First known as the winner of American Idol’s debut season, Kelly Clarkson is an all-around entertainer with a powerhouse voice and plenty of charm. Her warm, multi-octave vocals are equally at home in pop, rock, and country, all of which she excelled at on the show. Clarkson’s fame was instant — her debut “Before Your Love/A Moment Like This” was 2002′s best-selling single in the U.S. — but she defined her career on her own terms almost as quickly. She pivoted from the mainstream pop of 2003′s Thankful with the following year’s Breakaway, which spanned the anthemic, rock-tinged smash “Since U Been Gone” to the power balladry of “Because of You.” From there, she showed just how wide her vocal and stylistic range was as she ventured into harder rock on 2007′s My December, country on 2011′s Stronger, R&B on 2017′s Meaning of Life, and tackled the complex emotions of the holidays on 2021′s When Christmas Comes Around.... As the years passed, Clarkson’s creative projects also expanded: She tried her hand at voice acting and authoring children’s books, and returned to her TV roots as a coach on The Voice and as the host of her Emmy-winning talk show. Along the way, she racked up a remarkable number of hit singles and albums as well as nominations and awards, establishing her as one of the most accomplished and popular artists to emerge from singing competition shows in the U.S.
Born in Fort Worth and raised in Burleson, Texas, Clarkson first fell in love with music when she experienced the power of a gospel choir while visiting a local Black church. Her own vocal talents were discovered in seventh grade, when the school’s choir teacher heard her sing and urged her to join the choir. While growing up, she absorbed the music her family listened to, which ranged from Willie Nelson and Whitney Houston to Celine Dion and Metallica. During high school, she appeared in several musicals, performed in talent shows, and began classical vocal training.
Though several schools offered her scholarships, Clarkson opted to skip college to pursue a career in music. She saved her money and recorded a demo that she sent to labels; despite getting offers from Jive and Interscope, she turned them down, fearing that she’d only be seen as a teen pop artist. In 2001, Clarkson went to Los Angeles to make her name. She appeared as an extra on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Dharma & Greg and recorded a demo with Gerry Goffin, but few opportunities materialized. Upon returning to Burleson, Clarkson worked at a movie theater, promoted Red Bull energy drinks, and ultimately worked as a cocktail waitress at a comedy club before entering the American Idol contest. One of 10,000 aspiring singers, Clarkson distinguished herself not only with her big, surprisingly mature voice, but also with her down-to-earth charm and sense of humor; at one of her auditions, she switched places with judge Randy Jackson, who did an impromptu version of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Over the course of the 13-week show, her consistently strong performances of songs like “Respect,” “Natural Woman,” “Stuff Like That There,” and “Without You” earned Clarkson enough audience votes to claim one of the contest’s two finalist positions. After singing “A Moment Like This” and “Before Your Love,” both of which were written for the show, Clarkson won the American Idol contest with 58-percent of the audience’s votes. In addition to the show’s prize of one million dollars and a recording contract with RCA, Clarkson secured a deal with Creative Artists Agency and several bookings, including the national American Idol tour and a performance of the national anthem at the September 11 commemoration at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial.
Clarkson’s first single, the double A-side release “Before Your Love/A Moment Like This,” was released just two weeks after she won the contest and quickly earned platinum sales. Debuting at number 60 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it rose to 52 the following week and then to the top of the chart, breaking the Beatles’ 38-year-old record for the biggest rise to number one and ultimately becoming the best-selling single of 2002 in the U.S. Her debut full-length, Thankful, was released in April 2003, just in time to coincide with the second season of American Idol (and right before the release of the American Idol movie, From Justin to Kelly). Blending pop, R&B, and gospel, the album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 Albums chart and was certified double platinum by the RIAA; it made Clarkson a global phenomenon, selling more than 4.5 million copies internationally, going platinum in Canada, and gold in Australia and Japan. Thankful’s lead single, “Miss Independent,” achieved similar success, becoming a Top Ten hit in the U.S. and four other countries and earning Clarkson her first Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
Seeking to establish herself as an artist beyond her American Idol fame, Clarkson hired new management and gave her music a rock edge. Featuring songs co-written by former Evanescence members Ben Moody and David Hodges as well as pop masterminds Dr. Luke and Max Martin, Breakaway arrived in November 2004 and built on Thankful’s success. The album debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, went sextuple platinum in the U.S., and sold over 12 million copies worldwide. The album’s singles were also huge hits in the States and around the world: Mixing the sounds of rock revivalists like the Strokes with mainstream pop hooks, “Since U Been Gone” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. The title track — which originally appeared on the soundtrack to The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement — became Clarkson’s third Top Ten single in 2006 and topped the Billboard Adult Contemporary Audience chart for 28 weeks, making it her longest-running number one on any chart. “Because of You” was a Top Ten hit in the U.S. but became one of her biggest global smashes, topping the European Hot 100 Singles chart as well as the charts in countries ranging from Brazil to the Netherlands and Denmark. Breakaway earned Clarkson the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album, while “Since U Been Gone” snagged the award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
When the Breakaway tour ended in 2006, Clarkson began work on her third album. Appearing in June 2007, My December marked her first foray into songwriting. It featured a darker, more rock-oriented edge than its predecessor and even included a guest appearance by punk icon and bassist Mike Watt. However, label exec Clive Davis openly disapproved of the album’s direction, claiming that it lacked the commercial appeal of Breakaway. A public feud ensued, and Clarkson was dealt another blow when poor ticket sales resulted in the cancellation of her upcoming tour. Despite this, the lead-off single “Never Again” became a Top Ten pop hit. My December debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 albums chart and made its way to platinum status by year’s end. Clarkson also collaborated with Reba McEntire several times in 2007, first appearing on the country star’s TV series Reba and then performing with her on the TV special CMT Giants: Reba McEntire. Later in the year, the pair performed a version of “Because of You” at the Academy of Country Music Awards that was included on McEntire’s album Reba: Duets, which became a Top Five hit on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.
Clarkson returned to the top of the charts in early 2009, when the single “My Life Would Suck Without You” set a record for the largest leap to number one. A return to the pop sounds of Breakaway, it also hit number one in the U.K., Canada, and Hungary. Composed by songwriting vets Martin, Lukasz Gottwald, and Claude Kelly, the song also set the stage for her fourth album, March 2009′s All I Ever Wanted, which was mostly produced by OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and featured Dr. Luke, Martin, Glen Ballard, and Katy Perry as members of its creative team. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart and held onto that position for two weeks; later in the year, it was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Vocal Pop Album. The album’s other two singles, “I Do Not Hook Up” and “Already Gone,” were Top 20 hits in the States.
Clarkson delved deeper into country music with 2010′s “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” a Grammy-nominated duet with Jason Aldean that appeared on his album My Kinda Party. The single topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, making it Clarkson’s first number one on that chart. Country influences also made themselves known on her next album, October 2011′s Stronger. Featuring production work by Greg Kurstin, Darkchild, and Toby Gad, among others, the album reached number two on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. When it snagged the Best Pop Vocal Album Grammy Award, it made Clarkson the first artist to win the award twice. Stronger spawned several hit singles: The title track was her third number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for three Grammy Awards, while “Mr. Know It All” was her ninth Top Ten hit in the U.S. and “Dark Side” marked her 11th Top Ten hit on Billboard’s Adult Pop Songs chart.
In the wake of Stronger’s success, Clarkson expanded into other projects. She co-wrote the song “Tell Me a Lie,” which appeared on One Direction’s 2011 debut album Up All Night, and returned to her roots by appearing as a mentor and judge on the singing competition TV show Duets in 2012. That year, she also served as a guest mentor on season two of The Voice and celebrated her tenth year as a recording artist with Greatest Hits, Chapter 1. The collection included three newly recorded songs — “Catch My Breath” became her 14th Top 20 hit and her 13th million-selling single in the U.S. “Don’t Rush,” a collaboration with Vince Gill, was nominated for the Best Country Duo/Group Performance Grammy Award. Clarkson kicked off 2013 by performing at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, then collaborated with Jewel and Robbie Williams later in the year. That October saw the release of her first holiday album, Wrapped in Red. As well as the usual selection of festive favorites, it included a number of newly written songs, including several co-penned by Clarkson herself. By the end of the year, the album was certified platinum by the RIAA.
Alongside collaborations with Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, and Josh Groban, Clarkson spent much of 2014 recording her next album with producer Greg Kurstin. The first single, “Heartbeat Song,” appeared in January 2015 and, a few months later, the electro-pop-influenced Piece by Piece debuted atop the Billboard 200. This marked her third number one album and first since 2009. It included songs penned by Sia and Kara DioGuardi, as well as a feature for John Legend on “Run Run Run.” Piece by Piece earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album, while “Heartbeat Song” was nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance. Nearly a year later, after a heartfelt performance during the 14th season of American Idol, title track “Piece by Piece” shot into the Billboard Top Ten. The single went on to garner a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Solo Performance.
In 2016, Clarkson joined Missy Elliot, Janelle Monáe, Kelly Rowland, Lea Michele, and Zendaya on the song “This Is for My Girls,” which was part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s third-world education campaign called “Let Girls Learn.” That June, she unveiled , which distributed live recordings of fan-requested cover songs performed during her Piece by Piece tour, including Radiohead’s “Creep” and Coldplay’s “Fix You.” In October, she published her first children’s book, River Rose and the Magical Lullaby, which featured a lullaby she wrote. By year’s end, she’d contributed to the Hamilton Mixtape (“It’s Quiet Uptown”) and the soundtrack to The Shack, the latter of which, a duet with Aloe Blacc called “Love Goes On,” was released as a single in February 2017. In September of that year, Clarkson released “Love So Soft,” the lead single from her eighth studio album and first for Atlantic. Appearing that October, Meaning of Life dug deeper into her love for R&B and soul music. Her eighth album in a row to debut in the Top Three of the Billboard 200 Albums chart, the album earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album, while “Love So Soft” earned a nomination for Best Pop Solo Performance. Around the time of Meaning of Life’s release, the second River Rose book, River Rose and the Magical Christmas, appeared. Late that year, she made her voice-acting debut in The Star, a computer animated version of the Nativity of Jesus that included Oprah Winfrey and Steven Yeun among its cast members.
Early in 2018, Clarkson joined season 14 of The Voice as a coach, and her team member Brynn Cartelli was named the show’s winner. That March, she issued the single “I’ve Loved You Since Forever,” an adaptation of Hoda Kotb’s children’s book by the same name. In May, she returned to season 15 of The Voice as a coach, and once again guided one of her team members, Chevel Shepherd, to victory, making her the show’s first female coach to win multiple seasons. That November, she issued a cover version of “Never Enough” from the popular musical Greatest Showman. Clarkson continued her tenure on The Voice in 2019, returning for its 16th season in February. That May, she lent her voice and original songs, including the single “Broken & Beautiful,” to the animated film UglyDolls. In September, along with coaching on the 17th season of The Voice and scoring her third win on the show with her team member Jake Hoot, Clarkson debuted her daytime variety talk show The Kelly Clarkson Show. Early in 2020, she returned to coach The Voice’s 18th season and was a voice actor in the film Trolls World Tour a few months later. In April, she released the single “I Dare You” in English, and in five other languages as duets with artists who are native speakers of those tongues. That June, Clarkson won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Entertainment Talk Show Host. In March 2021, she returned for her seventh season as a coach on The Voice. Once again winning the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Entertainment Talk Show Host as well as the award for Outstanding Talk Show Entertainment for The Kelly Clarkson Show, she returned to music in October 2021 with her second Christmas album, When Christmas Comes Around.... Featuring collaborations with Chris Stapleton, Ariana Grande, and Bret Eldredge, the album included traditional and original songs reflecting the wide range of moods the holidays bring, such as the single “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You).” ~ Heather Phares