Fifteen years after her American Idol win, and free from the contract it tied her to, KELLY CLARKSON is finally making the music she always wanted to – and has herself become a TV pop Svengali
Up on the 65th floor of New York’s Rockefeller Centre, in the hallowed surroundings of the historic Rainbow Room, everything is dazzling.
The view – a straight shot ten blocks south to the Empire State Building – is so picture-perfect as to look almost unreal; the décor, all mirrors, chandeliers, and oversized candelabras, speaks to an infinitely more glamorous age (the room opened in 1934 and was the spot for society functions), and the well-heeled crowd of models and music-industry sorts is merrily enjoying free-flowing martinis.
The most dazzling element in the room, however, is erupting from the woman on stage, clad in a gold sequined column dress: Kelly Clarkson’s astonishingly powerful, soulful voice, reminiscent of Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and, more latterly, Beyoncé.
Back in 2002, aged 20, Kelly was the inaugural winner of American Idol, the US iteration of Pop Idol, forerunner to The X Factor. Her first single ‘Before Your Love’ went to the top of the charts. Now 35, she has sold more than 25 million albums and 36 million singles worldwide, and won three Grammys and three MTV Video Music Awards, among myriad other prizes. She also performed at Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in 2013, singing ‘My Country, ’Tis of Thee’.
And for a truly contemporary symbol of the American Dream – that ‘life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’, as defined by the writer James Truslow Adams three years before the Rainbow Room opened – there could be few better examples than Kelly Clarkson.
Two days later we meet in the only slightly less impressive offices of Atlantic Records in Midtown Manhattan. Thanks to an appearance earlier this morning on the US breakfast television programme Today, Kelly has been up since 3.30am. ‘If I were a dude, I’d just stroll in with my hat, somebody would powder me and then I’d go on stage. Being a girl, it’s two hours in wardrobe and make-up,’ she observes in her rich, roiling Texan twang. ‘It takes Harry Potter magic to make this happen,’ she adds, motioning to her mane of blow-dried hair and the dramatic make-up she has not yet removed.
She might have the voice of a diva, but her personality – open, chatty and delightfully self-deprecating – is anything but. Having spent her career thus far at RCA Records (as part of a deal with American Idol), the past 15 years have seen Kelly pump out pop-rock hits such as ‘Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)’ and ‘Since U Been Gone’, as well as ballads such as ‘Because of You’.
‘I love pop rock and I love pop ballads, so it wasn’t completely miserable, but I just filled that lane for the powers that be,’ she says, with no hint of bitterness. ‘It was like an arranged marriage. I was on American Idol and RCA had the contracts for whoever won the show, so it’s not as though they handpicked me either. And because I was on the first series, I didn’t know any different, so my expectations were nothing.’
Does she think, I ask, that there’s more pressure on female artists to be moulded into a neatly commercial package? ‘Aesthetically, yes, much more for women,’ she says. ‘But musically, it’s the same for both men and women. I have a lot of male friends whose labels wanted them to sound like whatever they felt was going to make them money.’
Kelly’s new album Meaning of Life, which will be released later this month, however, is in a very different vein to her previous output. ‘I wanted to make an album that sounded like my influences, the women who inspired me to be who I am now: Aretha, Whitney, Bonnie Raitt, Mariah Carey, Reba McEntire, Rosemary Clooney, Bette Midler,’ she enthuses. ‘That’s what I grew up on and I think it bleeds out of me naturally.’
This month she will be returning to where it all began, the television talent contest – though this time on the other side of the fence – as she begins filming for the 14th series of the US edition of The Voice, where she will be one of the coaches alongside country music star Blake Shelton and Adam Levine of Maroon 5. It’s an opportunity she has been offered several times, but had to pass up because of pregnancies. (She and her husband of four years Brandon Blackstock, who is also her manager, have two children, River Rose, three, and Remington Alexander, one. ‘That’s it, no more,’ she assures me firmly.)
In an era of YouTube, in which would-be stars can upload demos to their channel and reach an audience without the middleman, is there still a place for the television talent show? Kelly believes so. ‘It’s a platform that reaches millions of homes every week,’ she says. ‘And there’s an investment on the part of the public. They feel as though they are involved in the journey; they got to choose an artist, help make an album. They have a sense of ownership in a positive way.’
There is, however, a less positive sense of ownership, too. Throughout Kelly’s career she has endured endless commentary about her appearance, every weight fluctuation scrutinised and criticised. She is finally answering the trolls with a track on the new album: the upbeat, enormously catchy ‘Whole Lotta Woman’.
Though it’s the first time Kelly has tackled the subject of body image, she has always explored personal topics in her songs. She wrote her 2005 single ‘Because of You’ when she was 16 as a way to channel her distress at her parents’ divorce a decade earlier and her lack of relationship with her father since. ‘Piece by Piece’, released in 2015, is its sequel, the ‘happy ending’ in which she pays homage to Brandon, who restored her faith in love and family.