It’s understandable that Girls Aloud‘s recent greatest hits album Ten trumpeted the fact that it was a decade since they won (and quickly left behind) Popstars: The Rivals. Although still a fledging genre in 2002, it was clear that the products of pop factory television weren’t expected to have long shelf lives (as evidenced by the rapid decline of first Popstars winners Hear’say.) Even now, with countless series of various variations on the theme behind us, there are only a handful of acts which have comprehensively left these origins behind and went on to enjoy serious, prolonged careers.
As the maxim goes, Americans do things bigger and so it goes here. While Girls Aloud, Will Young, Leona Lewis and JLS may be the UK’s proudest examples of reality show offspring, their various successes are utterly dwarved by Kelly Clarkson, the winner of the debut year of American Idol. As her record sales of over 50 million suggest, she’s come a long way since she released her winner’s single A Moment Like This (a marginally less glossy effort than Leona’s later cover) and is probably the only reality alumnus in recent times to enjoy a truly worldwide popularity. It can’t be overstated how great an achievement this is – we need only look at the failure of any Idol winner in the 11 subsequent series to even come close to replicating it. Befitting the status that comes from this (and from five albums which have hit the top ten around the world) there is no sense that Clarkson needs to celebrate outlasting her origins. Instead, her first career retrospective places her squarely alongside enduring contemporaries such as P!nk with the telling title Greatest Hits: Chapter One. It’s certainly to her credit that she has waited this long to release such a collection – it was originally suggested after 2007’s under-performing My December, a move she quite rightly thought absurdly premature.
If the album may provoke reflections on the role of reality television in pop, it’s inadvertently illuminating with regards to another trend in music over the past decade – namely the rise to dominance of digital music. While previous classic hits albums such as Madonna‘s The Immaculate Collection, Abba‘s Gold and Queen‘s Greatest Hits cherry-picked the artist’s career highlights, the ease with which people can now download tracks and create playlists means that it’s increasingly common for compilations to have everything thrown at them in an effort to be as comprehensive as possible. Chapter One, then, contains every Kelly Clarkson song which anyone who isn’t a hard-core fan could possibly expect to know (and a few more). It predictably kicks off with Since U Been Gone, the chugging Max Martin/Dr Luke anthem which nods to alternative bands like The Strokes. It can realistically be said to have changed the pop landscape of the time. If that song was career-making, it’s a neat trick to follow it with its career-saving close cousin My Life Would Suck Without You, which gave Clarkson her first transatlantic Number 1.
The lack of chronology on the album highlights how consistently strong Clarkson’s material has been: this year’s empowerment smash Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) sits easily alongside 2003’s Miss Independent (co-written by Christina Aguilera) both sonically and thematically, while the infectious dynamism of Mr Know It All recalls Breakaway’s snappy Walk Away. On the other hand, it also highlights how little Clarkson’s sound has developed in the past decade. An unfair criticism perhaps – Clarkson certainly found a voice far more quickly than could perhaps have been expected – but the three new songs here certainly don’t re-invent the wheel. Perhaps they don’t have to – however much the pop world has changed in the period covered by Chapter One, the album is a testament to the fact that beneath the videos, the dance routines, the social media and all the other glitz and glam that make up the pop world, you cannot beat the enduring appeal of a great song performed by a charismatic, talented artist. Catch My Breath and the Vince Gill-featuring Don’t Rush fit the bill, sounding effortless and confident.
The album’s length and the fact that all of the big hits are crammed into its first half does mean that it takes a noticeable dip, with the latter section seeming like a grab bag of Christmas songs, live tracks and aforementioned version of A Moment Like This. Still, it’s a minor quibble given the treasures to be found here. Chapter One is a testament to Clarkson’s durability and she is one of the few artists to use such an ‘I’m still relevant, dammit!’ suffix whom you can envisage releasing a Chapter Two.