When American Idol debuted in the summer of 2002, it was not a complete novelty. Star-making talent competitions have existed throughout TV history (remember Star Search?), and in fact Idol was itself spun off from Simon Cowell's short-lived Pop Idol in the UK. But Idol's colossal media footprint and massive voting base give its winners a huge and unprecedented head start in built-in popular endorsement before they've ever released a single song. Reliable vote totals are hard to come by, and viewers can vote multiple times, but compare estimates ranging from 20 million to 100 million votes for final episodes to the 100-120 million votes cast in recent presidential elections; the fact that the comparison can even be contemplated is proof of a popular phenomenon in an age when TV shows and the music business alike are feeling the splintering of the mass shared audiences of the second half of the 20th century.
But even after Idol established itself as a TV phenomenon, the question remained: would artists popularly elected by a television audience match the success of those chosen and cultivated by record company executives, radio programming directors, critics, clubs, concert promoters and other traditional gatekeepers? Would musical democracy provide a continuing pipeline of new talent, or would it just be a TV gimmick, its products treated as a sideshow by the music world?
The answer, seven years into the show's run, is that it can be done. The overall record has been mixed; Idol has produced plenty of flops, and often the winners have gone on to less success than the runners-up, but the show has turned out enough real stars to lend the process some credibility. More than anyone else, the burden of earning that credibility for the show from scratch was carried on the diminutive shoulders of Idol's own would-be George Washington, its first winner, Kelly Clarkson. A look at her success provides some important lessons about turning an initial wave of goodwill into a durable popular fan base.
The first step was controlling her own destiny. Clarkson's initial victory gave her the basic platform: a recording contract, a song that became her first hit, a long round of promotional appearances, and a contractual obligation to appear in a universally-panned "romantic comedy" with the runner-up, Justin Guarini (who is now mostly a pop culture footnote). But that just extended her allotted 15 minutes of fame, and at the time it was expected that she'd make a living a Celine Dion-style crooner, as Cowell predicted. But Clarkson had other ideas of her own. It was her second album, Breakaway, released in 2004, that launched her to real stardom, with hits of varying styles ranging from the country-ish ballad "Because of You" to the rock anthem "Since U Been Gone." And before she did Breakaway, Clarkson took a critical step: she sacked her managers and took more creative control of her album, pushing RCA Records to include six of her own compositions. She has gone on to butt heads again with the industry, from a nasty public feud with RCA president Clive Davis over the songs she included on her darker and commercially disappointing third album, My December (which sold anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 million copies, depending upon the source, but still far less than its predecessor), to firing her second set of managers. Besides songwriting, she also now scripts her own videos. As the dropoff in sales for My December proved, Clarkson's judgment hasn't always panned out (either that, or feuding with your record label is a bad way to get your album promoted; the album's most radio-friendly song, "How I Feel," was never released as a single). On her fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, she's returned to a 50/50 mix of her own compositions, rather than 100%. But the strife has preserved her independent identity as something more than the prepackaged product many expected to come off Idol's assembly line. Most 22-year-olds with one album under their belt wouldn't have taken the step that Clarkson did, but as she has since noted, the goodwill she'd generated with a mass audience gave her the confidence to demand that her own judgment be respected. They were her fans, not the record company's, and like any savvy elected official, she knew when to go over the heads of the gatekeepers and appeal directly to her constituents.
While Clarkson sparred with her managers and record label, she has picked her rebellions carefully; she's never spoken ill of the TV show that gave her all those fans in the first place, nor of Cowell, its caustic creator, who came to her defense in the feud with Davis. Maintaining good relations with Idol has other benefits besides staying on the audience's good side; the show's success has spawned spinoffs and imitators around the globe, and those programs are eager to add legitimacy to their efforts by inviting the original and best-known American winner to perform on their show. She has performed on Australian Idol, Canadian Idol and Swedish Idol; here she is lighting up the crowd on the Spanish version in 2009 with "My Life Would Suck Without You," the rousing pop anthem that became the first hit single off her current album:
The result, in a global music marketplace, is more visibility and more record sales wherever the Idol format can be found.
Second, of course, is talent. At the core of Clarkson's success is her remarkable voice: at turns powerful, soulful and versatile, Clarkson's voice seems custom-designed for Idol's sing-every-genre mandate, and as she's matured it's drawn comparisons to legends like Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin. Clarkson's remarkable vocal range and depth have allowed her to float seemlessly across genres, recording songs in rock, technopop, country and even punk styles (Clarkson is herself a voracious consumer of music of all kinds). You could picture her in a duet with almost any of the most distinctive voices in music, from Brian Johnson of AC/DC ("You Shook Me All Night Long" is a favorite of hers, and Clarkson laments that "The rock category is not rock anymore") to Harry Connick (on her last tour, she was still doing the Big Band number she performed on Idol) to Randy Travis (her 2007-08 touring partner was country legend Reba McEntire); Clarkson says the duet she'd most like to do is with Bono. In fact, besides McEntire and Guarini, she's sung with En Vogue, Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride and Brazilian R&B singer Alexandre Pires and performed with Jeff Beck. Unlike artists who rely on a lot of dubbing to get things right, name almost any Kelly Clarkson song and a few minutes on YouTube will turn up a live version better than the one recorded in the studio. This despite the fact that, at least when doing her upbeat numbers, Clarkson tends to sing while bouncing up and down, spinning like a top, or high-fiving the crowd, all without missing a note.
Third, the message. Lots of people can sing, and most of them haven't sold 20 million records. One of the tricks of popularity in any line of work is balancing mass appeal - the ability to bring enough different things to the table and sand down enough of the rough edges to appeal to a broad array of people - with the need to have a distinct identity that gives you a base of committed support. Clarkson writes only about half of her own stuff: more lyrics than music, and more of her slow ballads than her uptempo rock/pop anthems. But while her musical choices are as diverse and mass-appealing as the breadth of Idol's audience, the lyrics of Clarkson's hits have mostly mined a consistent thematic vein that's deepened her bond with the teen and twentysomething single women who form the backbone of her fanbase. The bulk of her songs tell variations on the same basic story: Boy meets Girl, Boy treats Girl like dirt, Girl tells Boy to go to hell. The most distinctive departure from this template is her most personal song, "Because of You," written when she was 16 before the Idol gold rush. The ballad bitterly and resentfully bares the emotional scars of being a child of divorce (Clarkson's father left abruptly, or at least abruptly as she recalls it, when she was 6, not only sundering the marriage but splintering custody of her siblings), unsurprisingly including difficulty trusting men.
Clarkson's Miss Lonelyhearts refrain, when set defiantly to the strains of pop/rock anthems, generally comes off as more empowering than piteous: she's the girl who won't give you what you haven't earned. She has noted wryly that "I Do Not Hook Up" - about the closest a pop star in this era can come to a song disparaging casual sex - would have given off something of a "mixed message" if it had been sung by its original writer, Katy Perry of "I Kissed A Girl" fame, rather than the more demure Clarkson, who unabashedly touts it in her stage show as an ode to "waiting for the right person." It's not all schoolgirl rainbows and unicorns, though; in one of her bleaker compositions, "Chivas," she manages to infuse some swagger into informing her ex that she'll get more out of her whiskey than out of him.
Clarkson plays in the same emotional space - and to the same single-gal demographic - as another oft-underestimated pop phenomenon of the age, Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" novels. Like Meyer, Clarkson has a basically wholesome image consistent with her religious, socially conservative, Middle America background; Clarkson's a Christian from a dry town in the middle of Texas, Meyer a Mormon from Arizona. Neither produces anything that's edgy or shocking for its own sake, and neither will be confused with a highbrow writer; they simply know how to play the emotional chords of their fans. As it turns out, the emotional needs of young women are - for all our modern world's erosion of traditional roles, mores and restraints - the same as they've always been, and a traditional upbringing turns out to be good preparation for reaching them in large numbers. Like Meyer's books, Clarkson's songs are earnest and sincere enough to summon the Great Pumpkin; hipness, cool, irony and distance from the audience are nowhere to be found. Fittingly, Clarkson is herself a self-described "Twilight nerd," to the point of having written a song based on the second book in the series unbidden. All the record company moguls in the world are no substitute for already being your own fans.
Fourth, the messenger. The songs are only a part of Clarkson's appeal. Idol doesn't just create music stars; it creates television stars. And Kelly Clarkson was born for the small screen. On Idol, Clarkson displayed a take-charge stage presence and natural talent for the camera even as an inexperienced unknown barely out of her teens; here she is working both the live audience and the home audience on Idol's Big Band night:
To illustrate the versatility of that stage presence, consider as well her raucous televised performance of "Since U Been Gone" at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards; Clarkson's voice was getting raw by this point of the marathon Breakaway tour, during which she was frequently ill from exhaustion and overwork, but she compensated with energy what she was missing in polish:
Clarkson's stage show sets her apart from many female pop singers of the day: no dancers or choreography, no outlandish costumes, no light shows, no lip synching, no layers of electronic sound, just Clarkson (typically barefoot and attired in jeans) and your basic garage-band backing (drummer, keyboard, some guitars, two backup singers, an occasional horn). It's more a rock stage setting than a pop one, and tends to lower the barriers between performer and audience: her act is less dancing than cheerleading, goading the crowd to clap, jump, wave their arms and sing along, and her onstage banter veers from the humorous to the confessional.
Beyond her stage charisma, Clarkson's offstage personality, originally introduced in clips to the Idol audience, has always been more populist than pop star, and remains refreshingly un-Hollywood. She's known for being tireless in appearances with her fans, sharing chats, hugs and photos until she's dragged away by her handlers. What comes across most of all, watching Clarkson do TV and radio appearances, is a perennially underestimated characteristic: joy. There's nothing more infectious or attractive than a genuinely happy person. Clarkson's joy, her lack of a need for pretense or posing, gives her a freedom in public appearances that's too often the exception rather than the rule among entertainers, a famously insecure lot devoted to living the illusions they conjure.
Not coincidentally, Clarkson in interviews is candid to a fault. She bluntly admits, for example, that the cover of her current album is photoshopped to the point of being only vaguely recognizable as her. Public figures often train themselves, sooner or later, how to control their image by keeping distance between themselves and their audience, letting out only what they want us to see. But ironically, it can be the people who are most comfortable being their unscripted warts-and-all selves who are more enduringly embraced by the public. Clarkson, who owes her success to appearing at a young age on a TV show that embraced the confessional ethos of reality TV, never draws the line on sharing, no matter how absurd, intrusive or personal the inquiry (does she pee in the shower? what'd she get on her SATs? did she neglect her hygiene in grade school? how many boys has she ever kissed? does she have a borderline-OCD fear of odd numbers? Clarkson will answer them all, and more). Combine that with a bubbly personality and a gift of gab, and Clarkson is an interviewer's dream - relentlessly upbeat, implausibly chatty, given to peals of laughter, likely to offer something new of herself in every interview and apt to give a revealing-to-the-point-of-embarrassing answer to almost any question (no interview with her is complete without her burying her face in her hands at least once over something she just said). Bill James once wrote that "[i]n principle, the media admire candor. They celebrate this admiration by boiling the candid in the juices of their own indiscretions, until they learn to give appropriate responses" full of say-nothing cliches. But if Clarkson's candor sets off a regular flurry of mildly embarrassing headlines on the web and in the gossip pages, it's never dented her popularity or caused her to change her style (for her part, Clarkson professes to read nothing but books, leaving her oblivious to the media fallout).
Even when presented with stunts sprung on Clarkson on the air out of the blue, no matter how ridiculous or outlandish the request, she plays along (even with the eyebrow-waxing, which initially drew a screeched "I AM NOT DOING THAT!" reaction). It's hard to picture pop glamor queens like Madonna or Mariah Carey letting themselves get repeatedly subjected to such lèse majesté, but then, they didn't get their start as, in effect, TV game-show stars.
The roots of Clarkson's attitude aren't hard to locate. Musicians and other entertainers may initially gravitate to Los Angeles and New York to seek work, but like politicians who set down roots in DC, they tend to become part of the entertainment-world 'scene': the celebrity events, the paparazzi, the fast-lane lifestyle, etc. Clarkson chose a different path: after Idol, she moved back to her home town in Texas, and has stayed Texas all the way down. She lives on a 60-acre spread with her family close by (until recently, she lived with her brother "like 10-year-olds with money"), surrounded by her horses and dogs and her classic cars (pre-1970 Chevys). She owns a pair of guns (a Colt and a shotgun). She prefers jeans and t-shirts to high fashion, wears little makeup and refuses to diet. By her own description, she goes bowling and to the movies and to the local Chili's with her friends from high school, reads novels, watches NCIS and plays Guitar Hero. She's obviously no plaster saint; she's no stranger to salty language and earthy humor, and she peppers her conversations with frequent references to boozing (her biggest 'scandal' moment was a widely-circulated 2005 YouTube video of a visibly drunk Clarkson getting called onstage to sing and mug uproariously with a Spinal Tap-ish band called Metal Skool at an LA club). But then, neither are her fans.
It seems that the number of entertainers who steer wholly clear of political and cultural controversy gets smaller every year, and that would appear to present a problem for Clarkson at a time when the cultural zeitgeist is far less favorable to a small-town Texan than it was in 2002. Carrie Prejean could tell you about how politics can intrude on the more traditionally-minded when you least want or expect them. But there, too, Clarkson has steered the old-fashioned course of offending nobody who might buy her records. She wears her Christian faith literally on her sleeve (a cross tattooed on her right wrist), but not figuratively, speaking of it only when pressed on the topic. Yet, she was deemed a safe enough choice to perform at a seminary rally for Pope Benedict, despite not even being Catholic. She's taken the lesbian rumor in good humor, as well she might given her popularity with gay fans. Like many people in Hollywood, she's done a variety of charity and goodwill appearances - she traveled to Kuwait to meet the troops in 2005, not the last of her appearances on a military base - but mostly for uncontroversial causes. She's sufficiently unplugged from the news that in a recent appearance she didn't know what the swine flu was, and when she met Barack Obama in 2006 - he was introduced as a fellow Grammy winner (Obama won for his audiobook reading of Dreams of My Father) - she didn't know who he was either, and confused the title of his book with a Luther Vandross album. Clarkson is typical of women of her generation and background in two ways that make her accessible to record-buyers with all kinds of value systems: she's reflexively non-judgmental (her explanation for the things she doesn't do is always the same: "I'm not that girl"), and she's post-feminist, rejecting the "feminist" label and its baggage while insisting as a given that men will treat her as an equal and being justifiably irate when they don't. In a red state/blue state nation, nobody is uncomfortable with Kelly Clarkson.
With any performer, especially female pop stars, no discussion of popularity is complete without the subject of sex appeal. Your classic Hollywood starlet is supposed to be tall, slim, and busty, with long flowing locks and impeccable fashion. Clarkson, though undeniably pretty, has never had any of those things going for her - she's short and pear-shaped and notoriously poorly dressed, and has filled out since hitting her mid-twenties. Yet her un-Hollywood look hasn't left her bereft of male attention; it's hard to find objective measures of sex appeal, but she's placed repeatedly on the annual sexiest-woman lists put out by "lad mags" like Maxim and FHM, and in 2008, VH1 put her in the top 10 of its list of "sexiest women of the new millennium" (reflecting the breadth of her appeal, she was also tabbed on a similar list compiled by a lesbian publication). In part, that's a reflection of the fact that what makes an attractive woman is not so narrowly defined as Hollywood imagines, but it's also a reflection of Clarkson's soulful voice, joyful self-confidence and rough-and-ready humor.
All I Ever Wanted finds Clarkson at the peak of her powers, mixing scads of addictively catchy pop hooks with a smattering of ballads and even "Whyawannabringmedown," a shameless effort to replicate the punk classic "Ballroom Blitz." With two hit singles already released, it's not hard to see this as the sort of album that could launch 7 or 8 hit singles and dominate pop radio all summer. "Already Gone," the Clarkson-penned third single off the album, is a mournful and haunting ballad (after opening bars reminiscent of the Aerosmith power ballad "What it Takes"), and arrives just in time for the end of countless high school and college romances:
Of course, careers atop the pop music business don't tend to be particularly long, especially for young women who won't be young forever. But one hint to how Clarkson plans to stick around awhile can be found in her choice of McEntire as her role model and touring partner (McEntire's husband is now also Clarkson's manager). Reba, the queen of country, has been recording for more than three decades and performing for five (since she was five years old), and she's learned a thing or two about longetivity as a woman in a man's and young woman's world, and about how to build a career that doesn't depend on overt sex appeal. Not content to rest on her Nashville laurels, Reba branched out to Broadway in 2001 in Annie Get Your Gun (Clarkson, who grew up listening to Rosemary Clooney records among her many influences, has left open the idea of doing Broadway later in her career), starred in a sitcom from 2001-07 (Clarkson made a guest appearance on the show, trying her hand at broad physical comedy), and of course savvily introduced her traditional country repertoire to another generation of fans by touring with Clarkson and even taking musical influence from the younger singer. The world of country music has its share of egos and lost souls too, but by and large it has more stars who identify more closely with their fans, and is less obsessed with youth, than the world of pop. It's no coincidence that the most financially successful Idol winner, Carrie Underwood, is a country singer. (Clarkson has sold more albums than Underwood, but hasn't matched her income from endorsements). By keeping a foothold in the worlds of rock and country and Broadway and TV (in addition to which she's writing a movie screenplay), Clarkson is laying the groundwork to ensure that she'll have opportunities to work in entertainment for many years to come. And she'll have an enduring reservoir of popular goodwill to draw on when she does.
Kelly Clarkson's formula for success is no novelty - talent, personality, humor, self-confidence, creative control and knowing and identifying with your fans are all time-tested ways to the top. And it's hard to generalize from a musical prodigy of her nature. But what Clarkson has done is to apply the aspects of traditional musical stardom most appropriate to a cross-genre singer elected by her own fans, and in so many ways representative of them. Even if her example is not easily copied, it holds out the promise of legitimacy for experiments the world over in musical democracy.