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In its early years, Idol stridently looked back, with only the occasional sop to present-day music and a laser focus on vocals above all.

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Maddie Walker (Season 14, Placed 10th–11th)A peppy version of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” couldn’t save this Iowan from one of the most unceremonious double-elimination ceremonies undertaken on the Idol stage. Paige Miles (Season 9, Placed 11th)Cowell claimed that this Floridian had the most potential at the outset of season nine, but she was struck by terrible choices during her brief run on the big stage.

Her swan song, a walking-nightmare take on Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” that was somehow simultaneously yawn-inducing and overdone, was so disappointing that Cowell told her to not even bother trying for the judges’ save. Leah La Belle (Season 3, Placed 12th)Getting the finalist nod from Paula Abdul despite a shaky performance of “Let’s Stay Together” caused the then-nascent Idol internet to turn on this 17-year-old from Seattle, and she was told point-blank by Cowell, “Pack your suitcase; you’re going home,” after a rough performance of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” 156.

If they stick it out, and keep their energy up through some semifinal rounds, contestants can reach the finals, where they’re guaranteed airtime, glammed-up makeovers, more pointed critiques, and the promise of mugging for a major sponsor or two.

Only 168 people in the world can currently claim to be American Idol finalists; at the end of February, that number will rise to 178.

This week, American Idol began the actual business of finding its 15th winner.

The departing reality competition kicked off its final Hollywood Week, the post-audition boot camp where contestants are deprived of sleep and forced to work with each other and generally subjected to other horrible conditions.

As time went on, leading ladies with voices that could cut through Top 40 radio’s clutter gave way to easygoing strummers operating in the vein of Jason Mraz and Gavin De Graw. Danny Gokey (Season 8, Placed 3rd)Season eight was perhaps Idol’s pinnacle; it also had a contestant who might have been the closest villain analogue Idol has ever had to offer: Danny Gokey, an early-odds favorite whose wife had passed away shortly before he auditioned with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” He stuck around for a long time, vanquishing contestants with okay-enough performances that would sometimes tip over into horror (recall the Gokey Scream) and sometimes be just really boring (the anodyne “What Hurts the Most”) and too often be capped with that heart-hands gesture and never, ever result in his being in the show’s bottom three.

R&B became more of a way to spice up folk-pop than a genre with its own solid footing in pop, or at least in the Idol top two. The willingness to stand up for artistic choices, even if doing so results in some British acidity being flung back. “It’s a singing competition,” Simon Cowell would drone again and again when he found someone’s performance not quite up to par. His snide comments about “loving” his fellow contestants in a strictly “Godly way,” which came before season-eight runner-up Adam Lambert came out on the cover of Rolling Stone, played both to his fanbase and to those who were looking for reasons to vote him off.

(It was Songs From the Cinema week, you see.) Well, you can’t fault him for trying on the “personal branding” front. Shannon Magrane (Season 11, Placed 11th)A member of Idol’s “spawn of famous sports people” in-group, the daughter of 1988 National League ERA champ Joe Magrane went big, taking on Mariah Carey’s Boyz II Men collab “One Sweet Day,” and went home, thanks to her able but hardly Mariah-sized voice nearly being swallowed by the song’s grandeur. Karen Rodriguez (Season 10, Placed 12th)A finalist thanks to a collaboration with My Space (oh, 2012!

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