American Idol is a touchy subject among seasoned music fans. Mention the reality singing competition in a rock club or at a party full of indie music geeks, and the responses range from sheepish confessions ("It’s my guilty trash TV indulgence!") to angry tirades about how the show has contributed to the death of artistry within the music industry. The consensus in that crowd is that Idol, and the stars it produces, is a manufactured commercial phenomenon, the success of which has more to do with lowest common denominator appeal than raw talent.
Single ladies: Why Kelly Clarkson’s new song sounds a lot like Beyonce’s Halo
If you’ve been listening to the radio lately, it’s possible you’ve heard the soaring strains of Already Gone, the newest single off All I Ever Wanted. It’s very likely that you thought you’d heard the epic song before, albeit in a slightly different form. Kelly Clarkson collaborated with Ryan Tedder on the track, a dramatic ballad driven by a pounding heartbeat, twinkly piano and swooping strings. Unbeknownst to Clarkson, Tedder used suspiciously similar elements when he produced another recent mega-hit, Beyonce’s Halo.
"Ryan and I met each other at the record label, before he was working with anyone else," Clarkson begins, gritting her teeth. "He’s from Oklahoma, I’m from Texas; we got along really well and had some of the same influences. We wrote about six songs together, four or five of them made the album. It was all fine and dandy. I’d never heard of a song called Halo. Her album came out when my album was already being printed. No-one’s gonna be sittin’ at home, thinking ‘Man, Ryan Tedder gave Beyonce and Kelly the same track to write to.’ No, they’re just gonna be saying I ripped someone off. I called Ryan and said, ‘I don’t understand. Why would you do that?’"
The palpably frustrated Clarkson claims she "fought and fought" to try and prevent her label from releasing Already Gone as her third single, out of respect for Beyonce.
"In the end, they’re releasing it without my consent," she sighs. "It sucks, but it’s one of those things I have no control over. I already made my album. At this point, the record company can do whatever they want with it. It’s kind of a shitty situation, but.… You know, you learn."
Arguably, only one graduate of Idol University has managed to rise above the negative connotations of her launching pad to earn the respect of even those musical cynics. That would be Kelly Clarkson, winner of the show’s inaugural season.
Seven years after her victory, Clarkson’s career is still flourishing, an accomplishment that has evaded many of her Idol peers. Her most recent album, All I Ever Wanted, debuted at the top of the charts this March. That record’s first single, a delectably fizzy pop nugget with the prosaic title My Life Would Suck Without You, made history when it travelled from #97 to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 the week it was released, setting a new record for the biggest jump to first place.
Though Clarkson admits she’s "thankful" when her songs top the charts, she insists her goals as an artist don’t include platinum-selling records.
"I love that people love [the hit singles], I love that they’re anthems," she says in a recent interview, "but my whole point going into a studio isn’t like, ‘I’m only gonna record songs that I think are gonna be number one.’ My whole thing is to never be scared."
That may be true. But as a pop singer, it’s considerably easier to gaze into the abyss when you’ve chosen a crack team of hit-producing songwriters to help hold you up. With the exception of some unfortunate R&B collaborations (likely at the behest of RCA chief Clive Davis, Godfather of all Idols) on her treacly debut, Thankful (2003), Clarkson has been savvy when it comes to recruiting producers and co-writers. Swedish pop geniuses Max Martin and Dr. Luke (Pink, Katy Perry, Britney Spears) have worked on some of Clarkson’s biggest singles; modish hit-maker Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic) produced several tracks on All I Ever Wanted.
Clarkson is quick to assert that if her name’s in the credits of a song, she’s responsible for both the melody and the lyrics. If you’re keeping score, Clarkson didn’t pen her biggest Max Martin/Dr. Luke singles, including My Life Would Suck Without You and 2004’s Since U Been Gone, but she did co-write Behind These Hazel Eyes and Walk Away (both Top 20 hits) from 2004’s Breakaway, as well as every track on 2007’s My December and half of All I Ever Wanted, including her latest single, Already Gone.
To those who’d dismiss Clarkson out of hand because she has help writing her songs, I’d argue that she’s demonstrated great skill in finding material that fits her voice like a worn-in pair of jeans and rings true to her personality. In the tradition of Cyndi Lauper (another huge pop star who didn’t write her biggest hits), Clarkson is a masterful vocal interpreter who truly understands that the finest pop songs are vehicles for communicating great stories and emotional truths.
And like Lauper, she’s got an impressive set of pipes that are no less powerful for her vocal idiosyncrasies. Where other Idol ladies model their approach on the melismatic bellows of contemporary R&B divas, Clarkson’s power ballads are pleasantly ragged around the edges; her woman-scorned yowls are a few degrees removed from Axl Rose. She’s a dive-bar girl whose inspirations include ’90s alt-rockers the Toadies and Southern beardos Kings Of Leon. Laconic geeks Weezer, she says, made her want to write music.
"Honestly, I’ve been a Weezer fan since junior high," she confesses. "Weezer and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill were that moment I realized, ‘Oh my god, it’s not just that you have to sing pretty!’ That’s when I realized you have this platform and this stage to get your message out. Weezer attack some serious situations, but they do it with sarcasm, or in a very sweet way, like with Hold Me, which is almost like a spiritual song. They made me feel normal for thinking irrational thoughts."
The day I meet her in a Toronto hotel room, she’s pleasantly rumpled and given to blurting out whatever she’s thinking in the moment. Clarkson is well aware of her status as a square peg in the American Idol camp. Ask whether she thinks she’d walk away with the crown if she tried out now, eight seasons (and a substantial amount of squeaky-clean polish) into the show’s evolution, and she snorts.
"I didn’t think I’d win at that point! My whole point on my season was just to get noticed. I thought maybe a manager would be watching and like my voice or what I was doing. I wasn’t aiming to win. I mean, especially with the other beautiful girls on that season – not to say I’m not," she chastens herself. Having weathered an inordinate amount of criticism for not conforming to a sleek pop-star ideal, Clarkson strives to convey positive messages about her own body image. "But especially with all that stuff, I didn't think I could win on that show. Ha!"
Clarkson’s not the sole American Idol to connect with fans outside the program’s target fan base. Certainly, folks like Daughtry and Carrie Underwood have made major inroads in genres (modern alternative rock and country, respectively) not traditionally associated with the franchise. But Clarkson, who holds the record for highest album sales by an Idol winner, is the only one of her peers who can boast that she’s had a song covered by indie punk Ted Leo, post-hardcore band A Day To Remember, soulful spitfire Beth Ditto, and electro-pop singer Robyn (among others), reconfigured by Timbaland and used as an ironic ringtone by the characters on Gossip Girl. That such a diverse sampling of artists could connect with Clarkson’s brazen break-up anthem Since U Been Gone is a testament to the enduring power of both the song and the singer who made it famous.
Endearingly, Clarkson still demonstrates an almost pathological inability to take herself seriously. She once told an interviewer that her ultimate dream is to open up her own Chili’s franchise. At a Toronto show in 2007, she playfully invited the audience to judge a pumpkin carving contest between herself and her bandmates, then unveiled a jack-o-lantern she claimed was inspired by the scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin in which Steve Carell invokes Clarkson’s name as a cuss-word while getting his chest waxed.
And despite so many votes to the contrary, it seems like Clarkson is still the last person willing to recognize Kelly Clarkson’s rock cred. Ask about fantasy collaborations, and the singer sighs.
"I think it’d be awesome to work with the White Stripes. Even though I don’t know if they would, because that’d be…" Clarkson trails off, laughing. "Even if I’m a fan of theirs, their credibility factor would waver a bit. But I like him. I think [Jack White] is just genius in his own crazy insane way of writing music."
All I Ever Wanted is in stores now.
Sarah Liss writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.