Why Kelly Clarkson Is the American Idol Winner Who Actually Matters

This December, the pop-culture personality pageant that is American Idol will begin its long march to the graveyard as it launches its final season, brought on by dwindling ratings and fading interest in the show and its participants. The annual summertime "American Idol Live" concert tour, which used to regularly fill arenas and amphitheaters, recently played the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, where Nick Fradiani and the various runners-up failed to sell out the 2,000-seat venue. American Idol was one of the most popular TV franchises for the better part of a decade, but for all its popularity, the show generated few real-deal pop stars. Carrie Underwood became a major country hitmaker, Jordin Sparks fared well on the charts and made a striking film debut in Sparkle, and Adam Lambert's modified glam-rock swagger earned him a spot as a temporary vocalist for Queen (as well as burying all memory that he came in second to the charismatically challenged Kris Allen). But if the names David Cook, Phillip Phillips, or Lee DeWyze don't quite ring a bell lately, well, that says a lot about the show's ultimate level of influence.

The jolly irony is that the strongest, most satisfying, and most memorable artist to emerge from American Idol remains the one who won the very first season: Kelly Clarkson, the girl next door of contemporary pop. If you think describing Clarkson as "the girl next door" sounds like something short of a compliment, you may misunderstand her appeal. Clarkson's chops as a vocalist are as strong and reliable as anyone who made it into the upper ranks of the AmIdol competitions, but in an era when pop music means over-singing a song into a bloody pulp, Clarkson has consistently displayed both charisma and a welcome sense of restraint, knowing how to sound passionate and heartfelt without forgetting where the melody and the root note is supposed to go. And while most current pop artists spend more time solidifying their brand than working on their music, Clarkson blessedly seems not to care about being cool or sexy, shrugging off occasional press barbs about her weight or her not-specifically glamorous image. Clarkson is busy being who she is, and she lets the rest take care of itself.
Which is not to say she has no sense of cool. Clarkson was willing to do battle with her record company (and its über-powerful leader, Clive Davis) when she wanted to make a darker and more rock-oriented album, 2007's My December (which was largely inspired by that most regular gal of personal traumas, a bad romantic breakup), and she ended up getting her way. Kelly also brought in punk rock icon Mike Watt, formerly of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE, to play bass on a few of My December's tracks, and Watt later said of her, "She can sing her ass off. Man, she’s got pipes and goes for it. She also didn’t have any airs or a big posse of sycophants and was just plain up-front people, which to me is very happening ’cause I ain’t so used to all the fronting that can go [on] in some scenes." Hey, why shouldn't the most regular guy in punk not get along with the girl next door? And take a look sometime at the YouTube video of Clarkson getting dragged onstage at a show by Metal School (the hair metal parody band now doing business as Steel Panther); Kelly's clearly had a few drinks and didn't plan on taking the stage that evening, but she seems to be having a blast, downing scotch and wailing along on "Sweet Child O' Mine" like a rock 'n' roll gal enjoying a slightly frantic Saturday night with her friends. It could be a typical evening of live band karaoke if it weren't for the fact Clarkson can actually sing "Sweet Child" and not sound ridiculous.

Bottom line: In a world where the new standard of female pop stardom is Taylor Swift, the impossibly skinny girl who somewhere decided she's a native New Yorker after spending most of her life in Pennsylvania and seems to regard every other famous person in the world as either a BFF or a nemesis, there's a need for Kelly Clarkson, a woman with a kid, a husband, and a big voice who is happy doing what she's doing and less worried in global domination than in making music and pleasing her fans. And don't kid anyone, you like it when "Since U Been Gone" comes on the radio. It's a good tune and you can relate to it. That's what Clarkson does.
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Mark Deming
Contact: Mark Deming