Life would suck without Kelly Clarkson.
And not only because rocking out to her songs is so often exactly the cure for what ails us. Rather, from the moment she assured her place in pop culture history by becoming the first-ever winner of American Idol, a show that became so pervasive that TV just refuses to quit it, Clarkson has remained an inimitably appealing pop star—an artist who has never quite conformed to industry expectations or violated her own personal principals just because it would've been easier to not make waves, or to stay silent so as not to offend.
It's no wonder she counts stealth feminist Jane Austen among her personal heroes.
Austen's heroines "are always these heroic, intelligent, confident women," Clarkson reflected to the U.K.'s Independent in 2015 ahead of the release of Piece by Piece, the final album of her Idol-mandated contract with RCA Records. "For that time, that was very risky. Women didn't have a voice then. She's actually almost political for her time. Very daring."
From one breaker of the mold to another. Akin to Austen penning novels in a male-dominated field two hundred years ago, so Clarkson found success in the still male-dominated music business on the strength of her own voice—literally and figuratively.
And from day one, she was a fighter, her first battle staying strong in the face of Simon Cowell's withering gaze and persistent skepticism of her superstar potential.
"I just don't like this girl," Cowell dismissed the 20-year-old singer during Hollywood Week. Clarkson had tried to make it on her own in L.A. but was back waiting tables in Texas when Idol auditions came to Dallas in 2002.
Ultimately, the acerbic Brit—not to mention every other naysayer she's met along the way—only served to stoke the fire within.
Six weeks later, Cowell was eating his words, and six weeks after that, he watched Clarkson become the inaugural winner of American Idol. And 15 years later, he was among those giving Clarkson a standing ovation when she performed "Love So Soft" on the season finale of America's Got Talent.
"Kelly is one of my favorite-ever contestants. She, in my opinion, is part of the reason we're all standing here tonight," Cowell sang her praises to HollywoodLife.com before the Sept. 20 finale. "The first time I made one of the shows, an amazing singer won. Then she had a huge career. She was very loyal, very appreciative. So the fact that I'm here with her 16 years later, it's amazing."
Cowell may have a conveniently selective memory, but he isn't wrong, about any of it.
Along with Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson, Clarkson is far and away the most successful performer to have found her start on any competition show, let alone American Idol. (Quick tip of the hat to Nashville Star alum Miranda Lambertas well.)
And while her post-Idol success has been helped along by a team of producers and songwriters who crafted massive hits such as "Breakaway," "Miss Independent," "Since U Been Gone," "I Do Not Hook Up" and "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," her infectious personality—and her values—were in place long before she became a household name.
Though given plenty of opportunities where an outburst or other sort of lashing out would have been perfectly understandable, Clarkson has remained a class act, never acquiring a diva reputation while dealing with all the adversity celebrity can throw at you, both business and personal. (This star does not suffer trolls, of the body-shaming or any other variety.)
Through successful and slightly less successful times, she has also maintained the courage of her convictions, from when she cut ties with manager (and Idol creator) Simon Fuller after the release of her smash-hit second album Breakaway (prompting public criticism from Cowell); to when she resisted the advice of industry legend Clive Davis to stick to her vision for her third album, My December; to when she refused to share a writing credit with Dr. Luke, giving up the royalties that would've come with it, because the idea just didn't sit well with her at the time.
"There's a lot of times in my career where you don't see my name on a song," she told Z100's Mo' Bounce earlier this month. "Sometimes I don't write them, but a lot of times I do change the song in a way that probably you should ask for credit, but I don't because the song was already great. I just made it more me and I think a lot of artists steal credit a lot from writers, which I think is super crappy because that's their livelihood."
There was a time on one particular song, which remained nameless, where she really did feel as though she deserved the credit—but she didn't care to see her name listed alongside writer-producer Dr. Luke (real name Lukasz Gottwald), who along with pop mastermind Max Martin was behind several key Clarkson tracks, including "Since U Been Gone."
"I just had a negative experience," Clarkson recalled. "The guy is super talented. I'm not negating that. That's a fact, obviously."
Meanwhile, the three-time Grammy winner was one of the few major artists who had ever worked with Dr. Luke to speak up last year when Kesha's request to be released from her contract with Sony, home of Gottwald's Kemosabe Records, was rejected. While Kelly couldn't attest to any of Kesha's allegations (the Rainbow artist sued him for alleged sexual assault and related offenses; he vehemently denied her allegations), she said that Sony-owned RCA pretty much forced her to work with him back in the day and she did not enjoy herself.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
"He's not a good person, to me. We've clashed before. He's difficult to work with, he's kind of demeaning," Clarkson said on Australia's Kyle and Jackie O Show in March 2016.
A source told E! News at the time that, after collaborating with him, Clarkson did seek him out to work with him again—but considering "Since U Been Gone" was her biggest single to date at the time (it came out in 2004, a year before Gottwald first signed a then 18-year-old Kesha to his Kasz Money Inc.) that was smart business. Sure enough, their next collaboration (with Martin and Claude Kelly), "My Life Would Suck Without You," was the biggest song off of her 2009 album All I Ever Wanted. (Not to mention, singers often don't even cross paths with the producers during the recording process—as Jennifer Lopez didn't when she recorded the Gottwald-credited "Ain't Your Mama" last year.)
"We have a whole crew to support and you know we have our whole touring crew, people that depend on us for their livelihood," Clarkson said at the time. "Sometimes you have to make decisions that you just have to swallow that pill."
But the fact that she dared say anything negative about the veteran writer-producer in public at all separated her from the pack. Because no matter how successful a female artist becomes, she's still operating in a male-dominated field when it comes to who's drafting the contracts, producing the tracks, organizing the tours, etc. Of course it's gotten better over the past several decades, but it can still be a daunting prospect to stick up for one's self.
Talking about her time on Idol and weathering criticism for her choices from the likes of Simon Cowell, she told the Independent, "When you're a judge on a show like that, I think people are paying attention to ratings. I don't think they're necessarily caring about creating artists. And I think that's up to the artists. If you're an artist, you should fight for that. I know a lot of people from those shows that just want to be famous. That's very different. Anyone can be famous; create a YouTube channel."
She continued, "But if you really love writing and singing and touring, then you have to stay focused on that. And when they send you bulls--t songs, or send you covers of magazines that are naked girls with guitars and say, 'You need to do this,' stand up and say, 'I don't wanna do it. That's not me.'"
Having sold more than 25 million albums already, the mother of two has settled into an enviable, zero-f--ks-given kind of comfort zone when it comes to how she's perceived, as an artist or as a woman in general. But while, sure, she's always wanted to put on a fantastic show for her fans and hopefully make music that they like as much as she does, maintaining her commercial appeal has never seemed more important to her than showcasing her authentic self.
And that goes for how she lives her life out of the spotlight as well (though Clarkson knows full well, after 15 years in showbiz, that the spotlight is never truly off and nowadays it even follows you home, thanks to social media).
"I think honestly at the end of the day I've always been the same kid in the sense of 'this is what you get,'" Clarkson told Fresh 102.7's Karen & Jeffrey two weeks ago. "Even the producers of [Idol], it drove them nuts that I never wore makeup or didn't like getting dolled up."
"From the get-go," she continued, "I really am happy that I really was myself right off the bat, so I didn't have to hold up some image that was unattainable for me—because I'm very low-key. I'm probably the opposite of what you'd think of as a pop star. I think it was kind of cool for me to come up that way so people could see my personality before they even heard a record."
She may be low-key, but that doesn't mean quiet or complacent.
With her first new album in two years coming out next month, some artists might be particularly cautious about not rocking any boats ahead of the big debut, as press tours are ramping up and live performances are starting to dominate the schedule. But Clarkson showed this weekend that she's not checking her humanity at the door so as to be the perfect package for the biggest possible audience.
Over the weekend Clarkson was among the celebrities who stood up for NFL players' right to peacefully protest as they saw fit, having drawn fire from a mixed bag of critics after she retweeted one of President Donald Trump's tweets about pro football ratings being "WAY DOWN" and added, "The NFL is obviously super poor guys and in need of our attendance/ratings .....said no one ever. #billiondollarindustry."
And so it began, both from people who disagreed with her stance on players taking a knee on the field while the national anthem is played, and from that ever-squawking crowd of folks who don't think celebrities should "get political."
"Awe man! Why must you celebrities spew negativity? Do you recall the Dixie Chicks? That's what happens to people that bash our country," decried one person who brought up Natalie Maines' infamous pronouncement in 2003, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq looming, that she was ashamed then-President George W. Bush was from Texas. (Three years later, "Not Ready to Make Nice" became the Dixie Chicks' biggest song ever.)
Clarkson replied, "Who's spewing negativity? & please stop using the 'celebrity' thing. I'm a Texas girl who loves football & the NFL is doing just fine." (Meanwhile, much inflamed conversation among others started to ensue beneath these tweets.)
Who's spewing negativity? & please stop using the "celebrity" thing. I'm a Texas girl who loves football & the NFL is doing just fine. https://t.co/J3QiatYypT— Kelly Clarkson (@kelly_clarkson) September 25, 2017
Thefact that uthink because I have a job that's n the public eye, that I should silence myself,& negate my American citizenship is ignorant. https://t.co/xPL5IllA5l— Kelly Clarkson (@kelly_clarkson) September 25, 2017
Then another person chimed in, "not you too:( wish stars would stay out of it. I want to escape when I watch a movie or see a performance."
"Thefact that uthink because I have a job that's n the public eye, that I should silence myself,& negate my American citizenship is ignorant," Clarkson fired back.
Clarkson also retweeted a guy who said that he just wanted people to stand up to pay their respects during the national anthem every day, period. She added, "Totally agree but we also have to respect what these men/women have fought for which is a democracy where everyone feels heard & respected."
Totally agree but we also have to respect what these men/women have fought for which is a democracy where everyone feels heard & respected. https://t.co/v3JeviMbde— Kelly Clarkson (@kelly_clarkson) September 25, 2017
True to form, Clarkson didn't back down—and she spoke the truth when it comes to those who irrationally think that entertainers give up their right to weigh in on political and social issues because they sing, act, play sports, host late-night talk shows or have otherwise become famous for "Hollywood" reasons.
The "Move You" singer, who was thrilled to be paraphrased by Hillary Clintonin the former presidential candidate's election postmortem What Happened?, is no stranger to spiteful backlash, having already gotten an earful from folks who either didn't agree with her choice of candidate or didn't think she should talk politics at all (also because they disagreed with her choice of candidate) when she tweeted her support for Clinton before the election last year.
"If u don't agree w/me about voting4 @HillaryClinton thats okay but instead of attempting 2shame/insult me, just go ur own way #FleetwoodMac," Clarkson advised.
Meaning of Life, Clarkson's fittingly named eighth studio album, is due out Oct. 25.