It's hard to believe that it's been almost 10 years since original Idol Kelly Clarkson--who incredibly turns THIRTY this week--stood on that Fox soundstage, showered in confetti and happy tears, as she belted out her winning anthem, "A Moment Like This." It was the finale that launched dozens of copycat reality shows and nine subsequent "Idol" winners, but a moment like that certainly won't happen again.
"I'm so looking forward to my thirties, you have no idea," Kelly gushed in a recent reflective interview with Yahoo!'s Reality Rocks. "Everyone's twenties are all about searching and finding yourself. Every year, I was different! My twenties were a rollercoaster ride, so I'm looking forward to smooth sailing in my thirties. My audience is growing up with me, and I think that's good. I don't know what my music will always sound like, but I know it will always change."
But something tells me two things about Kelly will never change: She will always be awesome, and she'll always be Miss Independent. As Kelly enjoys the success of her excellent fifth (yes, FIFTH!) effort, Stronger--an album so eagerly anticipated it was almost sabotaged by multiple unauthorized leaks, until Kelly finally decided to leak the tracks herself--she's as popular as ever. She's in fact a bona fide national treasure, right up there with Carrie Underwood atop the list of most successful Idols of all time. Which begs the question: How has Kelly managed to turn a three-month stint on a TV talent show into a decade-long, A-list pop career, when so many other Idols have been dropped from their labels and left to fade into footnote obscurity? It can't just be because she was the first, or because she's an amazing vocalist. There has to be something else.
"I think a lot of singers get into this business for the wrong reasons, and people see through that," Kelly mused. "I think they want to be really famous, and it's like, if you want to be in the music industry, that shouldn't be your goal. Your goal should be to make music. I don't want to be the most famous person in the world; I just want to make enough to pay my band, and to live, and then I'm good. I don't have this desire to be this huge megastar. I just love singing, and that's it. And I think a lot of other people get lost in the rest of it."
But that doesn't mean that Kelly thinks shows like "Idol" (which she still watches), "The Voice" (which she "looovvves" and guested on this season), and her own new show "Duets" can't still produce real pop stars, with real careers like the one she's enjoyed since 2002. "Most definitely they can, yeah!" she insisted. "This is just the new way. Like even Justin Bieber, he was discovered online. It's a new generation of how people are getting in the door of the music industry. I don't think it has anything to do necessarily with a show. I think it has to do with the artist. It's what you do with that 15 minutes. 'Idol' is the biggest show on television, so you're gonna get that spotlight--but it's what you do with it. But there's been a lot of success with Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert...there have been a ton of us who have done really well."
To say that Kelly Clarkson has "done well" is typical of a humble Southern sweetheart like Kelly, because that's quite an understatement. The girl (make that woman) has sold more than 11 million albums domestically, and has won two Grammys, 12 Billboard awards, three VMAs, and two American Music Awards...basically, she is what everyone who auditions for "American Idol" aspires to be. But it hasn't always been easy for Kelly. The media's invasion into her personal life and scrutiny of her physique has certainly been one hurdle. From Justin To Kelly was another. But she has also quite famously battled with her record label, RCA--most publicly regarding her "difficult" (and underrated) third album, My December, the 2007 release of which was surrounded by gossip about label honcho Clive Davis chewing her out in board meetings and offering her $10 million to replace five of the album's self-penned tracks with songs of his own choosing. (She refused.) Kelly told me recording the aptly titled Stronger was a "piece of cake," but pointed out that that was certainly a new experience for her.
"What's so funny is EVERY album has been difficult, NOT just My December," she revealed. "My first album was the hardest album I've ever made in my life! Oh my God, it was so hard! I had to cry to get 'Miss Independent' on there. They wanted me to just sing ballads, and I was like, 'I'm 20 years old! I wanna sing some fun stuff! I don't wanna sing ballads my entire career, that sounds boring!' That was a really big battle for me. The first four albums were all really difficult for me."
It's interesting that "Miss Independent" was such an issue for Kelly and RCA back in 2002, since it was the arguably the song that set the template for the independent-minded Idol's signature fist-pumping sound, up to and including Stronger. "Exactly!" Kelly gasped. "That song ended up being number one for like, seven weeks. And I was like, 'Hey, remember that time I had to cry to get it on there?' Ha!"
Stronger--a dancey, Tina Turner/Prince-inspired, relentlessly upbeat affair that Kelly has dubbed "The Cardio Album"--is of course filled with more independent anthems, mostly about the subject Kelly seems to know best: bad boyfriends who must eventually eat her dust and/or their little hearts out. The disc has only further cemented her status as the Pat Benatar of our time...and when I brought this up, the comparison seemed to mean more to her than even the most glowing praise Simon Cowell ever gave her. "Okaaaaay, first of all--THANK YOU! That's an awesome compliment, and undeserved, but I'm gonna take it!" she laughed. "I do get what you're saying as far as the intense factor. Pat was intense. She sang heart-wrenching songs. It's so funny you mention Pat Benatar, because we were talking about covering 'Love Is A Battlefield.' And I love a great lyric, and I love being relatable. I love lyrics. I'm very much a lyric person."
Kelly sure is relatable, judging from the feedback that breakup blitzkriegs like "Miss Independent," "Since U Been Gone," "Never Again," and Stronger tracks like "Mr. Know It All," "What Doesn't Kill You," "Don't Be A Girl About It," and "Einstein" (genius chorus: "dumb plus dumb equals you") have received from her fans, especially female fans. "Every girl that walks up to me, I kid you not, the first thing that comes out of her mouth is, 'Oh my God, you got me through my breakup!'" Kelly admitted. "I'm always like, 'I'm sorry...and you're welcome!' I don't know what to say! So I'm a person you go listen to when you're in a crap mood and pissed off? But I love singing feisty music, intense stuff. I'm kind of an extremist, and I just don't think there's any other way for me."
Kelly's bloodletting, soul-baring lyrics have naturally invited that aforementioned media scrutiny of her personal life, but she insisted that not all of her love-gone-wrong songs are entirely autobiographical. "Honestly, a lot of songs that people think are about a relationship with a guy, they're generally not," she claimed. "It's a metaphor. It's generally about something else going on in my life, whether it's someone that I work with or a family situation, whatever. I haven't had a bad relationship in years! I definitely have had one, so any time I have to sing a song about it, I obviously have some experience to pull from, but a lot times that's not the inspiration. Like, [Stronger's] 'You Love Me' is not about a guy. That's about a work relationship where I got my heart completely ripped out. But people will listen to it and go, 'Oh man, some dude broke her heart!' Well, no."
One of Stronger's strongest bad-love tracks is the upcoming third single, "Dark Side," the chorus of which declares, "Everybody has their dark side." So what is Kelly's dark side, exactly? Once again, Kelly dipped into metaphor when asked. "I think everybody's dark side is the same thing," she contemplated. "The most horrible part of humanity is if you're alone. I think that's your darkest. When you're in a new relationship, whether it's a friendship or a boyfriend or girlfriend, there comes a point where you're like, 'Am I going to let you in here, or am I just going to stay by myself because this is comfortable and I'm not going to get hurt if I don't let you in?' I think everybody has that in them. And I think that's the dark side for me: choosing to be alone just because I'm scared of what might happen. It's like, 'If I let this wall down, are you going to stick around, or are you going to be like those other people?'"
And that there is the REAL reason why Kelly has managed to sustain the success that eluded so many other reality contestants and singers long before they hit their own 30th birthdays: She really means what she sings. It's one thing to have the technical skills, and quite another to deliver a performance that'll raise hairs on listeners' necks and goosebumps on their arms. "I call it 'The Vanilla Factor,'" Kelly said of singers who are missing that sort of deeper emotional connection. "It's like, 'Oh man, you sing really well, but I don't buy it. I don't think you've ever had your heart ripped out like this song is describing, because if you had, you would be singing it very differently.' Especially on 'Idol,' where there's so many singers coming through. Technically, they're perfect, but I don't feel it. And then you can listen to someone who's not perfectly on key all the time, like Bono, but he's one of the best singers ever. He's an emotional singer. Everything he does, you believe it. And that believability is so important."
Indeed it is, and that sort of believability might be making a comeback thanks to career artists like Kelly. "I think it always goes in phases. And right now, I do think it's coming back around to people wanting to hear SINGERS," said Kelly hopefully. "Adele is the best testament of that. Her music is doing so well right now, and nobody thought that would happen. But in a word of Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, I think it's the difference of having all that crazy stuff going on onstage, and then you have Adele come out with just a piano and a microphone, and she floors everybody. Everybody's like, 'What just happened?' There's a revival of that."
And there's a Kelly revival going on as well, as Stronger's ongoing success eclipses many current and upcoming albums of various other reality stars. While Kelly dismissed rumors that she'll record a country album ("If I were to make just a country album, I would lose a little bit of me, so I don't think I'd ever do that; I'd rather get together with a couple other singers and do like a folksy, singer-songwriter, rootsy thing"), she did tell me that she remains excited about her journey ahead, and her fans no doubt feel the same.
Here's to another 10 years, Kelly.