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I'm hesitant to ask this, because I know you're ...
A) super-duper busy with your Stronger world tour (can't wait for Friday's show at Verizon Theatre! Squeal!)
B) insanely popular
C) a Ron Paul supporter
D) not into chicks
But, I wanted to know if you would ... um ... ugh, this is so embarrassing. Would you be my Valentine?
OK, well, let me clarify: My crush on you is strictly platonic. (I'm taken, and very much in love.)
Also -- and I realize this puts an awful lot of pressure on you -- I'm not asking if you'll be just my Valentine. I'm asking for my co-workers, who all seem to have a thing for you (even the jaded music critic who prefers the indie rock of men with beards). North Texans have it bad for you, being the homegirl and all. But, come on, we all know your allure has spread beyond the Metroplex.
Let's face it, Kells. You're America's rock 'n' roll sweetheart.
I can't picture any other contemporary pop singer who could -- without Bieber-like irony -- lure the disparate likes of ESPN's Chris Berman, James Lipton and TV chef Andrew Zimmern into a Toyota Camry for a moment of rock-out abandon. But there you all are, car jamming as your Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You) pumps out of the stereo.
I still can't believe it's been 10 years (10!) since you won the very first American Idol. Who knew at the time that that would mean anything? It was a show so new, so unproven, that after your judges' audition, you told the cameras: "I was so happy, 'cause the British man didn't make me cry."
But the British man didn't really notice you for a while. Simon Cowell even admitted that the judges all but neglected you. You snuck up on us, and our flirtation began during the first week of semifinals -- Motown week -- when you did You're All I Need To Get By. When you sang, not only did your voice lay me flat, but I loved how your whole face lit up; there was no pretension -- no overdone expressions of divine exaltation. Just pure joy, real emotion and chops, chops, chops.
And now confession time: when they released your version of the Idol-generated A Moment Like This, I was a little worried you might fizzle out, Kelly. And then the calamity that would've broken a lesser woman: that mortifying From Justin to Kelly movie. I could feel your 15 minutes ticking away.
Turns out you had other plans, Miss Independent.
Since then, your career has been a roller-coaster ride: from radio hits to the ridiculous sniping about your weight (God forbid there's a pop star who looks less like an anemic waif than a real human being), from Grammy wins and critical acclaim to your showdown with the legendary Clive Davis, and, of course, the flap over the fact that you support Ron Paul as a Republican candidate for president.
In 10 full seasons as a ratings juggernaut for Fox, American Idol has produced just two bona fide superstars: you and Carrie Underwood.
So, even if you were discovered on a reality competition, even if you'll always be an Idol alumna, over the course of a decade, you keep reminding us you aren't controlled by the starmaker machinery.
Because here you are, on the national stage, right where you belong: Sitting at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart with Stronger. World touring behind another hit-fueled album. Proving your mettle on the unforgiving stage of Saturday Night Live; nailing the national anthem at the Super Bowl (Flawless! AND you remembered the words!). Getting ready to hit the Grammy stage on Sunday night. And in a sure sign that you've outgrown Idol, you're going to be a mentor on a competing show -- NBC's The Voice, which had its second season premiere Sunday in the primo post-Super Bowl time slot.
Whew. So yeah, again, clearly, you're busy (which is why I'll forgive you for not calling back). Still, Valentine's Day looms, and here I am with an unrequited crush. Sometimes the only thing that helps is to obsessively list all the things you love about someone.
So now then. Kelly Clarkson, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways.
1. Them pipes
Before Miss Independent came out in 2003, we'd already heard it was co-written by -- and originally for -- Christina Aguilera. So I immediately thought: not gonna like it. While Xtina's got technical brilliance, I've never connected with her as a singer. But then Kelly's version hit the airwaves. That techno groove pops in the song's intro, Kelly's voice slides in, at first slinky and seductive, even a touch defiant (Keepin' her heart protected/She'd never, ever feel rejected). Then, a simultaneous sonic and vocal blast: She roars out the chorus, taking it through the roof with the throaty, raspy powerhouse of a voice that always stops this short of a scream. I was a goner.
That's the song that persuaded Patrick Davis, program director at KISS/106.1 FM in Dallas. "After she won, I was skeptical, I was like: 'Is she really gonna have a radio hit or not?'" Davis said. "Because that was the big thing at the time: Would these people translate into radio? And then I heard her and I thought ... maybe. But I was won over by Miss Independent, not so much A Moment Like This."
There's a big difference between watching singers compete against other hopefuls on a TV show and then putting them on the radio, where they're played in between established hitmakers.
"I think that's when you can decide: 'OK, do they have the voice, do they understand the production and everything else that goes into making hit records?' And I would say with Kelly, she immediately fit in," Davis said. "To me, when she got a chance to do more of her own stuff, I liked that better. But right from the beginning, I think, she has been a star."
Kris Noteboom, a friend from Burleson High School, recalled: "From the moment she stepped onto campus, it was clear that she was better at singing and dancing than anyone else."
But before she'd even hit high school, she was wowing them in the halls of Pauline G. Hughes Middle School in Burleson. Debbie Pesnell, Kelly's former choir teacher says her husband was Kelly's sixth-grade science teacher. "One day he heard her singing a Mariah Carey song in the hall," she said. "And he came home and said: 'Honey, you've got to meet this kid.'
"Well, I did, and her middle-school choir teacher, Cindy Glenn and I went down immediately. I said: 'I hear you can sing.'
"We got her in choir, and in show choir, and we knew that we had something there. We knew that she had a lot of talent.... Anybody can sing, but she knew how to deliver a song, and she knew how to make that song sing."
2. Girl next door? Try 'edgy fighter'
People have called her the girl next door, but that oversimplifies Ms. Kelly. Her persona is a tapestry of beautiful contradictions: she's down-home, dorky and self-deprecating, but she's also confident, poised and edgy. She's got tattoos (13, by our last count). She listens to Nine Inch Nails when she works out. Her way with an angry breakup anthem -- Since U Been Gone, Mr. Know It All, Stronger -- has caused people to wonder if she'll be labeled the breakup queen. Hey, she can't help it if she can write and sing about heartbreak in a way that connects with people. Plus, she's said Mr. Know It All is about her struggles in the business, of which she's had plenty -- despite her success.
"Back in the day, female artists were told to perform and then go sit in the corner," Reba McEntire told Elle magazine in a 2007 story. "Thank God for people like Dolly Parton who took charge. Kelly is the same way. She knows what she wants. She's had a rough go of it in the music business. People think she just won Idol and everything else was easy. Not so. She's had to fight."
One of those fights was with the legendary producer Clive Davis. He wanted Kelly's 2007 My December album to be poppier; she wanted to keep it darker and more stripped down. She won the battle.
Pesnell remembers that same fierce determination from Kelly's high-school choir days. It didn't matter who she was talking to, Pesnell said. When she thought she was right, she'd fight for herself. "The great Clive Davis should intimidate you," Pesnell says. "But she stands on her own two feet. She knows what she believes is right."
There was another My December kerfuffle. When she was set to finally return to the show that spawned her, for an Idol Gives Back charity performance, her label wanted her to push the album by singing the first cut, Never Again. Kelly told Elle: "And I was like, to promote yourself on a charity event is beyond crass. People are starving and dying, and I'm up there singing some bitter pop song? And believe me, everyone wanted me to sing it. Because they are jaded and they have no soul. Imagine sitting in a room full of people totally against you. Can't they hear themselves speaking? Capitalize on AIDS? Are you kidding? Insulting an entire nation of people? I just refused."
No surprise then, that she ditched her label, and hooked up with Starstruck Entertainment, headed by Narvel Blackstock -- Reba McEntire's husband.
And when people have been critical of her weight fluctuations, Kelly doesn't dignify the ugliness.
"When you get so strict [about your diet], that's when you screw up," she told Self magazine in 2009. "For me, it's the times when I'm not paying attention that I end up losing weight. But I'm never trying to lose weight -- or gain it. I'm just being!
"Sometimes I eat more; sometimes I play more. So I'll be different sizes all the time. When people talk about my weight, I'm like, 'You seem to have a problem with it; I don't. I'm fine!' I've never felt uncomfortable on a red carpet or anything."
3. She's the anti-diva
Kelly remains the only winner in Idol history who didn't have her audition played in the show's early episodes. Crazy, right?
"I know exactly what it was," said Pesnell. "She was patiently waiting to show what she had. If you watched any of those shows, she was always on the side. She waits her turn, and then she turns it on."
Maybe so, but there's also her lack of blatant rock-star glitz and glam. She didn't stride onto stage like an Adam Lambert, a shock of eyeliner and spiked hair. She didn't look she was trying out for a pageant, a la Katharine McPhee. She's girly rock, with a dash of tomboy-meets-Annie-Hall.
"She's genuine," Pesnell says. "She doesn't have to wear a meat dress."
After one of her Idol performances, Simon Cowell compared her charm to that of Patsy Cline: "You have an amazing voice, and some of these girls are described as divas," he told Kelly. "And divas have to remember: It's another way of saying I have forgotten who my fans are. I don't think that would ever happen to you."
Noteboom, her friend from high school, agrees. "Christina [Aguilera] is polished within an inch of her life," he says. "But Kelly, you'll see her, and she'll be rockin' it in a T-shirt and blue jeans. She's never ever forgotten who she is or where she's from. She's not wrapped up in the whole Hollywood thing, she's kind of the antithesis."
4. She's got kick-ass taste in music
Sure, she grew up on Whitney and Mariah; for better or worse, she can even do Mariah's dog-whistle note. But, as she told Texas Monthly in 2005, she also got an earful of Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith and hometown favorites, the Toadies.
"The Toadies -- my favorite band of all time!" she told the magazine. "I've gone to about a billion shows of theirs. Todd Lewis' voice, I just love that it's sexy, dirty, drunk, broken. Anything about rock swagger I learned from them. And yeah, I crowd-surfed."
In her shows now, she covers Carrie Underwood, Florence + the Machine and the late Etta James; but she doesn't do the obvious hits. During a January show at Radio City Music Hall, in tribute to the recently passed James, Kelly told the audience that she wouldn't do At Last, which in addition to being the song she auditioned with for Idol, is a song that's been covered to death. Instead, she launched into her favorite -- I'd Rather Go Blind. She started soft and slinky, and took a left turn into a pleading, gospel yowl. (We watched the video clip online.) She killed it.
Clearly, she won't be pigeonholed. "I've had these meetings with record executives where there is all this deep talk about how to break me out of the American Idol label, and I say, 'Dudes, just let me sing,'" she told Texas Monthly. "It doesn't matter to people how you got into the business. It matters to them how you stay.'"
5. Homegirl makes us proud
Lots of famous musicians say they would be happy playing in podunk clubs or smaller venues -- just as long they can still play music. And pardon our cynicism, but typically, that's just a load of hooey. But when Clarkson says she'd be happy just playing Billy Bob's every Saturday night, we can't help but believe. (Oh, Kelly, you've turned us soft. We hate that.) No matter how high her star rises, we don't see her turning her back on her roots. The self-proclaimed dorky girl from Burleson is North Texas. Through and through.
And that's just one more thing to make our heart swell. Kelly, you're one crush we never want to get over.