Back in 2002, a talent show debuted on Fox called "American Idol." The show was a huge hit, a pop culture phenomenon, and it promised to make a star out of its ultimate winner.
That winner was a 20-year-old woman from Fort Worth, Texas, named Kelly Clarkson, whose big voice and friendly, down-home demeanor impressed judges and endeared her to fans.
Since that Season 1, the show has been canceled and rebooted on another network, and Clarkson is still one of the most successful artists to be launched from the talent show franchise. She will be bringing her “Meaning of Life” tour to Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday with openers Kelsea Ballerini and Brynn Cartelli.
In the intervening 17 years, the multi-Grammy-winning Clarkson has had many hits from her debut post-show pop ballad “A Moment Like This” and the accompanying album “Thankful,” both of which topped their respective Billboard charts.
She’s also had a few misses, including the legendarily egregious film “From Justin To Kelly” (with her Idol runner-up Justin Guarini), which both stars and pretty much everyone associated with it now disavow with a healthy sense of humor and self-deprecation.
But on record, Clarkson, 36, has remained a fairly consistent hit maker while trying on different genres.
In an effort to shake the "A.I." tag, Clarkson went big-tent pop on her 15 million unit selling sophomore album “Breakaway,” which won her two of her three Grammys for best pop vocal album and best female pop vocal performance.
Her third album, “My December," which she co-wrote, leaned into darker altern-a-rock. She went back to mainstream pop-rock with "Stronger" in 2011, and earned her second best pop vocal album Grammy behind the No. 1 single "Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)."
Over the course of her recording career, Clarkson has been vocal about steering her own ship and has increasingly dictated in what direction her music and career goes while working with surefire hit makers such as Ryan Tedder, Dr. Luke and Kara DioGuardi. She tried on a little bit of country in 2010 with the power-ballad “Don’t You Wanna Stay” duet with Jason Aldean, which sold double-platinum.
All told, five of Clarkson’s eight albums have sold at least 1 million copies, plus two gold in the states alone. Globally she’s shipped more than 25 million units. And Clarkson has done it all without going the industry standard, and heavily encouraged, Sexpot Chanteuse route, adding to her appeal to young women and their parents.
Somewhere in all that activity Clarkson married her now-manager Brandon Blackstock, son of her former manager Narvel Blackstock. The couple have two children, Remington Alexander and River Rose, along with Blackstock’s two children from a previous marriage.
Part of Clarkson's appeal has been her no-nonsense attitude about her career and life, sharing her struggles with an autoimmune disease, her weight gain and subsequent weight loss, the difficulties of being a working mother with a blended family and standing up for artists who stand up for themselves.
More recently, Clarkson has become a regular on television, bringing her career full circle as one of the judges on NBC’s popular singing competition "The Voice," currently in season 16. (Clarkson won seasons 14 and 15, first with Cartelli and then Chevel Shepherd.)
Additionally, in September, Clarkson will host her own one-hour talk show, imaginatively dubbed “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” further cementing and diversifying her place in pop culture. The website ensures the show will be "full of remarkable stories and spontaneous surprises."
Until then, Clarkson is finally on the road promoting her eighth album, “Meaning of Life,” released back in 2017.
The album is one Clarkson said she’s wanted to make for a long time but couldn’t because of contractual limitations with her former record company. Now that she’s earned even more professional freedom, Clarkson has leaned into the music made by one of her American idols, Aretha Franklin, and '90s R&B/pop queens Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
The 14-track album is packed with unabashed '90s-flavored R&B/pop songs that give the singer-songwriter plenty of room to show off her wide soprano range and melismatic gifts.
There’s the sassy and trap beat-laced lead single “Love So Soft,” the dramatic Carey-like ballad “I Don’t Think About You,” the sassy, uptempo “Whole Lotta Woman” (“I’m a smart, bad-ass chick with class and confidence,” the chorus proudly declares) and the pop-leaning power ballad “Move You.”
Clarkson’s latest musical pivot has worked, with “Meaning of Life” debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, her eighth consecutive album to debut in the Top 5. The album was generally well-received, but has yet to continue her platinum- and gold-selling streak. The album also earned her more best pop vocal album and best pop solo performance Grammy nominations, giving Clarkson the unique distinction of being the most nominated artist ever in those respective categories.
Concertgoers can expect to hear most of her hits alongside new songs. And, in keeping with her tradition of trying on others' tunes, including covering the Black Keys' “Lies,” she has been taking on Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” and the heartbreaking ballad “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which she recorded for the popular “Hamilton Mixtape.”
Many people scoffed at the notion that the winner of a TV talent show could be nearing two decades of a wildly successful career. But through it all Clarkson has relied on her heart, her mind and her voice rather than chasing fame or simply following trends.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.