Jagged Little Idol no more?

As the first winner of American Idol, Kelly Clarkson has long been considered the bar against which all other winners (as well as other former contestants) are measured. While few have come close to capturing Clarkson’s magic (namely: Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, and Jennifer Hudson), no one has managed to truly eclipse the singer. Along the way, Kelly Clarkson has moved from reality TV-winner to pop princess.

Clarkson has also managed to maintain one of the most fervent fan bases of any young female singer over the past few years – fans who have stuck with the singer through some surprisingly turbulent times over the past few years.

The singer is in the midst of a comeback of sorts, with a new #1 single in “My Life Would Suck Without You” and a new #1 album in All I Ever Wanted. The album serves as a return to form for Clarkson, with a bevy of new collaborators and an embracing of a more familiar pop sound – a sound many felt was lacking from Clarkson’s last album, 2007’s My December.

Initial Success

After Clarkson won the original American Idol contest, record label execs expected the singer to produce an album within a few months of winning.

Instead, partially out of not knowing what direction to take Clarkson in and partially due to a busier-than-expected schedule, Clarkson released her debut album, Thankful, nearly seven months after winning the contest.

Though critics were expecting a pieced-together album, audiences were surprised at the album’s musical diversity and youthfulness, particularly given the nature of American Idol.

At the time, Clarkson had to fight record label execs to get one key track on the album – the first single, “Miss Independent.” “Then it ended up being #1 for seven weeks, and everyone else took credit,” Clarkson recalls.

After subsequent singles failed to match the chart success of “Miss Independent,” many thought the singer’s career was over.

Then came the behemoth that was Breakaway.

The album’s title track served as the first single, and it initially charted only slightly better than her previous few singles. Slowly, though, the single began to grow on Pop and Adult Contemporary radio – enough for the record label to re-release it (the single initially served as the main song for The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement) and name Clarkson’s new album after the track.

Similarly, the album’s second single, “Since U Been Gone,” was a slow burn on the charts. After being released in November 2004, it took until April of 2005 to reach its peak position of #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for several weeks. The single proved to be massive, landing Clarkson artistic credibility outside of the pop community (as well as a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance).

Subsequent singles “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “Because of You,” and “Walk Away” all followed with massive success, and with one noticeable addition – Clarkson served as a co-writer on each of the last three singles from the album, and won several songwriting awards for the singles, particularly for “Because of You.”

In the majority of the songs on the album, Clarkson found a song type that spoke to her fans – songs about the heartache and pain of relationships. The songs were, while relatively bright compared to other artists, dark compared to the content of Thankful or projects by other American Idol alums.

Breakaway was supported by several tours, and with the intense media coverage and pressing for success surrounding Clarkson, the singer started to crack, particularly when it came to her dating relationships at the time. The mess from one breakup in particular helped fuel the highly-anticipated follow-up to Breakaway, My December.

Unexpected Conflict

When the time came for Clarkson to head to the studio to record her next album, Clarkson decided to work with her band members and producer David Kahne, rather than the team of songwriters and producers that helped make Breakaway such a success.

Lyrically, the songs began to take on a darker viewpoint than Clarkson’s previous songs. Many focused on pain and betrayal, which Clarkson attributes to a particularly painful breakup that occurred while touring in support of Breakaway. One song, “Irvine,” was written backstage after a show in Irvine, California, where the singer skipped a meet-and-greet with fans (according to Clarkson, the only time she’s ever missed such a session) to find a place to break down and pour out her emotions.

The songs also began to take on a less pop-oriented sound, instead focusing more on the rock that helped, in part, to define Breakaway. Record label execs were surprised by the move, and upon hearing the final product, were not pleased.

In particular, Clive Davis, then-CEO of Sony-BMG and all-around music-industry god, offered Clarkson $5 million to replace any five of the songs on the album with songs of Davis’ choosing, one of which was a song previously recorded by Lindsey Lohan. Clarkson balked at the offer.

“I get you don’t like it. You’re 80, you’re not supposed to like my album,” Clarkson later recalled telling Davis to Blender in 2007.

What followed was a public relations nightmare – a war between one of the music industry’s biggest moguls and one of music’s biggest stars. Appearing on American Idol shortly thereafter, Davis lauded the previous winners and other performers from the show – and kept Clarkson’s admittedly large contributions to a bare minimum, choosing to briefly acknowledge Breakaway and give substantial amounts of credit to industry songwriters and producers.

Critical reviews of My December were ultimately mixed, with critics divided between admiration for Clarkson’s push for artistic independence and criticism for the lack of radio-friendly singles on the album. Clarkson herself was surprised by some of the negative reactions.

“It was a shock to me when the album came out and people were like, ‘Oh, she’s departing from pop.’ I think ‘How I Feel,’ which is on that album, is the most poppy song I’ve ever written. It was a different album than Breakaway, but when I came out with Breakaway, people also thought I was moving away from pop. ‘Oh, she’s doing rock.’ And there was some backlash there, too,” Kelly recalled earlier in March to USA Today.

Following the album’s release, a planned arena tour was cancelled due to low sales. Clarkson also fired her manager, Jeff Kwatinetz, head of The Firm, a powerful Beverly Hills-based artist management group Clarkson hired during her Breakaway success – a move that saw her severing ties with 19 Entertainment (the group that oversees, among other things, American Idol) as her management team. Clarkson’s initial management switch was big enough for 19 Entertainment to incorporate clauses for all future American Idol contestants forbidding them from changing management teams for seven years upon winning or coming in second place on the show.

The move in management has created rampant speculation among Kelly’s fanbase that Kwatinetz leaked information about the conflict between Clarkson and RCA and booked the singer into arenas for her My December Tour that were too potentially large for the singer to fill on purpose, with the intention of teaching Clarkson a lesson on the responsibilities of maintaining popularity – specifically for not making My December a sequel to Breakaway. If the rumor is true, fans acknowledge that the plan backfired. While neither side has acknowledged the rumor, Clarkson has confirmed that there was a substantial difference between the two in regards to her career.

“Jeff was a great manager, but we continued to disagree on one thing: He wanted to manage the biggest pop star in the world, and that has never been and will never be a goal of mine. That’s way too much pressure. At the end of the day, I want to do things that will make me happy,” Clarkson further admitted to USA Today earlier this month.

Recovery Period

In an effort to salvage her career, Clarkson’s first move was to hire Narvel Blackstock as her manager. Blackstock, a Nashville-based manager, seemed an odd choice for Clarkson outside of one connection – Blackstock is the husband of country superstar Reba McEntire, a major influencer of Clarkson.

Clarkson, with the help of Blackstock, reorganized her My December Tour into a smaller affair in North America (the arenas planned for Europe and Australia remained, due to increased attendance in those areas). Clarkson also teamed up with McEntire for a special episode of CMT: Crossroads, where the two performed several songs by both artists as duets.

The pairing proved to successful, with Clarkson and McEntire recording a new version of Clarkson’s “Because of You” for McEntire’s Reba: Duets album. The song served as the lead single from the album, and opened the doors to acceptance of Clarkson within the country music community.

Clarkson and McEntire further extended their partnership into the 2 Worlds 2 Voices Tour, where the two partnered up for a lengthy number of their respective songs, with both having a few solo numbers throughout the show. The tour was a success, and managed to keep Clarkson in the public eye following the My December debacle.

The Big Move Forward

While the surroundings of everything My December continued to circle Clarkson, months after the album’s release, the singer began working on her next project. Initially described as a move towards a bluesy, soul-based country sound, the songs that ultimately came out from the sessions were anything but.

What came out instead is Clarkson’s new album, All I Ever Wanted, which manages to come off as the love child of Breakaway (with the pop sensibilities) and My December (with the darker lyrical content). While All I Ever Wanted may seem like a retreat for the singer, it really comes off as Clarkson returning to what she does best. And while in some respects it’s a return to the radio-friendly nature of Breakaway, All I Ever Wanted also manages to be the most diverse of Clarkson’s four albums.

“This time, I wanted to show the extremes of what I can do,” she says. “That’s what keeps me interested, and keeps the audience interested. I never want to make just one sound. The worst thing to me is when all the songs on an album sound the same. If you have that choice, why wouldn’t you want to bring out all the different sides and colors of your personality?”

In keeping with the theme of bringing out different sides, Clarkson also helped oversee the direction of the promotion of the album, with particular emphasis on the images used to promote the album. The images for the album have taken on a fashion-forward and colorful flair, a decisive change from the darker images that surrounded both Breakaway and My December.

As for the songs themselves, Clarkson and her various teams of producers for the album collaborated on the song selections. Six of the songs feature Clarkson as a co-writer, either with producer Ryan Tedder or band member Jason Halbert (who co-produced My December). Outside of those songs, the album features a number of unknown covers, including two by indie group Aranda (the title track and the edgy “Whyyawannabringmedown”), and two songs (including the album’s second single, “I Do Not Hook Up”) written and recorded as demos by Katy Perry, one of the artists who appeared to fill the void in pop music temporarily vacated by Clarkson over the past few years.

But what does the new album signal in relation to her past efforts? According to Blender editor in chief Joe Levy, All I Ever Wanted shows the benefits that came from the drama surrounding My December. “The thing you love about great pop music is that friction between the artistic impulse and the commercial impulse, and Kelly’s new album has that in spades.”

Going further, Levy suggests that female pop artists “like Kelly and Beyoncé often don’t get the credit they deserve. No matter how many writers and producers they work with, they have a sound of their own. When Kelly pushes dance songs in a rock direction and rock songs in a dance/pop direction, that’s her artistic vision.”

One area that, intended or not, also shows up on the album is a lyrical firing at both the critics and fans who deserted her in the wake of My December. While the lyrics can also be attributed in many cases to a less-than-fully-functional relationship, such as in “My Life Would Suck Without You,” it’s not hard to interpret the lyrics as a message to her audience – an acknowledgement, perhaps, that her last album might have had some problems, but that she hasn’t forgotten the sometimes cruel criticisms she faced two years ago.

However Clarkson’s career turns in the future, though, it’s a safe bet to say that Kelly Clarkson is back – and it’s doubtful that she’ll be leaving anytime soon. Would we really want her to leave us, anyway? As much of a cliché as it might be, it’s easy to say that our lives would suck without Kelly Clarkson.

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