The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.
I have never watched an entire episode of American Idol. In fact, I don’t think I’ve watched more than 10 total minutes of any of these TV karaoke competition shows – The Voice, The X Factor, The Masked Singer, Idol, etc. – COMBINED. This isn’t intended as a flex or an assertion of superior taste or anything like that. Those shows just never interested me format or style-wise. If I want to see or hear some music, I definitely don’t want it presented to me like this – basically a high school talent show that’s televised that we’re also supposed to vote on for some reason. Yeah, no thanks.
So when Kelly Clarkson won the first season of American Idol, I noted it as an American engaged with pop culture and moved on figuring I’d never have to exert much energy thinking about her ever again. The funny thing about that is Kelly Clarkson became bigger than the show. Despite its ubiquity at the time, American Idol is now a footnote in the career of Kelly Clarkson, not the other way around.
Take a look at the list of all the winners of American Idol. With the exception of Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and maaaaaybe one or two others, you could swap out those names for any random classroom roster at your neighborhood preschool and most people couldn’t tell the difference.
But Kelly Clarkson arrived on the scene and immediately was a force to be reckoned with. In his excellent The Number Ones column about Clarkson’s first #1 hit “A Moment Like This” he talks about not only the show, but the aftermath for Clarkson. This is a telling passage about her sophomore album:
While working on her sophomore album Breakaway, Kelly Clarkson repeatedly butted heads with (label president) Clive Davis. Clarkson, who’d fired Simon Fuller as her manager, wanted to make intense and personal music, and she wanted to work with rockers like the guys from Evanescence. She also wanted to include the songs that she’d written, including “Because Of You,” her angry ballad about the father who’d walked out on her.
Hell yes. My god, Kelly Clarkson is at the absolute height of her powers when she’s slingin’ beef. I LOVE listening to Kelly Clarkson talk shit! She’s really, really good at it! And in this song there’s plenty of blame to go around for this thing going south including on Kelly herself (“I’ll admit it, you put me on. I even fell for that stupid love song”). She’s dunking this guy straight through the toilet for having the audacity to be a phony, suffocating, self-involved jackass who was only interested in her as a trophy. Fuck that guy!
I don’t wish for relationship strife to befall Kelly Clarkson because that would be an extremely mean-spirited thing to wish upon someone. But I suppose the lesson here is that you can take what life gives you and take those circumstances of shit and turn them into absolute bangers.
“Stronger” is high on my list of favorite songs. “My Life Would Suck Without You” is also up there, which, even though that’s nice sentiment on its face, the song tells a much different story of a couple with a host of issues. The fuckers in that song probably should break up, but sometimes the heart (or, let’s face it, the crotch) wants what it wants, and you can only fight it for so long. We’ve all been in relationships like that, and it’s always kind of fun remembering when you bowed to most prurient impulses for a handful of months.
The most amazing part about Kelly Clarkson is that she’s an otherworldly star with superlative musical talent. She’s attained an unfathomable level of fame, currently manifested in her very own daytime talk show that, if it hasn’t already, seems poised to take over the prominent void left by Ellen DeGeneres. She’s won a boatload of awards, is still releasing albums, and kicked this off by winning American Idol at the age of 20. 20! Fame would’ve been terrible for me at that age, let alone the type of superfame that Clarkson achieved.
That much fame and that much talent, and yet every time I see or hear Kelly Clarkson, I think about something one of the writers of The AV Club said about her more than a decade ago. She seems like someone you could share margaritas and a basket of tortilla chips with and chat with like old friends, even though she’s ultra-famous.
It also bears mention that I wrote this piece on December 8, 2023. On December 11, 2023 Tom Breihan published something very similar in his “The Number Ones” piece about “Stronger.” He said, “The vibe I get is: This person would be a great friend.” I take an idiotic amount of pride in the idea that we wrote something similar here.
What a cool fucking vibe Kelly Clarkson is, from top to bottom. I ain’t mad any time a Kelly Clarkson song comes on in my presence. I am happily married and never want that to change. But breakup jams are some of the most fun songs to sing.
And if we’re in the car together when “Since U Been Gone” comes on, we’re rolling down the windows and turning that sumbitch up. People will look at us like we’re Thelma & Louise. But we won’t care because we’re too damn busy singing along with our girl Kelly. God, I hate the winter.
Up next: Another powerhouse supernova, but before she exploded…