William Hung was a civil engineering student at Berkeley when he achieved viral fame in 2004 with a painfully off-key version of “She Bangs” by Ricky Martin. Despite having no professional training, Hung developed a cult following, landed a record deal and released three albums before retiring from music and becoming a statistical analyst at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
"Pants on the Ground"
In 2010, an Atlanta man who called himself General Larry Platt performed a song he wrote called “Pants on the Ground” about men who “look like a fool” in sagging trousers. He didn’t make the competition, but he did become a meme, inspiring numerous parodies, including spoofs by Jimmy Fallon—who sung it as Neil Young—and Brett Favre, who, as quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, led a rendition in the team’s locker room.
"Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)"
Judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul had to cover their faces to hide their laughter at James Lewis’s rendition of “Go Down Moses” in 2008.
In his 2007 audition, Martin Manoukian whipped off his shirt and crawled on the floor, meowing and snarling, because he was convinced he was a panther—a build-up to his audition song “Sweetest Princess” that judge Simon Cowell called “horrific.”
"Tearin' Up My Heart"
After 23-year-old Kenneth Briggs from Bothell, Wash., performed the NYSNC hit, Cowell said he looked “a little odd… like one of those creatures who live in the jungle with those massive eyes. What are they called? Bush baby.” The jab raised questions about whether the judge’s critiques had hit a new low, but Briggs—along with Jonathan Jayne, another aspiring contestant who got dinged—ended up going to Super Bowl festivities in 2007 with Jimmy Kimmel Live!
"I Feel the Earth Move"
Cowell called Mary Roach, who sang the classic Carole King hit, one of the worst singers he had ever heard. Roach then told the judges she hears “a ton” of “different voices,” including one that said, “I didn’t know the judges on American Idol would actually think I was terrible.” At the 5-minute mark of this clip, she has a profanity-laced breakdown, insisting the judges were wrong.