On September 4th, 2002, nearly 23 million people tuned in to watch a twenty–year–old girl from Fort Worth, Texas be crowned the first American Idol. Now, seventeen years after Kelly Clarkson first sang "A Moment Like This," her career has come full–circle as a host on The Voice, and she boasts eight studio albums, three Grammys, and 25 million album sales. Clarkson's development from Idol to pop culture icon shows that, while singing competitions can launch a career, it takes true talent to keep one.
Sixteen years after its release, debut album Thankful has mostly faded into obscurity. Apart from “A Moment Like This” and breakout single “Miss Independent,” the tracks are forgettable. Studio executives seemed unsure of how to market the singer, whether she would fit in best with the R&B she sang during her time on Idol or within the new world of pop being spearheaded by acts like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and the album suffered delays in the quest to find twelve suitable tracks for Clarkson's vocals. Unlike Idol runner–up Guarini, whose shaggy mop of hair and bright smile set him up to be the next teen heartthrob, MTV summarized Clarkson as the "soulful girl–next–door" upon her victory. Later singles "Low" and "The Trouble With Love Is" charted poorly, and it seemed like Clarkson was running out of steam after one release.
Rather than suffer a sophomore slump, however, Clarkson found her voice with the seminal 2004 album Breakaway, which spawned five singles: "Behind These Hazel Eyes," "Because of You," "Walk Away," "Breakaway," and, of course, the lead single and karaoke anthem "Since U Been Gone." Breakaway benefited from its cohesive sound, finding Clarkson a place in pop rock between the scruffy rebel girl antics of Avril Lavigne and the good girl next door image of Hilary Duff. Breakaway would sell twelve million copies worldwide, stayed on the Billboard 200 for over a year, won two Grammies, and widened her fan base from Idol fans to hard rockers and hipsters. It seemed like American Idol was true to its name.
Then came My December. Clarkson wrote the hard rock 2007 album on the Breakaway tour while struggling to balance her career highs with emotional lows, a time that she called "the lowest point in [her] life" in an interview with The Guardian's Alex Macpherson. Although Clarkson was proud of her work, Sony BMG head Clive Davis was less than pleased, and reportedly offered the singer $10 million to replace five songs on the album with tracks of his choosing. Soon after, Clarkson fired her manager Jeff Kwatinetz and cancelled her tour due to low ticket sales.
She rebounded with a return to pop rock form in 2009's All I Ever Wanted, whose catchy melodies make it a spiritual successor to Breakaway, with lead single "My Life Would Suck Without You" eliciting comparisons to "Since U Been Gone." Despite receiving generally positive reviews and decent album sales, it was far from being a golden ticket to stardom like the one Clarkson received during her Idol audition, and it was 2011 release Stronger that began a transition: while songs like "Mr. Know it All" and the title track resemble the pop music on which she based her early career, rock and R&B influences crept in on later tracks like "Hello" and "The War Is Over."
After Stronger, Clarkson did everything but release a new LP. Her next release, Greatest Hits – Chapter One, showcased both the highlights from her first five LPs and three unreleased songs: "Catch My Breath," "Don't Rush," and "People Like Us." 2013, in turn, was marked by a performance at President Obama's second–term inauguration, a marriage to manager Brandon Blackstock, and Christmas album Wrapped in Red.
Piece by Piece, released in 2015, marked both the end of Clarkson's pop career and her Idol contract with RCA Records, making her the first winner to fulfill that contract. In a bookend to her RCA debut Thankful, Piece by Piece is mostly forgettable, save for lead single "Heartbeat Song" and the intimate title track. Perhaps she was saving herself for 2017 release Meaning of Life, a soul record that Clarkson told Entertainment Weekly she "wanted to make ... since [she] was in junior high." Her new sound is made clear on the 2019 Meaning of Life Tour, which boasts a full brass band and jazzier renditions of older pop tracks like "Walk Away."
Although tracks like “My Life Would Suck Without You" and “Heartbeat Song” received radio play, Clarkson has been unable to replicate the success of “Since U Been Gone,” and that’s not a bad thing. Clarkson's struggles against her production team for most of her RCA–backed career showed a discrepancy between the R&B and rock she wanted to write and perform and the family–friendly pop princess that Idol wanted to market, but pop never really suited the down–to–earth Southern girl, whose onstage authenticity, vocal prowess, and lack of scandals make Adele a more suitable comparison than Britney or Xtina. Had The Voice existed in 2002, Clarkson would have belonged there rather than Idol — she has talent, not a gimmick. Clarkson's Meaning of Life? As she told Elle in 2007, "I've always just wanted to sing and write." Free from Idol, she has her chance to do exactly that.