Talent Recap

Can a Contestant’s Song Choice Ruin their Chances on a Talent Show?

Michael Becker Fox/ Trae Patton NBC/ Eric McCandless ABC

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A contestant’s song choice can make or break their audition experience, because, let’s be honest, everyone has a different forte when it comes to belting out a tune. Buzzy, fan-favorite tracks tend to do well on competition shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent. There’s one genre in particular that seems to perform better than the rest.

Carrie Underwood wowed throughout American Idol season 4 until she was crowned the winner in May 2005. She beat out Bo Bice for the title, and became a long line of country music artists to dominate the Idol stage. As it turns out, country singers have always historically done better in competition talent shows. Why is this?

Country music represents a large portion of the listening demographic in America, but that’s not the only reason. When American Idol casts country music stars (such as Luke Bryan) as their judge, it entices fans to tune in to witness him in action. Similarly, Keith Urban was hired as an American Idol judge in 2012. Country music fans were once again reeled into watching the competition show. 

Age is also taken into consideration here. For example, the age demo keeping up with these types of shows are generally over the age of 35. These women are much more likely to listen to country music than, say, a 16-year-old TikTok-obsessed teenager.


How Important is the Song Choice on Talent Shows?

Why, exactly, is song choice so crucial on competition shows? To state the obvious most singers get one clean shot to impress the judges. Just because a song is good doesn’t mean you sound good singing it. Even the most talented singers do better with songs that were written within their vocal range.

A performer with a strong alto voice probably shouldn’t hit the stage with a Mariah Carey tune. Judges can also be easily swayed if a contestant happens to pick a song they love. So luck definitely comes into play at times. On the other hand, a botched song can cause a contestant’s run to come to a halt faster than you can say “NEXT.”

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and that’s exactly why so many contestants choose to perform songs from the judges. There’s been multiple occasions where contestants brought Kelly Clarkson to tears while performing one of her original songs on The Voice.

In April 2021, Clarkson revealed how she felt about Corey Ward’s rendition of her song “Already Gone.”

“I love it because generally they change it up a bit but it is a little bit of added pressure,” she said after the performance. “I literally was like, well, he just killed my song in front of me. I was like, I feel like that’s maybe how that was supposed to sound.”


When Song Choice Ruins a Contestant’s Chances

At the same time, these performances can also backfire. In season 19, a front-runner was sent packing after botching one of Clarkson’s songs. Confidence, though, it’s what’s most important of all. A well-rehearsed track sang in perfect key is a sure-fire way to snagging a ticket to Hollywood. Having fun on-stage after picking the perfect song is key to doing well on these types of shows according to American Idol producers

Oh, and to do well on shows like The Voice and American Idol, you do have to play the game to some extent. A number of success stories originating from these shows have gone on to explain why they put somewhat of a facade on during their reality show run. Specifically, Clarkson has said the show’s expectations of her pop sound left a bad taste in her mouth and left her feeling boxed in.

“The first three years of my career was me just paying for winning a talent show,” she told USA Today in an interview. “I got real bitter. I was just looking for anyone to talk to who knew what I was going through. And that’s why I like to do that for artists on The Voice. It’s actually healed that bitterness I used to carry, being able to be that for somebody else.”

Jordin Sparks, Kelly Clarkson Among Contestants Who Change Their Tune After ‘Idol’

Jordan Sparks shared a similar sentiment in July 2021 during a video chat with Clarkson. As she told her fellow Idol album, she was only able to find her unique sound after launching a career post-Idol.

“I’m very eclectic in my taste in music,” Jordin explained. But she always felt compelled to pick one genre of music.  “But I feel like now with the freedom that I have I can do whatever I want,” she said.

Clarkson couldn’t have agreed more with that sentiment. “I think because of how we got in the industry, coming from American Idol. It’s a talent show. We got to sing different songs every week that were possibly from completely different genres.”


What Happens After the Show?

It’s not unusual to see singers completely switch up their sound after leaving the talent show stage. Just look at Cassadee Pope, the rock n’ roll front-woman of the band Hey Monday. She then completely switched up her sound after winning The Voice. These days, she’s penning country hits.

In the premiere season of American Idol, Clarkson who won the first season with her powerhouse vocals, launched a pop music career with longevity. But even she couldn’t help but dabble in the country music realm (hey, she’s a Texas girl at heart) and she went on to cover dozens of country hits through the years. 

Talent competition shows have become oversaturated, and with so many new ones popping up, it’s become increasingly hard to stand out as a performer. Talent is necessary but it’s a contestant’s song choice that really speaks volume about who they are as a performer. 

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