On September 4th, 2002, Kelly Clarkson became the first winner of American Idol — - a slightly dubious honor at the time, but one that allowed the Burleson, Texas, native to become among the best-selling solo performers of the '00s, and to later become an unlikely symbol for artistic independence in a tightly controlled major-label climate. Clarkson was born on April 24th, 1982, and turned to music as a child to escape the drama of her parents' two divorces. Her vocal talents were discovered in school, and she joined the choir and performed in musicals and talent shows. After high school, she eschewed college to try songwriting, supporting herself with a variety of jobs (she was working as a waitress when she auditioned for Idol).
Clarkson's first hit single, the Idol-provided "A Moment Like This," was exactly the sort of treacly by-the-numbers ballad critics expected of a TV-contest winner; that's probably why its assertive follow-up, "Miss Independent," was such a surprise, as was much of her debut album, Thankful (Number One, 2003). Though the songwriting credits nearly run off the page (Diane Warren, Babyface and Christina Aguilera all contributed material), Clarkson avoided the wailing melisma that affected many of her peers, instead channeling the soul and she grew up emulating (many of her chosen Idol numbers were Aretha Franklin covers).
Following a much-maligned, contractually obligated teen-exploitation movie, From Justin to Kelly, co-starring Idol runner-up Justin Guarini, Clarkson released Breakaway (Number Three, 2004), her best-selling effort to date, thanks in no small part to "Since U Been Gone," a searing kiss-off that found Clarkson a following among clubgoers (a dance remix could be heard for months throughout Europe) and typically Idol-averse indie rockers and bloggers. It was one of five singles from Breakaway, which also yielded the similarly anthemic "Walk Away" and the ballads "Because of You," "Behind These Hazel Eyes" and the title track. The album sold more than 6 million copies in the United States and won Clarkson two Grammys.
The folksy image Clarkson put forth while promoting Breakaway made the events surrounding her third album, My December (Number Two, 2007) surprising. After the success of Breakaway, Clarkson broke with her management team (which was overseen by Idol creator Simon Fuller) and signed with the Firm, a talent company best known for working with the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit; she also began collaborating with her band on more of her own material, much of which was darker than anything on the poppy Breakaway.
Months before December's release, Clarkson and then-RCA head Clive Davis began feuding in the press: Davis wanted more singles, while Clarkson wanted more say over her material (and, presumably, less Clive). The resulting fracas resulted in Clarkson dismissing her new management team, canceling an arena tour over slow sales and asserting an independent-woman stance in interviews. By the time she released "Never Again" — another searing kiss-off, though this time with a less approachable chorus — Clarkson had inadvertently been transformed from an amiable down-home gal to a certified tough cookie, though not even that could help December from becoming the least commercially successful album of her career (it was certified platinum in December 2007). In the wake of her December experience, Clarkson began embracing her country roots. She dueted with Reba McEntire on her own "Because of You" (the collaboration, which appeared on McEntire's duets album, was nominated for a Grammy), and in January 2008 the two embarked on a joint tour called 2 Worlds, 2 Voices.
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