The seventh season of "American Idol" debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Fox,
"American Idol" returns this week -- normally a cause for celebration, but there are some voices singing a not-so-pretty tune as the show moves into its seventh season.
The criticism is that the highly-rated reality show is hitting more sour than sweet notes as it ages. Those who would forget that a record 74 million votes were cast in crowing Jordin Sparks during the Season 6 finale in May point to a variety of proofs that "Idol" is waning: softer than usual attendance for last year's American Idols Live! tour; disappointing debuts for albums by Sparks and runner-up Blake Lewis; inaugural "Idol" Kelly Clarkson's tour cancellation and label battles in 2006; the lack of heat for the spin-off, "America's Next Great Band;" and three Idols -- Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee -- losing their deals during the past 10 days.
All of that has created a general perception that "Idol" has grown more flat than phenomenal.
The proof will come Tuesday night, when Season 7 kicks off with the always-popular auditions episode, and play out until the May finale. With the regulars in place -- host Ryan Seacrest and judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell -- this year's big changes will be fewer celebrity "mentor" appearances and, possibly, a chance for contestants to play instruments rather than merely sing.
So as we prep ourselves and our dialing fingers for the coming weeks, we though it would be a good time to review the fate of notable Idols past and see who really has been able to parlay their 60 or so minutes a week into a real career and who would get the ultimate, Simon-style thumbs down...
A starworthy career that's all likelihood of continuing in that direction.
Kelly Clarkson: Don't count her out after the faux pas before her latest album, "My December." The inaugural Idol learned a lot of lessons in 2007 -- the most important of them being not to bite the hand that puts out her albums. But that independent-spirited moxie bodes well for a comeback and future success.
Jennifer Hudson: She was knocked out halfway through the season -- and then went on to show America it had tin ears by winning Academy and Golden Globe awards in "Dreamgirls." Hudson has more film world lined up, though we're still waiting for that long-promised debut album.
Carrie Underwood: The idol of "Idol" and easily the most successful career -- not surprisingly in the country market -- launched by the show. Two hit albums, crossover hits, all sorts of awards...This "All-American Girl" is anything but "So Small."
Chris Daughtry: The shaved-headed rock singer isn't complaining about being bumped off the island in Season 4. Returning to his band, Daughtry, he released the fast-selling rock debut album of the past 16 years, moving more than three million copies so far. Opening for Nickelback and Bon Jovi provided extra mainstream rock cred.
A solid, credible career that will remain at least in the outer edges of the spotlight.
Fantasia Barrino: Though her 2006's sophomore-slumping "Fantasia" sold only about a quarter of its predecessor, a quick move to "The Color Purple" on Broadway may have been a career-saver for the Season 3 winner.
Constantine Maroulis: The guy with the cajones to sing Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the show became another Idol to hit the Broadway stage, netting a spot in "The Wedding Singer" and moving on to the TV soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful." But his own album, "Constantine," made only minimal impact.
Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington: They're not quite at Carrie Underwood level, but these two Season 5 also-rans showed that Nashville really does love its Idols. Pickler's "Small Town Girl" even topped the Billboard country albums chart.
Elliot Yamin: Season 5's third-place finisher charted his own course after the show, becoming the second Idol to place on the TV soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" and recording a self-titled debut album that ranked No. 3 for the year (2007) on Bilboard's Top Independent Albums chart.
A quick, early hit and an equally swift tail-off, leading to a future as...a reality show celebrity judge?
Clay Aiken: The measure of this man is unfinished; while he proved far more popular than his Second 2 colleague Ruben Studdard, runner-up Aiken has cooled dramatically from his initial heat, too. Perennial Christmas tours and TV appearances will keep him visible, if not vital.
Diana DeGarmo: The Season 3 runner-up's album, 2004's "Blue Skies," may have tanked, but "Idol" also gave her the profile to move to the theater -- on Broadway in "Hairspray" and the national tour of "Brooklyn: The Musical." Those blue skies may be more ahead than behind.
Jordin Sparks: The jury is still out on the Season 6 champ, but the fact that both the first-week sales (119,000 copies) and chart position (No. 10) were the lowest-ever for any "Idol" winner does not bode well.
Nada. Ixnay. Thumbs down. Hit the road, Jack. Na na, hey hey, goodbye...
Justin Guarini: At this juncture, you're entitled to ask, "Justin who...?"
Ruben Studdard: Despite a platinum start and a Grammy Award nomination in 2004, the Velvet Teddy Bear lost his shine quickly. Declining sales for the Season 2 winner's next two albums led to the end of his recording contract. He's now on the touring theater route, playing Fats Waller in "Ain't Misbehavin'."
Bo Bice: After his flirtation in the big spotlight, extended by writing the title track for Ben Stiller's film "Blaze of Glory," Season 4's runner-up is back to putting out Southern rock records on his own label. Don't worry if you didn't "See the Light" on his latest one, either.
Taylor Hicks: The Soul Patrol has been shut down. The third "Idol" champ or runner-up from Alabama became the first to release a sub-platinum album after the show, and the Season 5 winner was recently dropped by his label.
Katharine McPhee: She finished second in Season 5 to a guy with gray hair, her album didn't even go gold and she subsequently lost her deal. This "Idol's" career never got started.
Blake Lewis: He talks a good game, but Season 6 runner-up Blake's been barely a blip since his debut album, "A.D.D. (Audio Day Dream)" bowed at No. 10 in December while its single, "Break Another," is only a rumor on Billboard's Hot 100.
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