Taylor Swift is an essential player in the story of pop music in the 2010s. Earlier this year, Pitchfork released a slew of reviews of her back catalog that signified their historical revision of her career as one of critical reverie. Likewise, her shift to pure pop performance with Red and 1989 turned her from an outlier of super stardom to the most powerful woman writing the rules of the game. She was almost born a superstar, but her place as an artist of the decade came through a potent combination of commercial success and critical acclaim that defined the decade.
In the 2000s, American Idol used its unprecedented impact on pop culture to create such influential leaders in the music scene. Kelly Clarkson was the first of these stars to transcend the box of Idol to become a standard bearer in the pop scene. It’s easy to say that Clarkson was always destined for the limelight she has continued to bask in, but like Swift, that position was rightfully earned.
Clarkson needed to be gutsy to turn from a reality show star into a pop superstar, and that is exactly what she did. 15 years later, the bold calls she made continue to resonate through the world of pop. These moves embody the chicken and egg conundrum that pop stars like Swift face as leaders and followers within a diverse sonic landscape of commercial music. Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway is as a career-defining effort that embraced the era it was part of, while simultaneously establishing a new phase in pop music that continues to live to this day.
Clarkson’s success validated Idol’s place in 2000s pop culture lore, but that position was not a given. While still a breakthrough smash, the first season of the Idol was its lowest rated of the decade, averaging a bit over 10 million viewers per episode compared to the show’s peak of around 30 million. Her debut record, Thankful, debuted atop the Billboard 200, but ran straight through the four walls of Idol, with Rolling Stone calling the record “amazingly confident for a pop posy whose career is tied for eternity to the whims of the American Idol overlords.”
To this end, Clarkson’s first full-year in the limelight also included a film debut in From Justin to Kelly, a critical and commercial failure that Clarkson herself has acknowledged as a contractual obligation that she knew “was going to be real, real bad.” Between her nondescript R&B debut and failed Idol obligations, Clarkson’s success as a standard bearer for Idol success had been challenged by the likes of Clay Aiken, the runner-up of Season 2 who she co-headlined an arena tour with to end the Thankful cycle in 2004.
Clarkson sought a way to move beyond her Idol box as she prepped up her next set of songs, and her desire to embrace a rock sound was strategically justified going into 2004. Pop music was as diverse as ever in the early 2000s. A quick glance at Nielsen SoundScan’s best-selling records of 2003 sees 50 Cent edging out Norah Jones for the best selling album of the year, with the likes of Beyoncé and Coldplay rounding out the top ten.
Along with this diversity, albums like Avril Lavinge’s Let Go had defined the girl power behind the mainstream pop punk renaissance leading into 2004. Stars like Ashlee Simpson, Pink, Hilary Duff and Vanessa Carlton also put out smashes that mirrored the pop rock joy that Lavigne dialed up to the next level, with Let Go selling 4.1 million records in its first 30 weeks of being out.
The pop sphere was ripe with radio-friendly rockers like Yellowcard and Evanescence who bridged the gap between Blink-182 and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the most abstract sense, while Clarkson’s non-descript R&B sound from her debut record had won casual fans without demanding loyalty. For her to succeed as a pop star with guitars, she had to fully commit to the sound, and execute with gusto.
The album’s title track sits at the crux of how Clarkson understood her pop contemporaries. Clarkson recorded the track three years after it was written in 2001 by a team of three, including Avril Lavigne. Lavigne had written the track for Let Go, but it ultimately didn’t make the cut. When Clarkson recorded the track in 2004, she thought its release on the The Princess Diaries 2 soundtrack would be a summer placeholder to keep her fans happy before the lead single from her record later in the year.
When Clarkson took a risk by recording the song, she spread her wings and learned how to fly. Its story of a small town girl who demands a change in her life is not too far away from Clarkson’s own story as a Texas girl turned Idol victor.
With its floating guitars and a passionate vocal performance, Clarkson created a bridge between a soft folk and cathartic rock style, crafting a riff of creative confidence that clicked with Disney diehards and pop fans, alike. While the song began its life as a filler single before her sophomore record, it became the namesake for that very album. The narrative of taking a chance and flying away creatively was as integral to the song as it was to Clarkson’s quest to build the record itself.
Clarkson had a formidable team backing her up to create Breakaway. Ben Moody and David Hodges were two former members of Evanescence who brought the success of Fallen, their band’s female-fronted rock record from the year prior, to working with Clarkson on two tracks.
On top of that, Kara DioGuardi, the brainchild behind hits like Hilary Duff’s “Come Clean” and Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me”, brought authority to the sound Clarkson wanted to embrace with Breakaway. The ultimate support these collaborators provided was the ability for Clarkson to hold writing credits on six of the record’s twelve songs.
“Behind These Hazel Eyes” was a major moment where Clarkson was able to show off her own chops as a songwriter and scene leader. By the time the song hit radio rotation in summer 2005, casual fans had grown to expect pop rock smashes in the vein of “Breakaway” and “Since U Been Gone” from Clarkson, making the album’s third track ripe for radio success.
The song combines the harshest forces of Clarkson’s rock aspirations and pop abilities. With a pressing combination of power chords and crashing cymbals alternating from loud to soft, the song clearly pays homage to the gritty power pop that Lavigne and DioGuardi helped defined in the early oughts.
On top of this rock orientation, the song is a forceful demonstration of Clarkson’s vocal prowess. The verses stray within conservative territory, but each chorus stretches her voice higher, completely spanning two octaves. She holds her last refrains within the top realm of this range, as the song spends part of its final chorus on the high end of F sharp, bringing goosebumps and validation of her vocal talents.
The song came together with the help of Max Martin and the disgraced Dr. Luke, whom she also worked with on “Since U Been Gone”. Like “Hazel Eyes”, “Since U Been Gone” combines a versatile vocal performance with a pop punk/power pop romp of power chords and strong guitars.
Much has been written about the legacy of “Since U Been Gone” on its own, but the two serving as top singles from the record validated the thesis that Clarkson pursued with Breakaway. Album tracks like “Gone” and “You Found Me” share similar characteristics to their radio counterparts, and serve as equally strong testaments to Clarkson’s ability to perform catchy, high-powered, rock-oriented romps with confidence and precision.
The ultimate success of Breakaway came in how it broke Clarkson from the boxes of American Idol. In the U.S., the record sold over 6 million copies, and its singles drove Clarkson to be the most played artist on radio in 2006, two years after the record’s release. Worldwide, the record blew away her debut, becoming the seventh-highest selling release of 2005 after Thankful didn’t even hit the top 25 of album charts in countries like Australia, Ireland and the U.K.
She also earned notoriety among the rockers she sought to emulate with the record’s rock sound. On the positive front, bands like A Day to Remember paid homage to her music through covers of “Since U Been Gone”. Clarkson even said that she recalled a “hard-rock guy” telling her that “[he] didn’t want to like the American Idol girl” but ended up loving “Since U Been Gone”
This acknowledgement from the rock scene proved controversial too, with the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O saying that listening to the song for the first time felt like “getting bitten by a poisonous varmint.” This visceral response from an indie leader speaks to the potency with which Clarkson simultaneously captured the essence contemporary pop music and the bursting seams of the rock scene, sending strong waves across both seemingly disparate movements.
Breakaway served as a foundation and remnant of pop crossover success in the 21st century. Clarkson built the record off the commercial success of pop rock stars and the niche appeal of indie rock and pop punk, building a mixed coalition of supporters from both camps. Whether it was pop punk kids with “Since U Been Gone”, or adult contemporary radio loyalists with “Because of You”, Clarkson showcased her range as a diverse performer while sustaining pure pop fans who move with the trends.
While Clarkson was far from the first to use the optics of crossover appeal to her own advantage, she executed it in a way that continues to persist for one of the biggest pure pop stars of 2010s. Taylor Swift released her debut record two years after Breakaway‘s release. When her self-titled hit shelves in October 2006, “Walk Away” had just finished its life as the last hit from the Breakaway cycle.
Taylor Swift began Swift’s career as a skilled practitioner of the crossover pop lifestyle. While Fearless fully epitomized her era as a country-pop elite, her subsequent albums have swayed across pop, folk and EDM sounds in seamless and substantial ways.
Like Clarkson did on Breakaway, Swift has supplemented her innate ability to adapt her songwriting to the relevant moment with the help of skilled collaborators. Jack Antonoff, who arguably done more than any other songwriter or producer to define the state of 2010s pop music, along with classic pop visionaries like Max Martin and Shellback, have been key weapons in Swift’s arsenal of pop collaborators, just as DioGuardi and Moody were on the pop rock sound of Breakaway.
This basis of the modern crossover star pervades beyond the top 40. Carly Rae Jepsen has succeeded as an indie darling because her pure pop performances intersected with the increasing embrace of melody and synths in 2010s indie through the likes of Passion Pit and St. Vincent. The same holds true for a band like The 1975, who tickle the surface of mainstream appeal by tailoring their sound for flannel stars and boy band loyalists through pure syncretism.
Clarkson’s ability to execute on the early 2000s female pop paradigm embodies the constant conflicts that have always pervaded pop music. In some ways, Clarkson created an album that was a masterclass of a crossover pop moment where she and Green Day could co-exist on the top 40 through similar tactics. In others, she borrowed tricks from a successful pop moment that was as factory produced as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or The White Stripes were raw.
These paradoxes are inherent to the success of skillfully produced pop music. Whether it leads a movement on its own accord or follows the ears of suburban kids in a major label focus group, the music that conquers the airwaves continues to be product of intentional choices from songwriters, label executives and artists, alike. After 15 years, Breakaway continues to live on as a product of Clarkson’s vision and the power of her collaborators, and defined her career in the process.