Breakaway

Clarkson showed up to Idol auditions in muted make-up and a kitschy denim dress that she’d made by stitching together old blue jeans. Whatever she lacked in glamor, she made up with her poised, masterful renditions of Etta James’ “At Last” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and her easygoing humor. Quipping with the judges, she switched places with Randy Jackson, who for his “audition” got onto one knee and sang R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” To Idol’s resident British hardass, Simon Cowell, this stunt was the only memorable thing about her; he initially wrote Clarkson off as “just a girl with a good voice.” But she kept progressing, round after round, and by the time 10,000 hopefuls had winnowed down to one, Cowell had come to appreciate her “normality.”

Over the course of Idol’s debut season, tens of millions of people called in to the show’s toll-free number, including Natalie Maines of the Chicks, who ultimately voted for Clarkson five times and later declared, “I knew from the first episode that Kelly was the best one there.” Inaugurating a reality television explosion, the competition program presaged the social media era, in which millions of fans can propel a nobody to viral stardom through the click of their phones. By the second season, it had partnered with AT&T to launch a new voting format, precipitating the rise of text messaging.

But winning a popular election doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be consequential or compelling. From the get-go, critics identified the tendency for shows like Idol to produce technically skilled but insipid winners, those who’d “never hesitate to warble seven notes where one would suffice,” as a New York Times writer described. Clarkson’s finale song and debut single was “A Moment Like This,” one of those treacly, awe-inducing ballads in the vein of “I Will Always Love You” that treats love as a kind of transcendent bliss. (It hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts and was featured in gauzy, libidinal advertisements for Sandals Resorts.) Her debut, Thankful, didn’t challenge expectations. With the exception of tracks like “Miss Independent”—a boinging R&B-pop single originally written for Christina Aguilera—it was a fairly uninspired attempt at pop-gospel. Clarkson didn’t want to be boxed into her Idol reputation though: “I want to record an album with personality… I love ballads, but I also want my albums to rock out.”

So for her follow-up, she mussed her hair, smudged her eyeliner, and practiced her withering glare. Breakaway taps into the kind of lacerating pop-rock established by Alanis Morissette in the ’90s and Avril Lavigne in the early 2000s. Lavigne’s debut, 2002’s Let Go, helped steered pop into a spiker, and she lent Clarkson Breakaway’s title track. Clarkson is brassy and embittered, incinerating men who’ve wronged her, striding over the scorched earth. “Your eyes they sparkle/That’s all changed, into lies that drop like acid rain,” she seethes on “Gone,” whose abrupt, punched-in guitars are like heel stomps. On the funky, irresistible “Walk Away,” she roasts a dude for being so tremblingly incompetent that he relies on his mother, his brother, everyone else to tell him what he wants. “I’m looking for attention, not another question,” Clarkson snaps. In other words: shut up and stop wasting my time.

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