Time Magazine February 5, 2006

Miss Independent

BACK IN BLACK: Clarkson wants to be a rock star, and it's looking less implausible with each album

Twenty-eight million people watched Kelly Clarkson win the first installment of American Idol in 2002. While "28 million" and "winner" are positives in the context of reality television, singing the swollen talent-show ballad A Moment Like This in a prom dress with mascara cascading down your face is not the kind of thing that endears you to cool-conscious pop-music fans. Just in case Clarkson's victory tableau didn't create enough skeptics about her chances for a successful recording career, she followed it up with From Justin to Kelly, a monstrous Idol movie musical that in the most generous light is the worst film so far this century. "Two words: Contractually obligated!" shrieks Clarkson amid peals of laughter. "I knew when I read the script it was going to be real, real bad, but when I won, I signed that piece of paper, and I could not get out of it. Seriously, I never thought I could act, but I knew I could sing. Not to sound cocky, but I can." It's true, and because Clarkson has the kind of voice that sounds intimate and precise coming out of radio speakers--and because she is far more determined and shrewd than anyone has given her credit for--she has survived the blows that inaugurated her career and managed to free herself from her scarlet AI. Her debut album, Thankful, chugged to double-platinum status while the thoroughly enjoyable followup, Breakaway, has sold 5 million copies, spawned four Top 10 hits and earned Clarkson, 23, a prime performance slot at the Grammys this Wednesday. (If justice prevails, she'll also pick up awards in her two nominated categories, Best Pop Vocal and Pop Vocal Album.)

Even more amazing than Clarkson's emergence as a credible pop singer is that her glitz-free approach--she favors hook-filled, unpretentious songs, like the addictive Since U Been Gone, delivered with a vocal minimalism alien to her dolphin-shrieking peers--has made her kind of, well, cool. Since U Been Gone was named the third-best single of 2005 in the Village Voice's industry-wide poll of music critics, which a few years ago would have been as inconceivable as seeing The Da Vinci Code's Dan Brown on the list of Pulitzer finalists. "There are so many people who've made millions of dollars and don't deserve to be allowed into a recording studio," says indie rocker Ted Leo, whose cover of Since U Been Gone is a much swapped Internet hit. "She got where she is by having a great voice, by grinding it out and by not having an image. How can you not like that?" Compared with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, Clarkson is almost always portrayed as a wholesome, unsophisticated girl with an outsize natural talent--a bumpkin with a gift. She really was a cocktail waitress at a comedy club in her hometown of Burleson, Texas, before an Idol audition started her on the road to fame, but it's rarely noted that Clarkson already lived in Hollywood (she was only in Burleson because her apartment burned down), or that, as a demo singer for Gerry Goffin, the ex-husband of Carole King and co-writer of Up on the Roof and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Clarkson received high-level on-thejob instruction in songwriting and recording techniques. She even had the business sense to pass on two bad pre-Idol record deals. "They would have completely pigeonholed me as a bubblegum act," says Clarkson. "I was confident enough that something better would come along." When that something better did come along, Clarkson did something unusual for a reality-show contestant--she let her 15 minutes elapse. Thankful wasn't released until seven months after her big TV moment, giving her and RCA records chief Clive Davis time to figure out how to balance the expectations of people who wanted an Idol souvenir with those who demanded signs of artistic growth. The finished product was a pleasant trifle that alienated no one and produced a deserving hit, Miss Independent, but it didn't earn Clarkson much capital with RCA or her management firm at the time, 19 Entertainment. (19, the company owned by show creator Simon Fuller, has the right to sign any Idol contestant; another contractual obligation. It had no comment on this or any Clarkson-related matter.) "To be totally honest," says Clarkson in her gentle twang, "the problem was I wanted to write a lot of my own songs on Breakaway. Nobody else wanted me to. So there was a big ol' fight."

Davis, who discovered Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and more than a dozen other platinum acts, says, "I always encourage people to write their own songs, but in the pop arena, where the career is totally dependent on hits, you get skeptical. Artists with great voices like Melissa Manchester and Taylor Dayne could have had much longer careers if they didn't insist on writing their own material." Clarkson doesn't think of herself as a pop singer--"Rock is what I love," she says--and she's been writing songs since her teens, but rather than argue over labels or abilities, she and Davis, 72, reached a détente. Clarkson wrote or co-wrote six Breakaway tracks, including one certifiable hit, Behind These Hazel Eyes, and the rest were collected from world-class song doctors and produced by studio veterans. "I'm 100% happy with my album," says Clarkson. "I just think it's funny that all these middle-age guys told me, 'You don't know how a pop song needs to sound.' I'm a 23-year-old girl! But I was fighting those battles alone." A month after Breakaway's release, Clarkson decided she needed backup for any future conflicts. She and 19 amicably agreed to sever ties--"I love Simon Fuller, but how can somebody you've seen five times in three years really look out for you?"-and Clarkson signed with the Firm, a Hollywood management company whose clients include Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lopez. "A lot of artists tell their managers not to think short term, not to think about the next big check," says Firm CEO Jeffrey Kwatinetz, who handles Clarkson personally. "But when push comes to shove, they want that check, and they want it now. Kelly asked us to plot out a 20-year career, and she's not afraid to sacrifice to get it." The Firm rejiggered Clarkson's media strategy, keeping her profile low so that audiences won't tire of her. (She didn't need to be cautioned to stay out of the tabloids; a big night out for her is Chili's and a movie with friends.) The Firm fought to make sure that RCA promoted Clarkson's music at radio stations and in stores and removed American Idol from her official bio. (A recent controversy in which Idol judge Simon Cowell alleged Clarkson had not authorized her songs for use on the show appears to have been a misunderstanding; Clarkson says she allowed their use as soon as she was asked.) The Firm also counseled her to go back and learn a few tricks of the trade. "American Idol gave Kelly a lot of exposure that allowed her to skip some steps in her development, and that's hazardous," says Kwatinetz. Rather than play sprawling amphitheaters, Clarkson gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket revenues and spent this past summer touring smaller theaters to hone her performance skills. "I've got more than enough money," says Clarkson, whose chief extravagance is a 12-acre ranch in Fort Worth with a go-cart track. "I

plan on making this my life, and I want people to know I can put on a show, that I'm serious about it." To that end, Clarkson has written 35 new songs, which she hopes will ease her transition from pop singer reliant on other people's hits into rocker who sings from her point of view. Davis is doing his best to keep an open mind. "Kelly has shown writing ability, and I think she's probably going to want to try her hand at writing all her material in the future," says Davis. "I don't want to dismiss it, I'm rooting for her, but we'll see." Clarkson agrees that her songs should only make the cut when "they're better than the things other people write," she says, "but I think a lot of these songs could be hits. They're really, really good." There's no reason to doubt her. After all, the only thing she's proved she can't do is act.

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