Watching the puffed-up, drunk-on-its-power, drippingly arrogant version of American Idol that’s on Fox twice a week now, you kind of forget how ramshackle the show was in its earliest form. Ryan Seacrest’s frosty, non-product-assisted locks; Simon Cowell’s relative chipperness (not to mention his pre-fame messiness); Paula Abdul making a joke about falling asleep instead of exclaiming that she was awake; Brian Dunkleman. But watching the audition with the original Idol, Kelly Clarkson, makes it easy to see why the show took off the way it did, and why it’ll probably never mint a pop star like her again.
Sure, some of that relative lack of potency can be chalked up to market conditions—the collapse of the monoculture, the devastation of places where people can actually buy physical copies of records, the rise of the Idol fan who has more invested in sending a cute boy to the top of the heap than actually buying that person’s record when it comes out. But a lot of it has to do with the bravado of Clarkson, which was apparent from the moment the camera first focused on her. Then 20, she’d worn a dress she’d made from pants (acid-washed pants??) and joked about going into fashion should the whole Idol thing not pan out; that she even joked with Seacrest and Dunkleman at all about failing and then went on to succeed should maybe provide some sort of sobering pause to those auditioners who have only seen one path for themselves and who have stumbled as a result (cough, Lauren Alaina). And then she went on to take Randy’s spot on the judges’ panel and joke around with Simon—that she did this and that he actually had enough of a sense of humor about himself are two things that you probably won’t see on The X Factor, which is trying to set Cowell up as some sort of evil smirking giant in the run-up to its fall premiere, later this year.
Oh, and she nailed her song, of course. Which was “Express Yourself,” a sentiment that would go on to define her public tussles with music-biz lifers Clive Davis and Ryan Tedder, her fiery delivery of tracks like “Walk Away,” and so much of the intangible qualities that make even the hardest-line anti-Idol types melt a little when they hear her voice. This week I’ll delve into all of those stories and more.