The biggest surprise of 2019 has been The Kelly Clarkson Show on NBC.
I love Kelly Clarkson, sincerely and totally. I've been sending musical clips from her NBC daytime talk show to my family, to friends, any willing mark. This is odd, because I'm what is known colloquially as a stupid hipster. The first time I heard Kelly Clarkson was when I watched the American Idol finale ironically. A few years later, my sister and I would dissect the lyrics of "Breakaway," mocking the you've-come-a-long-way-baby Working Girl fantasies ("hundred floors"/"revolving doors") and the Rancho Relaxo escapism ("warm breeze"/"palm trees") that we imagined were cynically calibrated by music business elites to appeal to landlocked, suburban housewives -- in other words, to daytime talk audiences.
Though I've mellowed, I retain a modicum of residual resistance to the manufactured, the mainstream, and most of all, the innocuous. Yet here I am, once again: embracing Kelly Clarkson. And on daytime TV, banality of banalities!
How did we get here? Am I old?
Yes, definitely. Point of fact, I'm as old as Kelly Clarkson. Almost as much time has passed between American Idol and today as did between that show's debut and our birthdays. To check in with Kelly is to check in with a peer, to have my mellowing mirrored. I have toddlers -- like Kelly does -- so I go to the grocery store sometimes twice a day, where I am barraged by the same playlist of modern pop songs that serve as fodder for the daily "Kellyoke" segment. I am basically the target for "Breakaway." But Kelly is reassuring; besides that world-class singing, her other great talent is that of making the uncool deeply pleasurable.
On that day when I came to mock American Idol, Kelly sang "A Moment Like This," a power ballad hip enough for a beauty pageant. She kicked the s*** out of it. Three things were apparent, even to smart-asses: Kelly's emotional investment, her humility, and her technical prowess. Those same three elements powered perfect pop album Breakaway, and perfect bop "Since You've Been Gone," and they're the same elements that power The Kelly Clarkson Show.
I'm used to talk show hosts with a certain level of ironic detachment (suffice to say, the defining talk show of my generation had a recurring character called the Masturbating Bear). Even daytime powerhouse Ellen is hosted by a savvy, intellectual comedian, who could just as easily host late-night. Kelly's not like that at all. Nor is she a too-good-to-be-true waxwork, a professional frenemy a la Kelly Ripa. Clarkson hosts like she's eating popcorn on the couch with you. The kinds of comments, stories, and asides she offers her guests are those that a friend might turn to you. She's smart and charming, but she's not a comedian; rather than being the one who delivers the zingers, Kelly is clapping her hands, doubled over in laughter, at a #relatable confession from Jason Momoa, or a darndest thing said by a young viral video star.
Though she's an accomplished songwriter, she isn't embarrassed about owing her start to a reality show. Though she's an A-list pop star, she's not afraid to cover her contemporaries, or to throw out a casual joke about her starring role in From Justin to Kelly. And she is honest, telling stories about her celebrity cohosts on The Voice as easily she tells stories about her amazing, normal kids, y'all. Unlike me, Kelly is not trying to be cool. It is extremely refreshing. I would offer that the humility that Clarkson exhibits with her guests is what gives continuity to the different phases of her celebrity, and that has allowed her to reinvent her career without reinventing herself.
The genius of The Kelly Clarkson Show is that it allows her to be a host without ignoring that she is a phenomenal singer. To do so would, after all, to be inauthentic.
At the beginning of each program, Kelly marries her humility to her talent with the "Kellyoke" segment. Sometimes the song she picks is a crowd favorite. Sometimes it's by a friend or collaborator, like Katy Perry. Sometimes it's a classic throwback, like "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." Most enchanting to me is when it's a modern pop country song, a genre that I basically missed but which Kelly imbues with personal meaning (I imagine her as a young person, singing along in a car with her friends). The choice of song is generous without being pandering, and the arrangements are thoughtfully original without being gimmicky.
Sometimes Kelly emerges from a stage door (my favorite) and wades into the audience, touching hands and singing phrases with audience members as if it's girl's night out. (Other times she starts from the stage.) She holds one hand palm upwards, near her diaphragm; I don't know what the significance is, but it reminds the viewer that this person is a professional with immense control over her craft. Usually the song starts in Kelly's lower or mid-register, in which she is expressive and fluent. The arrangement then allows her to jump into her signature higher register, full of power. ("People are huge fans of Kelly jumping the octave," says music supervisor Jason Halbert. No duh.) It's this sound, with its gritty quiver, that we most associate with Kelly the pop star. It's the sound that cuts through the sounds of the produce aisle, in the choruses of such songs as "Since You've Been Gone," "Stronger," and "My Life Would Suck Without You." When Kelly uses this register on the show, it is at the climax of her cover versions, exploding into emotion with musical ad libs. This is the moment on The Voice where the coaches would smash their buttons, and I do the same thing to my "like" button every morning, watching the new Kellyoke on Instagram.
Kellyoke allows the show to naturally lapse into a variety format when it needs to. When Cyndi Lauper or Lea Michele visit the show to promote their latest, we can expect a duet from the couch. It's different than a goof like Carpool Karaoke, because Kelly and Lauper are both talented originals, and they're both fans of each other. It's real and professional, and it's something that we'd never hear outside of this context.
I'm not saying that everything about The Kelly Clarkson Show is for me. I like her kids and the way she uses her mother in bits (shades of Letterman). I like some of her guests. I don't care about celebrity cooking demos, and I'm skeptical of some of the "feel good" stories, which seem stripped of their political context. Kelly does talk over her guests, which is fine when you prefer Kelly, but annoying when you want to hear more. It runs an hour long, and there's usually not enough to fill it. I prefer to watch the highlights, plucked and served on Instagram.
I'm going to stop sending links to my family. They know I'm a fan, and they can seek out Kelly on their own if they choose to. But I still think about Kelly Clarkson daily, almost 20 years after "A Moment Like This." The other day I ordered Breakaway, newly reissued on glitter-gold vinyl. Like a hipster. Like an old person.
Check your local listings for The Kelly Clarkson Show.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)