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‘American Idol’: 20 Best, Worst and WTF Moments

From Adam Lambert being robbed to William Hung doing his thing, it’s been a wild ride for the past 15 seasons

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

Prince, William Hung, Mariah and Nicki Minaj all make our 'American Idol' best and worst list

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Whether you were an avid fan with an itchy voting finger, a casual viewer or just someone who got stuck listening to post-show chatter around the water cooler, American Idol has been a huge piece of our pop-culture puzzle for the past 15 years. 

From Kelly Clarkson being crowned the inaugural winner way back in the summer of 2002 to Adam Lambert being robbed in Season 8 to this year’s farewell season reminding us just how much the onetime ratings juggernaut has fallen, the reality singing competition helped shape the modern landscape in which we now live. Soon — April 7th, to be exact — it will all just be a distant memory. But while Idol will be gone, it will not be easily forgotten (even though some of you might try). Here, the 20 best, worst and WTF moments of the past 15 seasons of American Idol.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: William Hung’s “She Bangs” Audition, Season 3

"You can't sing, you can't dance, so what do you want me to say?" Harsh words from then-judge Simon Cowell weren't enough to stop triple-non-threat American Idol wannabe William Hung from becoming a pop culture legend and making Idol auditions must-see TV. A UC Berkeley civil engineering student at the time, off-key Hung and his sweet-but-clueless Season 3 proclamation of having "no professional training" won hearts across America in 2004 — but, alas, not a Golden Ticket.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Best: Simon Cowell Gets Soaked, Season 3

Love him or loathe him, Simon Cowell helped put American Idol on the map with his scathing critiques of contestants, especially during the regional auditions. In Season 3, though, one Idol reject took the acid-tongued judge to task. Cowell couldn't stop laughing as 18-year-old Jonathan Rey bizarrely butchered Shakira's "The One," saying, "I think we're going to have to cancel this competition — that was terrible." The guy then calmly walked up to the judges' table as if to shake hands, but instead he picked up a cup of water and threw it at Cowell. Security quickly swooped in, but by that time, Simon had been soaked.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: Chris Daughtry’s Shocking Elimination, Season 5

In 2006, few would have bet money on goofy, gray-haired "Soul Patrol" singer Taylor Hicks beating out confidently cool rocker Chris Daughtry in the quest for the season 5 American Idol crown. But that's exactly what happened. Daughtry's shocking fourth-place elimination left viewers crying foul, and even the singer himself was stunned by the news. Turns out, it was the best thing that ever happened to him, as he became one of the most successful Idol contestants ever while fronting namesake band Daughtry. Hicks, on the other hand, almost immediately slipped into "Memba Him?" territory.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: Jennifer Hudson’s Early Exit, Season 3

Seems American Idol was the biggest loser when Jennifer Hudson exited Season 3 in seventh place. When she resurfaced two years later with an Oscar-winning turn in 2006’s Dreamgirls, the reality singing competition was chagrin. Then, as if to add insult to injury two more years later, Hudson took home a Grammy for her self-titled debut album. In terms of name recognition, she is one of the most successful contestants to grace the Idol stage — too bad (for them) it wasn't for very long. Hey, their loss was our gain. And her stunning audition singing Aretha Franklin's "Share Your Love With Me" started it all off with a bang.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Best: Carrie Underwood’s “Alone”, Season 4

If you asked people to pinpoint the moment they knew Carrie Underwood would win Season 4 of American Idol, they'd point to this song. It was the night she threw caution to the wind and stepped out of her country comfort zone to sing Heart's 1980s pop rock hit "Alone" — and there were still nine more weeks to go! She waltzed onstage with big hair and an even bigger voice and blew everyone away, including the usually ornery Simon Cowell. "I will make a prediction," he said confidently, "not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other Idol winner." And he was right. She won, and she still stands as the top-selling Idol alum — winner or not — when it comes to album sales in the U.S., with almost 16 million sold.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Best: James Durbin Performs With Judas Priest, Season 10

Metalheads tuned in for James Durbin during season 10 of American Idol to see how far he could push the envelope for hard rock on the show. He first caught their attention during his top 24 performance, when he sang Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Comin'". Later in the season he was able to pull off renditions of Sammy Hagar's "Heavy Metal" and 30 Seconds to Mars' "Closer to the Edge." But nothing surprised people more than when Judas Priest itself showed up to perform "Breaking the Law" and "Living After Midnight" with fourth-place finisher Durbin on the finale. Horns up, people!

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: Sanjaya Malakar’s “Ponyhawk” Performance, Season 6

Despite poor critiques by the judges, Sanjaya Malakar climbed all the way to seventh place with the help of viewer votes (and a little site called Vote for the Worst) during Season 6 of American Idol. Often the butt of jokes, Malakar played into haters' hands when he sang No Doubt's "Bathwater" while wearing a faux mohawk that resembled a horse's mane, aka the "ponyhawk." After the performance, a frustrated Simon Cowell threw his hands up at the fact that Malakar stuck around while better contestants got the boot: "I don't think it matters what we say!" Never underestimate the power of lovesick teenage girls.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: Paula Abdul Pre-Judges Song, Season 7

Throughout her nine seasons on American Idol, Paula Abdul was the subject of many jokes and much speculation about whether she was intoxicated. And her double-vision critique of Jason Castro in Season 7 didn't help matters. A visibly flustered — and somewhat slurred — Abdul said she liked his first song, adding that his second left her "a little empty" as the crowd snickered and host Ryan Seacrest and the Top Five contestants looked bewildered. When Randy Jackson pointed out that the contestants had only sung one song so far, Simon Cowell rolled his eyes as Abdul exclaimed, "This is hard!" She later blamed the gaffe on seeing him perform the other tune during rehearsal and getting confused.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: Bikini Girl vs. Kara DioGuardi, Season 8

American Idol hopeful Katrina Darrell showed up to her Season 8 audition wearing nothing but a bikini — and packing an attitude. Dubbed "Bikini Girl," she and judge Kara DioGuardi got into a contentious sing-off when it came to Mariah Carey's "Vision of Love" — leading to the bathing-suit babe throwing some serious shade at the judges' table. Still, she earned a Golden Ticket, only to get cut during Hollywood Week. She resurfaced at the finale, where DioGuardi stooped to an embarrassing low (supposedly for "charity") by interrupting Darrell's performance to show off her vocal chops — and bod.

Best Worst; American Idol

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Best: Prince Makes a Surprise Appearance, Season 5

American Idol was riding sky-high during Season 5, raking in some of its biggest ratings ever. In fact, the 2006 finale drew almost 40 million viewers. Also experiencing immense success that year? Prince, whose album 3121 was his first to ever debut at Number One on The Billboard 200. So, perhaps it's no wonder the two decided to team up. His Royal Highness reportedly breezed in mere minutes before walking onstage to perform two songs off the album — "Lolita" and "Satisfied" — and then breezed right out. And that, folks, is how an old pro (especially one named Prince) does it.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Best: Adam Lambert’s “Mad World,” Season 8

Often considered the gold standard when it comes to American Idol performances (and perhaps even the pinnacle of the entire series), Adam Lambert's rendition of Tears for Fears' "Mad World" was so good that he was widely considered the presumptive winner for the next six weeks — until, of course, the slow-but-steady hand of Kris Allen (along with some help of controversial "power texts") yanked the Season 8 crown off his head at the last minute. Fun fact: Lambert's version of "Mad World" was actually a cover of a cover by a singer/songwriter named Gary Jules that was featured in the 2001 cult film, Donnie Darko.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Best: Katy Perry Stumps for Adam Lambert, Season 8

Speaking of Adam Lambert… Katy Perry went to bat for the contestant before the big Season 8 American Idol finale by wearing a cape with his name on it during her performance of "Waking Up in Vegas." While the show attempted to censor the image out of any videos that surfaced, Perry had already made her point. Despite the high-profile endorsement, though, Lambert lost to Kris Allen in what some thought was a backlash against his perceived sexuality. But the runner-up got the last laugh by landing the cover of Rolling Stone just two weeks later to announce he was indeed gay — and six years after that, he was named the top-earning Idol alum of 2015 by Forbes. So, take that, haters.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: “Pants on the Ground” Audition, Season 9

By Season 9, American Idol didn't even try to hide the fact that producers were feeding the judges so-bad-it's-buzzworthy auditions on purpose. Despite being 62, a full 34 years older than the show's age limit, General Larry Platt was allowed to perform his self-penned song "Pants on the Ground" that griped about low-sagging jeans. While the other judges cracked up, Simon Cowell was having none of it: "I have a horrible feeling that could be a hit," he said before walking away. While Platt didn't go to Hollywood, Idol clearly had a winner on its hands when the video went viral.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: Ace Young Proposes to Diana DeGarmo, Season 11

Sorry all you hopeless romantics, but this American Idol marriage proposal was anything but romantic. Instead, when Season 5 finalist Ace Young asked Season 3 runner-up Diana DeGarmo to marry him (during Season 11, no less), it seemed a little too staged. "With the help of David Webb Jewelry, I have a way of making this last forever," said Young, before getting down on one knee. DeGarmo, of course, said yes — making sure to dramatically mouth the word so that everyone could see her response. Still, the two seemed genuinely happy, and they married a year later.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Best: Constantine Maroulis’ “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Season 4

Season 4 was a breakthrough year for rockers on American Idol. After mainly featuring pop, R&B and country singers during the previous three seasons, Idol finally gave rock fans someone to root for, two people, in fact: theatrical bad boy Constantine Maroulis and laid-back Southern rocker Bo Bice. Despite then-judge Paula Abdul declaring Maroulis the "one to beat" after his rendition of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," he came in sixth, while Bice slid into second behind winner Carrie Underwood. It wasn't until Season 7 that a rocker walked away the champ, when David Cook took the crown.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Best: David Cook’s Cover of “Billie Jean,” Season 7

Rocker David Cook went from dark horse to leader of the pack in Season 7 of American Idol with Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" (by way of using an arrangement previously done by Chris Cornell). The slow, haunting cover took the show to a whole new level, a level where re-arranging a track could lead to a mind-blowing experience. And with the help of that one amazing song, Cook became the first White Guy With Guitar to win Idol — but he definitely wasn't the last.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: The Mariah Carey-Nicki Minaj Feud, Season 12

After original judges Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell left in Seasons 9 and 10, respectively, American Idol had a hard time filling their shoes. It went for music industry cred with songwriter Kara DioGuardi, then high-profile fish out of water Ellen DeGeneres, to beloved but befuddled rocker Steven Tyler before hitting rock bottom in Season 12 with dueling divas Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, who seemingly hated each other. There was teeth-sucking, eye-rolling, harsh words, cold shoulders and even an implied threat or two. While some questioned whether it was real, Carey has since said the experience was like "going to work every day in hell with Satan."

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Best: Phillip Phillips’ “Home,” Season 11

It was a game-changing moment for American Idol: After being crowned the Season 11 champ, Phillip Phillips took the stage one last time to perform his coronation song, "Home." After a bumpy few years in terms of generating memorable singles for its winners, Idol finally had a megahit on its hands. With its catchy Mumford & Sons vibe, "Home" stands as the best-selling coronation song — or any song, for that matter, by an Idol alum — with more than 5 million copies sold. As the fifth and final WGWG (White Guy With Guitar) to wear the crown, Phillips may not have been the most exciting winner ever, but he provided a brief shot-in-the-arm for the slumping singing competition.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Worst: Judges Check Out Early, Season 15

When Harry Connick Jr. first joined the American Idol judges' table in Season 13, he was a breath of fresh air. There were high hopes that he would be as amusingly direct as Simon Cowell, but he never quite lived up to his potential. That's not to say that he and fellow judges Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban aren't likable — they are. But as Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken tweeted while watching the show's last season, they’re just kinda "boring." And by the time this year's live shows rolled around, it seemed like even the judges — especially Harry — had checked out. Deep into the Top 10, he admitted that he had only interacted with the contestants offstage once, and after the Top Three performed ahead of the big series finale, he encouraged viewers to vote for "one of these four people." Seems like even he wasn't quite paying attention to Season 15.

Best; Worst; Moment; Rolling Stone; Mariah Carey; Nicki Minaj; Prince; William Hung

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Best: Kelly Clarkson Is Crowned the First American Idol, Season 1

It's hard to believe that Season 1 of American Idol got things so right with its coronation of Kelly Clarkson. While other winners have faded into the background over the course of a decade and a half, Clarkson has remained a household name (only Carrie Underwood has been able to give her a real run for her money). Not only was Clarkson the perfect pick, but so was her coronation song, "A Moment Like This," which is one of the most memorable original songs to ever come out of Idol. Some people wait a lifetime, indeed.