Surprised? The top-rated performance by Clay Aiken isn't Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me, isn't Bridge Over Troubled Water, and isn't even Solitaire (though that certainly came close.) In fact, Aiken's rendition of The Foundations' 1969 uptempo classic is among the best-liked American Idol performances ever.
Made over in a charcoal-gray suit and silver shirt and sporting an uncharacteristically stylish haircut, Aiken started on the back ledge and uncharacteristically began singing long before he reached the center of the stage. He was uncharacteristically animated, playing to the crowd and delivering some uncharacteristically spunky head bops and finger snaps. Most surprisingly perhaps, he uncharacteristically varied his tempo and phrasing frequently rather than aim for the center of each note, and he finished his number by punching the air, um, uncharacteristically. Now kiddies, in one 20-letter word, can you guess why this performance was the one the Idolsphere as a whole rated as his best?
Aiken, who knew he'd hit a home run, broke into a huge grin when he was finished. The judges were no less delighted. Randy, who noted that he'd been after Aiken to break out of his balladeer's box, decreed "Dude, you did a great job." Guest judge Neil Sedaka went one better: he offered to write and produce Aiken's first album on the spot.
Aiken's fans thought they'd died and went to heaven, but that's nothing new; the Claymates were having near-death experiences on a weekly basis by this point in the season. What was different is that Clay's detractors and neutrals were most impressed as well. Though Aiken's fans today generally rate "Solitaire", which followed half an hour later, as superior, the full body of Web reviewers at the time told a different story. By a bit under 55%-to-45%, "Buttercup" was built up as the better of the two. Its monster 94 approval rating was the highest of Season Two.
As Idol showstoppers go, this performance was quite unusual. It occurred in the middle of the show and was accompanied by no dramatic lighting, no super-cool backdrop, and no fancy camerawork. Aiken simply walked out and sang the song. Other than hitting the first note squarely on key (which had sometimes been a problem for him, e.g. Tell Her About It), his vocals were no stronger than usual. But because he looked a little bit more mature, and especially because he acted more like a veteran concert entertainer rather than a nervous kid in a karaoke contest, he won over his skeptics while retaining his rabid fanbase.
Incidentally, we were as surprised as anyone when "Buttercup" rated out to a 94, and we double-checked and triple-checked the numbers before publishing it a bit sheepishly. But having watched Aiken's relevant video clips again as we write summaries for the top performances in our database, we've stopped baa-ing. The Idolsphere got this one right. By reinventing himself so dramatically in the middle of the competition, and by proving that he could interpret and present a song rather than merely sing it, Aiken fully deserved the high honor that the Web reviewers gave him.