The Number Ones

October 5, 2002

The Number Ones: Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

She was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. The 20-year-old Kelly Clarkson was destined for pop stardom, and she’d already taken active steps to reach that destiny. She’d moved out to Los Angeles, worked with an industry legend, and turned down a couple of major-label contracts that didn’t smell right to her. I’d like to imagine that Clarkson would’ve reached pop stardom with or without the new TV singing-contest machine rumbling behind her. But shortly before Clarkson suddenly vaulted into millions of living rooms, she’d moved back to Texas and worked odd jobs, including that one in the cocktail bar. At the time, it must’ve felt like nothing was going to happen, like her chance had come and gone. But then television came calling.

American Idol was always a strange institution — a slick and glittering television product that existed, and technically still exists, to sell sentimental human-interest stories and deep-catalog ballads to the people of the United States. American Idol is a TV show about pop music, but it’s never really existed in conversation with the pop music of its moment. Instead, Idol winners tend to be anodyne, technically gifted ciphers — nice-looking faces with winning personalities and musical sensibilities at least a couple of decades behind their eras. In its very first season, though, American Idol happened to spotlight a born pop star through something like sheer dumb luck.

Kelly Clarkson won the first season of American Idol. We know this. Many of us watched it happen. But it might be more accurate to say that American Idol won Kelly Clarkson. Or, more accurately, American Idol won America, largely because American Idol was the mechanism that delivered Kelly Clarkson to America. In the years since, Idol has produced a few boldfaced names, but Kelly Clarkson remains the definitive American Idol, the yardstick by which all other singing-show contestants are measured. When her coronation ballad “A Moment Like This” crashed its way to #1, the song wasn’t really part of the pop-music zeitgeist. It was something else — a monocultural public spectacle that arrived in the form of a single that you could run out and buy. In the years ahead, though, pop music would change Kelly Clarkson, and Kelly Clarkson would change pop music.

The American Idol story doesn’t start in America. It starts in New Zealand, where the reality show Popstars aired its first season in 1999. That season ended with the formation of TrueBliss, a New Zealand girl group who released one chart-topping single in their homeland and then broke up a few months later. Popstars was the show that inspired Simon Fuller, the former Spice Girls manager, to team up with TV producer Nigel Lythgoe and launch the British show Pop Idol. Pop Idol debuted on ITV in October 2001, and its first season was an immediate ratings smash in the UK. Over there, Pop Idol had an extinction-level impact on the pop charts; all of the top three finalists of the first season had #1 UK hits.

After the success of Pop Idol, Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe tried selling variations on Pop Idol to different countries. Even more than actual winner Will Young, the breakout star of that first Pop Idol season was the judge and record exec Simon Cowell. Cowell had made his name selling tie-in records with the World Wrestling Federation, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and Teletubbies before signing Five and Westlife, two drippy boy bands that became hugely popular in the UK. Cowell was never a music guy; he was a business guy. Often, he seemed to actively disdain music, at least insofar as anyone considers music to be art. On TV, Cowell’s bitchy criticisms made him a perfect villain, a force for these fresh-faced young singers to overcome. Cowell helped sell the American version of Pop Idol to Fox. The bigger networks weren’t interested, but Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth was a Pop Idol fan, and her enthusiasm helped convince Rupert to pick up American Idol as a summer-replacement TV series in 2001.

The first panel of American Idol judges didn’t exactly crackle with starpower. Simon Cowell was a total unknown in America. Paula Abdul has been in this column a bunch of times, but she was about a decade out from pop relevance when she became an Idol judge. Randy Jackson was a prolific session musician but not a celebrity by any means. But the Idol producers had learned the art of slick presentation with the UK show. In America, reality TV was still a relatively new phenomenon, and a slickly produced series like Survivor or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? could become a full-on cultural phenomenon. That’s what happened with American Idol. The United States had seen televised talent shows before, things like Star Search and the amateur contests on Showtime With The Apollo, but American Idol brought a sense of slick spectacle to the format. It felt new.

Starting in April of 2002, about 10,000 people auditioned for the first season of American Idol, as the show’s cameras and judges visited seven different cities. The show had promised a major-label deal with a fat advance to its winner. Clive Davis, the legendary record-business exec, had signed on to work with the victor. Most American industry types thought that the show had absolutely no chance at producing a viable pop star, but Davis saw it as a way to bring swelling centrist ballads back to a pop mainstream that was now dominated by club-ready rap and R&B. Clive Davis had made his fortune selling swelling centrist ballads, so this was something that he wanted. To the people auditioning for the show, Clive Davis’ involvement was a big selling point. So was the chance to be on TV.

One of those 10,000 hopefuls was Kelly Clarkson. Clarkson had come from Forth Worth, Texas, where her mother taught elementary school and her father worked as an engineer. (When Kelly Clarkson was born, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” was the #1 song in America — appropriate, since Kelly Clarkson loves rock ‘n’ roll.) Clarkson’s father left when she was six, and that foundational trauma would come up many times in her music. The Clarksons were strict Southern Baptists, and Kelly, like so many other pop stars, learned how to sing in church. Later, she joined her school choir and acted in high-school musicals.

The people who heard Kelly Clarkson’s gargantuan voice were duly impressed, and a few colleges, including Berklee College Of Music, offered her scholarships. She turned them down. Instead, Kelly Clarkson wanted to take her shot at pop stardom. She went to Los Angeles and took whatever jobs she could find around the music business. She did extra work on a few TV shows, she sang backup vocals, and she recorded demos for songwriters — including Gerry Goffin, Carole King’s first husband and original writing partner. Clarkson reportedly also turned down contracts with Jive and Interscope, concerned that either of those labels would sweep her up into the teen-pop wave. After her apartment caught on fire, Clarkson moved back to Burleston, Texas, where she worked a series of bullshit jobs — movie theater, telemarketing, the aforementioned cocktail bar. Then, on the advice of friends, she tried out for American Idol.

In her Idol audition, Kelly roared out Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” and then she engaged in a cute bit of theater where she briefly switched places with Randy Jackson. (“Express Yourself” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.) In retrospect, Kelly Clarkson’s entire star persona is right there, fully formed, in that audition video — not just the flamethrower voice but also the supremely likable and vivacious personality. At the time, the Idol producers didn’t even show Clarkson in their auditions episode.

When American Idol started airing on Fox, the big marketing hook was Simon Cowell being a gigantic asshole to all the contestants, including Kelly Clarkson. (Simon to Paula Abdul: “I just don’t like this girl.”) Over the course of the season, though, Kelly Clarkson emerged as a ferocious belter who could sing anything and make it sound great. Her true crowning moment might’ve arrived when she sang Aretha Franklin’s 1967 showstopper “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — a song that had been co-written by Kelly’s onetime employer Gerry Goffin. (“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” peaked at #8. It’s a 9.) It is not easy to sing an Aretha Franklin song on live television in front of a critical audience. Kelly Clarkson casually bodied it.

Later on, when I started writing about music for a living, I would recap many seasons of American Idol, but I didn’t watch that first season, other than a few minutes of a few episodes when I was home and there weren’t any good movies on. Still, I knew what was happening. Everyone did. American Idol grew into an absolute ratings smash over the course of the season. That September, I started my first office job, an editorial assistant gig at the Maryland State Bar Association that mostly consisted of folding and stapling newsletters for lawyers. The week I started that job was the week that 23 million people tuned in to watch Kelly Clarkson defeat grinning moptop Justin Guarini, becoming the first-ever American Idol winner. In my office, American Idol and the Ravens were all that anyone talked about.

When Kelly Clarkson won the show, she had to sing a song, and that song was “A Moment Like This.” The song was written specifically for the occasion, and it was going to be the song for whichever singer won the show. RCA Records had a deal to released the single from the winner, and Stephen Ferrera, an A&R guy and staff producer for the label, was in charge of finding the song. Writers and publishers had to submit songs, and those songs had to evoke a specific feeling. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Ferrera explains the criteria: “We were looking for a song that was going to be a postcard from the show, a memento in the same way as the closing song of the Olympics. It would contain the sentiment of the evening and in subsequent hearings would bring you back to the excitement of what the show is all about.”

In other words, “A Moment Like This” wasn’t supposed to be a pop song. It wasn’t supposed to fill dance floors or to fit onto radio drive-time playlists. It was supposed to serve a very specific function. The song also had to be recorded in a hurry. Stephen Ferrera had to prepare complete versions of the song for the show’s four finalists, all of whom sang in different keys. The singers only had two hours apiece to record their vocals. Stephen Ferrera co-produced all four versions of the song with Steve Mac, a British producer who’d mostly worked with past Simon Cowell projects Westlife and Five. But Mac had to leave the sessions early when his wife gave birth, so Ferrera had to finish the production himself. While he watched Kelly Clarkson sing the song at the Idol theater, even as he wiped tears out of his eyes, Ferrera listened to the backing track and thought, “I could have done that better.”

I guess “A Moment Like This” was itself a contest winner — the big Idol song that Stephen Ferrera chose from the songwriting bakeoff. The song came from two writers, both of whom had worked on Pop Idol. Jörgen Elofsson was a veteran of Denniz Pop and Max Martin’s Cheiron Studios songwriting factory in Stockholm. He’d worked on former Number Ones artist Britney Spears’ debut album, writing her second single “Sometimes” and co-writing her hit “(You Drive Me) Crazy.” (“Sometimes” peaked at #21. “(You Drive Me) Crazy” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.) After the end of Cheiron, Elofsson had written for Westlife. He co-wrote “A Moment Like This” with John Reid, the mastermind of Nightcrawlers, a Scottish house act that had a few UK hits in the ’90s.

“A Moment Like This” doesn’t really sound like a product of the Swedish pop system, and it definitely doesn’t sound like Scottish house music. Maybe that just means that Jörgen Elofsson and John Reid are professionals who know how to sideline their own songwriting voices to fulfill an assignment. “A Moment Like This” had to be a credible ballad in the hands of just about any singer, and it had to convey the feeling of triumph and disbelief and gratitude that you might feel after winning a nationally televised vote-in singing contest. “A Moment Like This” checks the boxes. It’s not a timeless pop classic by any means, but it’s got a little more staying power than any other American Idol coronation song. (We’ll eventually see a few more of those coronation songs in this column; Idol would soon become the highest-rated show on American television.)

On paper, “A Moment Like This” is a love song, but it’s never had to serve that function. Instead, “A Moment Like This” is all about being bowled over, struck dumb: “Oh, I can’t believe it’s happening to me/ Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this.” On the American Idol finale, Kelly Clarkson sold “A Moment Like This” just by living the sheer emotion of the moment in front of everyone. In the recorded version, her vocal firepower is what pounds things home. The song has absolutely no personality or specificity, and that’s almost by design. Kelly Clarkson elevates the song just by wailing it really hard — by hitting the choruses and the key change and the big final note with the masterful gusto that she would later bring to better songs. If “A Moment Like This” has any personality, it’s because Kelly Clarkson put it there.

Two weeks after the American Idol finale aired, Kelly Clarkson released “A Moment Like This” as a double A-sided single with “Before Your Love,” another generic ballad that had been written for the show. “Before Your Love” came from big-name songwriters Desmond Child and Cathy Dennis, and its video got a premiere on Total Request Live, but the song didn’t really hit. Instead, “A Moment Like This” was the Kelly Clarkson song that charted. “A Moment Like This” had a video, too, from Finnish director Antti J. But the video is mostly just clips from Idol and scenes of a wide-eyed Kelly Clarkson singing the song in an empty theater. The whole thing unintentionally highlights the whole vaguely dystopian Running Man/Hunger Games spectacle of that Idol season. It seems like a fake music video, and it makes “A Moment Like This” seem like a fake song — which, honestly, is what it is.

“A Moment Like This” leapt from #52 to #1 in a single week, breaking a Billboard chart record previously held by the Beatles. The song got some radio play, but it mostly ascended to #1 by selling singles — more than 200,000 in its first week on sale. American Idol had an audience that reached far outside the demographic of most Hot 100 hits, and it seems safe to say that many of the people who bought that single weren’t buying a whole lot of other music. Kelly Clarkson was over the moon in the moment, but she never loved “A Moment Like This.” Clarkson actually performed the song live in tour in 2019. In 2011, though, she told Entertainment Weekly that she never wanted to sing the song again: “Here’s the thing: I get it. It was a moment thing for whoever won, but that song wasn’t written for me. I loved singing it for the finale. That’s what it was for, but you ain’t going to catch me anytime soon or ever singing that song again. Someone would have to be dying in front of me, saying, ‘My last wish is for you to sing that song’ for me to sing that song.”

After “A Moment Like This,” Kelly Clarkson had to do a bunch of contractually mandated promotion, including competing on a London TV special called World Idol. (She came in second place to the guy who won Finnish Idol.) Clarkson and American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini also starred in From Justin To Kelly, a cash-in musical that instantly became an infamous bomb. And Clarkson got to work on her debut album Thankful. That title probably tells you everything that you need to know. For the first few years of her post-Idol career, Clarkson had to constantly perform her gratitude to all the people who’d voted for her on Idol. In truth, we should’ve been thankful to her. Kelly Clarkson is a generational talent — a born pop star who went on to years of success and who somehow did not turn out to be a self-obsessed diva or a fucked-up weirdo. We don’t get too many of those.

Thankful was supposed to come out in the fall of 2002, but Kelly Clarkson’s promotional schedule was busy, and she wasn’t feeling too many of the songs that she was being sent. She still got the album done relatively quickly, and it came out in spring 2003. The album has songs from tons of big-name writers and producers — Diane Warren, Babyface, Rhett Lawrence. The best songs have a very Christina Aguilera vibe, and indeed Aguilera co-wrote lead single “Miss Independent,” which peaked at #9. (It’s a 7.) Aguilera herself had recorded an unfinished version of “Miss Independent” for her Stripped album, and Kelly Clarkson didn’t know that until she read Aguilera’s name in the liner notes after the album came out. The song is a little closer to poppy R&B than Kelly Clarkson would later go, but it does show some of the toughness that she’d bring to later records.

Thankful wasn’t a slam-dunk blockbuster, but it went double platinum — a respectable success. Kelly Clarkson hadn’t yet proven that a TV talent show could produce an A-list pop star. That would happen soon enough. In 2004, Clarkson released her single “Breakaway” on the soundtrack of the movie The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. Avril Lavigne, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, had co-written “Breakaway,” and the song was originally supposed to go to her, but it didn’t make the cut for her album. Clarkson wasn’t sure about “Breakaway,” but its fluttery pop-rock majesty suited her voice nicely. The song gave Clarkson a chance to get a little raspier and more intense than she’s been on Thankful, and it peaked at #6. (It’s an 8.)

While working on her sophomore album Breakaway, Kelly Clarkson repeatedly butted heads with 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. Clarkson later claimed that Davis said she was “a shitty writer who should be grateful for the gifts that he bestows upon me.” Ultimately, “Because Of You” became a single and a hit, peaking at #7. (It’s another 8.)

Much of the static around Breakaway had to do with the writing and production team of Max Martin and his new protege Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. Clarkson did not want to work with those guys; she especially couldn’t stand Dr. Luke, who would indeed prove to be a terrible person. Martin and Luke didn’t really want to work with her, either. Max Martin was trying to shake off his past as a teen-pop auteur, and he wanted to write harder songs for more credible artists. Clarkson only worked with those guys after Clive Davis insisted.

One day, Max Martin and Dr. Luke listened to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps,” lamenting the way that song builds masterfully to the explosive chorus that never quite arrives. (“Maps” peaked at #87, and it’s the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ highest-charting single.) Martin and Luke decided to write a version of that song that did have the big chorus, and they called it “Since U Been Gone.” The song only went to Kelly Clarkson after Pink and Hillary Duff turned it down. But Kelly Clarkson sang the fucking shit out of “Since U Been Gone,” and it became one of the defining pop hits of the decade, even if it never quite made it to #1. (“Since U Been Gone” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

After “Since U Been Gone,” it was undeniable. Breakaway went platinum six times over, and hit launched four singles into the top 10. Kelly Clarkson was a straight-up no-shit pop star. Her influence was huge, and Max Martin and Dr. Luke suddenly started getting a whole lot more work. (We’ll see a lot of their songs in this column.) American Idol would always be part of Kelly Clarkson’s origin story, but she had now transcended the show in ways that no other Idol contestants ever would. Kelly Clarkson’s stardom went through phases in the years that followed, but it never went away. We’ll see Kelly Clarkson in this column again.

GRADE: 5/10

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BONUS BEATS: In 2006, the British X-Factor winner Leona Lewis used “A Moment Like This” as her own coronation song, and it became a #1 hit in the UK. Here’s the video for her version:

(Leona Lewis will eventually appear in this column.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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