On “American Idol” Season 12’s top five night, contestant Amber Holcomb performed “Without You,” a power ballad that judge Mariah Carey once famously covered–and scored a massive hit with–in 1994. At the end of her critique, Mariah declared, “Thank you, Harry Nilsson, for writing a great song!”
There was only one problem: Harry Nilsson didn’t write “Without You.”
Now, I completely excuse any regular layperson out there who assumed that Nilsson’s iconic 1971 version of “Without You” was the original recording, and was unaware that Pete Ham and Tom Evans of the British powerpop band Badfinger originally wrote and released it in 1970. That’s some real pub-quiz trivia, there, after all. But Mariah released this song herself, almost two decades ago. You would’ve thought that at some point during the past 19 years, the subject of one of her biggest single’s origins would have come up.
Hours later, after various tweeters informed Mariah of her on-air gaffe, she posted on her own Twitter page: “Must thank Pete Ham & Tom Evans for writing ‘Without You’ & Harry Nilsson for performing it and inspiring my mom to sing it to me as a kid!” This was well-intentioned damage control, of course, although it was unclear if Mariah was aware that Ham and Evans both committed suicide in the ’70s and would therefore never see her clarifying tweet.
I’d venture to say that Mariah’s misattribution of “Without You” is the biggest judge gaffe in “Idol” history, at least in terms of a judge revealing his or her lack of encyclopedic musical knowledge. (The biggest gaffe overall, I suppose, was that time in Season 7 when a seemingly psychic Paula Abdul critiqued a song that Jason Castro had not yet performed.) But this was far from the first time that an “Idol” judge had shown such ignorance. This season alone, Mariah confessed that she didn’t know the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” or Garth Brooks’s “The Dance,” and Randy Jackson wrongly said Heart had written “What About Love,” when it’s fairly common knowledge–in the music business, at least–that Heart’s ’80s comeback hits were penned by songsmiths-for-hire (in “What About Love’s” case, the writers were Brian Allen, Sheron Alton, and Jim Vallance).
And there have been worse errors, or confessions of ignorance, in seasons past. Now, once again, I must stress, it’s not all that shocking that this sort of stuff wouldn’t be well-known among civilians…but for people paid seven- or eight-figure salaries to be music “experts” on a musical television program, these mistakes are less defensible.
So, if Mariah’s “Without You” error is THE biggest factual facepalm in “Idol” history, what other gaffes made the list? Here’s a list I like to call the “Idol” judges’ Facepalm Five…
1. Randy Jackson thinks “Let’s Get it On” is an Al Green song
When Randy was critiquing Elise Testone’s performance of the babymaking Marvin Gaye classic in Season 11, he attributed the song to another legendary soulman, Al Green. Neither of his fellow judges corrected him, but a helpful audience member did shout out “MARVIN GAYE!” Randy was visibly flummoxed. Ha. Ya gotta love live television. (Side note/dishonorable mention: That very same night, Randy’s fellow judge Jennifer Lopez referred to a previous Elise performance, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” as “Somebody to Love,” which is actually a Queen song…or even a Jefferson Airplane song.)
2. Kara DioGuardi gets her Aerosmith chronology confused
On Season 8’s Rock Night, Danny Gokey attempted to cover Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” The effect was less than dreamy. Kara, trying to tell Danny that he should have gone with a different choice, suggested that an “early Aerosmith” song like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” would have been better. Um, “Dream On” was a single off Aerosmith’s debut album, which came out in 1973. “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was released in 1998. Apparently math, or reading calendars, or understanding the general concept of time, were never Kara’s strong suits as a judge.
3. Steven Tyler has never heard “Bleeding Love”
Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love” was the internationally best-selling single of 2008 (it sold 9 million copies). It went to number one in 24 countries, including the United States. Billboard even named it the 17th most successful song in the U.S. from 2000-2009. But until Hollie Cavanagh performed the song on “Idol” in Season 11, Steven had never heard it–and he wasn’t embarrassed to admit this on live TV.
4. Kara DioGuardi reveals she used to party at a discotheque called “Studio 57”
When praising Adam Lambert’s flashy performance of “Play That Funky Music,” Kara declared, “It was like Studio 57 up in here!” Kara may have been too young to get invited to Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli’s fabulous Studio 54 dance parties back in the day, but there was no excuse for this numerical error. I guess Kara is even worse at math than we thought. Even disco math!
5. Jennifer Lopez doesn’t know who Ryan Adams is
Yes, Season 10 contestant Paul McDonald admittedly took a risk by performing “Come Pick Me Up,” a track off alt-country troubadour and former Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams’s 2000 debut solo LP for Bloodshot Records. So it’s forgivable that J.Lo didn’t know that particular song. But considering that Ryan is married to well-known pop star/actress Mandy Moore and wrote “When the Stars Go Blue” (a huge song covered by Tim McGraw, the Corrs, and even Bono), it was surprising that J.Lo hadn’t heard of Ryan Adams at all. I wonder if she even knows who Bryan Adams is?