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How Danny Gokey Became the Year's Most Polarizing "American Idol" (After Adam Lambert)

June 2, 2009 5:28 PM ET

American Idol's third-place finisher Danny Gokey may not have inspired as much online hang-wringing as runner-up Adam Lambert, but the church music director from Wisconsin discovered what it was like to become the victim of his own backlash after he was booted from the show. Season Eight's early favorite stopped by the Rolling Stone offices last week to chat about his ousting, his now-infamous "Dream On" scream, his thoughts on Lambert and his tips for future Idol contestants — which will come in handy as this afternoon Idol announced audition dates for Season Nine.

Your first auditions made you an early favorite for winning the whole competition. How did being a front-runner so early on affect you? I think it harmed me. The front-runner never wins on the show — that's just what happens because there's so much expectation. When there's a lot of expectation on someone, people can get disappointed. In the beginning I paid attention to the blogs because I wanted to hear what people were saying, but after a while there was too much analyzing. People are fickle, so I had to let that go so I could remain true and consistent to myself.

Were you convinced at any point during the competition that you were going to get kicked off?
I survived the scream, but I don't think it helped my run in that race. [The night I got kicked off], Dialidol.com said it was my time to go.

One theory on Kris Allen's win is that your votes went to him once you were voted off. What are your thoughts on that, and did you expect him to win?
Kris and I draw the same crowd because of the ways we perform and the way we sing and what kind of music we do. I don't have the answer but I will say my votes didn't hurt him. I think if Kris had left his votes would have gone for me, but I left so I believe a majority of my votes went to him. But I don't want to take away from Kris' artistic ability and his singing. I didn't expect to Kris to win. But I didn't expect me to win; I didn't expect anyone to win. Kris was really a dark horse in the competition and he shocked people with what he did and for good reason.

What's your relationship like with Adam Lambert?
Adam is a great person. I think people want to cast him off to the side because of what he represented but he has a lot to give to the music industry in this day in age. He's a personable entertainer and I hope people see that in him.

Your scream during "Dream On" in Rock Week quickly became infamous. How aware were you of the reaction?
I didn't realize what happened because I couldn't hear my scream at the end. I thought I did pretty good until the judges [reacted]. I went home and got on the Internet because I wanted to see what people were saying, and I laughed the entire night. I kept getting these images in my head of people covering their ears. It was hilarious. People may have questioned my musical abilities, but I'm never going to do rock, so we won't have to cross this road again.

So, what can we expect from your album?
I'm going to make good music. I want to do a soul and R&B fusion with a sprinkle of Latin flavor on some of it. I'll always have my gospel roots, so I think I'm going to put one gospel song on each CD.

What advice would you give to future American Idol wannabes?
Watch the show. It's not just singing, it's arrangements, it's your image, it's a lot of things, so get that worked out before you go onto the show. I would have spent more time familiarizing myself with more categories of music and arranging the music on the show. I wouldn't have stressed out so much trying to pick a song; I would have just let things flow and just pick a song and just let it come.

There has been some controversy about the audition process and the involvement of your wife's death in your the back story. What do you have to say to people who may have gotten the wrong impression of you?
There were some wrong impressions made for me. My wife was a big fan of the show, and I couldn't watch it because I drove a semi truck during the day and I worked at the church at night. Eventually I started watching on DVR and got hooked. By February 2008 I had decided to audition because it was the last year I could do it. My wife was excited but we didn't know the road we'd take to get here. A lot of people said, 'Well he knew what he was getting into.' I read some rough things, but we had no idea — she had a 90% survival rate for the surgery she was having for her congenital heart disease.

I was faced with a choice four weeks before the audition, and I decided to bury the misery. Music brought me hope, so I want to bring hope to other people through the foundation I started in my wife's memory, Sophia's Heart. The agenda is to mix my music with the foundation.

So many people go though their lives being defined by certain things, like maybe they were abused or they were a drug addict or they were poor and they let those things define them as opposed to having those moments become a defining moment that they use as a stepping stone. And I believe that's what I did with this. I took a lot of criticism but at the same time I'm so happy I did it. Believe me I wanted to take that year off, but it was the last year I could audition. I came on the show saying, 'I want to show the world who my wife was,' and now through the foundation I want to show what she did.

Related Stories:

American Idol's Adam Lambert on Sexing Up Johnny Cash and Getting on His Soapbox
Kris Allen Still Thinks Adam Lambert Deserved American Idol Crown
American Idol 2009 Finale in Photos: Kris Allen and Adam Lambert's Final Face-Off

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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