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 follow-up, 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-the-job 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."