edge, a smiling, humbled Ruben Studdard was announced as the surprise winner of “American Idol.”

WINNER’S UPDATE
Since being named 2003’s “American Idol” winner, Ruben Studdard has released four albums, three for J Records and his most recent — “Love Is” in 2009 — for Sony label offshoot Hickory Records. Last year he and his “Idol” co-finalist Clay Aiken teamed up for a concert tour called “Timeless,” and a compilation CD called “Playlist: The Very Best of Ruben Studdard” was released. Studdard has kept a lower profile in 2011, although he recorded a duet with R&B singer Keke Wyatt for her upcoming album, and he’s scheduled to perform at the Beau Rivage resort and casino in Biloxi on May 27, and at the Capital Jazz Fest in Columbia, Md., in June.

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