How Kelly Clarkson Legitimized ‘American Idol’ As A Cultural Institution

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“You will never, ever, ever, ever have a career in singing,” Simon Cowell once scowled at a contestant. “There are only so many words I can drag out of my vocabulary to say how awful that was,” he said to another. “Who’s your vocal teacher? Get a lawyer and sue her.”

Those words hit Kelly Clarkson hard. “I was just so happy because the British man didn’t make me cry” were the relieved words the then-unknown singer uttered after nervously completing her “forgetful” American Idol audition in May of 2002. That “British man” was Simon Cowell, the tough-as-nails Idol judge from across the pond who seemingly didn’t get excited for anything or anyone. In fact, by the second round, Simon didn’t even remember Clarkson, who just sang Aretha Franklin’s signature rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” “I honestly don’t know what to say. You have a good voice, but I couldn’t remember you from the previous rounds,” he said. That would soon change.

American Idol debuted June 2002, which was odd back then because most new shows premiered between the traditional television season period of September and May. However, Idol was a reality show and Fox needed cheap programming to fill up both their summer schedule and their pockets. Idol perfectly fit the bill because reality TV is cheaper to produce than scripted shows. Upon airing, the U.S. version of the British smash Pop Idol series was tuned into by nearly 10 million people who wanted to see bad guy Cowell mercilessly crush the dreams of America’s most talentless and mediocre bunch.

However, as the show went on, it became clear Idol wasn’t just about that “mean British man.” The focus shifted to the group of 30 hopefuls desperate for a break in the music biz. But was any of it legit? Can contestants of the show be taken seriously when its biggest star was a sadist who appeared to revel in publicly humiliating ambitious singers?

Kelly Clarkson’s spunky, dorky, girl-next-door personality and tremendous voice made her an early fan favorite, despite being one of the few contestants whose audition wasn’t aired during the show’s original June 2002 broadcast. Viewers soon hopped aboard the Texas native’s bandwagon after watching her slay in the eight-week, live semi-finals, belting out untouchable Soul staples such as “You’re All I Need To Get By,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied).” Kelly’s big band performance of Betty Hutton’s 1940’s “Stuff Like That There” pop classic moved Simon enough to call Kelly the star of the show. “This show is all about finding a star, not feeling sorry for people who aren’t very good. Absolutely brilliant!”

By the final weeks, it was beginning to look like Kelly Clarkson was on her way to becoming Idol‘s first winner and was a strong favorite to win over eventual runner-up Justin Guarini. Even Simon seemed on board and said Kelly had put herself “in the same league as Celine Dion and Mariah Carey,” following her strained performance of Celine’s “I Surrender” in Week Six.

For their final performances, both Clarkson and Guarini performed three songs apiece, including Idol‘s first original song, “A Moment Like This.” More than 22 million viewers watched as Kelly was crowned the first winner of American Idol after she garnered 58% of the fans’ votes.

While Idol enjoyed great ratings and success, “A Moment Like This” was an original composition that Idol producers hoped would match the success of Pop Idol winner Will Young’s single, “Evergreen/”Anything Is Possible,” which sold an insane 1.1 million copies its debut week. “Moment” didn’t sell anywhere near those astronomical numbers, only totaling 236,000 copies its debut week. But Kelly’s “A Moment Like This” quickly shot up the charts and broke a record in the process when it went from No. 52 to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, breaking The Beatles’ previous record for biggest leap in the history of the chart. “Moment” went on to become 2002’s best-selling single.

Kelly’s debut album, Thankful, was released in 2003 and achieved greater success than her Idol single garnered. The project debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200, selling nearly 300,000 copies its debut week. In that same year, Thankful earned double platinum status and officially opened the door for every American Idol winner thereafter. But it was Clarkson’s next album that ripped the doors off the hinges.

With the help of mega-producer Max Martin, who hadn’t had a hit in half a decade at that time, and a then-unknown Dr. Luke, Kelly’s sophomore effort, Breakaway, was released November 2004 and became her biggest-selling album to date, reportedly selling 15 million copies worldwide. Every track was a hit as the label pushed out half the songs as singles during a span of two years. The first single, “Since U Been Gone” unleashed the stronghold that hip-hop/R&B had on the pop charts at the time. As Billboard notes, the 24-year-old’s single reached No. 2 on the Billboard 100, after 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.” It was the first time a pop song by a solo female artist reached that high in more than two years.

And while commercial success was great, awards are better. Kelly began getting the validation all artists strive for with Breakaway. The album scored a Best Pop Vocal Grammy in 2006 and the single, “Since U Been Gone,” scored a Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy award. Kelly failed to thank the show that helped make her star in her acceptance speeches, and it may not have been by accident.

Being that Clarkson was trying to prove she was more than a reality star and was capable of longevity, she began distancing herself from the show that made her famous. Clarkson fired American Idol creator Simon Fuller as her manager before working on Breakaway, and she refused to license her songs to the show so that new crop of Idol hopefuls can perform them. The move prompted Simon Cowell to criticize the pop star for “ignoring Idol and the audience who put her there.” He told Billboard in a 2006 interview, “No matter how talented Kelly Clarkson is, she would not be in the position she’s in now without winning this show.” Eventually, due to the controversy, the bona fide star gave producers the okay.

With Breakaway‘s massive, worldwide success, Clarkson embarked on year-long tours in promotion of the album in 2005, performing in arenas and concert halls throughout North America, Europe, and Australia and cementing her status as music’s biggest and brightest stars.

During this time, American Idol already had two more successful winners in the business after making stars out of winners Ruben Studdard (season two) and Fantasia Barrino (season three). Both singers amassed success following their Idol wins, with Ruben receiving a Grammy nomination in 2003 for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Superstar.” His Soulful album sold more than 400,000 its debut week before going platinum in less than a year. Fantasia went on to become the first Idol winner with a No. 1 single when “I Believe” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for 11-consecutive weeks, and later becoming the top-selling single of 2004. Her debut album, Free Yourself, spurned a few R&B hits and scored three Grammy nominations, including Best R&B album.

By season four, American Idol had proven itself to be a legitimate path to superstardom and the ratings were an advertiser’s dream. To compare, 10 million tuned in for Idol‘s series opener while 33 million tuned in for season four’s. Around 10,000 hopefuls attended the auditions for the premier season while 100,000 attended season four’s audition. By the end, 30 million watched Carrie Underwood, the second-most successful Idol winner, get crowned as season four’s winner. Carrie went on to become a country megastar, selling millions of albums across the country and racking up seven Grammys in the process.

Even the show’s losers were winners. Despite being eliminated in season three, Jennifer Hudson is now an Emmy and Tony award away from being one of 12 entertainers with an EGOT. Season two runner-up Clay Aiken’s solo album, Measure of a Man, sold more than 600,000 copies its debut week in October 2003. Season six’s Kellie Pickler also became a country star, Adam Lambert lived out his glam rock dreams by joining up with Queen, and Katharine McPhee became a star on the Broadway stage and TV. And this isn’t even including solid careers from Jordin Sparks, Phillip Phillips, and Chris Daughtry.

To date, Kelly Clarkson has released seven albums and has numerous awards sitting on her mantle. And after years of rumored tension with the show’s producers and creators, an older, wiser and infinitely more famous Kelly returned to American Idol in 2010, 2011 and most recently, April 2015 to not only perform, but be a mentor.

It’s hard to imagine what Idol would’ve been today if Kelly Clarkson hadn’t proved the singing competition wasn’t just about Simon Cowell’s harsh criticism.